The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With Steve’s mini-project out of the way, lets talk travel again!

I was surprised to learn before we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) that this is the most-visited National Park in the USA.  Hmm… and all along I thought that honor went to my favorite – Yosemite National Park in California – which is ranked third.  And I was pleasantly surprised when we drove right into the park without encountering a gate with someone collecting fees.  Entry to this park is FREE!

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s the most visited park, but another is its proximity to several major eastern urban centers in 2/3 of the states that surround it.  The fact that this park offers fantastic scenery, accessible wildlife, a sense of history and many outdoor activities no doubt contributes to its popularity as well.

Clingman's Dome Trail
Lots of visitors on the Clingman’s Dome trail, even before the Memorial Day weekend hit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was first established in 1934 as a way of protecting it from logging companies which were planning to continue logging the area.  It straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border.  That border runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and I had to pose at Newfound Gap Road on Highway 441where the two states meet:

Newfound Gap, TN and NC Border
Straddling two states, Tennessee and North Carolina

The land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers, plus a handful of large timber and paper companies.  They were all bought out with the support of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and a donation from Laura Spelman Rockefeller. When the state of Tennessee transferred the land to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.  Hence, no entry fee – that works for us!

Great Smoky National Park

So the next obvious question is why are the mountains called Smoky Mountains or “the Smokies”?  Settlers coming to this land noticed a smoky haze that rose from the vast vegetation and decided on the perfect name: the Smoky Mountain Range.  But here is the more scientific version that I gathered from the Visitor Center; Water carried through plants is released through the leaves as a vapor.  The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical.  As the vapor is released, the large amount of terpenens create the smoke-haze, or mist, that gives the mountains their name.  You can clearly see the haze below:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Yep, those are the Smokies!

We accessed the park from the town of Cherokee, which is located in North Carolina just south of the park.  Our home base for almost two weeks was the Flaming Arrow Campground, which was about five miles from the park entrance.  Steve’s review of this nice park can be viewed here.

Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee

During our twelve-day stay here we took several scenic drives, and hiked to our heart’s content.  The scenery was diverse – mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than we’ve ever seen.

Newfound Gap road
No elk here, but we finally saw one elsewhere in the park

US 441, Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountain Drive
Green, green everywhere!

Our first excursion was to the very top of the Smokies.  At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest mountain peak of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States.  The trail to the observation tower was steep and a real lung buster, as it gets chilly up there.  It’s about a half mile ascent from the parking lot to the top, and a pretty good workout.  This is a very popular stop, and it was getting quite crowded already even in the early  morning and before the holiday weekend. This is the most visited park after all!

Clingmans dome observation tower
Clingmans Dome observation tower

The trail was so steep that this man thought it might be too much for his chubby dog to handle!

Clingmans Dome Trail

The observation tower provided us with great panoramic views of the Smokies.  Although not as spectacular as the towering mountain ranges we experienced in Alaska,  or at the Top of the World in the Canadian Yukon, the Smokies definitely had their own unique and magnificent beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains, southern view
Southern view
Great Smoky Mountains
Northern view
Western View of the Smokies
Western view
Clingmans Dome
Lunch View

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s and mountain lover’s paradise, with something like 800 miles of hiking trails to explore.  And that’s where we’ll take you next…our hikes and the many eye-catching views along the way.




  1. It has been years since we hiked in the Smokies. I am sure it felt good to get back onto some trails that provided a good workout. Looking forward to your next post MonaLiza.

  2. Having just been reading about the Yosemite on another blog I follow (, I would have also thought it to be the most popular… but now that I’ve seen your photos and read your post I can see why this spot would also be so popular… A great post with great photos.. thank you..

  3. Great capture of those blue smokies! We were lucky enough to be there during fall a couple of years ago. They get spectacular color changes there.

  4. Love the smoky picture of the Smokies. We stayed in the Townsend area a few years ago and focused our explorations on that section. I’m pinning the campground you stayed in as it looks like a great place from which to explore other parts of the park.

  5. Love the Smokey Mountains! Your pictures capture the beauty and feel of the mountains we have visited so many times…before RVing! Green is the color of balance and harmony! It is also the color that helps restore and renew depleted energy from everyday stresses. Enjoy!

  6. Beautiful! We haven’t been to the Smokies yet, but plan to visit next year when we tour the east. I love the first photo of the “mist” over the mountains. It’s easy to see where they got their name. Thanks for the tour!

    • Amanda, you will love it here, so many hiking trails to choose from. Spring and Fall in the mountains has best showing of wildflowers and fall foliage. Do consider that in your planning for we missed out on the wildflowers in the hillsides.

  7. Is the Elk Xing sign in Cataloochie Valley? My husband and I just completed a four day backpack in that area over Memorial Weekend. Be watching for my post! Looks like you had a clear day for Clingmans Dome!

  8. Awesome header photo.

    When we were there in October 2009, there was already snow and ice on Clingman’s Dome. We didn’t get to see it. Thanks for the great photos. It sure looks lovely!

  9. “Yup those are the smokes” all right and your picture is stunning. Coming from Virginia I am very familiar with both Shenandoah and GSMNP. But I have to admit that I prefer the Smokies. Hope no one from my home state sees this. It is just so stunningly gorgeous. Thanks for taking me back there. Can’t wait for more.

  10. That first photo of the Smokies is so gorgeous, MonaLiza. And I love the photo of you with one foot in Tennessee and one foot in North Carolina, and the photo of Steve’s view at lunch. It’s been many years since we’ve been in the Smokies — we’re looking forward to our trip next year. It sounds like we need to arrive a bit earlier for the spring wildflowers?

  11. Naalala ko yung “Paraiso”, kanta ng Smokey Mountain. Yung group ni Geneva Cruz date. 😀 We here in SoCal definitely want some of those green, green everywhere! trees. 🙂 I have a friend that is from North Carolina. I’ll definitely mention this park to her.

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