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Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

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Did You Know … ?

  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited park.
  • The park is home to about 100 native tree species, more than all of northern Europe.
  • In the highest areas, the Smokies average 85 inches of rain yearly, qualifying them as temperate rain forests.
  • Country singer Dolly Parton was born in Sevierville.
  • Park entry is free, Tennessee’s requirement when it deeded a public road to the park.

The aptly named Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains, which get their name from the smoke-like mist that hovers over damp trees, are among the most rugged of peaks in the Appalachian mountain system. They straddle the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and a large section (about 520,000 acres) of the Smokies comprise the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. About half the park is in each state.

The park’s origins is a dramatic story of private and government actions to save virgin ecosystems from loggers and heal the 80% of the park area that had already been stripped of its trees. Private citizens and state governments contributed the funds to buy the parkland from loggers and other private interests.

The efforts paid off, yielding invaluable biodiversity — more diversity than in any other area in the world’s temperate zone — and a touristic retreat that becomes more important as time goes by. The venturesome can camp and hike, even climb the tallest mountains here. More mellow types find the tranquility they seek in watching a sunset or photographing the flowers. There is something for every personality type.

In addition, a “gateway business” has emerged, providing jobs locally while adding to the attractions and activities that lure travelers to the area. On the Tennessee side of the park, the most prominent gateway towns are Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Knoxville is the area’s largest city. The considerably smaller Townsend is the gateway to the park’s popular 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which takes visitors to the preserved 19th century village called Cades Cove.

The gateway towns make it their business to offer up a long list of entertaining shows, amusing or enlightening museums, outdoor activities focused on the mountains and Pigeon River, numerous festivals and other diversions. Pigeon Forge is home to the Dollywood theme park, and Sevierville is known for its outlet centers.

It is good news that the national park, created in 1934, recovered so well after the loggers pulled out. But there is bad news in threats that include global warming, air pollution and overuse by its millions of visitors who, ironically, risk loving the park to death.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Hit the trails for a short or very long walk. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 800 miles of trails allowing you to cover new territory every hour of a multiday backpacking trek. Include in that plan one of the park’s numerous trail walks with a ranger.
  • Out of Sevierville, take a guided ATV tour in the mountains. Or, get a look at a broader swath of mountains and valleys from a helicopter.
  • Camp in the national park, either at a developed campground or in the wilderness areas. Also, participate in one of several volunteer days to assist in maintaining the park.
  • Join the Ghostwalk of Gatlinburg, an after-dark storytelling experience that highlights forgotten tales of murder and mayhem around town and even in the national park.
  • Go whitewater rafting in the Smokies — on the Pigeon River, the nearest whitewater rafting option to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville area.
  • Or, if you would rather fly above the Pigeon, sign on for a Pigeon River canopy tour, which will let you travel across the river on a zipline as high as 120 feet above the water.

Things to do for Centrics

  • See the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on horseback. The park has hundreds of miles of horse trails, and four rental stables make mounts available. There are riding opportunities outside the park, too.
  • Come to Pigeon Forge in time for the Smoky Mountains Storytelling Festival, in February.
  • Fish for trout in the national park. There are more than 700 miles of streams where you can cast a line.
  • Head to the nearest big city, Knoxville, for a little history. Take the Cradle of Country Music Walking Tour. Also, take time for the Knoxville Civil War Driving Tour, which highlights the extent to which area Tennesseans’ loyalties were divided during that conflict.
  • Get married in the Smokies. There are several locations and wedding planners ready with services in the towns near the national park. One example: the Heartland Little River Wedding Chapel in Townsend.
  • At Gatlinburg, take the sky lift up the side of Crocket Mountain for a sweeping view of the Smokies.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Pack a picnic lunch and head into Great Smoky Mountain National Park to admire the wildflowers and other plant life. There are 11 designated picnic areas in the park.
  • Play golf in Gatlinburg or elsewhere in the towns on the Tennessee side of the park.
  • Choose a route and drive through a part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to admire the scenery, look for bears and other wildlife and explore settler buildings that have been preserved there. Seek out Cades Cove, near Townsend, where the 19th century buildings of a small town are open for inspection. Historical reenactments occur here, too.
  • Kayak on the Little River in Townsend. Or, just float in a tube.
  • Attend a dinner show. There are several to choose from, especially in Pigeon Forge. For example, the “Fiddlers’ Feast Mountain Legacy Supper Show” promises “toe-tappin’, hand-clappin’, knee-slappin’” mountain music.
  • Take the family to Dollywood for the rides and entertainment. Also, consider going to Dollywood’s Splash Country, a water park.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development at