Monday, March 23, 2009

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Clingmans Dome (Pt. 4 of 4)

Our peak season trip has taken us to most of the well-known sites in the Smoky Mountains in a single day: Cades Cove, Little River, the Sugarlands area, Newfound Gap Road, and Cherokee. This has been a 99% road trip with very little walking. (Some other time you might try some easy “self-guided nature trails” with $1 brochures available at the visitor centers; for example, Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail at the Chimneys Picnic Area.) The one ingredient still missing from our one-day road trip is Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies.

By now it’s getting to be late afternoon, so we’ll head to Clingmans Dome. Traffic will start to dwindle around 4 or 5 pm as folks head to restaurants and picnic areas or to Cades Cove for an evening drive around the loop, so Clingmans Dome parking lot will have some empty spots for us. In fact, this is exactly why we’ve saved this for the end of our day, to do exactly the opposite of what the teeming masses do.

The drive from Cherokee back up to Newfound Gap is a beautiful drive, of course. Clingmans Dome is visible ahead and to your left at a couple of points along the way. It’s not extremely obvious, but if you are a map-and-compass type of person, you can locate it fairly easily. Specifically, when you see the asphalt walkways along the left (west) side of the road near mile markers 17 and 18, stop and take a look. If you have a pair of binoculars, you may be able to see the observation tower and an antenna on Clingmans’ peak.

Just before you arrive at Newfound Gap, you’ll see the signs for Clingmans Dome pointing to the left. Take this road which winds along the main crest for seven miles. Actually, the road is in North Carolina; the state line and the Appalachian Trail are both on the top of the slope to your right. Notice that many of the trees are the high elevation types. The ones that look like huge Christmas trees are Red Spruce. There are also a few Frasier Firs, but they are small because they die once they get ten or fifteen feet tall. The easiest way to tell them apart is to examine the needles. Firs have soft, rounded ends; spruce have stiffer needles with pointed ends.

Once you arrive at the parking lot at the end of the road, you’ll see the wide, paved trail heading up hill. It’s a fairly steep, but pleasant and brief, climb to the top. It will take you about 30 minutes to get to the concrete observation tower, which will probably be full of people. If you’ve arrived around supper time, but well before sunset, then the crowd is probably starting to dissipate, but there will be a surge of people around sunset, so be prepared if you decide to stay that long. (The road is open 24/7.) Now would be a good time to walk around in the spruce (and fir) forest at this high elevation.

One other detail that you ought to be aware of, and you ought to warn your visitors about – the view isn’t very good during the summer. The mixture of humidity and pollution creates a bowl of haze that significantly reduces the view from May through September. Just another sad fact of modern life. Maybe tell your visitors to come back in April or, better yet, November when the views are fabulous. And, yes, it will have to be those two months because the Clingmans Dome Road is closed from December 1 to March 31.

Finally, I have good news and bad news about your trip home. The good news: there’s a bypass around Gatlinburg. Look for the signs soon after Sugarlands Visitor Center. The bad news: there’s no bypass around Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. (There are a few back roads that are helpful, but they can’t work miracles. See for more info.) The next hour or two of summer evening traffic in those two towns are the price you must pay for visiting the park in the peak season. The only alternative I can think of is to find a Waffle House and hang out until midnight. Maybe by then the traffic will have died down. Maybe.

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Back roads to get you to Sugarlands and US 441 in the Smokies

If you are seeking noise, excitement, and attractions, then it is this main Hwy. 66 & US 441 corridor through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge that you must visit. If you are seeking quiet and solitude, you must avoid it at all costs. I understand the appeal of the US 441 corridor. There’s a lot of stuff to do and places to eat. It’s the kind of thing that today’s kids (and many adults) enjoy. Let me re-phrase that: I don’t really understand the appeal because it doesn’t appeal to me. I’ll just say that I recognize the appeal of the corridor. It appeals to a lot of people.

I really, really, really avoid the entire main tourist corridor (Exit 407, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Newfound Gap, Cherokee) during the main season (weekends in April and May, everyday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the last three weeks of October, and the Christmas-New Year week). The only exception is if I’ll be on the road early in the morning or late at night. Otherwise, during these peak visitation times, I go to less-popular sites such as Big Creek, Greenbrier, Raven Fork, Forney Creek, Cataloochee, and Cosby.

Just so you’ll know driving times. From Exit #407 to Sugarlands Visitor Center, the best you can realistically expect when traffic is light or non-existent is 45 minutes. During the heavy traffic of peak season you can add anywhere from 30 minutes to hours to this travel time.

Nevertheless, here are a few back roads that will help a little.

