Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: November 2021
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located within the Appalachian mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. It is the most visited national park in the United States and offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery.
We spent the previous night in Knoxville and got up bright and early in an effort to beat the crowds. It was the weekend after the American Thanksgiving after all and we anticipated that it would get busy. We started off at Laurel Falls (2.6 miles / 4.2km round trip) as parking at the trailhead is often limited. By the time we arrived it was just after 8:30 a.m and there were already a few cars in the small parking lot.
The trail is named for the mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub which blooms along the trail and near the falls in the early summer. The trail leads up a ridge along a ravine to a waterfall. The path is mostly paved and is signed with eleven numbered posts which correspond to a viewpoint or interesting detail included in the trail guide which can be found at the trailhead. It was initially built to allow fire crews access to the Cove Mountain area in the event of a fire. However, it became a popular path for hiking, which led the trail to being paved to better deal with erosion.
After taking a couple of pictures at the base of the falls, we turned around and walked back the way we came to the parking lot. On our return journey, we passed by a lot of other hikers, which made us glad that we got here early. The parking lot was completely full by the time we finished and there were even cars parked along the side of the road.
We drove to the nearby Sugarlands Visitor Centre to check out the swag and use the restrooms. Afterwards we headed towards Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and in all of Tennessee. Along the way there are a series of overlooks and viewpoints of the surrounding area. At first we stopped at a few of the scenic overlooks, but then decided it would probably be easier to hit these up on the way back. At the Morton Overlook we noticed a drastic change in temperature and that there was even some snow and ice on a few of the trees.
We then drove the rest of the way to Clingmans Dome. The road leading up to it typically closes from early December through late March, which means that we were close to the cut-off period. The road ends at a large parking lot where there’s a short paved trail, about 800 metres (or half a mile) to the summit and observation tower.
The hike up wasn’t bad, but oh boy was it windy. Once we reached the base of the observation tower, the path became progressively more icy and we could really feel the wind from above the trees. The real advantage to the harsh conditions was that most people didn’t stay long up on the observation tower so it wasn’t crowded. It was worth it though as the landscape looked breathtaking with all the snow encrusted pines and spruces.
There were a few interpretive panels at the top of the observation tower, but they were all covered in ice and impossible to read. I took as many pictures as I could before my fingers felt numb. This was a good sign to get out of the wind and head back to the parking lot.
We hopped back in the car and blasted the heat. We drove to the trailhead for the Spruce Fir Nature Trail (0.35 miles / 600 metres), which is located nearby. The trail is relatively flat and consists mostly of walking along planks of wood through a moss covered forest. Unfortunately part of the forest here, and in other areas in the park, are under attack from a non-native insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid, which if left untreated, will likely kill most of the Fraser fir in the area.
On the drive back from Clingmans Dome, we stopped at a few of the other overlooks that we skipped, including Newfound Gap and the Carlos Campbell Overlook, which provide more gorgeous views of the mountains.
We pulled over to hike along the Sugarlands Valley Trail (0.5 miles / 800 metres). The path is paved and winds through the forest which once contained a small community. Along the way we found a few remnants, including old stone chimneys and crumbling stone walls, from the former settlements.
We then drove back to the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to eat lunch. There was now a line to get into the building and the parking lot was completely full. While we would have liked to explore more of the Smokies, traffic was terrible. We figured it just wasn’t worth the effort to deal with the crowds. Instead we decided to head to Nashville to see what was shaking.