Getting the most out of one day in our country’s most visited national park
By Marianne Leek
I have lived in western North Carolina for most of my life, but like most people raised in these mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was something I took for granted. Established in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, boasts waterfalls, scenic byways, over 850 miles of hiking trails and is home to some of the most diverse plant, animal and insect life on the planet. But with over 12 million visitors each year, the most popular sections of the park are largely avoided by locals who view it as a tourist destination. However, once described by Horace Kephart as “an Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled,” if you live within driving distance and you’re not enjoying the magic of these mountains on a regular basis, you’re missing out. I decided to grab my sister for a girls’ day road trip to see just how much fun we could pack into one day.
We arrived at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at 8:00 a.m., and with the exception of a man dressed in overalls playing the harmonica, ours was one of the few cars in the parking lot. While the visitor center is a cultural treasure and offers valuable information about the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and the history of the park, park maps can be found outside the restrooms if your goal is to get an early start. However, be sure to allow some time to stroll through the Mountain Farm Museum located directly behind the visitor center. Early morning is also the best time for viewing elk herds that can be found grazing in nearby fields just before the entrance to the park.
We began our day on Newfound Gap Road; our first stop was Mingus Mill, located about half a mile north of the visitor center. Built in 1816, the historic Mingus Mill is a fully operational grist mill that uses a water-powered turbine to power its machinery. Knowledgeable staff provide demonstrations and are on-site April through October to answer questions about the history of the mill and the life of early settlers. The Mingus Creek Trailhead is located at the far end of the parking lot and offers miles of hiking trails. In the same area, you’ll find a worn path that leads to a small slave cemetery, unmarked and unknown, with only rocks marking the graves. A somber reminder of people and families whose lives mattered.
There is something singularly beautiful about driving on Newfound Gap Road in the early morning, the mountain mist for which the Smokies are named hanging in the valley and covering some of the mountains with a thick moody cloud of white. With no cell service, there is a peace and freedom to being in the park, and Newfound Gap just feels a little closer to heaven. We stopped at one of the more popular overlooks to take pictures and noticed a sign that said, “Quiet Walkway.” By the end of the day, we discovered that one of the more lovely features of the park is these quiet walkways inviting people to leisurely enjoy their surroundings on shorter trails, in quieter, less populated areas of the park with no particular destination in mind.
At 6,643 ft. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. We arrived at 10:00 a.m. to a parking lot nearing capacity. In peak season, it’s not unusual to see cars lining both sides of the seven-mile road snaking up to Clingmans Dome, which can significantly extend the .5 mile hike to the tower. If you are able to find parking, you’ll find picnic areas, bathrooms and a park store all located at the entrance to the trail. The short hike intersects the Appalachian Trail and leads to a massive tower that seems to boldly rise out of the mountain itself, and on a clear day, offers stunning, panoramic views of seven states. The mountain on which the tower sits is referred to as the “Dome” and is actually in both North Carolina and Tennessee. As we hiked up to the tower, the fog began to burn off, and we arrived just in time to catch the day’s first views of the valley below.
We made it back to our car around 11:30 and headed east on Newfound Gap Road, taking advantage of pull-outs to take in the mountain vistas and scenery. There are plenty of places to pull over and picnic. We chose a pull-off located beside the Little Pigeon River, made our way down to the water and ate a picnic lunch. Despite visiting on a Friday in late June, traffic was surprisingly light until mid-afternoon.
Next, we visited Elkmont. Once a thriving logging camp and resort community, this abandoned ghost town is a hidden gem of the park. On the way, you’ll pass the Elkmont campground before arriving at a parking area to wander the grounds of “Daisy Town.” This area includes approximately 16 cabin-like buildings and an Appalachian Clubhouse. The area was once a resort area frequented by wealthy patrons who took the train from Knoxville seeking rest and relaxation in the mountains. The area is reminiscent of the movie set of “Dirty Dancing,” with rows of cabins adorned with porches and screened doors, the clubhouse in close proximity. Adjacent to “Daisy Town” is a place as haunting as it is fascinating, a row of chimneys follow the river and serve as an eerie reminder of the once-thriving Elkmont resort community, and what little remains of an abandoned logging camp reminiscent of the days when some men made their livelihood working in the woods. The entire Elkmont area is a charming step back in time and steeped in history. And if you’re lucky enough to score a camping spot in June, the synchronous fireflies, the only species in America that synchronize their light patterns as part of mating, are a must-see.
We continued our day by heading to Cades Cove. We arrived at around 2:30 p.m., which is the least ideal time to visit during the peak season. The best time to do the Cades Cove Loop is early morning or evening to avoid traffic congestion and to view wildlife. With its old homesteaders’ villages, Cades Cove offers several opportunities to hike, explore and learn. The important things to remember to bring with you when driving through Cades Cove are a camera and your patience. The scenery is stunning but expect delays. In addition to cars, bicycles are allowed on most of the park roads and can be rented at the Cades Cove Campground Store.
We arrived back at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at 5:30, happy and tired after a full day of recreation and reconnection. Whether you hike, bike, fish, paddle or drive, there is something for every nature lover in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You could spend a week in the park and not run out of things to do, but if you only have one day, it is certainly possible to travel the length of the park and see some of the highlights. We are already planning a fall day trip that will begin with the Cades Cove Loop, include one of several of the more popular day hikes - Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, Mingo Falls, or Laurel Falls - and end by, hopefully, catching the sunset at Clingmans Dome. Horace Kephart got it right when he said, “It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.”