The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive forest centered along the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, but it’s not as big as many assume. 

The national park is part of a large range of national forest along the Appalachian Mountains. To the south, there’s Nantahala National Forest and below that, into Georgia, the Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast, the park is abutted by the Pisgah National Forest and further north, the Pisgah National Forest. 

Still, the Park itself is massive and even most locals only get just a small taste of the wonders inside. 

The observation deck of Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains

Clingmans Dome

It’s hard to pick one must-see area of the park, but if you haven’t been to Clingmans Dome, you haven’t really seen the park.  

According to the National Park service, at 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Park. It is also the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest peak east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days views expand over a 100 miles. However, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.

The road to Clingmans Dome is closed from December through March, but the Dome is fairly easily accessible most of the year. The road up ends in a large parking area, about a half mile away.  There is a paved trail up to the dome, but the walk is very steep, so if the climb is too much, you can settle for the views from the parking lot. According to park officials, the paved trail is officially considered too steep to be wheelchair accessible. 

There are multiple trails from the Clingmans Dome Road and parking area and the Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the trail from Georgia to Maine. Also the Forney Ridge Trail leads to Andrews Bald, a high-elevation grassy bald.

Clingmans Dome also offers one of the park’s four visitors centers. The others are the Cades Cove Visitors Center in Blount County, Tennessee, the Sugarlands Visitors Center at the entrance to the park at Highway 441 in Gatlinburg and the  Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the other end of 441 in Cherokee, North Carolina. 

Trail to Mount LeConte Village in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mount LeConte

Not too far from Clingmans Dome, is Mount LeConte, the third highest peak in the National Park. Located in Sevier County, LeConte is popular for its scenic views, but also for the LeConte Lodge, a small resort established in 1925. 

According to the lodge’s website, “when the movement to establish a national park in the Smokies was in full sway, a tent camp was erected where LeConte Lodge now stands to entertain visiting dignitaries from Washington. Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. Jack Huff, a Gatlinburg mountaineer and founder of the rustic lodge, began building the retreat in 1926. Eight years later, Jack and Pauline Huff were married at a sunrise service at LeConte’s now-famous Myrtle Point, the traditional place to watch spectacular performances of daybreak. Jack, Pauline and their family continued to operate the lodge until 1960. It is presently operated under the auspices of Stokely Hospitality Enterprises.”

The lodge is only accessible by one of five hiking trails, as such; the resort’s supplies are brought in by llamas three times a week. The lodge is closed for the harshest winter months and, even in the summer; the climate is relatively cool – often compared to southern Canada. The resort is small – only available to about 50 guests per night – so reservations are a must and are hard to come by. The resort does offer some accommodations for day hikers, sack lunches and supplies are available as well as souvenirs but good planning is essential so that you can get up and down the mountain in daylight.

Fog settles over the Little River

Elkmont Campground

If you’re looking for a place to stay overnight in the park, consider Elkmont Campground, a large campground located between Gatlinburg and Townsend off of Little River Gorge Road. 

According to the National Park service, “The Elkmont Campground was established in the 1950s. But people inhabited Elkmont well before then. The first people to permanently settle in the Elkmont area arrived more than a hundred years before the campground was established.”

The first settlers in the Elkmont area came in the mid-1800s and were homesteaders, squatters, hunters and loggers. They established farms, built cabins and created the Little River community. That history is on display as the Levi Trentham Cabin, dating back to 1845, stands today. The cabin, built in 1845 by Levi’s father Robert, came into Levi’s possession in 1905. 

The park service says “large scale logging in the early 20th century had a huge impact on the Elkmont area – bringing a railroad line, logging community and ultimately development of the resort communities of the Appalachian Club and Wonderland Hotel. Today, 18 of the cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the National Park Service. The Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin were rehabilitated in 2010 for day use. Park crews also completed preservation work on four additional cabins in 2017. These four cabins are now open to the public to walk through and view.”

Elkmont is one of 10 developed “frontcountry” campgrounds in the park, 

The others are: 

  • Abrams Creek
  • Balsam Mountain
  • Big Creek
  • Cades Cove
  • Cataloochee
  • Cosby
  • Deep Creek
  • Look Rock
  • Smokemont

Reservations for the Frontcountry, group and horse campgrounds can be made by either calling 877-444-6777 or visiting www.recreation.gov. Making advance reservations are recommended if you would like to guarantee a camping spot.

For backcountry camping, which are designated campsites in more remote areas that lack conveniences such as running water, restrooms or showers, permits are required. For more, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.

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