How (Not) to Enjoy Americas Most Visited National Park
In our last post we visited Charlie’s Bunion, one of the most popular hikes in the most loved to death national park in America…Great Smoky Mountain National Park. GSMNP is a fantastic place, and Charlie’s Bunion sure is a great viewpoint. But this is definitely a hike best suited for ‘people persons,’ because a person will see no shortage of other people. In fact, it would be almost impossible to hike from Newfound Gap in anything less than godawful weather and not see throngs of people.
Many prospective visitors to the park simply won’t care about the crowds. For many people, the destination is everything, and the inconveniences one must deal with along the way, such as crowds, expenses, travel problems, etc simply obstacles to be overcome in order to get to the good stuff. If you are of this mindset, or simply comfortable around crowds, you might greatly enjoy GSMNP at any time of year.
Most serious hikers, however, are not subscribers to this school of thought. It’s not always true that those who turn to the mountains do so because they are tired or disgusted of urban life and its trappings. But at least part of the reason they turn stems from the fact that modern, urbanized life is tiresome and in some ways unsuitable for the human psyche. Ever heard of anyone going to the city to ‘get away?’
Pressure, stress, deadlines, clocks, phones, barking dogs, loud noises, obnoxious people, lines, queues, sales pitches, rude behavior, invasive advertising, pollution, garbage, aggressive drivers, traffic, and conflict. There is a reason that many people who live in cities (and suburbs) flee them for the wilds. And it isn’t because they want to see those same things reproduced in kind in the wild. If so, why flee? What would be the point?
In GSMNP one can find a vast and unspoiled wilderness, all the solitude a body could want. The Park encompasses half a million acres of heavily wooded, mountainous terrain, spanning five counties in two states. There are whole swaths of this park that see almost no human visitation; there are probably locations in the Smokies where the last human visitor spoke Cherokee or wore buckskin and carried gunpowder in a horn.
Ah. But that’s the deep wilderness within the park…the DEVELOPED areas of the park, and the portals which feed into it, are another matter. There are few roads…in fact, only one road crosses north to south, and most of the rest either branch off that one and head into dead ends or exist on the perimeter. Parking in GSMNP is woefully inadequate, despite obvious and valiant attempts by the administration to improve it. It should be obvious that you cannot pour eleven million people a year (and their cars) into such tight corridors without congestion, any more than you can sip a swimming pool through a straw. Especially when you consider that much of that visitation occurs within just a few peak weeks out of the year.
The developed areas of GSMNP occupy a surprisingly small and very constricted percentage of the park…couldn’t be more than ten percent, if that. Just like Grand Canyon, most visitors never see more than 90% of the park, except maybe at a distance. Most people never go far from their cars. The developed areas are often accessible only by one lane roads not designed for heavy traffic.
The most developed and congested areas are:
- The northern (and main) portal at Gatlinburg, TN
- The Southern Portal at Cherokee, NC
- Cades Cove
- Newfound Gap
- The Sugarlands Visitor Center
And for the most part, these six areas, which make up generously ten percent of the park, are where ninety percent of the people will be. Be prepared for sporting-event or concert-venue sized crowds if you visit these areas in Summer, peak fall weekends, or any school-out holiday.
You can view a map of the park here…
There are many other areas, some quite remote, that get substantially less visitation. We’ll deal with both cases.
Where the Crowds Are…In Brian’s Bostonian lingo, these are the ‘nuthouses.’
A word about Gatlinburg, TN. The city recently recovered from a devastating fire resulting from arson that killed 14 people and destroyed over 2000 buildings. You can very plainly see the scars of this fire even today. Gatlinburg has our complete sympathy; we are impressed and pleased with its resilience in the face of adversity.
The city also serves a useful purpose. GSMNP is one of the few major parks that has no overnight indoor accommodations within the park boundaries…no lodge, no hotel, no motel. All of that is provided by Gatlinburg, meaning that the park itself is free from having to host paying guests. Which reduces the strain on the landscape and the drain on the park’s operating budget. Gatlinburg acts as sort of a shock absorber for crowds.
The result, however, is without any doubt a nuthouse of cosmic proportions. Brian considers Gatlinburg to be his LEAST favorite place in the entire region, surpassing Virginia Beach and Myrtle Beach as tourists traps that offend his sensibilities. It is also the worst, most crowded, most sprawling, most tacky and least well-planned national park portal city by a long ways.
Here in Gatlinburg you can find: The 407-foot tall Gatlinburg Space Needle, Ober Gatlinburg, various gondola rides in search of a ski slope, the Ripley’s Museum, DollyWorld Splash Country, the Anakeesta Theme Park…that, and about thirty-five billion motel rooms. Add to it a traffic jam that begins on April Vacation and lasts until the leaves fall off, and you have the full experience of Gatlinburg, TN.
(Note: Sylvia is not quite as offended by the Gatlinburg experience as Brian. She describes it as being “More for tourists, and families, and not for outdoors people.” Brian would agree and add…more for people who enjoy hour long traffic jams, overpriced hamburgers and ‘wax figures.’ Brian isn’t much for wax figures.)
