Clingman’s Dome. Cades Cove. Chimney Tops. If you’ve ever been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a weekend, during the summer, or anytime in October you should know you can spend as much time sitting in traffic as you do hiking the trails. But these popular destinations aren’t the only places to explore inside the most-visited national park in the country.
The park covers over 500,000 acres across North Carolina and Tennessee, includes over 800 miles of trails, and features about a dozen distinct sections to explore. With those kinds of options it is entirely possible to find a trail, scenic overlook, or spot for a picnic on the busiest of days and still have it all to yourself. Here are five of the less frequently visited parts of this national park.
Just minutes from Bryson City, NC, Deep Creek is a peaceful area with a large campground, a few waterfalls, and several hiking trails. It’s a popular place, and really the only place, in the park for tubing in the summer months. It’s the perfect day-trip destination for people staying in Cherokee, Sylva, or Bryson City.
The Deep Creek Campground features 92 sites and is open April through October. About half the sites are for tents only while the rest are for RV’s and tents. The campground is on the opposite side of the creek from a large picnic area and hiking trails.
The 0.8-mile Juney Whank Falls Trail is a great trail for those just eager to get into the woods. It’s a gradual ascent as the trail meanders along the creek past Tom Branch Falls and Indian Branch Falls along the way. A wooden footbridge crosses over the base of Juney Whank Falls, a two-tier 90’s waterfall.
The 16.5-mile segment of the Foothills Parkway from Walland (near Townsend) to U.S. Route 129 at the Little Tennessee River remains one of those hidden gems of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Eventually this segment will be part of a longer 71-mile parkway but for now this single segment offers a leisure drive across a mountain range opposite the Great Smoky Mountains.
Similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Foothills Parkway features a two-lane road with scenic overlooks on either side. To the southeast the overlooks provide a view across the valley to the towering Great Smoky Mountains, and to the northwest visitors can see the flat lands beyond the Smokies toward Knoxville.
The most breathtaking view on the Foothills Parkway is at the Look Rock Observation Tower. The concrete and steel structure rises above the trees and provides a stunning view in all directions. Not up for the moderate 20-minute hike to the tower? There is an overlook at the parking area that features a pretty awesome view itself.
This part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so remote it’s the one place I haven’t gotten to myself yet. The only way in and out of the valley is via a curvy gravel road from Exit 20 on I-40 in North Carolina. It takes a good hour, if not more, to get there from Gatlinburg which means you’re almost certainly to have the entire place to yourself whenever you decide to visit.
There is a 27-site primitive campground, a few hiking trails, about a dozen historic buildings, and a herd of elk inside the valley. If you decide to spend a night here you’re sure to see the elk grazing throughout the valley in the early morning and late evening hours.
Cosby & Greenbrier
Cosby is one of the more remote campgrounds in the park located about twenty miles from Gatlinburg, which makes it the perfect place to go for a few nights or just a day-trip. The campground features 157 sites and stays open April through October each year.
The short and easy to hike Cosby Nature Loop Trail dips into a sunken area of the park and meanders around and across a stream. The 2.1-mile Hen Wallow Falls is a moderately strenuous hike from the picnic area to a stunning waterfall. Speaking of that picnic area; there is plenty of room to have a family cookout or a solo lunch at a table along the creek.
Greenbrier is located along Highway 321 about halfway between Gatlinburg and Cosby and makes an excellent day-trip companion to the above. A gravel road along Porters Creek leads to several great places for fishing and hiking.
The 4-mile moderate Ramsay Cascades Trail leads to the tallest cascading waterfall in the park. The 7-mile Porters Creek Trail is a great place to see wildflowers blooming in the spring or just a peaceful walk the rest of the year.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The Cherokee side of the national park is always quieter, even during the busiest of days. Even if you’re not staying in Cherokee it’s only about a 45-minute drive from Gatlinburg (although you’d have to pass through the intersection I mention below). This visitor center includes the Mountain Farm Museum, an outdoor exhibit about farming from ages ago. The large field beside the visitor center is also a great place to see dozens of elk grazing in the early morning or late evening hours. But if you want to see the elk arrive about two hours before sunset, snag yourself a parking spot, and hang out for awhile.
Nearby Mingus Mill is a short, quiet walk through the woods to one of only two remaining mills in the park (the other is Cable Mill in Cades Cove). During peak tourism seasons the mill is often open for exploration and the water roaring down the aqueduct to the wheel.
Tips for the Best Trip
- Leave early/late. If you really want to beat the traffic and crowds get out on the trails at sunrise. You’ll have the best chance of finding a parking spot and for the first 2-3 hours you’ll probably have the trail to yourself. Alternatively, if you want to hike a short trail you can wait until the last few hours of the day because by then most people have left for dinner.
- Avoid the Sugarlands Visitor Center Intersection. The intersection of Fighting Creek Gap Road and Newfound Gap Road in front of the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg often becomes a traffic nightmare. Hundreds of visitors returning to their lodging in Gatlinburg from a day of exploring Cades Cove suddenly have to make a left turn across traffic coming through the park from Cherokee. It’s not unheard of for it to take an hour to get through this intersection.
- Stay in Townsend. The town bills itself as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies” and they’re not wrong. This small country town makes an excellent place to stay while visiting the national park and it’s just twenty minutes away from Cades Cove. There are plenty of great lodging options for your vacation in town.
- Use Wears Valley Road. If you want to avoid some of the congestion inside the park try using Wears Valley Road between Townsend and Pigeon Forge. Taking this route allows you to bypass the congestion in Gatlinburg.
- Bring your dinner with you. The mass-exodus of day-trippers leaving the trails and roads of the national park starts about 5pm. Why that particular time? They’re heading into Gatlinburg for dinner. Instead of getting caught up in that traffic bring your dinner with you, skip the congestion, and you’ll soon have the place to yourself for the last few hours of sunlight.
- Come in the off season. Sure you won’t be seeing blooming flowers, splendid fall colors, or hiking in shorts and a t-shirt. Most of the campgrounds are closed November through March and the volunteer park rangers have gone home for the year. But in the off season you can enjoy a peacefulness rarely found the rest of the year, spot wildlife more easily through the leafless forests, and discover a few things you might’ve otherwise missed.