An Insider’s Guide to an Unforgettable Weekend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It’s that time. Late on a Friday. You’ve still got an hour or so left at work, but your mind has already clocked out and is on its way home, where your hiking pack lies packed and ready, and your bike is resting on the balcony, chain oiled and waiting. Your weekend in the Smokies has arrived. Here’s how to do it right.
Once you’ve gathered all your gear, coordinated the carpool with your friends, and finally fitted your bike onto the rack, it’s probably way later than you’d hoped to leave, and dinner has become an afterthought. As your stomach starts to grumble don’t worry, there are plenty of spots along the way to stop and grab a meal before your epic weekend.
After fueling up, head into the park until you reach your stop for the night: Cades Cove Campground. This is quite the popular campground, and for good reason. Easy access to Cades Cove, Abrams Falls, Rocky Top, and Thunderhead Mountain draws in a wide range of visitors. And there’s no need to worry about the crowds if you booked your spot ahead of time—you should be able to get one of the nice, roomy spots that backs up to mountain woods.
If you’re visiting the park in the summer, wake up early and hop on your bike to see Cades Cove Loop as very few have. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning between May and late September, the Loop is closed to all motorized traffic and opened exclusively to walkers, runners, and cyclists until 10am. That’s right. You get to cycle around the loop and watch the gentle mist rise up from the wide grasslands for 11 miles with no car in sight!
Take your time and really enjoy one of the most unique historical sites in the park. In addition to churches, grist mills, barns, and log cabins, visitors might also spot black bears roaming the cove or a red wolf silently stalking a deer in the tall grass. If you don’t have your own bike, you can rent one from the Cades Cove Campground store.
After you’ve had a warm-up around the rolling hills of Cades Cove loop, the real exertion can begin. Pack up your tent and head to the Alum Cave trailhead in the central section of the park. To get there, head back up Laurel Creek Road and continue on past the Townsend exit to Little River Gorge Road. The road will follow the Little River for most of the drive, and you’ll pass by Elkmont and trailheads for popular waterfall trails like Meigs Falls and Laurel Falls.
Stop at the Sugarlands Visitors Center and pick up the National Geographic Illustrated map of the Smokies—a solid investment for the rest of your trip. Once you curve down Newfound Gap Road for a while, you’ll reach Alum Cave trailhead which, at around 5.5 miles one-way, is your quickest access to the top of Mount LeConte.
Along the hike, be sure to take in the sights on this newly restored trail. You’ll encounter lush purple rhododendron blooms (if you’re hiking in the summer), climb a tunnel-like staircase called Arch Rock, pass beautiful Inspiration Point, and eventually make your way up to the trail’s namesake, Alum Cave, which is actually a large concave bluff with a high slanted roof.
Continue climbing beyond the caves further up the mountain until you enter a fragrant spruce-fir forest. This signals that you’re nearly too the top, and should soon see the roofs of LeConte Lodge ahead. You can grab a late lunch or early dinner (depending on how late you started up the trail) at the Lodge and then set out a little further down the trail to the LeConte Shelter, where you can camp for the night. Drop your bags, set up camp, grab your flashlights, and head to nearby Cliff Top to watch the sunset.
Wake up early on Sunday morning to catch the sunrise from Myrtle Point, pack up, and grab some coffee from the Lodge on your way back down the Alum Cave Trail.
On your way back down Newfound Gap Road, you have a couple of options. If you’re looking for one more mountain to tackle, you can do the short and steep Chimney Tops Trail, which will have you gaining 1,700 feet in less than two miles to reach the jagged, exposed, double summit. If you’d rather relax on a sunny Sunday afternoon, you can hop on a tube with River Rat and soak up some rays on the Little River.
Remember that you have to reserve your campsites and shelters in advance and pay a small fee. For full information about backcountry camping in the Smokies, visit the National Parks Service website or talk to a park ranger at the Sugarlands Visitors Center.