70 miles of the trail pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Within the Park’s borders, the trail crosses from Davenport Gap near Big Creek on the east to Fontana Dam, N.C. on the southwest, reaching a halfway point at Newfound Gap. It passes near or over several of the highest peaks in the eastern United States. The “AT” winds up over the highlands through grassy balds and descends into the valleys to briefly join other trails.
A good place to start is the Sugarlands Visitors Center on Route 441 at the Gatlinburg entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are nature exhibits, a short film, guidebooks, maps, and park rangers who give lectures guided strolls, and answer questions. This is also where you would pick up your camping, hiking, or fishing permits.
The most popular drive through the park is Newfound Gap Road, which is 26 miles long and crosses the park to the southeast. It begins at Sugarlands which is at an elevation of 1,436 feet, it rises to more than 5,000 feet above sea level at Newfound Gap. The road descends down to 3,000 feet to Oconaluftee Visitors Center at the main entrance to the park from North Carolina. Oconaluftee Visitors Center is also a treasure trove of information and the adjacent Mountain Farm Museum will introduce the visitor to the rural heritage of the early settlers. Newfound Gap Road is a gradually unfolding botanical journey that spans the five vegetation zones a traveler would encounter if traveling the hundreds of miles to Maine. There are scenic overlooks along the way, roadside exhibits, and trailheads for the hikers. At Newfound Gap visitors can look for miles over waves of rolling hills and the Appalachian Trail crosses the road here. There is also the memorial where Franklin D. Roosevelt stood to dedicate the national park in 1940.
To get to know the park more intimately, to hear the quiet, to feel the peace, to savor the smells, to see the boundless vegetation – you need to get out of your cars and walk. There are about 150 trails covering over 900 miles and there are trails for everyone’s stamina, interest, and level of expertise.
Twelve self-guiding nature trails, ranging in length from 1/4 mile to a mile roundtrip, were selected and developed by Park naturalists for their interesting natural history, beauty and accessibility. The new All -Access Nature Trail, 0.5 miles south of Sugarlands on Newfound Gap Road, was specially designed for the handicapped, parents with young children, and older couples.
Back country hikers staying overnight need to get a hiking permit first. Whether your planned hike is short or long, it is always a good idea to have on dependable hiking boots, wear multiple layers, and carry rain gear. The temperatures are cooler in the trees and get progressively so the higher up you go. The higher elevations also see more precipitation than the lower ones, so be prepared. Bring along drinking water as the streams are not drinkable and be sure to carry out all that you bring in, particularly your trash.