Bypass Gatlinburg
If you intend to visit the park, not Gatlinburg, always use the Gatlinburg Bypass that takes you directly to Sugarlands without going through Gatlinburg at all. You’ll see the sign for it near the Gatlinburg Welcome Center (about a mile north of town) if you drive from Pigeon Forge into Gatlinburg. If you are driving out of the park toward Gatlinburg, you’ll see the sign soon after you pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Back roads in Pigeon Forge & Sevierville
If you are driving from Sevierville into Pigeon Forge (toward the park), one of the first traffic lights in Pigeon Forge is Teaster Lane. To miss a lot of Pigeon Forge’s traffic, turn left on Teaster Lane and follow it for 2.3 miles until it runs into Veterans Blvd. Turn right on Veterans and stay on it for about half a mile until its name changes to Dollywood Lane and runs back into US 441 near the lower end of Pigeon Forge at traffic light #8. (At this point, if you’ll look around you’ll see that you could turn left before traffic light #8 on441 and travel down small side roads to traffic light #10 which is even closer to the park.) You’ll have missed most of US 441 in Pigeon Forge.

These same directions, headed in the reverse direction (heading out of the park) are: If you are driving out of the park and north toward Sevierville and I-40, soon after you enter Pigeon Forge, turn right at traffic light #8 (Dollywood Lane). In less than a quarter mile Dollywood Lane bears to the right but you should go straight on Veterans Blvd. After less than half a mile on Veterans Blvd. you’ll turn left on Teaster Lane. After about 2 miles on Teaster you’ll come to US 441. Turn right and you are headed into Sevierville.

A good variation of this route that may help even more: Don’t use Teaster. Just stay on Veterans Blvd. It comes out on US 411 in the outskirts of Sevierville, just two or three miles from Hwy 66.

US 321 to Gatlinburg & Sugarlands
There’s a completely different route into the Gatlinburg/Sugarlands area from the Jefferson/Hamblen area. You might want to acquaint yourself with it to see if it might work for you. I’ve used it on heavy traffic days and it seems to help; although, this route is a little longer distance than the Exit #407 (Sevierville-Pigeon Forge-US 441) route.

Take I-40 east to exit #440 (Wilton Springs/Gatlinburg/To US 321) or the Foothills Parkway exit #443 (a very scenic drive). Either of these takes you to US 321. Stay on US 321 South all the way into Gatlinburg. In Gatlinburg you’ll turn left onto US 441 at traffic light #3. At this point you can stay on US 441 through the middle of Gatlinburg or you can try to avoid some of this traffic by bearing to the right at traffic light #5 (River Road). This road parallels US 441 for almost a mile. It’s a narrow road, but if traffic is bad in downtown Gatlinburg, this road may save you a few minutes. Continue straight on this road and it will lead you out of Gatlinburg and into the park.

It’s also possible to turn RIGHT onto 441 at traffic light #3 and drive north out of Gatlinburg. Then at the Welcome Center just outside of town, make a U turn and head back toward Gatlinburg, but you’ll soon bear to the right onto the Gatlinburg Bypass, which will take you directly to the park. I do this if traffic in Gatlinburg is very heavy.

One last back road in Gatlinburg is a bit narrow and winding, but it might help if traffic is horrendous. As you approach Gatlinburg on US 321 from Cosby and I-40 find traffic light #2A (on US 321, before you reach US 441) and turn right onto Dudley Creek Bypass Road. This short road will take you to US 441 on the north end of town, allowing you to get out of Gatlinburg to the north. (There’s one sudden, hidden stop sign on Dudley, so be careful.) Once you are north of Gatlinburg (like you are going to Pigeon Forge), make the U turn at the Gatlinburg Visitor Center and head back toward Gatlinburg, but take the Gatlinburg Bypass to go directly into the park at Sugarlands.

I have timed some of these alternate routes, and here’s what I’ve found. From Exit #417 in Jefferson County where I live, I can make it to Sugarlands Visitor Center via Sevierville and Pigeon Forge in 55 minutes (if traffic is very, very light – which it rarely is). I can make it to Sugarlands via this alternate route (I-40 East and US 321 through Cosby) in about 65 minutes (again, if traffic is very light). So this alternate route is 10 minutes longer if traffic is light and if you are starting at Exit #417. So if you think there’s 10 minutes worth of traffic in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, this alternate route may be worth a try – although don’t forget that if traffic is heavy in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, it might be a bit heavy on US 321 and in Gatlinburg, too.

