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Plan a picnic (and more) in the park: Your guide to visiting the Great Smoky Mountains

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You shouldn’t come to Knoxville, Tennessee, without a stop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ve probably seen pictures of peaceful, rhododendronflanked rivers, eye-popping wildflower displays and scenic vistas. The idea of the Smokies is exciting, but when you actually pull out the map and try to plan a trip, it can be, well, really daunting. That’s why we’ve broken the park up into a few smaller, more manageable chunks to help you plan the trip that’s right for you.

Best All-Around (West Side of the Smokies)
If you’re looking to dip your toes into the Smoky Mountain experience, the west end of the park via Townsend, Tennessee, is the best way to do it. Because of its lower elevation and relatively flat roads and trails, this part of the park has the most year round use. In this area you’ll find Cades Cove, which is home to historic structures like the old missionary Baptist and Methodist churches and the John Oliver Cabin, all remnants from the days when the cove was home to a small community of settlers.

You’ll also find the trailhead to Abrams Falls, one of the most popular waterfall trails in the park, as well as the beautiful Rich Mountain Loop Trail. Unfortunately, the popularity and easy access of this part of the park means you’ll be navigating larger crowds and standstill traffic on Cades Cove Loop, but cyclists and pedestrians can experience the circuit more serenely by getting up a little earlier. Every Wednesday and Saturday from May until late September, the loop road is closed to motor vehicles before 10 a.m., allowing pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy the loop without the frustration and danger that comes with navigating around cars.

But don’t think this end of the park is all rolling hills and tourists. Abrams Creek has class III and IV paddling, and one of the highest points in the park, Rocky Top/ Thunderhead Mountain, is accessible from the Cades Cove campground.

The Climbs (Central Smokies)
U.S. Highway 441 follows Little Pigeon River as it traces its way through the middle of the Smokies. It is speckled with some of the steepest, most difficult and awe-inspiring climbs in the park. The Chimney Tops, LeConte, Charlies Bunion and Andrews Bald all have trailheads along this road, and visitors will also find the scenic vistas of Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome off the road before it snakes further southeast to the park border at Cherokee, North Carolina. If you’re looking for an exhilarating hike, beautiful views and an intense workout, this is probably the part of the park you want to be in.

The Gatlinburg Escape (North end of the Park)
Even big fans of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, can appreciate that beautiful moment on the road when the museums, restaurants and boutique shops of the city yield to trees, streams and rivers. The northern end of the park is home to several popular Smokies experiences. West of Gatlinburg along Little River Road is easy access to Laurel Falls, Metcalf Bottoms, Cucumber Gap and Jakes Creek. East of Gatlinburg you’ll find the trailhead for Ramsey Cascades and Porters Creek, the latter of which boasts arguably the best wildflower display in the park.

Underrated (Eastside)
Less frequented by Knoxvillians because of its distance from the city center, this area is perhaps most well known for Max Patch, which, while not actually within the boundaries of the park, is still worth a visit. Big Creek Campground is a great base camp for explorers looking to experience popular swimming destination Midnight Hole and fire towertopped Mt. Sterling. Daring kayakers will enjoy paddling down Big Creek, while less experienced floaters will be better off opting for a float down Pigeon River.

This is just a start. Hikers should check out the National Geographic map of the Great Smoky Mountains and “Day hikes of the Smokies” by Carson Brewer to get a full scope of what the park has to offer. Kayakers should check out Kirk Eddlemon’s new two-volume guidebook, “Whitewater of the Southern Appalachians.” Remember: No dogs are allowed on any trails in the park and permits are required for backcountry camping.

For more information on the hikes and mentioned visit https://rootsrated.com/knoxville-tn/. ♦

—Article courtesy Roots Rated
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