The Great Smoky Mountains is somewhat similar to Shenandoah in that it’s easy to experience by just driving through and stopping at all the roadside vista points. If you don’t have much time, it’s worth doing, but if you do have a couple of days I would recommend getting out of the car and hitting a trail. From the road I would have never guessed that the trails would be so lush with all kinds of vegetation and flowers, or that you could climb through a rock, play in mini waterfalls, and balance on log bridges just a short hike from the parking lot. It truly is like entering a different world.
1. ALUM CAVE
There’s a reason why the parking areas around the trail head are congested — this popular hike is also a really fun one. It’s a short, but steep, 5mi RT that never felt boring. And while parts were strenuous, I would not classify it as a difficult hike, especially if you’re not carrying a crapload of camera gear on your back. A lot of people hike this trail but it never felt crowded. On average, it takes about 2 hrs to get to the cave, so if you plan accordingly, Alum Cave makes a nice place to stop for lunch. If you’re feeling ambitious, the top of Mt. LeConte is another 2.5 miles.
LeConte is one of the handful of hike-in only lodges that can be found in the National Park system (for some other amazing hike-in camps, check out the High Sierra camps in Yosemite and Sequoia — AH-MAY-ZING). The lodge is actually a collection of cabins, a dining hall, and a main lodge great room building. It’s a combination of ‘luxury’ and “backcountry” — which I always find to be a somewhat surreal combination.
One of the benefits of staying at LeConte Lodge is the ability to watch the sunset over the ridge tops of the Great Smokies from 6,000+ feet up. Similarly, if you’re an early riser, you can catch the sunrise from nearby Myrtle Point. There are quite a few places in the park that offer a great views of the sunrise/sunset, but there’s something special about watching it from the top of a mountain that is not accessible by car.
We learned firsthand how the Great Smokys got their name — the fog/smoke followed us everywhere and would come out of nowhere on otherwise sunny days. We are big fans of this type of weather — we did live in SF after all — and we loved waking up, opening our cabin door, and being greeted with a wall of white. It felt like we were living in the clouds and totally made the woods feel magical.
As mentioned above, the best park experiences are usually located far away from the highways and parking lots. GSM is a huge park, with many trails to explore. Park the car, pick a trail, and go explore. You might even “discover” an abandoned town.
While definitely one of the more touristy spots, it’s still a great place to see a panoramic view on a clear day, or a foggy wall of white on a smoky day. The hike is short (though somewhat steep) and the trail is paved. If you are just driving through the park then this is a good place to stop, stretch your legs and take in the view. Even if you don’t want to hike to the observation tower you can still get a great view from the parking lot.