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.
Still, the park itself is massive and even most locals only get just a small taste of the wonders inside.
If you’re doing just a short trip, here are the three spots you should not miss in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
3. 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 feet), 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-degree 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 accessible for 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. 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. 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.
2. 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, although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934.
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.
The resort is small. It’s only available to about 50 guests per night, so reservations are a must and can be 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 the daylight.
1. Elkmont Campground
If you’re looking for a place to stay overnight in the park, consider Elkmont Campground. This large campground is 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 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 and still standing today.
Elkmont is one of 10 developed “frontcountry” campgrounds in the park.
The others frontcountry campgrounds are:
- Abrams Creek
- Balsam Mountain
- Big Creek
- Cades Cove
- Deep Creek
- Look Rock
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 more information, visit the National Park Service website.
Have you been to any of these spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What spots would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!