The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and The Newfound Gap RoadThe Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the grand jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains Province; with land in both North Carolina and Tennessee, it conveniently borders the northern boundary of Jackson County. There are over 520,000 acres of towering mountain wilderness lands, the highest reaching up to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome, with an additional 16 peaks over 6,000 feet above sea level. This nationally protected parkland and natural biosphere reserve is home to 110,000 acres of old-growth forest, 1,600 species of flowering plants, and numerous fungi and mosses. There are 200 varieties of birds, 48 different types of fish, 38 species of reptiles, 27 types of salamanders, and 60 species of fur-bearing mammals--including the park's beloved icon, the black bear.
There are cascading waterways in abundance and waterfalls so plentiful they're nearly uncountable. Hiking trails run for miles in all directions up and down the rugged slopes of the Smokies, while the renowned Appalachian Trail scales the heights of the mighty backbone ridge top from one end of the park to the other.
Camping, hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, and more are available in the parklands. There are out-of-the-way and hidden coves throughout the park, offering a look back at primitive times when early settlers lived in these remote, isolated lands. Day by day these hearty souls hacked out a modest living from these rugged wilderness lands, long before the parklands were formally established. On the Tennessee side of the park are abandoned communities with names like Cades Cove and Green Briar. Today these old settlements are well-preserved outdoor community museums consisting of farmsteads, schools, and churches. Also on the Tennessee side of the park is an accumulation of old homesteads lying along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near the town of Gatlinburg.On the southeastern side of the park in North Carolina is the lost community of Cataloochee Valley. This valley was abandoned, along with other early Smoky Mountain communities, following the removal of its citizens for the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the southern gateway to the Smokies you'll find the Oconaluftee Visitors' Center and the outdoor Mountain Farm Museum. This antique farm museum is an accumulation of early structures, some relocated from the old Smoky Mountains to the current museum site.
There are other authentic historic sites like Mingus Mill located along the Newfound Gap Road near the Oconaluftee Visitors' Center. The Mingus Mill site offers a working elevated millrace and gristmill.
These historic sites are accessible via paved or unpaved forestry roads. An unpaved roadway leads into the Cataloochee Valley (NC) and Green Briar (TN). Cades Cove (TN) is mostly paved once entering the historic cove. Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail (TN) is paved all the way. Access to the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill are also paved. There are other historic sites that can only be reached by hiking, such as the abandoned community of Proctor (NC).
Proctor lies along the northern shoreline of Lake Fontana and is land locked, or should I say, lake locked. When the lake was constructed, it cut the "logging town" off from the mainland. Today, history buffs take a boat to the distance shore and hike in order to explore the historic buildings of this "ghost town community."
Approximately 10 million people visit the park annually, some looking for outdoor adventure; others come just for the sights and possibly a short hike to a hidden waterfall or overlook. The majority of the visitors come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to experience the Newfound Gap Road. This scenic driving tour spans from the south to the north route across the parkland for about 30 to 35 miles. Newfound Gap Road begins at the Oconaluftee Visitors' Center in North Carolina and ends at the Sugarlands Visitors' Center in Tennessee.From the Oconaluftee Center, the Newfound Gap Road follows the Oconaluftee River, passing sights of interest, overlooks, and hiking trails along the way as it winds higher and higher to the great vista above. Newfound Gap Road reaches its highest point at Newfound Gap Overlook, from which the scenic roadway takes its name. The gap shares the state lines of both North Carolina and Tennessee. The gap, with magnificent overlooks, has parking, restrooms, a kiosk, trail access, and a stone block monument platform from which President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in the 1930's. The views from Newfound Gap are spellbinding and will take your breath away.
The Newfound Gap is located in a low gap along the highest ridge in the parklands; it is the most convenient way over the Smoky Mountains broad range. The highest peak in the Smoky Mountains is Clingmans Dome at 6,642 feet above sea level. A roadway to the summit can be accessed just across from Newfound Gap's parking area. It's about a seven-mile drive up to the dome's parking area. From the parking area there's a paved uphill trail to the tower, which opens up to a 360-degree panoramic view. On a clear day parts of seven states can be seen from the tower. Clingmans Dome Road can get congested during heavy tourism season, especially during the fall.
From Newfound Gap, the Newfound Gap Road winds westward into Tennessee, down sharp curves, past scenic beauty, and through echoing tunnels. For safety's sake, the most attractive views for drivers taking a self-guided driving tour through the area is the roadway right in front of them, and there are plenty of pull-offs for travelers to stop and enjoy the scenic views. Continuing down the mountain there are many scenic overlooks, trails, waterways, rushing creeks, and waterfalls, as well as "quiet walk" areas, picnic tables, and old-forest growth access areas.The Newfound Gap Road ends at the Sugarlands Visitors' Center on the Tennessee side of the park's boundary. The best part about reaching the end of this scenic tour is one can turn around and head back, taking in a world of beautiful scenery from a totally different perspective.
The southern gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on US 441 near the northern boundary of Jackson County and the town of Cherokee on the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee Reservation). After the scenic tour, visitors can head into the town of Cherokee for shopping, a visit to the Cherokee Museum, or the Oconaluftee Village. The Fairgrounds in the town of Cherokee hosts numerous events and festivals. The town of Cherokee also hosts the popular and authentic live drama performance of "Unto These Hills." There's also Harrah's Gaming Casino for those who would like to try their luck. No winnings guaranteed, although it might be easier than panning for gold in local "coldwater" streams beds.
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