Updated: Nov 12, 2020
We recently spent a tranquil three nights in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bestowed by glorious September weather with clear skies and great visibility for the most part. Apparently, this is unusual, according to the Park Ranger who greeted us as we began the trek up to the 360-degree observation deck at Clingman’s Dome, as wisps of valley mist below began to dissipate. Typically, the dense morning fog can lift so slowly that it can range from partially obscuring views of the mountains to blanketing the observation deck entirely. So, the timing of our visit to the park was very fortunate indeed and we were rewarded by miles of visibility in every direction.
Prior to planning out trip, we were not aware that, with 12.5 million visitors, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited of all the National Parks in the US – by a landslide, in fact, with more than double the number of visitors of the next busiest, Grand Canyon National Park. One reason for the popularity likely has to do with the proximity of so many populous areas – 50% of the US population resides within a day’s drive. Another must be that the park is free and most of it is open to traffic 24 hours a day.
If you are looking for a culinary destination in the vicinity of the park, then stick to the North Carolina side, where I imagine a variety of gastronomic delights can be found in Asheville, for example. But if you are looking for the adventure among tranquility that this part of the world offers, then the Tennessee side of the park will not disappoint, particularly in the westernmost portion near Townsend.
Besides the hike to and views from Clingman’s Dome observation deck, which is a highlight of the park, the 11-mile circular route that is Cades Cove Loop is a very picturesque introduction to the flora and fauna of the park. Regardless of the time of year, it is best to visit both attractions as early as possible to avoid the crowds. In the case of Cades Cove Loop, spotting wildlife is more likely in the early hours or just before dusk, when the Loop closes. During our visit (which was at dusk), we encountered wild turkey, countless deer and a juvenile black bear.
Another highlight of the Park is the abundance of picturesque streams and waterfalls that can be encountered while hiking the more than 150 official trails (as per the National Park Service). The Grotto Falls, which is located on the Trillium Gap Trail, is a 2.5-mile round trip hike that takes you behind the Falls – the only one of its kind in the park. The waterfall that became our favorite was the Lynn Camp Prong Cascades, which is located on the Middle Prong Trail, approximately half a mile from the trail head. What we enjoyed about this experience is that this waterfall is less well known and, therefore, the trail was quiet.
As with many of the National Parks of the US, the summer months are the most popular. While we visited the Smokies in early September, there were still crowded parking lots at the popular trail heads and traffic bottlenecks along the popular touring routes. So, considering an off-peak visit may be the way to go.