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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Graze blueberry patches, explore swimming holes, and tag the South's high points on this sultry hike.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

6,595-foot Mt. Leconte (Steven McBride)
6,595-foot Mt. Leconte (Steven McBride)
Rainbow Falls (Kirkendall-Spring)
Rainbow Falls (Kirkendall-Spring)
Forney Green (Kevin Adams)
Forney Green (Kevin Adams)

Entrance Strategy

>> Getting there The nearest airports are Knoxville's McGhee-Tyson (45 miles) and Asheville Regional (60 miles). Head to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, on US 441 just north of Cherokee on the North Carolina side, to avoid Tennessee's Dollywood traffic. If you must approach from the north, save time and frustration by taking the Gatlinburg Bypass (just north of town) straight to the park.

>> Season April for wildflowers and low humidity; June for synchronous fireflies; July and August for blueberries and blackberries; late September through mid-October for brilliant foliage, easier creek crossings, and solitude.

>> Best frontcountry campground Hemlock-shaded Big Creek Campground, in the park's northeastern corner, is as close as you can get to backcountry tranquility without having to sweat for it. Arrive by 11 a.m. to snag one of the walk-in creekside spots–this 12-site, tent-only campground is first come, first served. ($14; 865-436-1230)

>> Pre-trip breakfast Carbo load Southern-style with hash browns, grits, and 24 kinds of flapjacks at Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (865-436-4724). From North Carolina, get your coffee with an apple-currant muffin on the side at Annie's Naturally Bakery in Sylva (828-586-9096).

>> Gear Shop The Happy Hiker (865-436-6000;, just outside the park border on River Road in Gatlinburg, has camp towels (for swimming) and Duraflame logs for fire-building.

>> Permits None of the sites on our five-night trip requires reservations, but you'll need to self-register for free permits in person before you go. Get trail beta and permits at Sugarlands Visitor Center in Tennessee or Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina. If you're extending your trip with one of the 17 reservation-only sites or 14 trail shelters (also free), call (865) 436-1231 at 8 a.m. EST one month before the first day of your trip.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jul 06, 2014

We just completed a 70 mile thru-hike of the AT traversing the Smoky Mts from Davenport Gap to Fontana Dam in 6 days. Keep your eyes open for bears-a-plenty. In fact, be sure to check ahead of time because quite a few shelters and primitive campgrounds were closed due to bear activity (bears entering the shelters). We saw four bears (two cubs) in one day and another two sniffing around at nighttime. The Smoky Mountains have a great food cable system for hanging your food, however other hikers we met mentioned that the mice still got into their food bags that were hanging. Happy Trails!

Star Star Star Star Star
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Ric Brooks
Apr 27, 2012

This year the park service has started a reservation system for viewing the synchronous fireflies. $1.50 registration view gets you a parking spot at the visitors center and $1.00 gets you a round trip shuttle pass.

Apr 26, 2012

Hiked extensively in this area, the creek crossings become deadly fast and deep with the slightest rainfall. Especially Eagle Creek and Forney Creek Trails. Lost Cove Trail to AT is another good alternate route if the water is high.

Jan 23, 2011

The happy hiker is now closed due to multiple roof leaks but the nantahala great outpost is right around the block...has everything and more that happy hiker had, including guided rafting and hiking trips.

Jan 20, 2011

Hey mike sure take it with you I had 3G on my IPhone near the peaks top in a few areas on trails near Grand Father Mt. As for else where I am not sure. Just take it and see is the best bet

Jan 20, 2011

RE; Mike...

Yes, WASS will be helpful in the Smokies. There is a lot of tree cover there.

Jul 21, 2009

I will be visiting the Smokies in a couple of weeks and I just wanted to know if there is any value in turning on waas on my garmin handheld?


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