With 816 square miles spanning across North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the USA with 10.7 million people visiting in 2015. The Appalachian Trail, from Maine to Georgia, runs through the center of the park.
Established in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern USA. In addition to sweeping views of the mountain ranges, the park is popular with hikers (more than 800 miles of hiking trails are found within the park’s boundaries), campers, bicyclists, fisherman and woman, horseback riders, picnickers, wildlife and wildflower enthusiasts, and so many more.
We checked in with Friends of the Smokies and Haywood County, North Carolina for tips (in no particular order!) to make the most of your visit, which can happen anytime: The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
1. See the views from the Chimney Tops: Over the course of two miles, the Chimney Tops Trail gains 1,400 feet in elevation, providing spectacular views; it’s no wonder this is one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail was recently reconstructed through the Trails Forever initiative, established to reconstruct and rehabilitate some of the park’s most impacted trails.
2. Don’t miss Fontana Dam: The tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains is right here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 480 feet (equivalent of a 50-story skyscraper), Fontana Dam not only provides hydroelectric power, but forms Fontana Lake and its approximate 240 miles of shoreline; boating and fishing are popular on the lake.
3. Tour the Cove: An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles Cades Cove, one of the top destinations within the park that provides terrific wildlife viewing opportunities. Either drive the entire loop non-stop (allow at least two to four hours, depending on season), or stop and walk some of the trails found just off the road. Wildlife that may be spotted in Cades Cove include white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, ground hogs, turkeys and more. The loop road is open to motor vehicles every day from sunrise to sunset, and to pedestrians and bicyclists 24 hours a day.
4. Spot elk: After disappearing from North Carolina in the late-1700s as a result of over-hunting and loss of habitat, elk were reintroduced into the Cataloochee Valley in the state’s Haywood County, and the valley is perhaps now best known for elk in addition to its beautiful landscapes. Early morning and late evening are regarded as the best times for viewing the elk – that’s typically when they graze along the roadways and in the valley’s meadows.
5. Meander with salamanders: A fun fact about Great Smoky Mountain National Park is that it’s the Salamander Capital of the World. Atop Purchase Knob sits the Appalachian Highland Science Center, which runs a salamander research program in which park visitors can participate.
6. Chase waterfalls: The park’s more than 85 inches of annual rainfall and elevation make for the ideal conditions for waterfalls. In fact, more than 200,000 park visitors hike to the most popular waterfalls each year. You can hike to any number of falls, including Abrams Falls (just 20 feet) to Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park at 100 feet. Three waterfalls are also accessible by driving: Meigs Falls, The Sinks and Place of a Thousand Drops.
7. Get historic: Appalachian history lives within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, the Elkmont Historic District was once an Appalachian community, logging town and resort. Today, the area encompasses a large campground, ranger station, and the restored Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings.
8. Hike for a good night’s sleep: Hike to 6,360 feet and find yourself at LeConte Lodge for the night; the rustic lodge can only be accessed by foot. Be sure to make reservations, though – the lodge opens up reservations each October and quickly books up.
9. Fire in the Sky: At least 19 species of fireflies light up the night skies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and one of the most interesting is the synchronous fireflies. Their display is so fascinating that special tours into the park are arranged each year during mating season (for the past decade or so, May and June) with outfitters such as Cataloochee Valley Tours.
10. Even more to do: Additional popular spots within Great Smoky Mountains National Park are Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, and Newfound Gap, the nearly mile-high spot where Newfound Gap Road crosses the mountain ridge, and the lowest drivable pass through the park.
For more on Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.
Susan B. Barnes, Special for USA TODAY