Which is the most visited national park in the United States?
You may be thinking that it is Yosemite or Yellowstone, but you would be wrong. It’s actually Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Set in the southern Appalachians, it offers a wonderful combination of stunning scenery, wildlife, outdoor activities, and history and culture.
The park covers over 800 square miles, and therefore the best way to get a quick view of what it offers is to tour it by car. A great time to do this is in the fall, when the panoramic views are enhanced by the blazing fall colors. Typically, these start changing in mid-September at high elevations, with yellow birch, beech, and mountain maple all contributing to the glowing display. This continues on through mid-October at medium elevations and into early November in the valleys. So, no matter what time you arrive, you will always find some color to cheer your day. Some of the drives along the park’s 380 miles of roads can be quite busy at this time of year, but others – such as the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and the Blue Ridge Parkway – offer a more secluded audience with the park’s enormous variety of trees.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay that is within easy driving distance of the park, consider Gatlinburg in Tennessee. This is located on US Route 441, which runs through the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina. Gatlinburg offers a number of family attractions, including amusement parks and family theaters, as well as a range of interesting specialty shops with a rustic mountain feel. There is also excellent accommodation, such as MountainLoft, a luxury resort that has a commanding view over the park. To find out more about MountainLoft, take a look at friends of Bluegreen Resorts.
For a more leisurely view of the park, try hiking or cycling. The park has numerous scenic hiking trails, many of which have car parks at the trailhead, making them easy to access and a perfect day trip. The park is quite rugged however, so unless you are an experienced hiker, plan on a round-trip distance of no more than 5 miles. Spring is an excellent time to go hiking here – you will see splashing mountain streams, flowering trees, and an abundance of wild flowers. Cyclists can also use park roads, but only some of these are suitable for relaxed and safe cycling – for example, Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11 mile one-way road with lots of opportunities to see wildlife and to visit 19th century homesteads along the way.
Horseback rides are also available in the park from mid-March until late November. These can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as several hours. For something that will light up the kids’ eyes, you could also try a hayride at Cades Cove Riding Stables, or even a ride in a horse-drawn carriage along one of the park’s trails.