One in a series of occasional stories marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Just a few yards past the last of the traffic lights on Highway 441, downtown Gatlinburg’s candy-coated vice — Cupid’s Chapel of Love, Fanny Farkle’s arcade, and Ripley’s-You-Can’t-Believe-the-Tackiness — fades from sight in the rearview mirror. The breeze through my open windows suddenly takes on different feel, a different smell — cool and fresh, damp and heavy, infused with ripeness of humus-rich earth. Lush forest lines both sides of the Newfound Gap Road as it winds through the park, opening up from time to time to reveal dramatic views of the misty-blue specters of the Smoky Mountains.
It was a welcome rush of nature. I’d been in the car for close to 13 hours at that point, having left New York before sunrise on a mission to reach the park by dusk — in time for the fireflies.
A staggering 10.7 million visitors in 2015 enabled Great Smoky Mountains National Park to defend its title as the most popular in the country. Of those, just about 11,000 have the good fortune to score a ticket to the park’s annual, seven-night firefly party.
Each year in early June, seemingly by magic, an enormous concentration of adult Photinus carolinus fireflies appear in the Elkmont section of the national park. The insects use a synchronous pattern of flashing in order to attract mates, filling the entire forest with rhythmic waves of dazzling light.
But the light show doesn’t begin until nightfall, leaving plenty of daylight hours open for adventure. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to a half-million acres of forested trails, cascading waterfalls, and mountain vistas and one easily could spend a lifetime roaming its Appalachian hills and hollers. Since most travelers will visit for just a few days, here are some of the best ways to experience the allure of the Smokies.
Hike a waterfall
Waterfalls are the epitome of Smoky Mountain magic. Abundant natural rainfall means the park spills with streams, creeks, rivers, and cascades and the only factor that comes into play when deciding which falls to explore is how much time you have. Most waterfall hikes are moderately strenuous, though the Smokies are some of the highest mountains on the East Coast, so expect uphill travel on most trails. One of the best is Abrams Falls, which starts a half-mile off the Cades Cove Loop Road. The hike is five miles round-trip and leads to a dramatic cascade with a fantastic swimming hole. If you’ve ever wanted to walk behind a waterfall, Grotto Falls is the spot and provides the opportunity to tour the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Find the Rainbow Falls trailhead off Roaring Fork as well.
Bike Cades Cove
The early bird catches the worm, or perhaps even the bear, when it comes to biking in historic Cades Cove. Though often clogged with slow-moving cars, the 11-mile loop remains blissfully traffic-free until 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays. An early morning ride offers the best chance to glimpse park wildlife including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and a couple of the 1,500 resident black bears — cub sightings provide a special thrill. Pick up a bike at the Cades Cove Campground Store — the earlier you arrive, the better — and pedal past rolling green pastures and flower-filled meadows framed by remarkable Smoky Mountain views. A smattering of preserved homesteads offers a peek into the valley’s early Appalachian pioneer history.
Walking through this former logging town turned resort community, imagine it full of families — kids romping through the woods to wade in the creeks while folks stop to chat with neighbors on the wide, covered porches. The 74 charming cabins were populated until 1992 when the park appropriated the town and they fell into disrepair. Now the area is sometimes thought of as a creepy ghost town, but knowing Elkmont’s back story helps visitors understand that the vibe is more quiet melancholy than haunted scariness — though I have heard tell of a ghost named Diddy. Elkmont is home to a lovely, self-guided nature trail that is less than a mile around. For a longer hike, try the loop from the Little River trail to Cucumber Gap and back down to Jakes Creek.
Scale a mountain
For views that extend across the park, these two Smoky Mountain summits provide easy access off Newfound Gap Road. Find the first one — the Chimney Tops trail — about seven miles from Sugarlands. Chimney Tops is not for the faint of heart but is popular with everyone from young kids to older adults. The hike to the Chimneys is about four steep miles up and back with plenty of switchbacks and a steep rock scramble at the end. Brave that and you’ll be rewarded with one of the best views in the Smokies. If that image induces jelly legs, 360-degree vistas can also be found at Clingman’s Dome, a one-mile out and back hike up a paved road to the Smokies’ highest peak.
Take a dip
Few images harbor sentiments of carefree summer days like jumping off a rock into a cool mountain pool and plenty of down-home swimming holes are tucked throughout the park. A favorite is the one locals refer to as the Townsend ‘Y’ at the intersection of the Little River and Middle Prong where Laurel Creek Road meets Route 73. A wide, grassy slope begs for a picnic blanket where you can watch the kids bomb off the rocks into the river below. Requiring a bit more effort (but totally worth it), hike to Mouse Creek Falls along the Big Creek Trail. The falls are two miles from the trailhead and Midnight Hole, the ultimate swimming hole, is along the way.
See the light show
There are pockets of synchronous fireflies along the East Coast from northern Georgia to New York, but nowhere do the critters rival the display found in Elkmont. Beginning at around 9:30 in the evening, thousands of Photinus carolinus fireflies light the dark woods with a dazzling display of rhythmic flashing that bears little resemblance to the isolated blinks seen in suburban backyards. Park officials announce predicted peak firefly-viewing dates in late April.
Rest for the weary
There’s no need to forgo the misty blue peaks of the Smoky Mountains during your downtime. When you need to rest your tired dogs after a day of hiking or pedaling, kick back in style at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a plush-yet-rustic haven roosting atop 90-private acres adjacent to the national park. Reminiscent of the gilded age camps of the Adirondacks, each of the 44 inviting suites features a private balcony with glorious Smoky Mountain vistas, deep soaking tubs, and stone fireplaces. Rejuvenated? A rocking chair on Sundowner’s Porch is the perfect place for an early evening cocktail. Dinner on the deck features gorgeous sunsets over Mount Le Conte along with seasonally inspired creations like coffee-crusted tuna and pan-seared duck breast with jalapeno polenta. Rooms start at $180 per night. www.buckberrylodge.comGina Vercesi can be reached at email@example.com.