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Great Smoky Mountains National Park NC Vacation Guide

Great Smoky Mountains Things to Do: Smoky Mountains Overview | The Elk of Cataloochee Valley | Clingmans Dome | Newfound Gap | Oconaluftee Visitors Center & Farm Museum | Deep Creek Waterfalls | Hiking & Outdoor Activities | Andrews Bald Hike | Chimney Tops Hike | Charlies Bunion Hike | Mt. Cammerer Hike | Mt. Sterling Hike | Scenic Drives | Mt. LeConte & Alum Cave Trail | Balsam Mountain | Dying Hemlocks | Cades Cove | Cherokee | Gatlinburg | Fontana Lake | Great Smoky Park News & Updates | Great Smokies Birding | Friends of Smokies | Great Smoky Mountains Railroad | Purchase Knob | Leave No Trace

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Asheville is the most visited national park with 10 million visitors each year. There are 520,976 acres to explore. This International Biosphere Reserve is home to rugged mountains (many peaks in excess of 6,000 feet), historic homesteads, and 100,000 different types of plants and animals.

Since the park is so large, where do you begin? Here are our top things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina side. Four entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are within 60 miles from downtown Asheville: Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee, Balsam Mountain and Big Creek.

Top 15 Things to Do: Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina

Elk in Great Smoky Mountains Cataloochee

Cataloochee Valley is home to the elk that were brought back to the Smokies beginning in 2001. Watch the elk from your car as you enjoy a picnic. In the beautiful Cataloochee Valley, you can tour an historic school, churches, barn, and several homes. There several great hiking trails for all skill levels. The Boogerman Trail is challenging 7-mile loop. It's open year-round, weather permitting. Read more.

   
Mountain Farm Museum

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is located at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. Highway 441 near Cherokee, North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Parkway ends nearby. Stop by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center year-round for plenty of maps, guides, helpful park rangers and programs. At the center, find the Mountain Farm Museum with relocated farm buildings that create an open-air museum. Nearby is Mingus Mill.

   
Newfound Gap

If you continue on U.S. 441 (Newfound Gap Road) from Oconaluftee Visitor Center for about 16 miles, you will arrive at Newfound Gap, after climbing 3000 feet in elevation. From there, hike the Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion. Or enjoy views from the parking area, and continue for a few miles for more scenic overlooks.

A few miles beyond Newfound Gap on U.S. 441 is the Alum Cave/Mt. LeConte Hike, and a few miles farther is the fabulous Chimney Tops Hike. (Click links to full page guides on these locations.)

   
Clingman's Dome

Just before Newfound Gap, turn left and drive seven miles to Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain (6,643 ft) in the Great Smokies. Hike an half mile paved trail up to the observation tower. Open April through November.

The Andrews Bald Hike begins there also.

   
Indian Creek Falls

The Deep Creek area of the Great Smokies is popular for its streams and waterfalls and is open year-round. Hike a loop trail to three waterfalls (Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls). Mountain bikers take advantage of one of the few park bike trails. Deep Creek Campground is open April until October. Tubing is huge here! Rent tubes nearby and float down the creek. It's just three miles from charming Bryson City. Read more.

   
Mt. Cammerer

The hike to the summit of Mount Cammerer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is accessible via a trail from the Big Creek area, just off Interstate 40 near the North Carolina/Tenneessee line (about 50 miles from Asheville). The Big Creek area is in the northern end of the park. There is a ranger station, campground, picnic area and restrooms here. Nearby is the Mt. Sterling Hike, along with Whitewater Rafting, Jeep Tours and Zip Line Canopy Tours.

   
Balsam Mountain

To take a road less traveled, drive to Balsam Mountain via the Heintooga Ridge Road that starts at the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 458.2, just 11 miles from the south end of the Parkway. The road takes you into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, that includes a picnic area and the beautiful Heintooga Overlook. The one-lane unpaved Heintooga Round Bottom Road begins there for a more adventurous drive (or what we call "car hiking") through the Park, ending in the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Open late spring through early fall.

Updates
For road closures, trail updates and more: Read the latest Great Smoky Mountains News.

Dogs
Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. The leash must not exceed 6 feet in length. Dogs are only allowed on the short walking path near Cherokee, the Oconaluftee River Trail.

Fees
Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is FREE. The park is one of the only major national parks that does not charge an entrance fee. Fees are charged for activities such as overnight camping and pavilion rental at picnic areas. If you plan to camp in the park, reservations or permits may be necessary (backcountry camping, car camping, LeConte Lodge, horse camps, campgrounds). See Great Smoky Mountains Online Reservations. Reservations may be made for picnic pavilion use in picnic areas for group outings.

Black Bear
Keep Distance from Bears!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places remaining where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. Bears live in all elevations of the park, although visitors seldom see one. Approximiately 1,500 bears live in the park (spread throughout 500,000 acres). Bears (and elk on the NC side of the park) are wild animals that are dangerous and unpredictable. Here are some tips from the Park Rangers.

