This is the Southeast’s centerpiece - the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From its tallest peaks above 6,000 ft. to its cool, rocky streams, through the forested slopes and shady glens, anywhere the interconnected web of hiking trails, this is the place to experience Appalachia in all its wild and beautiful splendor.
Recently, I spent several days hiking the Smokies during Pigeon Forge Wilderness Wildlife Week. This event is held at the LeConte Center each spring and features a full slate of seminars on any nature and/or Smoky Mountain subject you can think of: from wildflower identification to the basics of backpacking, the wisdom of midwives to the customs of the Cherokee, rock formations to whittling, and watercolor painting to photo contests.
The event also features a daily schedule of outdoor excursions: guided hiking trips from easy to strenuous throughout the park. Here are some of the best sights I saw from the trail, to give you a little inspiration for your own upcoming slate of summertime hikes.
Andrews Bald: The trailhead is located at the Forney Ridge Parking Area, probably more commonly known as the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Where the steep, paved path to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower veers off to the right, the unpaved Forney Ridge Trail drops down to the left. It is an approximately 3.6 mile out-and-back trail, which is a relatively easy hike out to the bald, but considerably more strenuous getting back, given the long grade to get back to the parking area. But the views (and the flame azalea blooms, usually in June) are worth the trip.
Pro Tip: Throughout spring and especially during the summer months, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Hikers should always be prepared to get a little wet, and carry rain gear with them in their packs anytime they hit the trails.
Alum Cave Bluffs: The trail out to this rocky overhang is a popular day-hike in the park, and rightly so. This 4.6 mile out-and-back trail is moderately difficult, with only a handful of short, steep grades to tackle, and well-worth of exertion. First up on the slate of beautiful sights along the Alum Cave Trail is Arch Rock. Inspiration Point is up next, a beautiful outcropping that overlooks the Little and Big Duck Hawk Ridges, protected ridges that are home to rare nesting peregrine falcons. Then up to the Alum Cave Bluffs themselves, which are immensely massive - a size that photographs simply cannot convey.
Pro Tip: If you’re heading to Alum Cave Bluffs, make sure to arrive at the parking area - which is easily located on Newfound Gap Road - as early as possible. The parking lot fills up fast. This trail never reaches a high enough elevation that you’ll notice much of a drop in temperature, so heading out early will keep you cooler.
Clingmans Dome: This trek is strenuous, although it is only approximately half a mile from where you’ll park. The steep but paved grade can be tackled by just about anyone who has the will to get winded, and the payoff is unreal, especially for sunset or sunrise. At 6,644 ft., the observation tower affords an incredible panoramic view of Southern Appalachia. It is without a doubt the perfect way to start out a visit to the Smokies - or a perfect way to top it off.