Find Your Park in Tennessee

Throughout 2016, we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park System by exploring the history of the parks, offering ideas about how to Find Your Park in the southeast, as well as tips to help you make the most of your park adventure.

tn-nps-1.jpgOver the last few months we’ve explored the National Parks in North Carolina HERE and South Carolina HERE. This month, we're seeking adventure in the Tennessee parks.

Our favorite place to visit in Tennessee is also America’s most visited national park: the Great Smoky Mountains. Established in 1934, the park is comprised of seemingly endless forests encompassing North Carolina and Tennessee. These ancient mountains are world renowned for their beauty, history, and diversity of plant and animal life. Designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, the Smokies are home to 140 tree species, 4,000 plant species, and an estimated 1,600 black bears, and a host of other animals and amphibians. Also, there are new species discovered in the park every year.

tn-nps-6.jpgThe Smoky Mountains themselves are some of the oldest in the world. Scientists have dated the rocks in the mountains to be as old as 200 to 300 million years. Although, it’s hard to put an exact age on the mountains because of land development and erosion.

The 2,178 mile Appalachian Trail, another part of the National Park Service, dips into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a 70-mile stretch. In addition to the AT, the park features over 850 miles of hiking trails. With so many incredible hikes and sites to visit, it can be a daunting task to figure out where to begin. Let’s explore a few:

Cades Cove
tn-nps-4.jpgCades Cove is one of our favorite stops, and the most popular visitor destination, in the Great Smokies. An hour’s drive from Gatlinburg, TN, this 4,000 acre scenic valley boasts pioneer homesteads, hiking trails, and a campground.

You can drive along an 11-mile loop that follows many of the curves and courses that settlers forged many years ago. Near the Abrams Falls parking area, visitors can view a typical Smoky Mountain homestead complete with a smokehouse, blacksmith shop, barn, and corncrib (as shown above).

One of the major draws to Cades Cove is that it’s closed to motor traffic on Saturdays and Wednesdays until 10 a.m. from May through September.  Pedestrians and bicyclists get free rein of the road during those hours. Bike rentals are available from April through October and horseback riding is available at Cades Cove Riding Stables. They also offer hayrides each evening from May through October. For more information on visiting Cades Cove, click HERE.

Little River & Cucumber Gap Trails
tn-nps-3.jpgLess than 30 minutes from Knoxville, Tennessee, the Little River and Cumberland Gap Trails offer picturesque hiking for the whole family. Starting out from the Elkmont campground, you’ll begin your hike at the Little River trailhead. The river is full of cascades, large boulders, and deep pools. The trail is wide and easily accessible for all hikers as it gently climbs an old logging roadbed and alongside the Little River. (And keep your eyes peeled for the “troll bridge” pictured left.)

“The first part of the trail will take you past a few old buildings from the historic Appalachian Club. The Appalachian Club evolved into a vacation resort located next to the Elkmont logging town. Beginning as a gentleman’s hunting club, the initial part of Little River Trail will take you past a few of the old vacation homes from the early 1900s.  Most of these homes were used by the affluent of Knoxville as a mountain escape,” shares the folks at Blue Ridge Mountain Life.

tn-nps-7.jpgIf you’re feeling ambitious, follow the Little River up 2.4 miles to the Cucumber Gap trail intersection and return to Elkmont by that new trail. From the Cucumber Gap Trail, you can see remnants of the old buildings once used for temporary workers and their families. Enjoy the abundant wildlife, but just don’t feed the bears like these folks (pictured right). pictured in an old Great Smoky Mountains National Park postcard.

Synchronous Fireflies
A very special area of the Great Smoky National Park hosts a species of synchronous fireflies that put on a show unlike anywhere else. Thousands of tourists camp each summer to witness the spectacle of nature's nightlife. For more information about these fireflies, click HERE. Take a closer look at this amazing annual event with this selection from CBS Sunday News HERE.

tn-nps-5.jpgPresident Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940, with these words: "There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people."

An easy way to explore the park system is to head over to, select the state where you plan to explore, and the site will give you a variety of options from which to choose. You may also filter your search by selecting Family Friendly or Virtual Experience. Further down the page, you can narrow down your search by entering your zip code. Get started in Tennessee, by clicking HERE. And for more information about Centennial Events in Tennessee National Parks, click HERE.

Next time, we'll look at ways you can help care for our National Parks. There are many one-time and reoccurring volunteering opportunities for folks of all ages and skill levels.