On these heavy-traffic, peak season days, I avoid the crowded parts of the park. But if I must travel to the Sugarlands area of the park, I travel that crowded corridor early in the morning and/or late at night, or I use the US 321 alternate route.

I would add that getting to Cades Cove during the peak season is equally horrible because the main road to Cades Cove is Wears Valley Road in Pigeon Forge. If you try this route, you must travel through the thickest part of the traffic of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. The alternate to this is to enter from the Maryville/Knoxville area on US 321 and Hwy 73. There’s also a very winding route from Jefferson County via John Sevier Hwy, US 441, US 411, back roads near Walland, and US 321. I can’t even begin to describe it, but if you’ll study a local map, you might be able to figure it out. This is the route I’d take from Jefferson County to Cades Cove during the peak season.

Monday, March 9, 2009

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Newfound Gap Road (Part 3 of 4)

Our early morning was spent in Cades Cove, avoiding the worst crowds that will soon arrive, peaking in the evening, and we are now driving east along the Little River. We’ll soon be at Sugarlands Visitor Center, just south of Gatlinburg.

Because we are trying to see the most popular spots in the park during the peak season, while avoiding the worst of the crowds, here’s a useful piece of advice: don’t eat at the same time everyone else does. We’ll stop at a picnic area (maybe Metcalf Bottoms between Tremont and Elkmont) or a roadside pullout and eat lunch around 10 or 11 am. This will help us to avoid the noon lunch rush when most good parking spots are taken by picnickers. We’ll eat while they are driving and drive while they are eating.

For a general introduction to the park, a stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center would be helpful, but not absolutely necessary. One good way to decide whether you’ll stop or not is to let fate decide. Drive through the parking lot. If you can find an open spot, park and go inside the visitor center. If there’s no parking available, then skip it and continue a minute or two to the point where the Little River Road joins the Newfound Gap Road. Turn right and you’ll begin your 13 mile ascent up to Newfound Gap. Traffic is getting heavy now, so keep repeating to yourself: “I’m not in a hurry, I’m not in a hurry.”

On this segment of the road there are numerous scenic pullouts. Stop at whichever ones are appealing and available. Keep in mind that you are driving on one of the prettiest roads in America, so enjoy the ride.

One of the most interesting views is the Chimney Tops. A few minutes after you pass the Chimneys Picnic area, you’ll see the Chimney Tops in the distance on your right. There are several parking pullouts on the right. They are usually crowded, but if you can find a spot, stop and take some pictures of your relatives with the Chimney Tops in the background. Remember, they are here to do what most visitors do, and most visitors get this picture as proof that they’ve done exactly what’s expected of them.

You’ll soon see even more cars parked on the right at the trailhead of the Chimney Tops Trail – a strenuous, two mile trail to the top of the Chimney Tops. It’s a great hike that your relatives should do some time – but there won’t be time (or parking spaces) today.

After some dramatic views on the upper portions of this road, you’ll arrive at Newfound Gap, which is really just a big parking lot. But it’s a parking lot with some good views, mostly south into North Carolina. Take a picture of the kids straddling the state line, then continue south toward Cherokee.

In less than a mile past Newfound Gap, you’ll pass the road to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies. Of course, that’s one of the places we’ll have to visit, but not yet. It’s too crowded at this time of day. We’ll come back by this spot later today, when the crowds have thinned out.

Continue down Newfound Gap Road, stopping whenever the views compel you, toward Cherokee, NC, the main town on the Cherokee Reservation, officially known as the Qualla Reservation. Before you get to Cherokee, you’ll pass the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Farm Museum on the left. This spot is old and quaint and worth a stop. You could easily spend an hour or two wandering along the river and through the old buildings – unless you got your fill of old buildings in Cades Cove. After this stop, continue on to the town of Cherokee.

Cherokee will be crowded and a bit frustrating – welcome to the tourist season. If possible, spend a few hours in Cherokee. A lot of Cherokee is too shiny and cheap for my tastes, but it does have a unique kind of charm. Plus, there are a few glimpses of traditional Cherokee life – mainly the Cherokee Museum in the middle of town. A good rule of thumb would be that you spend as much time in the museum as you do in the souvenir shops, just to let your relatives know that you haven’t yet fallen victim to the “shop ‘til you drop” mentality that saturates our popular culture, even on the main thoroughfare of an Indian reservation.

Before you leave Cherokee to head back into the mountains, don’t forget your eating schedule. Find a restaurant or picnic area in the middle of the afternoon, before everyone else stops to eat supper. [To be continued; for a useful back road through Cherokee, see]

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Personally, I wouldn’t visit Cherokee during the peak visitation months of June – August, plus October. However, this article gives a plan for a peak season visit, so here’s a tip that won’t solve all your traffic problems, but it can help.

