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Myer Jul 3rd, 2011 04:08 AM

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I realize that I have included some seemingly unrelated states. Done purposely.

The fact that this is the most visited national park caught my interest.

Have any of our Utah and/or Yellowstone/Grand Tetons regulars visited this park?

Comments on comparisons regarding scenery, sights, lodging and size (moving around requirements, etc) would be greatly appreciated.

Any other comments as well.


spirobulldog Jul 3rd, 2011 04:54 AM

It reminded me of The Ozarks, which is about an hour away from me, so I didn't find it super extra special. There was a lot more wildlife there though. The mountains are more of the rolling hill type, not really the sharp peaks like the Rocky's or Teton's.

The fact that it is the most visited park is a little deceiving. The road that runs through it is well traveled and that is why it is the busiest. Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge has a lot of tourists, so that makes it very easy for them to get to as well.

I do plan on returning in the next 2-3 years to hike to Le Conte Lodge. I also want to see the firefly show there. These fireflies blink in unison. Be pretty cool to see a thousand of them all flash at the same time. This happens only in a few spots in the world. It happens at a couple of spots in there right around June 10(+/- a few days). It only lasts for a couple of weeks. The Le Conte Lodge is hard to get reservations. I think you can get them if you call them on like Oct. 1 when they start taking reservations for the next year.

You could easily combine a trip there with the Pigeon Forge/Dollywood/Gatlinburg area. Renting an RV and camping there might be fun as well. The fireflies hang out near a campground there, so camping there would be good.

spirobulldog Jul 3rd, 2011 05:03 AM

I'm sure Fall Foliage would be a good time to go as well.

smokymtntraveler Jul 3rd, 2011 08:05 AM

I have lived in Utah, Wyoming and currently live in the smokies. There is HUGE differences and some similarities between these parks.
Smokies: dense vegetation, if you love plant diversity this is the place. Many places to choose from as far as lodging, I'd avoid the TN side of the Smokies, very touristy but there are some great places to visit on that side of the park.
Not to miss: Cataloochee Valley, Twenty Mile, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (technically not in GSMNP but close and well worth it, old growth forest, etc.)

The firefly "show" occurs in 2 places, Thailand and the Smokies. The shuttles run form Sugarlands Visitor Center and for a small fee you can go into Elkmont Campground where the event takes place. Or even better get a campsite at Elkmont during the 2 weeks in June and it will be at your front door.
The Park is so vast and although it is the most visited, there are many places to run away from the crowds. The National park web site has some great information <>

Gretchen Jul 3rd, 2011 09:08 AM

Just very different. The Smokeys are very old mountains, covered in trees, "domes" more than "peaks".
I'm not really sure that "visits" are numbered by cars traversing the Park, or going to Pigeon Forge, et al. The streams are great for tubing--or fly fishing.
Have done the LeConte Lodge visit. Pretty neat thing to do with a group of friends especially.

Myer Jul 3rd, 2011 10:00 AM

My interests are probably scenery, short hikes, wildlife, waterfalls and any special sights.

I'm not sure fireflies would be a prtiority. I don't fish or do difficult things at my age.

spirobulldog Jul 3rd, 2011 01:10 PM
Almost all of these have high counts because it is a major hwy that they are counting, not really true visits to the park IMOP, but just passing through on the drive. The Blueridge Parkway runs all the way from Smoky Mtns Thru Shenandoah.
This is an interesting artice. It says they use electronic counters and use an average of 2.81 people per car. This takes into account reentry statistics and other factors. I'm not sure if they count traffic on I-40 going into Ashville or not. I think a more realistic tourist count would be to look at camping statistics. Also, this park can be visited nearly year round, so it sees more visits in the off season.

There are several waterfalls that are good, but in my opinion, not spectacular. I really like any waterfall that has a decent flow to it though.

The firefly show is near the elkmont campground, but they can be found in a couple of other areas of the park according to a few sources.

starrs Jul 3rd, 2011 01:24 PM

The Smokeys look just like the Rockies. Well, they did a long time ago. They are old, rounded, smoothed off, fertile, green, lush and cool - just like the Rockies will look down the road. They are beautiful - but very different from young mountains.

