With nearly 11 million visitors annually, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the United States. There are lots of reasons why– it’s beautiful, fairly close to 1/3 of the US population, and always free! Clayton Jordan, the park’s acting superintendent, shares his favorite spots in the park, ways to make the most of your time there, and a few hidden gems.
What’s your current position at Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Normally, I serve as the Deputy Park Superintendent, though currently I am serving as the Acting Superintendent. I am responsible for managing park operations through an incredible cadre of employees and volunteers who take great pride in the stewardship of this special place and helping visitors to have a terrific experience. Every day we focus on visitor safety, science, research, education and resource protection.
What makes Great Smoky Mountains unique among the National Parks?
Its rich bio-diversity. The Smokies is one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. More than 19,000 species of animal and plant life has been identified within the park, nearly 1,000 of which have never before been discovered anywhere else on the planet!
Why do you suspect this park is the most visited of all the National Parks?
Location, location, location! While most of the 58 national parks are located in the west, where fewer people live, the Smokies is situated within a day’s drive of one-third of the American population. Plus, the Smokies has a short, mild winter, so we experience a near year-round visitation season.
Describe your perfect day at the park.
An early start on the trail, selecting to hike along the park’s 848 miles of maintained hiking trails. Perhaps I would head to one of the Smokies’ mountain tops or remote waterfalls, followed by a picnic lunch in one of the designated picnic areas. After lunch is a good time to take in a scheduled ranger talk or guided walk. Then, as the late afternoon shadows get long, I would choose to be out in a meadow at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, or Cataloochee Valley watching for birds, deer, bears, and, on the North Carolina side of the park, elk.
The park is especially known for its scenic drives. What’s your favorite? Any that you feel are underrated? Any tips for beating the crowds?
While nearly every drive in the Smokies yields a special experience, I think, for me, the most scenic drive will be the 17-mile section of the Foothills Parkway between Wears Valley and Walland, TN when it opens to the public late next year. From there the views of the Smokies will be stunning! I am excited that soon we will be able to share this memorable opportunity with the public.
While so many come to the Smokies to experience the Cades Cove Loop Road, I think an underrated drive would be through Cataloochee Valley on the North Carolina side of the park. Like Cades Cove, Cataloochee is a wonderful place to come experience rich human history, scenic meadows surrounded by undeveloped mountains, and great wildlife viewing opportunities. You might also stumble upon bears, deer, and wild turkey, but unlike Cades Cove, you stand a great chance to also experience elk! Reintroduced to the park in 2001 in Cataloochee Valley, the elk population has flourished and is spreading to other areas of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Beating the crowds is easy by starting your day early in the morning, especially on weekends.
The National Park Service is really great at putting together incredible ranger talks and activities. What are some of the most notable/interesting at the park?
The living history programs at the Mountain Farm Museum in Oconaluftee NC, especially during the annual Women’s Work event or Fall Festival. Experiencing park volunteer Robin Goddard’s interpretive program at Little Greenbrier School is a long standing favorite. Another incredible program, especially fun for kids, is the blacksmith program out at Cades Cove or Oconaluftee.
What’s your favorite view in the park?
Hardly a secret spot, but the 360-degree panorama view from Clingmans Dome Tower is a favorite view of mine, day or night!
Best place to watch the sunrise and sunset?
So many wonderful choices, but I will go with a short walk off the Foothills Parkway to Look Rock Tower for great sunset viewing. My favorite sunrise spot would be Myrtle Point for lucky guests of Mount Le Conte Lodge, or campers spending the night at Mount Le Conte shelter. From Myrtle Point, early morning hikers are rewarded to the sun rising over a sweeping mountain landscape. There’s no sights or sounds of civilization anywhere in view!
Most underrated trail?
Most hikers visiting the park stick to only a handful of popular trails. That leaves dozens of other trails for people who are looking for a great hiking experience off the beaten path. One such personal favorite would have to be the 6 ½ mile Brushy Mountain Trail. It offers terrific wildflowers on the way up, with a great view at the top.
If I’m car camping, I might seek out nearly any site at Balsam Mountain Campground. Being the highest campground in the park, it provides a great escape from the summer heat. If backcountry camping, there are about a hundred campsites and shelters to select from. Personally, one of my favorites would be Campsite 38, just a stone’s throw from the historic Mt. Sterling Fire Tower. You’ll find stunning panoramic views from deep within the Smokies.
What is it like to stay at LeConte Lodge in the park? How hard is it to get a reservation? Any tips for scoring a spot?
After an arduous 5-mile hike up this iconic mountain, lodge guests come together at the dining room and sit down together, family-style, to enjoy good food and company. New friendships are forged this way every evening…
Due to its popularity, reservations for Le Conte Lodge can often be difficult to obtain especially during premium visitation times such as summer weekends or prime fall color season. Your chances increase greatly if you try to book mid-week. Another option would be to book a trip through the Smoky Mountain Field School which offers a spring and fall overnight trip to the lodge.
What’s your favorite time of year at the park?
Spring-time. Watching green vegetation sprout up in the lower drainages and work its way up the slopes of the mountains as spring progresses refreshes my spirit every year.
What’s the coolest thing for history buffs to experience at the park?
Lots of options as telling the stories of the peoples who called Smokies home prior to the establishment of the park is a big reason for which the park exists. For me, I learn something new every time I visit the old grist mill at Mingus Mill.
Something you wish visitors would do more of? Less of?
I wish visitors would get off the road more and completely immerse themselves in nature. I would love to see less rushing.
Best tips for making the most of your park experience.
- Take advantage of the park website for trip planning, and stop in a visitor center on your way in.
- Plan to visit the most popular trails and destinations, such as Cades Cove Loop Road, Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, Laurel Falls, Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, and Rainbow Falls during off peak times like early morning, late afternoon, and on weekdays.
- Stay safe! Stay alert on the park’s mountainous roads and pull off the road to view scenery or wildlife. Do not approach elk, bears, or deer (stay back 50 yards). Drink plenty of water when hiking, and watch your footing.
- Experience a ranger led walk or talk.
- Be good stewards! Do your best to help your family and friends to Leave No Trace.
The #1 thing every visitor should do.
Slow life down while you’re here. Get out on foot, and experience the incredible biodiversity of the Smokies, as did the Cherokee Indians who called this special place home, long before the park was established.
Have you been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What were the highlights?
Photos via Great Smoky Mountains National Park