For a trip filled with beauty, art, rich cultural heritage, wildlife, adventure, and soul-cleansing scenic views, nowhere in America quite compares to the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway National Park system at Asheville provides a gateway to both the parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With so much to do and see along the parkway and in the Great Smokies, some pre-trip planning is good. The Falcon Guide series provides good hiking guides to both areas. Use Asheville as your grocery/ staples stock-up area as the prices are high and the selection is poor in Cherokee.
Folk Art Center
Enter the Parkway at the junction with I-240 and head north a few miles to the Folk Art Center. Distilling the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Appalachian crafts into the very best, it is not to be missed. There is usually an artist working in the entry, and children and adults alike will enjoy the arts and crafts on display. Be sure to check their calendar online before you go since they have extra activities happening onsite many weekends throughout the summer. While you are there, pick up some Appalachian traveling music to set the mood for the drive south.
Bonsai collections at the Arboretum
North Carolina Arboretum
Stop for lunch at the Arboretum (plenty of big-rig parking) and take some time to see the lovely bonsai garden. Kids will marvel at the tiny scenes in pots and have fun comparing their digital pictures (do not forget to take some) of the tiny scenes to the big ones they will see later. In spring, the gardens are at their peak, awash with azaleas and then rhododendrons. Take a quick dip in Lake Powhatan to cool off, and then get back on the parkway and head up to Mount Pisgah. The rangers at the Mount Pisgah campground do some lovely programs, so spend the night and attend the campfire presentation, then grab the bird/butterfly walk in the early morning before heading for the Smokies.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Though the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country, visitors looking for solitude will find plenty. With countless trips to this park, the experience has been that the vast majority of the park’s visitors never seem to leave the main road, so once out of the visitor center, most of the trails are no busier than any other park. Be prepared, though, for the surreal experience of traveling through über touristy and gimmicky Cherokee on the south or Gatlinburg on the northwest before entering the quiet trails of the park.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
This visitor center is actually a working Appalachian farmstead, preserved and maintained by the park. I found this site enthralling as a child, and it still captures the imagination years later. Be sure to find the pigs in the back corner, skip rocks in the wide shallow river, and pick up your Junior Ranger or Not-So-Junior Ranger book at the visitor center. A few miles up from the visitor center is Mingus Mill, a historical water-powered turbine gristmill, which for the boys in our group, both young and old, proved particularly enthralling.
Smokemont and Cades Cove
Your safest bet is to make reservations at Smokemont or Cades Cove if you have a big rig. Cades Cove is a magical place to stay, though, and since it is very popular, privacy is not the reason to camp here. The reason is the easy access it provides to the Cades Cove Loop, an 11-mile one-way loop that provides access for cars and bikes to the Cove. The Cove was an old Appalachian settlement and many buildings and the history around them have been preserved by the park service.
Exploring the cove by bike is truly a lovely experience at any time of year. Bears and wildlife abound. A dirt road cutting across the cove early in the loop provides a doable bike trip for younger children, especially if a picnic is packed. If you do not feel like competing with cars for the road, the road closes to cars for a few hours two mornings a week.
Biking in Cades Cove
Tobacco barn in Cades Cove
The visitor center at Sugarlands has a marvelous, intimate natural history exhibit showcasing native plants and animals. It is also the starting point for evening walks in June to see synchronous fireflies display. The synchronous firefly lighting mating ritual has only been observed in a few places around the world, the Smokies being one of them.
As you can imagine, this is a popular event. The parking lot at Sugarlands fills up early for these few highly anticipated nights in June. Buses then carry hikers to the trailhead at dusk for a guided nighttime walk. To see the dark woods suddenly flicker as if someone turned on a string of Christmas lights for 30 seconds and then go dark again is truly amazing. Viewing the fireflies takes planning, patience, and flexibility, so do not expect to just show up five minutes ahead of time and make the tour. The memorable sight is well worth the planning, though, so check the park website for the projected nights, and pack your rain slicker. June in the Smokies means unexpected downpours and neither mating fireflies nor Rangers cares if it is raining.