The hardest part of driving or biking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is calculating how much time it will take.
The temptation is strong to stop at every bend of the road to snap another gorgeous misty mountain view or admire streams tumbling beneath a bridge.
Then out comes the camera again, a second too late to catch bear cubs scrambling into the woods and bucks loping across a meadow but just fine for rustic barns or a century-old church seen along the road.
The only requirement asked by park rangers is to pull off to the roadside so that people driving through the park from Nashville, TN to Asheville NC or Knoxville, TN to Atlanta, GA, could enjoy the sights but get to their Spring Break destinations.
Officially declared a national park in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is as vast as it sounds. The park covers 814 square miles bordering Tennessee and North Carolina. But aside from cutting through it, the park’s views, hikes, bike trails and stops at its towns make it a vacation destination by itself.
Arguably the best place to start a tour is on the Tennessee side at the Sugarlands Visitors Center a short drive above the historic town of Gatlinburg. This is the place to pick up water, sweat shirts and caps and informational guides to roads, paths, flora, fauna and some of the more than 70 historic log buildings in the park. And people might hear some tips from rangers such as Mike Maslona.
“When people stop on the roads here, instead of pulling over like they’re supposed to, we don’t call them traffic jams,” says Maslona. He explains saying, “Hey, look at that view, get out the camera! That’s a photojam.” Then he adds, “ Look, a bear! That’s a bearjam.”
After picking up brochures to figure out how much to cover, head up and out into the woods. Roads through the park are well traveled and intersect.
A popular choice is to drive up to Clingman’s Dome. There are several pull-offs on the way to shoot misty mountain vistas. The view at Clingman’s Dome is the reward but also take a photo of someone in the group standing with one foot in Tennesee and the other in North Carolina. A sign desigates the spot to stand. Yes, the Dome is on the border at more than 5,048 feet. Some hearty folk hike the rest of the way to the top but it is steep so don’t feel badly if deciding to turn around before reaching the top.
Another sign near the Dome points the way to the Appalachian Trail. This hike takes advanced planning for stays, stops and equipment.
Back down in Gatlinburg, save time to meander through the eight mile Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community loop. Artists and artisans have to be accepted into the community, a circle of more than 100 studios and workshops tucked into the hillsides of the Glades and Buckhorn Roads.
As old as the national park, the community officially came into being around 1937 when a handful of local artisans thought that park visitors would enjoy watching them work and buy crafts and fine art where they are made. Indeed, the Cliff Dwellers, an artisan stop, has been in existence since about 1933.
Upstairs of the Cliff Dwellers main floor, fine landscape artist Linda Morrow can usually be found working in her studio. Next to the Cliff Dwellers is the Jim Gray Gallery where the internationally known artist had taken over a former 19th century church.
Further up Glades Road, the Ownbys who have been known for their woven wood baskets since the late 1800’s are still at work and still selling baskets, bowls, toys and furniture at the Ownby’s Woodcrafts shop.
Those are just a smattering of the really good places to stop. The hardest parts of returning home will be to figure out how to pack all the stuff bought and when to schedule a return visit to just sit and contemplate.
For driving directions check Google Maps
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