We drove around my favorite part of the southeastern mountains today and enjoyed two beautiful waterfalls. It's also at least 15 degrees cooler than it is in the lowlands. We took fleece blankets and sweatshirts out on the lake last night. That part is a lot like out west. I'm spending most of July in the cool mountains and a family member is spending it in Montana for the same reason.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are tourist meccas (and not in a good way). Get out away from them and you'll find Americana at its best.

Digbydog Jul 3rd, 2011 02:46 PM

I believe that the reason that the Smokies are so popular is that one-third of the U.S. population lives within a day's drive. We live 5 hours away from the Smokies, and it is the closest national park to us other than Mammoth Cave. In my opinion, the Smokies don't compare to the national parks out west, either in sights or wildlife. Also, at the higher elevations many of the fir trees have been killed by an invasive insect.

Given its popularity, GSMNP is quite crowded all year long. Weekends can feel overrun, even on the trails. The gateway town of Gatlinburg is filled with putt-putt golf, haunted houses, and taffy shops. I loved it as a kid, not so much now. A few years ago we got caught trying to get through town to get home on a Sunday, and we were in bumper to bumper traffic for hours through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge all the way to the highway.

What I love about the parks in the west is that you feel like you have really gotten away from civilization. I can't say I feel that way in the Smokies. We drove through the Cades Cove section of the park in a line of cars moving at 5 miles an hour, a typical experience.

If you decide to visit and want to really splurge on accommodations, you could stay at the Swag Inn or the Inn at Blackberry Farm. A less expensive splurge is Dancing Bear Lodge, which is on the quieter side of the park. Lots of people rent homes, and there are plenty of hotels in Gatlinburg.

maj Jul 3rd, 2011 03:59 PM

Just a couple more comments, although they explained it above pretty well IMO.

I just read your trip report on Yosemite and you will find some of the same crowded conditions here. It is beautiful in autumn when the leaves change, but also extremely crowded. The waterfalls are very dependent on rainfall. Beautiful hikes to them, but you can hike and find a trickle of water at the end as the summer turns into fall. Again better in the spring. We avoid weekends and summer months (and the high season which is the autumn -- but color of the leaves can't really be predicted from year to year). They are called the Smokey Mountains for a reason and long views are dependent on a very clear, smogless day which is not frequent.

There is a main road (always crowded) that goes through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to the entrances to GSMNP. Do your research (lots of information on here over the years). There are other roads you can take to bypass this road. I would stay in one place (we usually stay in a motel in Gatlinburg close to the park entrance, but people stay in other areas like Townsend) to see the park. I would include the North Carolina part also (even like Blue Ridge Parkway, Grandfather Mt, etc.) and would stay over that way -- not make a day trip from Tennessee.

It is totally different from Utah or Montana (just like they are totally different from each other). We've been there many, many times over the years. It isn't someplace we want to go during crowded times, but it is a beautiful area and we love it also.

Digbydog Jul 3rd, 2011 04:33 PM

One last note--our previous two visits to the park were in November and February. The park was extremely busy both times.

VolCrew Jul 3rd, 2011 05:33 PM

I grew up in TN and spent a lot of time in GSMNP. I have hiked all the AT through the Park and many other trails.

Of course, the western parks are much different. The highest peak in the Smokies is under seven thousand feet. Of course the snow-tipped Tetons are majestic in their own way. But many, like me, see greater beauty in the Smokies. Their lower altitude and wetter climate give rise to a wonderful collection of fauna and flora.

The common tourist route is to approach the Park from the North via Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. During the peak tourist season, this will get you in a big traffic jam, especially during certain hours.

There are a couple of ways to beat this circumstance: 1) Approach from the Maryville/Townsend side. This is a delightful choice to beat the crowds. 2) Visit in the off-season. Of course you will encounter huge crowds when the kids are out of school in the summer. When our kids were growing up, we camped in Nov and Dec so they could experience winter camping and a less crowded environment.

It may not be clear, but the only way to the Mt Le Conte Lodge is to hike up the mountain or, maybe, there is a horseback service; I can't remember.

gatlinburglover Jul 3rd, 2011 10:58 PM

Whether you delight in the challenge of a strenuous hike to the crest of a mountain or prefer to sit quietly and watch the sun set, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a myriad of activities for you to enjoy. The hardest part may be choosing which auto tour, trail, waterfall, overlook, or historic area to explore!

