I left my heart in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By Francis Vachon,

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is part of the International Biosphere Reserve, has the largest old growth forest east of the Mississippi River, is one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America, has the densest black bear population in the Eastern United States, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can run out of superlatives pretty quickly when you try to describe the Smokies.

With 10 millions visitors per year, it is the most visited U.S. National Park. We spent two days exploring the Smoky Mountains to understand why. And then we wished we could have a month more to explore it extensively like it deserves.

Elkmont Historic District

Part of the "Appalachian Club," near the former logging town of Elkmont, the Elkmont Historic District is not well known, even by the locals. It is a bit off the beaten path. When you drive on Old State Hwy. 73 Scenic, go South on Elkmont Road. Most people will take that road to stop at the campground, but only a few yards further lies the historic district known as Daisy Town. Many houses are in a state of severe disrepair as the park still debates on what to do with them. That gives the place a strong feeling of a ghost town. You can walk up on Jakes Creek Trail for the houses falling apart, or along the water on Little River Trail for the better preserved "millionaire's row" houses. You will quickly understand how it got its nickname. Spence Cabin, probably the most impressive of them, is being restored and is worth the detour.

Cades Cove

On our second day, we went to Cades Cove, probably the most well-known area of the park. The drive on Laurel Creek Road is extremely scenic. We stopped often along the way to take photos. The natural beauty of the geography is breathtaking and has inspired many photographers and painters.

Cades Cove is a broad valley surrounded by mountains. As you drive the 11-mile loop, you can stop and explore various historical buildings: churches, a working grist mill, barns and old cabins inhabited by the settlers before the creation of the park. Contrary to Elkmont, the buildings are well preserved and it is a great way to learn about the hard life of the time.

Wildlife is abundant in the area. Within the loop, you would be extremely unlucky to not see deer. Bears are also frequently seen in the cove.

A campground opened year-round is located near the visitor center at the entrance of the loop, but several backcountry campsites are scattered along the trails that you can hike.

Another interesting thing to mention is that from early May until late September, only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed on the loop until 10 a.m. every Saturday and Wednesday. It is a great opportunity to discover the area quietly at your own pace.

Opening hours, directions, webcams and all other information you need are available on the National Park Service website.

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