Do not feed bears! Do not approach bears or allow them to approach you. Willfully approaching within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear, is illegal in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Use binoculars, telephoto lens, or a spotting scope to view the animals.

Bears, like humans, are omnivores. Plant materials such as berries and nuts make up approximately 85% of their diet. Insects and animal carrion provide valuable sources of protein for bears. Bears have color vision and a keen sense of smell. In addition, they are good tree climbers, can swim very well, and can run 30 miles per hour.

Bears are most active during early morning and late evening hours in spring and summer. Bears in the park are wild and their behavior is sometimes unpredictable. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death.

If you see a bear, remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.), you're too close. Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises, or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Try to increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same.

If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, try changing your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it. Act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Don't run and don't turn away from the bear. Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.

Most injuries from black bear attacks are minor and result from a bear attempting to get at people's food. If the bear's behavior indicates that it is after your food and you're physically attacked, separate yourself from the food and slowly back away.

If the bear shows no interest in your food and you're physically attacked, fight back aggressively with any available object--the bear may consider you as prey! Help protect others, report all bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Above all, keep your distance from bears!

Read more about bear safety.

Photo by Deb Keny Campbell.

Overview of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
These ancient mountains are home to a wide variety of plant and animal life unsurpassed in the National Park Service. The Park also offers a glimpse into the lives of early Southern Appalachian farming families and community lifestyles. Seventy-seven historic structures concentrated in five historic districts include a collection of log cabins, barns, churches, grist mills and various outbuildings. The Smokies offer activities for visitors of various ages and interests. Recommended activities include camping, hiking the park's more than 800 miles of trails, picnicking, sightseeing, fishing, auto touring, horseback riding, nature viewing, and photographic opportunities abound.

In addition to its role in preserving the rich natural and historical heritage, the Park is a place for outdoor recreational pursuits. These range from a short stroll in the woods to a more extensive hike in the backcountry. Camping, fishing, picnicking, and horseback riding, or just viewing magnificent scenery are favorite pasttimes.

Every season in the Smokies can be the best time to visit: spring wildflowers, summer camping along cool mountain streams, fall foliage, and winter's crisp, blue skies are all reasons to visit. But planning is the key to a safe and enjoyable stay

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is indeed a special place. Among some of the features making it special are:

Diversity. More than 4,000 species of plants grow here. A walk from mountain base to peak compares with traveling 1,250 miles north. Several resident plants and animals live only in the Smokies.

A rich cultural history. From the Cherokee Indians, to the Scotch-Irish settlers, this land was home to a variety of cultures and people. Many historic structures remain standing. Subsistence turned to exploitation as logging concerns stripped the region of timber. Recovery is now the dominant theme.

The Park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. These international recognitions represent the Smokies' importance to the planet. Neither designation results in a loss of national sovereignty or infringement on private land use, including development. The purpose of this United Nations' program is to recognize and encourage preservation of the world's great cultural and biological areas. The United States' National Park Service is proud to steward this world renowned site. Leave No Trace!

The International Biosphere Reserve Program is a voluntary approach to help preserve and protect the world's biological resources. Each reserve has a core and buffer areas. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, shielded from development, provides a core area. Other public lands serve as the buffer. Education is the only tool used to promote stewardship among private land owners. Other International Biosphere Reserves include Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon National Parks.

The World Heritage Site designation denotes the Park's inventory of Appalachian cultural items from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Combined with the Park's management to maintain cultural landscapes, such as in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, the Park stewards a unique cultural resource. Like biosphere reserves, it is a voluntary program working to preserve Earth's resources and history. Other World Heritage Sites include Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave National Parks.

Purchase Knob Research Center
Located at 5,000 feet on the North Carolina side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center is part of a network of what will be 32 research learning centers supporting research and education about science in our national parks. The center includes the summit of Purchase Knob, a historic cabin, and a few pffoce buildings, laboratory space, a 50-person classroom, and housing for up to eight visiting scientists. The buildings and land were donated in 2000 by Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore, who had owned the property since 1964, and had built a summer home upon it. This represents the largest donation of land since GSMNP came into existence. Since then, the park has averaged about 5,000 visiting scientists, students and teachers each year.

Download the official Great Smoky Mountains Trip Planner (PDF).

Great Smoky Park News & Updates

What is the hemlock woolly adelgid that is killing the hemlock trees in the Smokies?

PDF Map Downloads: Great Smoky Mountains Driving Map | Great Smoky Mountains Hiking Trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

     
     

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RomanticAsheville.com Travel Guide, an insider's vacation planner for Asheville and North Carolina Mountains.
Writing & Photography By Mark File - ©2003-2014 File Investments, Inc - All Rights Reserved
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