I can barely keep my eyes on the road. Every time I hear a rustle in the trees, my head pops out of the car window like a curious child. Impatience is a dangerous trait for a driver, but the excitement of seeing my first black bear in the rugged, rugged landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains distracts me.
Around two thousand black bears currently live in the national park, but their numbers are declining due to uncertain weather conditions and lack of food. Maybe I could find one that forages at Cades Cove, I was told, so that’s where we’re headed. The 11-mile one-way loop road offers stunning views of the mountains, historic log cabins dating back to the 1820s, churches, barns, and flour mills owned by early European settlers. Wood planks are also dotted along the trails to the famous Abrams Falls and Rocky Top on Thunderhead Mountain.
“Here you can truly experience the grandeur of the Southern Appalachian Mountains,” Jamie Sanders tells me. She worked as a park warden for over ten years before becoming an officer in the National Park Service. “There are 16 peaks, over 6,000 feet in elevation and over 800 miles of trails to explore providing hikers with exposure to vistas, lush deciduous forest and mountain streams.”
Located on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their biodiversity, including more than a hundred native trees, plants, birds and mammals. In addition to black bears, large numbers of white-tailed deer can often be seen, as well as coyotes, groundhogs, turkeys, racoons, and skunks.
Cades Cove is the park’s most visited site, and it’s easy to see why. After hours of driving and hundreds of photographs later, I’m still captivated by its postcard-like scenery. In the spring, the wildflowers bloom to form a blanket of vivid color, and in the fall, nature lovers appreciate the foliage and variations in shade on trees like sugar maple, scarlet oak, red maple and hickory. I ask Jamie when is his favorite time to visit. “Smokies is definitely a year round destination, but I saw the mountains covered in snow and it’s a pretty spectacular sight,” she replies.
We have five hours to go before we leave the Cades Cove auto trail. If you’re looking for something quieter, take the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – the loop road is just over 5 miles long, with plenty of stops to enjoy history and nature. You can explore the park at your own pace. Take a self-guided tour of the Noah “Bud” Ogle Nature Trail before hiking to Grotto Falls – a three-mile round-trip hike on the Trillium Gap Trail, and just outside, make a quick photo stop at Place of a Thousand Drips waterfall.
If the day is all about hiking, the evenings are spent on picturesque sunsets, and the best place to see one is Clingman’s Dome – the highest point on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The 45-foot circular observation tower that sits at an elevation of over 6,600 feet offers stunning views of the surrounding park. On a clear day you can see up to 100 miles and across seven states. We didn’t try to spot any, instead we spent the evening watching hues of orange fade into the spruce and fir forest – and it was perfect.
Accommodation in the park is limited; most travelers therefore choose to stay at one of the nearby resorts. Our charming aspen-style lodge called The Appy Lodge was located in Gatlinburg, also known as the ‘Gateway of the Smokies’. The town has a tiny but bustling shopping street filled with museums, restaurants, boutiques and famous Moonshine distilleries. Just off the main road from “The Holler”, Ole Smoky has been making moonlight the traditional way since 2010. It was the first distillery to start producing alcohol after it was legalized by the state of Tennessee in 2009 Today, they welcome more than four million people each year, making it America’s most visited distillery.
On our last day, we visited Gatlinburg’s newest attraction, the SkyBridge. Suspended 140 feet from the ground and spanning 680 feet across a deep valley, it is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. It offers adrenaline junkies the chance to walk on glass floor panels while enjoying stunning views of the Smokies. As I limped along the wobbly bridge, all I wanted was to embrace the landscape one last time: the mountains, its colors, the wilderness and that perfect sunset.
Other things to see and do
If you plan to visit the Smokies in the spring, inquire about the Synchronous Firefly Show. This is the time of year when hundreds of male and female fireflies perform nature’s own light show.
Anakeesta Theme Park – a 70 acre family theme park is the perfect place to spend the day. There are zipline adventures; tree canopy walks, gardens with water features and many scenic places to enjoy the mountains.
A real treat to visit is the Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum – the only one of its kind with over twenty thousand sets of condiment dispensers in all shapes and sizes ranging from animals to vegetables and from Santa Claus to sailors.
There are several walking and hiking trails throughout the park. To find the right one for you, visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Learn about Ole Smoky’s traditional moonlight-making technique on an exclusive tour – it costs five dollars and includes a tasting session.
Vacations to America offers tailor-made road trips in Tennessee. A 7 night package staying 3 nights in Nashville and 4 nights in the Great Smoky Mountains starts from £ 1,695 per person based on 2 people sharing accommodation and includes round trip flights, car hire and travel. accommodation in bed and breakfast.
Note: This trip was taken before the pandemic and while the park remains open, check the National Park Service website for the latest updates on hours of operation and coronavirus regulations.