In this year of celebrating the 100th anniversary of America’s national park system, which park among the 59 wilderness parks would you name as the best.
In my book, it would be Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What qualifies me to be so audacious as to name one as the best above all the rest?
In 2010, my wife and I were fortunate to be sponsored for a project visiting 50 national parks. In 217 days, we traveled 35,000+ miles and indeed hiked in 49 out of 50 national parks. (One cannot hike in the Kenai fjords!)
From Alaska to the Florida Keys, from Maine to southern California, we hit them all.
So yes, it may be audacious. And we have been asked many times which park is our favorite. To which we always reply, “The one we are in.”
Yet at 100 years, we feel compelled to name “the best” – at least in our books. Why this particular park? Let me count the ways.
- Forests: No other park in the system displays the variety and size of trees you’ll find in Great Smoky Mountains. From giant tulip poplars to boreal pines, the variety of trees is delightful. Elevations change the forest, so as you move through this massive park, you get to experience them all. Which, of course, makes for simply spectacular fall colors
- Water: no other park has the number and variety of easily accessible creeks and rivers. Drive the park from Sugarlands visitors center to Cades Cove (about 17 miles) tracks the route of two creekside rivers. Head east from Sugarlands, and you’ll being alongside of yet another. Go over to the North Carolina side and again, another river or two or three.
That much water in what looks like “gentle” mountains means waterfalls galore. The relationship between water and trees is inextricable, and many of the creeks are almost tunneled over with trees seeking sunlight by reaching out over the water.
- History: The stories of the families who originally settled this area, felled the trees and built the farms that created Cades Cove contribute a lot to the specialness of this park. So do the homes, barns and mills that remain and are well-maintained. The last of the summer cottages in Elkmont also tell the story of the great logging activities that threatened to destroy the park before it could become one.
The story of Horace Kephart and George Masas working together to bring the park into existence is that of fairy tales. The active pioneer village of Oconaluftee whisks you back to the late 1800s. White clapboard churches on both sides of the park amaze. Swing around to Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee to drink even deeper of the history here.
- Wildlife: bears, coyotes, fox, deer, elk, turkey, and birds of all kinds populate the park. An early morning drive or a visit at dusk is virtually guaranteed to show off animals of one kind or another. Yet due to the diligence of the rangers and volunteers, the wildlife remains just that – wild.
- Access: over 800 miles of trails crisscross the 500,000+ acres of the park. Any kind of hike you desire is easily accessed – from the Appalachian Trail to quiet strolls to cemeteries from the 1800s. Hikes to mountaintops, waterfalls, forests, old growth terrain, mountaintop lodges, alongside creeks, through meadows – this park has it all.
- Biodiversity: there are over 900 plant and organism species unique to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is the only one in the system that has catalogued all of its lifeforms. Scientists and biologists from around the world come here every year to study the uniqueness of this park. Nowhere else in the park system will you find synchronous fireflies.
- Camping facilities: the parks boasts excellent camping opportunities on the north, northeast, and south side of the park. Horseback riding is offered on both the Tennessee and the North Carolina sides.
- Flowers: the park boasts astounding displays of mountain laurel and rhododendrons, and prodigious amounts of flowers on all of those tulip poplar trees. Then there are your basic wildflowers that bloom from spring through late summer, rolling up the mountains from the lower valleys. See if you can find the elusive Vasey’s trillium, or the unusual “red” columbine.
- Views: the Newfound Gap road through the heart of the park serves up views that are virtually guaranteed to astound. Or for a different kind of national park view, head on out to Cades Cove for extensive meadows and rolling fields. Lake Fontana hands you a very different water view of this amazing place.
- Mountain Experience: the Smokies may be “short” compared to the mountains of the west, but they are not to be trifled with. The hiking here is nothing if not challenging, if that’s what you want. And once you begin the drive up Newfound Gap, you’ll see some impressive peaks – in fact, you’ll see them rolling off into the horizon.
And the icing on the cake – if you have the strength and stamina – is to combine it all in one superb hike to LeConte Lodge. There you’ll get history, lodging in basic cabins (no electricity or running water), great food to fuel you for the trip down, unique terrain and trees and fauna, mountaintop views you’ll store in your memory bank forever. Plus you’ll step across creeks and endless cascading water, grab onto cables alongside steep cliffs, and maybe even get to see mountain laurel and rhododendrons blooming at Inspiration Point on the way up. Time it right and the falcons will be flying as a complement to the other colorful birds that hang out there.
It’s only taken us 6 years to nail it down. For us, our favorite park is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Now get out there and find your own favorite during this Centennial Celebration.
About the author:
Rob and his wife Jan have been full-timing for the last two years. Following a lengthy career in marketing and leadership consulting, Rob got the RV bug when in 2010 he secured a sponsored trip to visit 50 national parks over seven months in an Airstream Interstate Class B motorhome. He and Jan lived in the Airstream Interstate for the entire trip.
Taking over 12,000 photos on that 35,000 mile trek set the hook for both RVing and photography. Since concluding the 50 park adventure, Rob’s been an artist-in-residence at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2012) and Rocky Mountain National Park (2013.) In 2015 he and his wife spent six weeks on the Oregon Coast and in the Columbia Gorge capturing images for the Oregon State Parks.
This year, their plans are taking them up through Shenandoah, Gettysburg, the Catskills, White Mountain and Acadia on the way to spending the month of September in the Canadian Maritime provinces.
You can see Rob’s work at:
Rene A. TX~ “I was driving my sisters car when I locked the key is the car. She called her roadside assistance through Geico. They told her it would be 4 hours. After 4 hours of waiting she called them again and they told her it had never been dispatched and it could be another 2.5 hours. At that point I called CoachNet since I was the one to lock the keys inside and within 30 minutes you had someone there to unlock the doors. We have been very pleased with your customer service and we always recommend you to friends and family. Thank you for your help.”