A&A Explore The Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Travel Review
End of Week #98
Hart-T-Tree Farms, Grassy Creek NC > Little Beaver State Park, Beaver WV > Outlanders River Camp, Luray VA
Miles traveled since last week's post = 318 miles
Total miles traveled to date = 13,732 with trailer
Our fist stop in the Appalachia's, was of course the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - an iconic stop I had been looking forward to this year. We are still currently in Appalachia Country now, and will be through the summer, but I'm already missing those Smoky Mountains to the south. This is definitely the kind of park you plan a return trip to!
A&A Explore The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Did you know that The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park in the US?? This was knew to me, and came at a bit of a shock - that is until I started to uncover more beautiful truths about this Appalachian land. Even in 2020, this park saw around 12 million visitors, with the next highest amount being around 3.8 million visitors to Yellowstone. During 2019 the Smokies saw about 12.5 million visitors with the Grand Canyon coming in second with around 6 million. It doesn't seem to matter what year it is, the Smokies still pull in around TWICE as many visitors as any other grand National Park out there. How mind blowing!
Cherokee Indians were amongst some of the first to call the Great Smoky Mountains home, and they used to describe the mountains as 'shaconage', which means "blue, like smoke". Later on in the timeline, European settlers just simply referred to the mountains as, smoky. All in all, the blue like smoke that appears to hover on the horizon, is caused from all the vapor released by the thick vegetation here. The molecules in that vapor gas scatter blue light across the sky - a phenomenon seen due to the perfect weather conditions in this part of the Appalachians.
The land was first farmed and logged by the Cherokee, and during the 1790's white settlement began in the lowlands. Most tribe members descending from the original Cherokee now live on the reservation on the eastern side of the park (which happened to be the same area we stayed in). By the 1900's, people started to become alarmed at the commercial logging threats to the forests. Congress authorized the area a Park in 1926, and it was officially established by 1934 - among the first National Parks assembled from private lands. The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, private groups and citizens, and schools are the ones who contributed money to purchase the lands here for donation to the federal government.
When the park was created there were a lot of various constructions already on the land - from log buildings, to mills and churches - all of which the National Park Service decided to save. Many people will come from all over just to see how their forbears lived! There are a lot of stereotypes and folklore associated to the mountain people that live and lived here - as they were referred to as backwards and geographically isolated.
Climate & Wildlife
There is no place in the country with a temperate climate that can match what it is like in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are more than 1,500 different kinds of flowering plants, dozens of native fish, 60 different mammals and more than 200 species of birds that call this place home. The remarkable biological diversity here has been recognized internationally, and the National Park Service aims to help preserve this landscape for generations to come.
A lot of the forest here is also considered a coniferous rainforest due to the amount of precipitation it receives each year. It sure has been raining a lot while we have been out east, but I am grateful for the 6 days of sunshine in the Smokies. It's also really interesting to see the habitat where Fraser firs grow naturally, as these were the trees we sold in southern Florida for Christmas last year.
Just a few of the wide variety of animals you will find in the Smokies include: wild hogs, red fox, brook trout, bobcats, turkeys, woodpeckers, eastern box turtles, white tailed dear, ruffled grouse, black bear, and more!
Just a few of the wide variety of plants you will find in the Smokies include: wild ginseng root, hemlock woolly adelgid, Carolina silverbell, wood fern, pink lady's slipper, columbine, holly, and more!
Where did we stay?
It is typically for people to stay on the Tennessee side while visiting the Smokies, especially amongst the RV community. You rarely see posts about where to stay in Cherokee, on the North Carolina side, but frankly that was our only option without rerouting completely out of the way to the other side. We still had a handful of places to choose from, so I tried to pick something as close to the base of the mountains as possible, and with all the amenities - which I was happy I did, as the day we arrived the high was only 46 degrees!
We ended up staying at a Yogi Bear, 'Yogi in the Smokies', just minutes from the park, and received 30% off our total stay, as they had a special going on for the month of April. We were right on the Raven Fork river, tucked into the forest, and surrounded by Appalachian Mountains. The entire 6 nights we were there were sunny and clear, with temps leveling out around the mid 60s. Yogi Bear had full hookups for us, a fire ring, and all the other kinds of amenities you could need. We found this location to be quiet and peaceful, and such close proximity to the places we wanted to explore.
The town of Cherokee itself is not anywhere near as touristy or populated as the other side of the mountains is in Tennessee, but we did still see a handful of new properties going up. There was also a large Harrah's Casino in construction, and downtown has many cute shops and places to eat.
What did we do?
Drive the 441 -
One of the best things you can do in the park is to drive the scenic route 441 from one end to the other - stopping at as many lookout points as you can along the way. If it's open, you can also connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway from the entrance to the park on the North Carolina side, however while we were here this was closed. The entire drive takes a bit over an hour without stopping, but is only around 30 miles total. You could definitely make an entire day just out of this drive, and find a beautiful place for a picnic along the way.
There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Smoky Mountains, including the historic Appalachian Trail, which reaches it's highest elevation along it's entire journey right in the middle of the park. Appalachian Trail hikers frequent the various shelter grounds and pit stop points marked in the park, and we encountered a lot of them during our hikes. The entire Appalachian Trail is over 2,000 miles and stretches all the way from Georgia to Maine!
