The Great Smoky Mountains are one of America’s treasures, spanning more than 500,000 acres between Tennessee and North Carolina. The region has a number of towns peppered throughout, including lively Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, as well as quiet areas to disconnect. It’s the perfect place to find some distance — especially amid these stunning landmarks.
One of the most popular stops for travelers to the Smokies, Cades Cove was originally Cherokee hunting ground before Europeans settled in the region in the early 1800s. More than 200 people called the valley home by 1830, and many historic buildings are still standing today, including log cabins, a working grist mill and three churches. Members of the community continued to live on the land until the 1940s.
The eleven-mile loop has plenty of places to stop and explore. The visitor’s center has a self-guided brochure with additional information. You might spot deer, bears or turkey during your visit. The road is also closed some days of the year for cyclists.
Elkmont Ghost Town
The community of Elkmont was settled in the 1800s by loggers from the Little River Lumber Company. It continued to grow as work opportunities increased, and by 1907, the town was a thriving community with some ramshackle houses, a general store, a church and a school. Tourism also came to town eventually, bringing a hotel and rental cabins.
One of the hotels continued to operate until the 1990s, but these days, buildings are mostly vacant. They’re protected by the National Register of Historic Places, and plans are in place to restore the ones still standing by converting them into a museum. The area is a short drive from Pigeon Forge.
Elk roam the Great Smoky Mountains throughout the year, but especially in the Cataloochee area in North Carolina, which is a little over an hour from Gatlinburg. As with Cades Cove, this part of the park has a number of preserved buildings, including churches and cabins.
These animals have always lived in the region, but their numbers were greatly reduced in the 1800s. To restore the population, a group of elk were brought to the national park from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky, where they now thrive.
They come here to mate during the fall, and the best times to spot them are early morning and early evening. Remember that with all wildlife encounters, you should keep a safe distance from the animals and never feed them.
Roaring Fork Motor Trail
The winding Roaring Fork Motor Trail spans 5.5 miles through the park, making it one of the most scenic drives around the area. Located just south of Gatlinburg, it contains winding curves and turn-offs to see historic mills and breathtaking waterfalls. If time and space allow, park your car and wander onto one of the trails to view the stunning overlooks. The plant life is at its most beautiful in the fall, when the changing leaves are at a stark contrast against the moss-covered trees.
The Road to Nowhere
Located on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Road to Nowhere is a monument to broken promises and the area’s history. After residents were forced to move in the 1930s during the creation of Fontana Dam and the national park, the government said they’d create a new road for residents to access family cemeteries. But construction halted, and the road ended six miles into the park. A long tunnel is all that remains, now covered in graffiti. It’s a quirky place to visit for those looking to get off the beaten path.
At a height of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also the highest peak in the state of Tennessee and along the famed Appalachian Trail, which continues for more than 2,000 miles into Maine.
Outdoors lovers can take one of the trails or drive Newfound Gap Road to the 45-foot observation tower. Built in 1959, it has unparalleled 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains.
Tail of the Dragon
Crossing into the North Carolina line in Deals Gap is the Tail of the Dragon, another popular driving route with a namesake silver dragon marking the start. But this one is beloved by motorcyclists, who can enjoy the switchback turns on two wheels. From above, the road looks like one curled piece of spaghetti, with 318 curves in only 11 miles. Drive cautiously — accidents are common on this stretch.
Keep these landmarks in the Great Smoky Mountains in mind while you’re daydreaming of future travels and outdoor adventures.
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