Brian’s advice would be to avoid Gatlinburg at all costs and do so any way you can. It used to be you could do this by entering through the Park’s somewhat harder to access South Portal (the North Carolina side) at…
- Cherokee, NC
…Alas, those relatively peaceful days are gone. While road improvements have made the south portal more accessible, the construction of a massive casino on the Indian lands has made Cherokee, which always tended toward the “Take your picture with a real Indian!” side of touristy, a far less viable option that it once was. Our advice is to avoid this area too if you can, unless you are coming here for the expressed purpose of gambling.
- Cades Cove
By far the nicest developed part of the park is Cades Cove, that wonderful, secluded mountain valley where the National Park Service preserves not only the native Appalachian landscape, but the Appalachian way of life. Cades Cove is, in Brian’s opinion, one of the most worthwhile places in ANY national park, and that includes the big ones out west.
One of our fondest memories is visiting the Cove after a dismal attempt at a hike of Andrew’s Bald some years back. The hike was waterlogged enough to qualify as land scuba diving. But after drying out, we headed back to the car and sped down to the cove…the clouds had lifted from the valley which left it in full sunlight, but thunderclouds still clung stubbornly to the mountaintops. It was a magical sight.
From our 2009 “land scuba diving” excursion to Andrews Bald. Doesn’t this look appealing?
These were taken just hours later at Cades Cove. And there really are few places more appealing.
But alas, much of it is anything but magical. You would think that such a secluded valley, with only one paved road in, would be a very remote place, far as anywhere you could be from the press of tourists. You would think. But this is NOT the case; in fact, Cades Cove is one of the most crowded and congested parts of the park.
Just in case you think we might be exaggerating…From the Wikipedia article on Cades Cove:
”…Today Cades Cove, the single most popular destination for visitors to the park, attracts more than two million visitors a year because of its well preserved homesteads, scenic mountain views, and abundant display of wildlife.[“
That figure might be low. It is listed elsewhere at five million.
We recommend that if you take the loop driving tour, and plan to do so in peak season, give yourself half a day at least. The drive in from Gatlinburg takes an hour assuming low traffic. The loop itself, which enforces low speeds over narrow roads with continual stoppages, cannot be done quickly; and though you can bail out at certain points, most of those side roads lead back into the loop at a further point…and they all lead back to the same entrance road. In short, it could take hours.
In fact, our advice is, don’t go anywhere NEAR Cades Cove in summer or on peak fall weekends. We would suggest late fall or early spring.
Be aware that the Gregory Ridge trailhead and some other trails lead out of this area and cannot be accessed without entering the loop road. Same with popular Abrams Falls.
One last note about Cades Cove. Maps show a pair of secondary roads leading out of this area. These would be the Parson Branch Road and Rich Mountain Road. Be aware that while it is possible to get out of Cades Cove via these roads (but not in, they are one way) these are NOT viable routes for motorists. They are rugged, seasonal 4-wheel drive roads. The Parson Branch Road, by the way, also deposits you in the middle of nowhere. Don’t consider these as shortcuts in your planning…there as likely to add time, assuming you can pass at all.
- Newfound Gap
We discussed the gap in detail in our last post. The Appalachian Trail crosses Rte. 441, the main corridor through the park, at Newfound Gap. There is a big, and usually jammed, parking lot, restrooms, some views (not the best ones in the park) access to the AT and apart from that little else. It’s a place for crowds to gather, basically, and unless you are doing a hike on this portion of the AT, there is no good reason to gather here.
- The Sugarlands/Elkmont/Alum Cave Trail Area
This is one of our favorite areas in the park. It’s the place where we have seen the most bears (at least six of them) and the Alum Cave and Chimney Tops trail depart from near here. Elkmont is a nice campground late in the season one the crowds go, and other attractions include Laurel Falls and the interesting derelict resort village of Elkmont.
If you want to see a bear our advice is, look for the traffic jam, and then look up.
This is also where the worst traffic jams inevitably are, excepting Gatlinburg. This is especially true in fall when the bears are active. Our advice as always is go early or late in season, avoid peak weekends, get an early start and have some patience with your fellow human beings. Many of the feature attractions of the park are in this area, so it is worth seeing.
This is the visitor center and campground near the North Carolina entrance to the park. It’s less crowded than the Sugarlands area but also has less than half as much to see, and the Smokemont Campground is unappealing. We have never done much in this area except pass through. Elk are sometimes seen here…but we have never seen them.
One interesting footnote is that the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway is here, not far from the visitor center.
If you want to see all the touristy areas of the park, the best way to do so is go mid-week in either April or Early November. The weather might well be cold and drizzly, but we prefer that to the hot, humid and buggy Appalachian summer. Note that snow does fall here, sometimes a whole lot of it – Newfound Gap Road is currently closed as Brian writes this due to heavy snow and ice. But most of the paved roads of the park are open through the winter, and at the lower elevations you are as likely to see no snow at all.
What we would advise is take a few days, see all the major touristy stuff, preferably in the off-season…get that all out of your system. Then you can start really enjoying this park.
Now that we’ve told you where and what NOT to do, and when not to do it, we’ll discuss the things you definitely SHOULD do, and when and where you should do them.
Up Next: Loving the Loved To Death Park: How to Avoid Crowds in the Smokies