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Great Smoky Mountain National Park

North Entrance (Sugarlands) Entry Sign...
Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSM) is the most visited National Park in the United States. There's a reason for that, and it's all about location.

The East (using the Mississippi River as the traditional dividing line) is half the size of the West, but has twice the population. This means Great Smoky Mountains has a wider audience within a shorter distance than the Western Mountain Parks. It is also sandwiched between the popular tourist vacation destinations of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee on one end (you can see Gatlinburg from where I'm sitting on the sign to the right), and the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the other, which is probably more of a fall foliage draw than the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park Map
Cropped map Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Click for a larger view.
It is also arguably the most scenic National Park in the East. The mountains of Appalachia are hundreds of millions of years older than those in the West, and they've eroded and peak out at around 6,000 feet with no tree line. It makes for a spectacular carpet of tree green during the summer, and a color spectrum spanning from green to red during the popular fall season.

No, it doesn't have the majesty of the Western mountain parks with their denuded slopes and permanent snow packs, but it's a pretty place, none-the-less. It was created to preserve a part of Appalachia and the mountain life within it, with a farm museum, a working mill, and other artifacts from early America.

I've been to the park three times, in March 2000, October 2007 and September 2011. None of them fell on a nice day. Bummer.

Comfort Inn "On the River", Gatlinburg, Tennessee

I'm only mentioning The Comfort Inn "On the River" in Gatlinburg because it was an interesting place. It is built on a narrow strip of land between US-441 and the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, and is one room thick, but 5 stories high. (Two floors of parking, then three floors of rooms.) I was on the top floor, which is most notable because the outside corridors in the front of the building were narrow, and I have a thing about heights... :-)

Once you enter the room, it's a normal enough Comfort Inn room, but in the back is a door to the balcony, which faces the river. The river channel bends here, and so does the building, which is why I had a view straight down the river. Anyway, I stayed here in October 2007 on points, so the cost was just right...

Comfort Inn, Gatlinburg, Tennessee
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North Entrance / Sugarlands Visitors Center

The North Entrance is right next to Gatlinburg, and leads to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The river right next to the entrance is the same river that flowed next to the Comfort Inn, the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.

Entrance / Sugarlands Visitors Center
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US-441 through the park

The main road through the park from Gatlinburg to the Blue Ridge Parkway is US-441. There are numerous pull-offs and attractions along the road.

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Clingman's Dome

Clingman's Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountain, and you're supposed to get spectacular view from both the road to the parking area and the lookout tower. As an added bonus, the Appalachian trail follows the road from Clingman's Dome to US-441.

We were walking up the ramp to the observation platform, well past the bathrooms, maybe halfway to two-thirds of the way up, when I had to stop and ask why we were doing this.

I mean, if we could see more than 20 feet and if everything wasn't wet (including us) from the fog (otherwise known as a cloud when you're at sea level), I'd have gone to the top. But add in the incline at 6500 feet, and we chose to save the time and move on. Or at least, I chose, and we moved on... (The drive was proving to be slow and cautious at times, due to the limited visibility...

Clingman's Dome Parking Area
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The fog started to thin as we descended to lower elevations, but it was just an overcast day...

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Mingus Mill

The Mingus Mill has quite a history. The Mingus family moved to this area in the 1790's, and had initially built a waterwheel mill. It operated for decades, and was replaced in 1886 with this mill, still run by the Mingus family until the park was formed in 1930.

There's a complete walking tour from the diversion (and technically the master power switch for the mill) of water on Mingus Creek, along the leaky wood viaduct to the mill house. The mill doesn't have a traditional water wheel, but uses a turbine, which also leaked like crazy. (Ultimately, all the water flows back into Mingus Creek.) The second time I was there, it was down for repairs and they were looking for a sponsor (and donations) to fix it...

Mingus Mill
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Mountain Farm Museum

The reason this is the Mountain Farm Museum, is because none of the structures were originally here. They were all moved in from nearby farms, probably within the (now) park boundaries.

If you're coming off or are going to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway, it's a good place to stretch your legs, weather permitting.

Mountain Farm Museum
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Oconaluftee Visitor's Center

The Oconaluftee Visitor's Center is right next to the Mountain Farm Museum, which is right next to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It might be in Great Smokey Mountain, but you can still get information on the Parkway if you still hadn't done that.

It's an okay place. Anyplace that has pig hanging from the ceiling is okay in my book. It might be a fake pig, but it's the spirit of the thing... (You are in pork BBQ country, after all.)

Oconaluftee Visitor's Center
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I have to admit I don't particularly care for places like Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Wisconsin Dells, Branson, etc, but I have this fascination of what sort of entertainment is created in those places to attract the tourists, so for me it might be more fun to pass though to see the spectacle rather than being part of the spectacle. I've never really spent a lot of time there, only passing through to get to or from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I also pretty much treat Great Smoky Mountains National Park the same way. It's the place you visit going to or from the Blue Ridge Mountains, using US-441 as your thoroughfare. I've never been to the Western portions of the park. Technically, I would have spent more time in the park in 2007 if the trees had cooperated and had a lot of color, but it was a warm year and they were green/yellow in mid-October. Oh well... Back to Top

Related Links

Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Link The Blue Ridge Parkway can be a spectacularly beautiful drive as it follows the crest of the Blue Ridge mountain chain, but that very fact can change low hanging clouds into fog on the parkway. A very common occurrence. Ugh.

I have been on the parkway three times, but never North of the North Carolina border.

North Carolina, Virginia / 91 Images. Visited Mar 2000, Oct 2007, Sep 2011.
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Trip Report: Mar 2000, Oct 2007, Sep 2011.

Return to: State Index North Carolina State Page Tennessee State Page National Parks

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