Within Cherokee traffic can be a problem, especially on the two-lane portion of US 441 in the middle of town. But there is a back road to avoid this congested area: Big Cove and Acquoni Roads. If you are coming into Cherokee from the north (i.e. from the park), about a mile past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, just before you get into the town of Cherokee, you’ll see a sign for Big Cove Road. Turn left here – it is Saunooke Bridge Road, leading across the river and ending at Big Cove Road. Turn right (south) on Big Cove Road and it will take you into a less congested section of Cherokee, ending at Acquoni Road. Turn left on Acquoni as it parallels and bypasses US 441 through Cherokee. Acquoni Road comes out on US 441 and US 19 at the lower (south) end of town. This section of town will be congested, but at least you avoided about a mile of equally congested asphalt.

A problem with this route is that it also bypasses the Cherokee Museum, which is something you probably ought to visit. (Of course, keep in mind that I’m a nerd who likes history and anthropology.) There’s also a riverside park that this back road will bypass. It’s a nice spot, but it will probably be crowded; plus there are lots of other riverside stops you can make today, so there’s no compelling need to stop at this park in Cherokee.

The official Cherokee website is or call (800) 438-1601. Try to avoid Cherokee on a day when there’s some big bike week or similar event that will clog Cherokee even more than usual.

A Summer Visitor's Guide: Cades Cove (Part 2 of 4)

Visiting the Smoky Mountains during the peak, summer season can be a daunting task. Almost 10 million people visit the park every year, the most of any national park in the US. Almost half of them visit during the summer months from Memorial Day to Labor Day plus the last half of October. Of course, the easiest sites to visit are on the main roads, thus the traffic and the crowds on Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove. But there are some strategies that will help you maintain your sanity.

Let’s assume that you want to see Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome, plus the sites along the main roads. To avoid the worst of the crowds I’d start my day with Cades Cove because most people wait until evening. They visit Clingmans Dome and the other trails and roads in the morning and early afternoon. By 4 pm most of these places are starting to empty out as visitors head to picnic areas in the park or the restaurants of the surrounding towns. After supper they’ll go to Cades Cove to look at the deer grazing in the fields. So we’ll visit most of these sites in the opposite order.

Yes, evenings are a nice time in the cove, and if this were the off-season, that’s when I would go, too. But during the peak season the evening traffic is unbelievably heavy, so a better option is the early morning while the animals are out but the people are not. Arrive at the loop road in Cades Cove a few minutes before dawn and park in the parking lot. If there’s a line of cars forming, don’t join it. Just park, get out of your car, and wander around in the field nearby or have an early morning picnic. Don’t sleep in and arrive at 9 am. That’s what too many people do. Make the sacrifice. Get up early. Arrive early. (The quickest route to Cades Cove from Exit 407 is to cut across from Pigeon Forge to Townsend on US 321. It’s traffic light #3, Wears Valley Rd., in Pigeon Forge.)

When the ranger arrives to unlock the gate at dawn, the line of cars will rush into the cove. Be patient. Wait for 10 minutes. There will be a lull in the action after that initial rush. Now is the time to drive slowly into the cove. You won’t be completely alone – this is the peak season, after all – but the traffic will be meager. Take an hour or two to drive this 11 mile loop. Stop at cabins and meadows. Stop at the visitor center at the west end of the cove.

I won’t give you all the details of what to do in the cove. You can figure that out, but it might help to buy an auto tour booklet just after you enter the loop road in the cove. For more help visit the park’s website at There you’ll find maps and other suggestions. A good road guide to the park is Smokies Road Guide by Jerry DeLaughter. It’s sold in all the visitor centers, including the one at the west end of Cades Cove.

Once you finish Cades Cove you’ll head east toward Sugarlands Visitor Center. It will be almost mid-morning, so traffic will be picking up. There are many places to stop and relax as this road winds its way through the Little River gorge from Cades Cove to Sugarlands. This is probably the place to remind you that you are not in a hurry. Creeping along in slow-moving traffic on these main roads is not the end of the world. After all, these are roads on which you want to move slowly, taking in the scenery, so the main adjustment to be made on this road is mental – don’t get in a hurry. Don’t let the slow traffic bother you. On these roads in the park, slow is good, so think of the traffic as your friend – a somewhat annoying friend, but a friend nonetheless. Of course, outside the park traffic is an enemy to be conquered or avoided; in the park, not so much. At least, that’s the way you have to think about it to avoid a panic attack. [To be continued]