Here are the hikes we did:
Chimney Tops Trail - This is considered one of the more popular day hikes in the park, taking you to the tops of two mountain peaks, with a nice observation platform if you choose not to hike the peak tops. Roundtrip the hike was about 4.0 miles and a bit more strenuous than I was anticipating, as it had several hundred stairs to climb at quite the elevation change. The hike had about 1,400 feet in elevation change and the entire thing took us just shy of 3 hours.
Charlies Bunion Trail - I would say this is another fairly popular day hike, with the trailhead at the Newfound Gap overlook that marks the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. The entire hike is also all on the Appalachian Trail and is where we saw a majority of group backpack hikers. For a popular day hike, it is still a bit long and steep - coming in at 8.0 miles roundtrip with an elevation change of 1,600. The end of the trail marks "Charlies Bunion", a large boulder overlooking insane views of the surrounding mountains. We had to be careful on this trail as there was a lot of ice and snow!
This 45ft observation tower is the highest point in all the Smoky Mountains, and the third highest point east of the Mississippi. Sitting at 6,643ft in elevation, it is not anything like the 14,000 feet you will find in the Rockies, but it still offers you insane 360 degree views of Appalachia Country. The tower is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But beware - the hike up is a bit more intense than it sounds. It may only be 1.0 miles roundtrip, but the climb is steep in a short amount of time, taking you up about 1,200 feet in elevation.
Fun fact: If we didn't have air population you would be able to see 100 miles from up here on a clear day. Instead, the reality is more along the lines of about 20 miles out.
While we were up here we saw our first snow that we had seen in more than a YEAR - which was a record breaking amount of time for us!
The amount of waterfalls in the Smoky Mountain range is absolutely astonishing to me. We could be driving through the main highway in the park and come across one that runs into the road, or we could hike to one, or we could see one from the top of another hike - they were simply everywhere to be found! There was even one of the tallest ones in the park, right down the road from our RV park, called Mingo Falls. It stood at about 120 feet, and was absolutely stunning. The trail to the top for the best view was closed, but standing on the bridge at the base still took my breath away.
Some of the other more poplar day hikes to waterfalls include: Rainbow Falls, Laurel Falls, Cataract Falls, and Grotto Falls.
The southernmost Visitors Center, located near the Mingus Mill, is the Oconaluftee. We stopped here to pick up a park map, and some hiking trail guides our first day. This was also a place that we saw large gatherings of elk every single day we went through the park. The first time, we saw a few in the morning, gathering in the large field by the visitors center. The other days we would see 50 or more of them feeding in the fields on both sides of the road - some even crossing through the road. It reminded me a lot of the buffalo in Yellowstone - only with elk!
Day trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Just a hop, skip, and a jump away - on the north side of the park is the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For a small town in TN, it actually has the most amount of tourism than any other town in the state. Only around 4,000 people call this place home, but the tourists are what absolutely keep this place alive.
To be fair, Gatlinburg is known as the gateway into the Smokies, so it only makes sense it sees so many visitors. I consider the entire town like a mix of tourist attractions - all high in the sky offering sweeping views of the mountains, and also a great place to find local food and drinks.
Here are the top things we did on our day trip here for Easter:
Treetop Skywalk at Anakeesta Park - This mountain park and complete outdoor experience offers the longest tree-based skywalk in North America, with over 880 feet of hanging suspension bridges. I can imagine this would be epic just at dusk when they turn the lights on over the bridges. Anakeesta has a lot of other things to offer too, including a restaurant, a brewery, a shopping center, an observation tower and a great place to hang out, enjoy the views and listen to live music.
Longest Pedestrian Suspension Bridge at SkyLift - Considered the most spectacular (& scary) experience in the Smokies, sitting atop the already famous SkyLift is the newly affiliated SkyBridge. It is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, stretching more than 680 feet across, and about 150 feet up at it's highest point. There are also several glass panels in the middle making for a truly unforgettable experience - if you can get past them that is. Eeek! On one side of the bridge is a SkyDeck, where you can sit and eat and enjoy the views of the Smokies and all of Gatlinburg, and on the other side are more views and a store. The only kicker is... once you cross the bridge, you have to cross it again to get back to the ski lift to take you back down!
Ole Smokey Distillery - You didn't really visit Tennessee or Appalachia Country if you didn't try some moonshine and whiskey, did you?? We took it upon ourselves to do a 7 sample tasting at the Ole Smokey Distillery, before purchasing both a bottle of apple pie moonshine and salted watermelon whiskey! There were so many good flavors to choose from - it was hard to narrow things down.
It doesn't matter what season you visit the Smokies, or what kind of outdoor activity you are into - there really is something for everyone out here. From fishing, to camping, to hiking, biking, wildlife viewing, waterfall exploring, homestead history, car audio tours, and more. Are you going to make the Smokies your next destination out east???
As we are right in the midst of our touring of the National Parks out east, next week I want to talk about the newest Park added to the system - as of January 2020. That park is called the New River Gorge and it's located in West Virginia. Full travel review coming next week!
I have recently become affiliated with Amazon, through the set up of my own storefront page. Here I am able to list and link all of the items I have purchased through Amazon and would recommend for various needs. I have lists set up for fulltime RVing, camping in general, traveling with cats, health and wellness, and even curly hair! Plus, as an added bonus, I will make a small commission on any items purchased through my link.
If you want to check out more of my storefront page, here is the link: Spark Fire Swan's Amazon
I will continue to add items as time goes on, as we are always finding something new on there that becomes quite useful to our lifestyle or for our feline friends. As a rule of thumb, I only ever link things we have actually purchased, kept, and use on a frequent basis!