By Tim Barnwell
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the country, setting a new record, in 2018, with 11.4 million visitors. Yet many local folk have never visited this natural wonder in their own “backyard.” To fully explore the many facets of the park would take many forays, but you can get a flavor for the attractions and beauty with a day trip. The park is especially beautiful in the spring when the creeks are full and waterfalls roar from recent rains, when stunning wildflowers are in bloom including trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit and Mayflowers, and with the trees beginning to leaf out in bright shades of green.
In producing my book, Great Smoky Mountains Vistas, I drew on a lifetime of visits to the park to profile the many attractions, points of interest and activities available throughout the park. For this article I have narrowed the focus to the North Carolina side, laying out a day trip to Clingmans Dome with stops at numerous spots along the way. It involves driving paved roads and taking short walks, but no hiking.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits astride the NC/TN state line and incorporates more than 800 square miles of land. The main road across—connecting Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN—is Highway 441, known as Newfound Gap Road within the park. Many of the park’s main points of interest and overlooks are located along this simple route.
Find your way to the town of Cherokee and follow Highway 441 along the Oconaluftee River. If you have the time and interest, before entering the park visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $12 for adults) for an introduction to the culture and history of the people, and Qualla Arts and Crafts (free) which offers handcrafted items such as baskets, ceramics and beadwork by Cherokee artisans.
Continue to the park entrance. Along the one-mile stretch from there to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center you may encounter elk grazing in the fields early morning and at dusk. At the visitor center you can browse exhibits, pick up maps and brochures, ask questions at the ranger desk, visit the extensive gift shop and access restrooms. Follow the paved path from the main building to explore the outdoor Mountain Farm Museum, a wonderful collection of early park structures.
Next stop along Newfound Gap Road is Mingus Mill, a picturesque working grist mill dating from 1886. As lunchtime approaches you can return to Cherokee and try one of the fine restaurants, such as Sassy Sunflowers, or pack a lunch and stay in the park and continue to the wooded, peaceful Collins Creek Picnic Area.
Continue on Newfound Gap Road stopping at any interesting overlooks along the way up to Newfound Gap. Be sure to stop at “Mile 17” overlook (stone marker) where two boardwalks offer visitors access to a stunning panorama looking south. A couple of miles beyond you’ll crest the mountain at Newfound Gap. There is a large parking lot on the right offering views, informational displays and restrooms.
After that, head back toward Cherokee and immediately turn right on Clingmans Dome Road. This seven-mile spur will end at a parking lot, which offers stunning views. For an even more spectacular 360° panorama, follow the short, steep walk to the observation ramp. Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the national park and the state of Tennessee and the third highest in the eastern United States. From here retrace your path to Cherokee (about 25 miles). Even if time doesn’t allow for all of these stops, I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful experience in this idyllic setting and want to go back again and again to explore this special place.
Tim Barnwell is the author of seven photography-based books including Great Smoky Mountains Vistas: A Guide, with Mountain Peak Identifications, for What to See and Do In and Around the National Park. To learn more visit BarnwellPhoto.com. For more information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit nps.gov/grsm.