Are you in need of some rewilding? America's most popular national park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is free to enter and offers exceptional recreation opportunities. The Cherokees called this misty, forested landscape in eastern Tennessee the "land of the blue smoke." It's a place where you can take a break from screens and have an active, outdoorsy adventure or do little but unwind. The backcountry beckons from the relatively quiet Cataloochee Valley to the bustling Loop Road, and you'd do well to heed its call.
The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the best places in the world to witness a floral spectacle—there are more flower species here than in any other national park. Between late March and May, you can expect to see an assortment of colors from deep pinks and purples to yellow, orange, and white. There are rhododendrons, flame azaleas, trout lilies, trilliums, and lady slipper orchids, to name a few. The flowers aren't just beautiful—many have scents that tinge the air with the fresh smell of spring. Don't forget to pack your allergy meds because you'll be doing a lot of deep breathing.
Every June, there's a firefly-watching show in Elkmont that's such a hit with visitors you can only attend if you're chosen by lottery. Southern Appalachian synchronous fireflies put on a magical bioluminescence display and demonstrate why nature is the ultimate inspiration. The living light show occurs a hop, skip, and jump away from a long-abandoned row of mountain cabins, and all ages are welcome. It's the stuff dreams are made of.
The air is clean, and the backdrop enviable at the sprawling Fontana Lake, a favorite among campers and fishing enthusiasts. Pack picnics and swimsuits, and you'll have all you need to laze around on the water. Hire a boat in the morning to avoid afternoon thunderstorms and play Little Big Town's 2012 song 'Pontoon' to set the mood. The Wi-Fi is spotty, but if you come prepared, you won't need it. FYI, you'll see Fontana Dam, tall as a 50-floor skyscraper, when you walk the Appalachian Trail.
With plenty of rain, sloping ground, and 2,000 miles of winding rivers, whitewater rapids, and streams, there are dozens of cascades in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You're bound to find waterfalls close to where you're staying. Beware of bears, and look out for fascinating pipevine swallowtail butterflies as you make your way towards the falls. These are some of the standouts:
If you're visiting Gatlinburg, Asheville, or any other town in the region between late September and early November, pencil leaf peeps into your itinerary. Birch, beech, and maple trees change outfits this time of year, and the shifting seasons burnish the leaves in broad brush strokes. You can see the fiery kaleidoscope to great effect at Newfound Gap Road, Blue Ridge Parkway, Cades Cove, and Roaring Fork. You can also climb Clingmans Dome for some wow views.
Without light pollution marring the view, you can see breathtaking celestial panoramas. The skies in the Smokies are not the darkest in the U.S. However, the park's vastness and tall mountains ensure you'll see much more of Orion's belt and other constellations than in nearby cities. For starters, pack a coat and lift your gaze at Newfound Gap Trailhead. Make sure it's not the werewolf's time of the month for optimal viewing.
Commit to the 2,193-mile trail like some intrepid trekkers do, or complete some of the section hikes in the 71-mile stretch through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 71-mile route takes about a week to complete, or you can do a three or four-day hike one way and organize transport back. There are 12 designated shelters along the way, and you need to make a reservation and have a permit to stay on the right side of the law. It's all worth it; that's a promise—you'll be weary but super satisfied when you're done.
Pigeon Forge is supposedly the Vegas of the East—you can decide for yourself. There, you'll find the famous Dollywood, an amusement park partly owned by national treasure and southern belle, Dolly Parton. The 150-acre destination is well worth a visit for fun-seekers and holidaymakers. The Smokies are also great for exploring pioneer heritage. There are 19th-century homesteads and barns dotted around the region, and the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill are just one spot to learn more about our country's history.
Start a mini vacay in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, or Nashville and hit the open roads. It doesn't get much better than the valleys and vertiginous mountain passes of the Great Smoky Mountains. Once you're set up in one of the gateway towns, get up with the birds and venture out early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Grab a map at the nearest visitor center so you can plot out highlights and plan your joyride. You'll be amply rewarded whether you take the Rich Mountain Road, the Little River Road, or any other routes.
You could break your piggy bank and treat yourself to one of the fancy resort cabins in the Smokies. Envision a hot tub, a spa, a fireplace or splash pool, restorative views, and food you don't need to make. It's the serene escape you've been craving to kick back, relax, and do absolutely nothing.