Oct 18, 201209:33 AMTravel
The Best of the World Brought to You Courtesy of Jill Gleeson and Jason Holland
Great Smoky Mountains
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Rising along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains are a national treasure. A place of primordial forests deep, of cascading waterfalls that glow, as if lit from within, with the sun’s rays, they beckon Americans with a subtle but sure song. An International Biosphere Reserve as well an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Smokies – so named for the striking blue mist that oft settles along the range – offers not only the largest old-growth forest east of the Mississippi and the country’s densest population of black bears, but also one of its most diverse ecosystems.
For over 75 years, much of this stretch of the Southern Appalachians has been protected by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (nps.gov/grsm), which encompasses 800 square miles of gentle peaks and verdant valleys. The United States’ most visited national park, it is an outdoor enthusiast’s perfect playground, featuring spectacular hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails, as well as stunning streams and rivers ideal for fishing, kayaking, canoeing and rafting.
But fun in the Smokies doesn’t end with al fresco adventure – it begins with it. Villages like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville that began as tiny Appalachian outposts now burst with attractions that thrill and chill. From the beloved Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies to a museum that replicates precisely whole sections of the Titanic, the wonders of this most enticing slice of Tennessee do not cease. And now, with the surrounding mountains ablaze in autumn color and temperatures pleasantly cool, the Smokies’ siren call just may prove irresistible.
Any visit to the Smokies should begin with an exploration of the national park. For a hike few know about but all remember, swing by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont (gsmit.org).
Founded in 1969, the Institute offers multi-day educational programs for kids and families with the goal of connecting people and nature; as such they will be happy to point you toward Spruce Flat Falls. Not included on any map of the park, the two-mile, round-trip trail to the falls features a moderately steep climb, though the 125-foot falls alone make it well worth the effort.
For a different kind of view of an equally breathtaking waterfall, take a ride with Cades Cove Stables (cadescoveridingstable.com), in Townsend. A family-owned business for four decades, Cades Cove Stables offers guided horseback rides to the 110-foot Falls Branch Falls. Although the shimmering cascades bewitch, just as lovely is the ride through rolling dells and past sweeping mountain vistas itself.
The most popular section of the park, Cades Cove (nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cadescove.htm) is a wide, fertile valley ringed by the Smokies’ gentle ridges. Wildlife, including black bear, coyote, deer, turkey and raccoon is often spotted, and the area is rich with well-kept historical buildings, the only remaining trace of the thriving community that sprouted here in the early 19th-century.
While many choose to drive the 11-mile, one-way loop through Cades Cove, bicycles can be rented for those looking to immerse themselves more deeply in its natural splendor.
No visit to the Smokies would be complete without a day spent out – or in – the mountains’ crystal clear waters. Fans of adrenaline-fueled fun will want to hit the Pigeon River’s Class III and IV rapids with Rafting in the Smokies (raftinginthesmokies.com). The five-mile journey down the Upper Pigeon takes about an hour and a half; the outfit’s knowledgeable guides keep all safe during even the most extreme whitewater.