The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more species — plant, animal and insect — than anywhere else in the world, rivaling even the rainforests for biological diversity. Why? The Smokies has an amazing array of mini-ecosystems within its borders — from peaks over 6,000 feet to low valleys, from moist densely forested coves to dry meadows. A walk from mountain base to peak compares with traveling 1,250 miles north. Several resident plants and animals live only in the Smokies.
The park has more than 100 species of trees and 4,000 species of plants. Some people say if you throw a rock and then trace its path, you’re likely to walk by at least 30 different kinds of trees.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 500,000 acres, making it the largest national park in the East. An auto tour of the park offers panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings and uninterrupted forest stretching to the horizon.
The North Carolina side of the park is considered by locals the more pristine, tranquil, natural park experience. It is less heavily used and has everything the Tennessee side has but is much more off the beaten path. Visitors do not have to dodge a barrage of fudge shops, wax museum and other distractions that clutter many of the gateway communities on the Tennessee side of the park.
Here are a few highlights from the North Carolina side of the GSMNP.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Along with knowledgeable rangers who can help you plan your time in the park, fabulous exhibits will take you back in time among the early settlers and Cherokee who called these mountains home.
The visitor center chronicles the culture and history of the Smokies, from exhibits on the Civil War in the Smokies to moonshine making.
Located on U.S. 441 at the North Carolina entrance to the park, north of Cherokee and near the terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. 828.497.1904.
The rumble of mill stones, the whistle of corn meal sliding down the wooden shoot, the slap-slap-slap of water falling over the giant paddle wheel. Since the 1880s, Mingus Mill has been harnessing the power of a mountain stream to grind corn meal for corn bread, a staple of the early settlers. Explore this historic site just one mile from the park entrance on U.S. 441 north of Cherokee.
Mountain Farm Museum
This stroll through an historic Appalachian farm offers a window on the ingenuity and self-reliance of early mountain people and Cherokee. A blacksmith shop to make everything from barn door hinges to horseshoes, a spring house to keep milk and butter cool, and sundry buildings for storing the food they raised, from corn cribs to apple houses to smoke houses. The outhouse is a guaranteed eye-opener for kids.
Located at the entrance to the park on U.S. 441 just north of Cherokee.
A paved half-mile trail leads to a soaring lookout tower atop the highest peak in the Smokies. At 6,643 feet, the panoramic view offers spectacular scenery and is one of the best examples of the region’s famed blue mountain ridges marching endlessly across the horizon. The tower features a spiraling 375 foot ramp to the top.
From the same parking area, a jaunt on the Forney Ridge Trail follows the rocky ridge line for two miles to a high elevation grassy bald, graced with a showy display of Catawba rhododendron and flame azalea in mid-June.
From Cherokee, take U.S. 441 north into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From the park entrance, travel 18 miles along a scenic park road that winds up the massive Newfound mountain range. At the top, turn left on Clingmans Dome Road and go for seven miles to dead-end at the parking area.
History and nature intersect in this picturesque meadow, a long, narrow valley cradled by mountains on all sides.
An elk herd has been re-introduced into the park and calls the valley home. Elk were once common here but were overhunted in the early 1800s to extinction in the eastern states.
Cataloochee Valley is home to a former mountain settlement, with intact farm houses, churches, schoolhouse and cemeteries that can be toured by car and short walks. Pick up an interpretive brochure at the campground on the left after you get down to the valley floor that describes the historic buildings.
From Maggie Valley, take U.S. 276 north toward I-40, but just before the interstate turn left on Cove Creek Road, which leads up and over the Cataloochee Divide and winds down into the valley. Beware the narrow, gravel road.
Enjoy a little of everything at Deep Creek. Hiking to waterfalls, picnicking, mountain biking and what Deep Creek is famous for: tubing.
The moist, lush forest of Deep Creek is cool even on hot summer days. Several outfitters rent inner tubes for just a few dollars to float all day in the creek.
From downtown Bryson City, just follow the signs.
This relatively isolated area is a favorite of locals, with a campground, bathroom, picnic area and jumping off point for some great hikes into the Smokies, including the all-day hike up to Mount Cammerer look-out tower. One of the coldest, clearest swimming holes in the Smokies — aptly named Midnight Hole — is a short one-mile hike up the wide Big Creek Trail.
From Waynesville, take I-40 west toward Tennessee. Just after crossing the state line, take exit 451. Go under the interstate and follow the road past the big dam power house and watch for signs to Big Creek.