Some of the greatest songwriters and recording artists of the last century—names like Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Denver, Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton—have sung the praises of Appalachia and the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Located on the North Carolina and Tennessee border, the Great Smoky Mountains weren’t actually named for smoke but rather for the bluish, mist-like haze that hangs low over the forested areas of the region. In fact, the Great Smoky Mountains are comprised of more than ninety-five percent forest and millions of visitors converge on both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the most visited park in the US National Park System—and the region’s surrounding communities each year.
And, if the “smoke” portion of the name is a bit misleading, the “great” and “mountains” segments of the moniker are right-on. There are more than twenty-five peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains that rise higher than 6,000 feet. More than eight hundred miles of walking, hiking, biking and horseback riding trails— including portions of the world-famous Appalachian Trail —wander their way through lush forests and past waterfalls, noted geologic formations and wildlife and native bird populations. Amateur ornithologists, botanists and photographers will be in seventh heaven here.
With a Cherokee Nation population traced back to 1000 AD, the Great Smoky Mountains have sustained native peoples, homesteaders, gold prospectors and now visitors for more than a thousand years. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, European farmers and a burgeoning industry in timber brought railway lines into what is now considered the Great Smoky Mountains, and visitors with an interest in Appalachian history can still visit early farmsteads, sawmills, houses of worship and museums that celebrate both the beauty and the hardships seen by those early settlers.
Fall is a marvelous time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains to enjoy the magnificent autumn foliage, crisp evenings and the opportunity to shop for handmade, regional artwork and crafts that will thrill family and friends during the holidays. With so much for an estimated nine million visitors each year to see and do, here are some suggestions for your visit:
The Blue Ridge Parkway has often been called “America’s Most Scenic Drive” and for good reason: its 469 miles link two of our most beautiful National Parks, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are historic sites all along the route as well as myriad campgrounds, RV parks and opportunities to explore the spectacular scenery by foot, bicycle or even on horseback. For more information on the Parkway—including maps, places of interest and campground details—visit nps.gov/blri or blueridgeparkway.org.
Probably best-known to visitors as home to Dolly Parton’s 125-acre theme park, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is also home to more than forty other attractions including the Dinosaur Walk Museum, an Elvis Museum, a Veterans Memorial Museum and the Smoky Mountain Car Museum. And, for those wanting a genuine birds-eye view of the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge is home to a number of helicopter and flightseeing tour companies. For more information on Dollywood, see dollywood.com and for more information on Pigeon Forge’s many campgrounds and RV parks, see mypigeonforge.com.
Near the North Carolina border of the Great Smoky Mountains lies the Cherokee Indian Reservation and Oconaluftee Village, home to the world-renowned Museum of the Cherokee Indian, art and native craft galleries and a calendar of special events that take place almost daily for the enrichment and enjoyment of visitors. The Oconaluftee Indian Village is open daily from May through October 22 and hours are 9 am to 5:30 pm, seven days a week. The area immediately surrounding the reservation offers a wide variety of campgrounds and the reservation itself offers a KOA facility. For more information, visit cherokee-nc.com.
Love tracking down native arts and crafts at their source? Gatlinburg, Tennessee is home to an eight-mile loop of local artisans known as the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, the largest cooperative of artists in all of North America. Designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail, visitors can follow the trail—established in 1937—to see artisans whittle, carve, cast, weave and paint everything from quilts and candles to pottery, scrimshaw, silver and brooms. For more information, visit artsandcraftscommunity.com.
And, of course, what’s a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains without a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Designated a National Park in 1934, an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a World Heritage Site in 1983, the park offers more than a half-million acres of forest, valleys, mountains and waterways to explore. Open year round and free to visitors, the park offers campgrounds (reservations are recommended) and a visitor trolley operates part of the year. For more information visit nps.gov/grsm or great.smoky.mountains.national-park.com/.