Walking Stick: √; Knee Brace: √; Ankle Wrap: √; Gel Insoles: √; Advil: √; Bio-Freeze: √; Oxygen Tank: √. Let’s face it, if this type of list tags along on your hiking trips, then standing atop a chimney rock ledge, gazing out over a hazy mountainside of emerald spruce tips splashed with the green, orange, yellow, red and purple bursts of maple and sweetgum leaves probably seems like an unattainable dream. After all, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s largest National Park, filled with over 800 miles of hiking trails. But in all of its enormity, even the most inexperienced or least mobile hiker can be wowed by many breathtaking views here. A variety of close-to-the-car mini “hikes” await, delivering the full adventurer experience with little to no physical exertion required.
Since the partially torn ACL in my right knee has grounded some of my explorations in the past, I’m always on the lookout for easy, yet beautiful hikes. I’d be very surprised if there isn’t a healthy-sized group of you “not 100% healthy” hikers out there in the same boat as me. So, to keep us all appeased, here’s a list of my top four take-your-breath-away Smoky Mountain National Park mini hikes that fall into that simple category:
(1) Newfound Gap Lookout (GPS coordinates N35.6112°, W83.4249° On Newfound Gap road, about 15 miles south of Gatlinburg):
Just 21 average size footsteps separate the second row of the parking lot from a hand-piled boulder overlook. The waist-high rock barrier may avert your body from a harrowing plunge into the lush valley below, but it certainly won’t hold back your eyes from immersing themselves in a full color pallet of mountains, trees and skies that only nature could create. A smoky mist shrouds the distant treetops, leaving a mystical quality in every conceivable direction. The haze seems to suggest that rain is inevitable, but since that trick knee is well rested, it can’t confirm a damp forecast. This southwest-facing lookout is an ideal spot to view a sunrise. (Wheelchair accessible)
(2) Clingmans Dome Forney Ridge Parking Area (GPS coordinates N35.56289°, W83.49849° On Clingmans Dome road):
The highest accessible spot in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet above sea level, this observatory provides a 360-degree view of the sprawling mountains around it. Although the half-mile walkway from the visitor center to the observatory is paved, the spiraling tower of Clingmans Dome isn’t realistically accessible to the faint of heart or body. The trail is extremely steep, the air is thin and wheelchair access is greatly discouraged.
But the good part of all of this is that the huge parking lot also provides an AMAZING view of the area. Walking the sidewalk along the outside edge of the parking lot will allow you to see over the endless treetops and provide a panoramic view of those blue, hazy mountains that rise and fall for miles. If you walk the entire parking lot edge and the very beginning of the trail above the Visitor Center, you will witness approximately 65% of the panoramic view you could have seen from the dome platform.
Every angle delivers a whole new perspective, changing rapidly as the sun and clouds tinker with the lighting. It’s usually gale-force windy up here, dropping the temperature at least 10 to 15 degrees below that of the lower elevations, so bring a coat. Heavy, low-lying clouds or fog often move in, destroying any chance of witnessing the natural beauty below. But on a clear day, this vantage point is almost unmatched. Also note, Clingmans Dome road up to this parking lot is usually closed from December 1st through March 31st, so plan accordingly.
(3) Deep Creek Smoky Mountain Park Entrance (GPS coordinates N35 27.877 W83 26.012 near Bryson City, NC — approximately 13 miles from Cherokee and 47 miles from Gatlinburg):
Three waterfalls within an easy two-mile loop with relatively little elevation change make this my favorite spot on the south end of the park. A nice wide, gravel-packed path leads to Toms Branch Falls less than a quarter mile from the parking lot. The lush green backdrop and tiered stone setting more than compensates for this 80-ft. high waterfall’s lack of gushing water in dry seasons.
The trail is designed to go gentle on a hiker and his or her damaged appendages and there are well-placed benches along the way to stop for a rest.Trekking a half to three-quarters of a mile further down the trail will bring you to Indian Creek Falls. These falls may lack the height of the first falls you witnessed, but make up for it with the power of their raging waters. You can view the falls strictly from the trail you just followed or traverse a short set of steps to get down to river level for prime bottom-of-the-falls viewing. From this point you can either retrace your steps or finish the loop back to the trailhead. The overall distance will be nearly identical.
(4) Cades Cove Visitor Center (GPS coordinates N35.5850° W83.8431° on Cable Mill Road in Townsend, Tennessee — approximately half-way around the 11-mile Cades Cove driving loop):
By the time you reach the parking lot at the Cades Cove visitor center you’ll be more than ready to escape the crawling one-way line of traffic around the loop. For that reason alone, it’s worth the stop.
But this area also provides access to a well-preserved homestead that served up to 700 settlers in its prime. The flat, open yard has winding trails that lead you to spots where you can investigate a variety of old relics that are still standing strong decades later. Amongst all of the farming implements scattered around you’ll find a blacksmith shop, barn, smokehouse, and of course, the 150-year old John Cable Grist Mill. The overshot mill is still turned by water hitting the top of the 11-ft. tall wheel instead of flowing past the bottom of the wheel in the way most popular mills operated. You can almost feel the history of this place as the soles of your shoes collect the same dirt those original settlers once walked on. The farm-type setting is backdropped by the scenic rolling hills, green trees and rushing river water you’ve come to expect from this quiet yet exhilarating park.
Cades Cove isn’t exactly majestic like the wide vistas in other parts of the park. But it brings an inner appreciation for the beauty of creating in the pioneer way. I believe Cades Cove Road is currently closed and will remain closed through February of 2020, but check the Great Smoky Mountain National Park website for complete details and closures.
There are dozens of other back road drives and pullovers that are probably more than worthy of making this list, but Great Smoky Mountain National Park is so expansive that I didn’t get a chance to explore them all. Instead, I picked the ones that stuck out in my mind the most. Spots that were easy for a gimp like me to get to, wonderful to experience, and begging for me to come back and visit again someday.
Have you ever been to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What were your favorite stops along the way? How would you rate those stops for ease of access on a sliding scale of super easy (1) — to very difficult (5)? Have you had any issues that hindered your hiking? If so, how did you deal with it? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments box below. Or email us at [email protected].
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