Auto Touring - An auto tour of the park offers a chance to see panoramic vistas, rushing mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and majestic forests stretching to the horizon. Inexpensive booklets are available to serve as your personal tour guides along many park roads.

Bicycling - Ride through Cades Cove on a misty summer morning for a truly memorable way to experience the park.

Camping - Escape into the Smokies wilderness for a backpacking adventure or opt for a tamer excursion in one of the park's developed campgrounds.

Fishing - Anglers can match their skills against wily brook, brown, and rainbow trout on over 700 miles of fishable streams in the park.

Hiking - Choose from over 800 miles of trails ranging from quiet walkways to multi-day backpacking treks through the backcountry.

Historic Buildings - The park has one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States. Nearly 80 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, schools, and grist mills—have been preserved in the park.

Horseback Riding - The park has hundreds of miles of horse trails and five drive-in horse camps. If you don't own a horse, four rental stables provide mounts and guides.

Picnicking - Craving hotdogs, potato salad, water melon... and ants? There are eleven picnic areas to choose from in the park—many have pavilions that can be reserved in advance.

Waterfalls - Waterfalls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park. Here's your guide to some of the best.

Wildflowers - Great Smoky Mountains National park is known as the "wildflower national park." You can find blooming plants year-round here, but spring and summer are renown for spectacular displays of wildflowers along roads and trails.

Wildlife Viewing - Hoping to see an elk, white-tailed deer, or black bear? Read some tips to improve your chances of spotting animals during your visit to the park.

Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park's official online store for books, maps, and guides to the park. Operated by the nonprofit Great Smoky Mountains Association, proceeds generated by purchases at the store are donated to educational, scientific, and historical projects in the park.

gatlinburglover Jul 3rd, 2011 11:02 PM

Hi heres some great info regarding The Great Smoky Mountains.

Gretchen Jul 4th, 2011 05:24 AM

Yes, the LeConte trip is by foot (I don't know about horse either), and there are a couple of approaches, even the "easy" one not to be sneezed at. They bring supplies for the lodge up by horseback.

SAnParis2 Jul 5th, 2011 11:23 AM

There may not be a better place for sheer number of waterfalls than Western NC -

gmoney Jul 5th, 2011 11:44 AM

"The mountains are more of the rolling hill type,"

I would hardly call them rolling hills (as would anyone who has ever hiked there)!

spirobulldog Jul 5th, 2011 12:26 PM

Well rolling mountains then. They are much more rounded and look like big big hills to me. They aren't exactly what I would call the majestic mountains like you see in the west. And they don't photograph that well due to the fog, haze, or smoke. If the fog is low lying, then it is great, but most of the times that I have seen it, it is difficult. Since, Le Conte is one of the hikes that I want to do, I wanted to add that it has an elevation gain of 2700ft. While that certainly isn't a cake walk, it is easy compared to a lot of the Mountain hikes in the West. And a lot of those are about 5000 feet higher at the bottom to start with. So altitude isn't a problem in the smoky's. I didn't research the other hikes there, but since Le Conte is one of the tallest peaks there, I suspect it has one of the bigger elevation gains.

Keep in mind that right out my back door is the worlds tallest hill (yes, that is our claim to fame. it lacks 4 inches from being a mountain-Cavanal Hill about 10 miles from me).

Anyway, the poster was asking for a comparison, and since I am familiar with some of his trips the past couple of years(yosemite, yellowstone, tetons, several utah trips), I felt like rolling hills was a fair comparison to Yosemite or Rocky Mountain areas).

Gretchen Jul 5th, 2011 03:08 PM

You need to refer back to Starrs and my posts--the Smokies are VERY old mountains, and eventually the Rockies will look like them. They are NOT hills nor are they rolling hills. One visit does not an expert make.

gatlinburglover Jul 5th, 2011 08:50 PM

You can only get to Mt. LeConte by hiking only and its not the higest peak. Clingmans Dome is the highest and you can also hike to it via the AT. If you want to stay at Mt. LeConte you must make a reservation well in advance

This is a video of the Mt. Le Conte Llama Train.Heading up to the top of Mt.LeConte to take supplies to the campers/backpacker's


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