I can barely keep my eyes on the road. Each time I hear a rustle in the trees, my head peeps out of the car window like a curious child. Impatience is a dangerous trait for a driver, but the excitement of seeing my first black bear in the wild and rugged landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains is distracting me.
Roughly two thousand black bears currently live in the national park, but their numbers are on the decline due to uncertain weather patterns and lack of food. I might be able to find one foraging in Cades Cove I’ve been told, so that’s where we head. The 11-mile, one-way loop road has jaw-dropping mountain views, historic log cabins dating back to the 1820s, churches, barns and grist mills belonging to the first European settlers. Also dotted along are wooden planks indicating trails to the famous Abrams Falls and Rocky Top on Thunderhead Mountain.
"Here you can truly experience the grandeur of the Southern Appalachian mountains," Jamie Sanders tells me. She worked as a park ranger for more than ten years before becoming an officer with the National Park Service. "There are 16 peaks, over 6,000 feet in elevation, and more than 800 miles of trails to explore giving hikers exposure to vistas, lush hardwood forest and mountain streams".
Located on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains are renowned for their biodiversity, including more than a hundred native trees, plants, birds and mammals. As well as black bears, large numbers of white-tailed deer can often be spotted, along with coyote, groundhog, turkey, raccoon and skunk.
Cades Cove is the most visited site in the park, and it’s easy to see why. After hours of driving and hundreds of photographs later, I am still captivated by its postcard-like landscape. In spring, the wildflowers bloom to form a blanket of vibrant colour, and fall is when nature lovers enjoy the foliage and variation in shades on trees like sugar maple, scarlet oak, red maple, and hickories. I ask Jamie what her favourite time to visit is. "Smokies is truly a year-round destination, but I’ve seen the mountains capped in snow and that’s a pretty spectacular sight," she replies.
It is five hours before we exit the Cades Cove motor trail. If you’re looking for something quieter, opt for the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail - the loop road is a little over 5 miles long, with plenty of stops to enjoy history and nature. You can explore the park at your own pace. Take a self-guided tour to Noah "Bud" Ogle nature trail before hiking to Grotto Falls - a three-mile roundtrip hike on the Trillium Gap Trail, and just as you exit, take a quick photo stop at the Place of a Thousand Drips waterfall.
If daytime is for hiking, evenings are all about picturesque sunsets and the best place to catch one is Clingman’s Dome - the highest point of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The 45-foot circular observation tower which sits at an elevation of more than 6,600 feet has unparalleled views of the surrounding parkland. On a clear day, you can see up to 100 miles and across seven states. We didn’t try to spot any, instead, we spent the evening watching hues of orange disappear into the spruce-fir forest - and it was perfect.
Accommodation within the park is limited; so most travellers opt to stay in one of the neighbouring resort towns. Our charming aspen-style lodge called The Appy Lodge was in Gatlinburg, also known as ‘gateway to the Smokies’. The town boasts a tiny but bustling shopping street full of museums, restaurants, boutique stores and famed moonshine distilleries. Just off the main road in "The Holler”, Ole Smoky has been making moonshine the traditional way since 2010. It was the first distillery to start producing the spirit after it was legalised by the State of Tennessee in 2009. Today, they welcome more than four million people each year, making them America’s most visited distillery.
On our final day, we visited Gatlinburg’s latest attraction, the SkyBridge. Hanging 140 feet from the ground and stretching 680 feet across a deep valley, this is North America’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge. It offers adrenalin seekers the chance to walk on glass floor panels whilst enjoying sweeping views of the Smokies. As I hobbled along the wobbly bridge, all I wanted was to embrace the landscape one last time: the mountains, its colours, the wilderness and that perfect sunset.
Other things to see and do
If you’re planning on visiting the Smokies in spring, enquire about the synchronous firefly display. It’s the time of the year when hundreds of male and female fireflies perform nature’s very own light show.
Anakeesta Theme Park- a 70-acre family-friendly theme park is the perfect place to spend the day. There are zipline adventures; tree canopy walks, gardens with water-features and plenty of quaint spots to enjoy the mountains.
A real treat to go and visit is the Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum - the only one of its kind with more than twenty thousand sets of condiment dispensers in all shapes and sizes ranging from animals to vegetables and Santa Clause to marine sailers.
There are several walking and hiking trails all across the park, to find one that suits you, visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Learn about Ole Smoky‘s traditional moonshine-making technique on an exclusive tour - it costs a fiver and includes a tasting session.
Vacations to America offers tailor-made road trips to Tennessee. A 7-night package staying 3 nights in Nashville and 4 nights in the Great Smoky Mountains starts from £1695 per person based on 2 people sharing and includes return flights, car hire and accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis.
Note: This trip was made before the pandemic and although the park remains open, check the National Park Service website for latest updates on opening hours and coronavirus-related regulations.