href=”/articles/12517″>YOSEMITE | GRAND CANYON | <a
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href=”/articles/12526″>YELLOWSTONE | DENALI
>> 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; happyhiker.com), 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.