It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park of them all. The park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast, straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Winding through the heart of it is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country and world to learn, practice, and play in the whitewater. Long distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the south end of the Park tells the story of the area’s heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, the super-cool hipster community of the south, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the street. And above all, this park is very beautiful.
It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains—but not during the winter. We seemed to have the park all to ourselves. With closed-for-the-season activities around every bend, it’s clear we missed many of the draws that bring people back here, year after year. That is not by any means a complaint, we were blessed by so much that isn’t available when the hoards are in town. Take for example our drive through Cades Cove, the most popular attraction in the park—it was long and winding and virtually empty. We were able to stop to watch elk and deer and wild turkey pass through the landscape without disrupting traffic, and without traffic disrupting us.
Cades is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes, to historic log cabins and churches, all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. It’s kind of a driving safari, as is the entire park. Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. And during off-season, you can actually capture an unobstructed shot of the road in the most visited U.S. National Park. Unbelievable.
It’s easy to lose an entire day or days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window, even surpassing views of wildlife, vistas, valleys, rivers, and roads. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains… there seem to be millions and billions and trillions of trees. It’s an odd feeling, being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees. Odd and especially awesome when the blue haze that rests upon the tops of those trees is met by a distinct peacefulness that occurs there during the quiet of off-season.
We would have like to have stayed much longer and explored much more, however, other parks await. We’re beginning to think of this year’s adventure as window shopping for future adventures! On that note, we want to send a shoutout with much gratitude to the National Park Service, for preserving these places for us to return to in the future.
Follow along on the Greatest American Road Trip!