The Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina
Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park constitutes one of the most stunning natural areas in the eastern United States. Traversing 520,000 acres, the nation’s most visited park draws over 10 million visitors a year with its diverse flora and fauna, infinite outdoor recreation and rich history.
The Natural Treasure of the East
The Smokies are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and have some of the highest peaks in the chain. Five types of forests within the region support more than 5,500 plants, 200 bird species, 80 varieties of amphibians and 65 kinds of mammals. Summer is the best time to come here, as temperatures in the 80s create the perfect environment for outdoor recreation. Autumn is another popular time, as stunning fall foliage draws weekend travelers and photographers. Asheville Regional Airport is the closest airport and is approximately 60 miles east of the Cherokee park entrance. U.S. Route 441 offers an incredible scenic drive and will take you to the Tennessee side of the park.
Falling for the Smokies
North Carolina claims the largest section of the Great Smokies (270,000 acres versus 244,000 acres in Tennessee), which means you’ll have more places to roam. Hikers can follow hundreds of miles of trails, like the four-mile Appalachian Trail to the Charlies Bunion route for jaw-dropping mountain views, two-mile Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop Trail to explore old growth forests, and nine-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail for exceptional wildlife viewing. There are more than 100 scenic waterfalls in the Smokies, from the elegant Grotto Falls to the 100-foot-high Ramsey Cascade. Several trails lead to these misty marvels, which rank among the park’s most popular sites.
Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the spectacular Clingmans Dome is a must-see site. At an elevation of 6,643 feet, it’s the highest mountain in the smokies and the highest point along the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail. It’s also one of the most accessible mountain tops in the Great Smoky range. Hikers who ascend the peak are rewarded with jaw-dropping views. After a rigorous hike, unpack your snacks at the relaxing and scenic Chimney’s Picnic Area. An observation tower offers sweeping views.
Top fishing spots like Deep Creek and Bradley Fork are abundant in native and stocked trout. Avid anglers can also participate in numerous fishing tournaments in Cherokee. Wildlife enthusiasts will want to head to Cataloochee Valley to see elk, white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon and turkeys. Other popular activities in the park include white-water rafting, mountain biking, horseback riding and golfing. Catching crawfish also is a popular pastime.
The town of Cherokee is one of the gateways to the park and is also a major center of Cherokee tribal culture. Several museums showcase native crafts and customs. Tee off at Sequoyah National Golf Club, a beautifully designed course with vistas of breathtaking mountain views. Catch musical and theatrical performances, indulge in fine dining options and test your luck at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Easygoing Bryson City is ready to pour you a pint at its award-winning microbrewery, while Franklin invites you to search for semi-precious stones in a handful of gem mines. For amazing souvenirs, stop by Hayesville’s Goldhagen Glass Blowing Gallery.
From cultural events to food festivals, you’ll find the Great Smoky Mountains offer so much more than outdoor recreation and charming towns. Enjoy traditional dancing, storytelling, and craft workshops at Cherokee Heritage Day, held once a month on Saturday. In Bryson City, fill your belly at the Annual Chili Cook-off and Car Show, or enjoy free concerts at Music in the Mountains. Celebrate folk music and dance from around the world at the Folkmoot USA International Festival, hosted by Waynesville every summer. Music lovers won’t want to miss top bands play in May at Brevard’s White Squirrel Festival, while visitors in autumn should swing by Franklin’s Pumpkinfest for their famous pumpkin roll, craft vendors and live entertainment.
Experience Native American History
The Great Smokies are dotted with historical and cultural sites, making it easy to uncover the past while soaking up the present. Immerse yourself in 11,000 years of Aboriginal history at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Step into a replica of an 18th-century community and watch artisans work at the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Shop for authentic Cherokee goods at Qualla Arts and Crafts shop, the oldest Native American arts cooperative in the country. Head to Oconaluftee’s Mountain Farm Museum to get a feel for how families lived in this region over a century ago. Boasting historic log buildings from all over the Smoky Mountains, this museum allows you to step inside a barn, smokehouse, working blacksmith shop and more. You’ll also find an impressive collection of historic buildings in Cataloochee Valley.
The Nantahala Gorge is a white-water rafting destination that’s home to a clutch of nature activity centers, including the renowned Nantahala Outdoor Center, which offers rafting, mountain biking and ziplining. Along the breathtaking Cherohala Skyway (a 42-mile-long National Scenic Byway), visitors can take a cable car down to Fontana Dam — the tallest concrete dam east of the Rockies. Just north of Bryson City — the last vestiges of civilization before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Deep Creek draws hikers to its waterfall trails.
Tired of hiking? Take a ride on a historic train. In 1883, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was constructed, stretching from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Dillsboro, North Carolina, before reaching Andrews in 1890. Nowadays, the railroad is one of the region’s top tourist attractions. The distinctive steam-powered trains depart from the historic depot in Bryson City and traverse the fecund valleys and river gorges of western North Carolina. Special BBQ and Brews trains welcome passengers to enjoy slow-cooked barbecue and beers from local breweries.
For More Information
Great Smoky Mountains
North Carolina Department of Tourism