Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a United States National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park. It is the most visited national park in the United States with over 11.3 million recreational visitors in 2016. On its route from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail also passes through the center of the park. The park was chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940.
The park encompasses 522,419 acres, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The main park entrances are located along U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) at the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. It was the first national park whose land and other costs were paid for in part with federal funds; previous parks were funded wholly with state money or private funds.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a major tourist attraction in the region. Over 11.3 million recreational visitors/tourists and an additional 11 million non-recreational visitors traveled to, or through, the park in 2016. The recreational figure represents nearly twice as many tourists as the Grand Canyon, which received nearly 6 million visitors the same year. Surrounding towns, notably Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, Sylva, Maggie Valley, and Bryson City, North Carolina receive a significant portion of their income from tourism associated with the park.
The two main visitors’ centers inside the park are Sugarlands Visitors’ Center near the Gatlinburg entrance to the park and Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina at the eastern entrance to the park. These ranger stations provide exhibits on wildlife, geology, and the history of the park. They also sell books, maps, and souvenirs.
U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) bisects the park, providing automobile access to many trailheads and overlooks, most notably that of Newfound Gap. At an elevation of 5,048 feet, it is the lowest gap in the mountains and is situated near the center of the park, on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line, halfway between the border towns of Gatlinburg and Cherokee. It was here that in 1940, from the Rockefeller Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the national park. On clear days Newfound Gap offers arguably the most spectacular scenes accessible via highway in the park.
The park has a number of historical attractions. The most well-preserved of these is Cades Cove, a valley with a number of preserved historic buildings including log cabins, barns, and churches. Cades Cove is the single most frequented destination in the national park. Self-guided automobile and bicycle tours offer the many sightseers a glimpse into the way of life of old-time southern Appalachia. Other historical areas within the park include Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, Elkmont, and the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill at Oconaluftee.
There are 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads in the park for hiking, including seventy miles of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Le Conte is one of the most frequented destinations in the park. Its elevation is 6,593 feet— the third highest summit in the park and, measured from its base to its highest peak, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River. Alum Cave Trail is the most heavily used of the five paths en route to the summit. It provides many scenic overlooks and unique natural attractions such as Alum Cave Bluffs and Arch Rock. Hikers may spend a night at the LeConte Lodge, located near the summit, which provides cabins and rooms for rent (except during the winter season). Accessible solely by trail, it is the only private lodging available inside the park.
Both the Laurel Falls and Clingman’s Dome trails offer relatively easy, short, paved paths to their respective destinations. The Laurel Falls Trail leads to a powerful 80-foot waterfall, and the Clingman’s Dome Trail takes visitors on an uphill climb to a fifty-foot observation deck, which on a clear day offers views for many miles over the Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia mountains.