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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Nicknamed “The Smokies”, the Great Smoky Mountains are named after the smoke-like haze that clings to the ridge along America’s eastern Appalachian mountain chain. Established in 1934, this area is one of the country’s most visited national Parks with half of it in the state of Tennessee and the other half in the state of North Carolina. The park holds some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States and attracts over 10 million visitors a year. The park offers a wide range of activities for visitors including hiking, cycling, fishing, horse riding and white-water rafting.

As well as the outstanding natural landscape, the park supports an interesting diversity of plant life. The Tennessee entrance to the park is through the mountain town of Gatlinburg and Highway 441, which bisects the park along the Newfound Gap Road which meets up with the Blue Ridge Parkway on the North Carolina side. The park boasts some 800 miles (1,287km) of trails, the most famous (and most popular) being a section of the Appalachian Trail, which straddles the state border through the National Park. Trails lead up to the park’s many spectacular waterfalls, whilst the hike up to Mount LeConte offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. At the western end of the park, Cades Cove has a selection of preserved farm buildings that were erected in the 1820’s. The highest peak in the park is Clingmans Dome and this is featured on this webpage below.

Above: Visitors Centre on the Gatlinburg side of the National Park

Clingmans Dome

Due to limited time, the main site visited in the trip to the park featured on this webpage was to Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak, and one which was not only easily accessible but is a suitable location in which to get 360° panoramic views extending right across the Great Smoky Mountains. A seven mile long road to the Clingmans Dome trailhead starts just south of Newfound Gap and reaches elevations of over 6,000 feet above sea level. This road is closed from the beginning of December until the end of March. At the end of the road is a car park and shop/amenities and from here a paved, but very steep trail leads half a mile up to a concrete observation tower at the top of the dome.

Above: Observation Tower at the Summit of Clingmans Dome

A “dome” in Smoky Mountain terminology refers to a “rounded mountain or ridge top”. As mentioned earlier, Clingmans Dome is (at 6,643 feet tall) the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains and it is the third highest summit east of the Mississippi River. During good weather conditions, the view from the observation tower is of a seemingly endless sea of mountain ridges and valleys. Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in Tennessee and the third highest in North Carolina and is also the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,174 miles from Georgia to Maine. The trailhead is at the far end of the car park and the Clingmans Dome Information Center is located about 50 yards up the trail to the tower. The walk from the car park to the observation tower may only be half a mile, but due to the climb (of 330 feet), an element of preparation should be considered. The 360° views from the tower not only take in the whole of the Great Smoky Mountains on a clear day, but extend beyond, including five states. For further information on Clingmans Dome on the National Park Service Website, click Here. Some photographs from the visit into the park and Clingmans Dome may be seen in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge). The road and walk up to the tower was busier than normal, due to the large numbers of people whom had come to the area the day before to view the Great American Eclipse of 2017 (Featured on this website Here). As a point of note, the dead trees seen in the photographs below are mostly Fraser firs, killed by the European invasive balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect less than 1mm long.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg

Access to the park was via the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee on US 441, both which lie just outside the park. Driving on the double-lane highway through Pigeon Forge, it soon becomes apparent that there is plenty to do here. Call it gaudy, kitschy, entertainment or plain tacky, there is certainly something about this place that makes it popular. Attractions range from Dolly Parton’s “homespun fun” theme park Dollywood to “Jurassic Jungle” boat rides and the upside-down WonderWorks house. For those who want to take in a show whilst dining and after some “Southern Feudin’ Feastin’ Family Fun”, the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud seems like a popular option in town. Just north of Pigeon Forge is the town of Sevierville, Dolly Parton’s hometown where there is a bronze statue of her and a few miles south of Pigeon Forge, in the direction of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary, is the town of Gatlinburg.

Above: Gatlinburg

Squeezed amongst the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg offers a slightly more upmarket scene than Pigeon Forge. The town here is more compact, with a walkable centre, but is still not void of overpriced, gimmicky tourist attractions. Chairlifts may be taken from here to gain views of the surrounding peaks, one of them to the ski resort and amusement park at Ober Gatlinburg. Some photographs of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg may be seen in the thumbnail gallery below (click on an image to enlarge):

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