Travel

10 greatest sights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Relax among historic buildings tucked into the Cataloochee Valley.
Relax among historic buildings tucked into the Cataloochee Valley. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Jason Frye, a Wilmington-based travel writer, zeroes in on the Southeast. His third guidebook, “Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip,” was published in May 2015 (Moon/Avalon Travel, $19.99); his Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains, with four more books for Moon lined up for 2016: new editions of “North Carolina” and “North Carolina Coast Including the Outer Banks” and the new “Spotlight on Asheville & Great Smoky Mountains” (June) and “Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains” (October).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, encompassing more than 522,000 acres of mountains, streams, coves and hollows that are among the most picturesque in the world. It’s the most popular national park and sees 10 million visitors or more each year.

What to see in a park this big and this popular? Here are 10 places every Smoky Mountains visitor must see:

1. Cataloochee Valley

This wide valley at the northern end of the park holds a collection of historic buildings and is home to the park’s largest herd of elk. Camp here or visit for the day, keeping an eye out for elk – they’re most active in early morning and late evening and tend to stick to the treeline – as you tour the valley.

2. Newfound Gap Road

The only road that traverses the park – Newfound Gap Road – runs 33 miles between Cherokee and Gatlinburg, Tenn., crossing the most beautiful mountains in the east. Take your time as you drive and you may spot a black bear crossing the road; even if you don’t see one, stop at any overlook and have your breath taken away by the view.

3. Clingmans Dome

The highest peak in the park, Clingmans Dome is accessible from Newfound Gap Road, and after a ridgeline drive you’ll reach the summit. From the observation platform, which looks like a UFO, you can see 100 miles in any direction on a clear day.

4. Hike to Andrews Bald

While you’re at Clingmans Dome, lace up your boots for a hike to the highest bald (think grassy meadow) in the park. Andrews Bald is a 3.5-mile, round-trip hike and along the way, summer blooms like flame azalea and rhododendron line the trail.

5. Cades Cove

An 11-mile loop road circles this early settlement where historic structures and homes sit as they did a century ago. Watch the remnants of apple orchards, as that’s where the black bears like to forage for food and climb into the boughs to nap.

6. Drive Rich Mountain Road

This 8-mile offroad drive from Cades Cove to Townsend, Tenn. (25 miles south of Gatlinburg), takes you over Rich Mountain on a route that few see. It’s beautiful but gets steep in places, so don’t try it in your family sedan; take something a little more rugged.

7. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

This loop road is gorgeous on its own, but it serves as a launch point to several waterfall hikes. The nearest is Thousand Drip Falls which is right beside the road; the others are short hikes past homesteads and the remnants of homesteads in this small mountain community.

8. Hike to Grotto Falls

Off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 1.5-mile trail leads hikers to Grotto Falls and passes beneath a veil of water – thanks to the grotto that gave name to this place. The falls are only 25 feet, but they flow year-round and are a sight in any season. It’s a moderate hike and you stand the chance of seeing a pack train of llamas using the trail to resupply the LeConte Lodge high up the mountain.

9. See the synchronous fireflies of Elkmont

One of the only colonies of synchronous fireflies in the world is found at Elkmont. From early to mid-June, males rise out of the grass every evening and blink as one, signaling the females below. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

10. Find your solitude

Step out onto any of 800 miles of trails and walk until the sounds of civilization disappear, then simply soak it in. You’ll be surprised at how loud a quiet forest is, but you’ll also be surprised at how much it revives the mind, body and spirit.

Nearby: Cherokee

Cherokee sits just two miles outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and when you visit stop in for dinner at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort (www.caesars.com/harrahs-cherokee) for an upscale Italian dinner and well-rounded wine list at BRIO Tuscan Grille. Spend a little time (and money) on the casino floor, then check into your room at the hotel.

Or play it simple and stay at Panther Creek Cabins (www.panthercreekresort.com) and take breakfast the next morning at Granny’s Kitchen (www.grannyskitchencherokee.com), where a hearty spread awaits. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian (www.cherokeemuseum.org) and Oconaluftee Indian Village (www.cherokeesmokies.com/oconaluftee_village.html) will give you an overview of the tribe’s history. Dig deeper and take in a performance of “Unto These Hills” (www.cherokeehistorical.org), an outdoor drama telling of the tribe’s split during the Trail of Tears; the play runs all summer long.

Area info: www.visitcherokeenc.com.

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