The Great Smoky Mountains just might be America's largest time machine. When you visit the national park and the gateway communities that surround it, you feel as though you've traveled back to the 1950s.
Although you can't fully escape traffic and other signs of today, there's still a welcoming, relaxing sense of the past. Towns like Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, Bryson City, Waynesville, and others, offer just the right glimpse into a previous time. Even busy Gatlinburg seems dipped in nostalgia, with family-friendly shops where novelties and souveniers have a decidely country accent. In the surrounding moutains, residences—as well as rental cottages, cabins, and chalets—dot the hillside. Beyond that, you'll find nature pure and simple.
The Smokies, past of the vast Appalachian Mountain system, span nearly 300 square miles along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. The core of the region is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
With its country towns, scenic roads, hiking trails, national forests, and wild rivers, the Great Smoky Mountains offer every reason to head for the hills. Here are some things to check out when you visit the Smoky Mountains:
Several Smoky Mountain roads appeal equally to drivers and motorcyclists. Among them is US 441 (also known as Newfound Gap Road) which runs through the national park. Lazy curves, tight switchbacks, and elevations ranging from 1,289 to 5,039 feet make for a scenic and interesting 32-mile drive.
Near the park's north entrance at Gatlinburg, Little River Gorge Road follows the twisting, turning river before existing farther west near Townsend. Outside the park's southern entrance near Cherokee, the famed Blue Ridge Parkway offers majestic overlooks as it skips across a section of the southern Smokies. The remote Cherohala Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee in the west with Robbinsville, North Carolina in the east. The skyway provides unbeatable views of the mountains where elevations range between 900 and 5,400 feet.
Without question, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the region's heart and soul. More than 11 million annual visitors enjoy its scenic overlooks, ranger programs, and hikes. Indeed, the park has approximately 800 miles of trails (including a section of the Appalachian Trail), with many more in the surrounding Cherokee, Nantahala, and Pisgah national forests.
Several area outfitters can help you ply the waters of the Nantahala, Ocoee, Big Pigeon, and Lower Pigeon rivers, where adrenaline-inducing rapids are perfect for whitewater rafting. Check out Wildwater, Nantahala Outdoor Center, or Rafting in the Smokies. For slightly mellow water sports, like canoeing, kayaking, and tubing, check out Rolling River Thunder Company.
Country music and down-home flavor are popular in these parts, and Dollywood delivers both. The theme park has more than 40 thrill and water rides, fitting for children or thrill-seeking adults. And for the not-so-daring, visit one of the many stage shows, southern restaurants, country stores, or specialty shops sprinkled across the park. Artisans capture the essence of the Smokies and dazzle audiences with their woodcarving, blacksmithing, soap-making, and other skills. The park is also home to the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Museum and Dollywood's DeamMore Resort and Spa.
This park has a 120-passenger gondola that carries you on a 2.1-mile ride into the hills for an aerial view of the region. At the top, the Wildlife Encounter features the Alpine Slide and the Blue Cyclone Rapids. For even more entertainment, visit the indoor ice-skating rink, carousel, miniature golf course, arcade, and more. In the winter, skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing provide the thrills.
For items of a more authentic nature, the Great Smoky Mountains Arts & Crafts Community has a designated trail that celebrates the skill of more than 100 locals. Established around 1937, the arts and crafts are rooted deep within the history of the mountains. The route begins 3 miles outside of Gatlinburg and runs for 8 miles along Highway 321 and Buckhorn and Glades roads. The trail passes shops and studios where artisans whittle, paint, sew, weave, and carve, creating unparalleled works of art.