Mount Jefferson State Park

Mount Jefferson is a great rocky prominence that juts 1600 feet above the surrounding area.  Used as a landmark for people that travel in the area, Mount Jefferson is not only an amazing physical feature on the outskirts of the new River area but it is a remarkable container for countless species of plants and animals.  In modern times, this has become a State Natural Area, that is designed to tell people about the mountain, the history of the area and protect some of the species that live in its shadow.

Mount Jefferson State ParkMount Jefferson has gone by many names in its long history.  For a number of years before the American Revolution, the mountain was called Panther Mountain.  This was due to the legend that a child was killed by a panther on the mountain itself.  In 1952, the mountain was named after Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States.  This was due to a 1749 visit by Thomas Jefferson and his father as they surveyed what would become the border of North Carolina and Virginia.  Now, Mount Jefferson is a tribute to the man and a landmark state park that allows people to come and play outside in the great wide open spaces.

Due to the extreme nature of the mountain itself, the activities are built around the exploring the mountain and teaching about the mountain.  The Park rangers that manage the land provide education talks about the area and interpretive programs to allow you to learn more about Mount Jefferson and the part that it plays in the ecosystem.  In fact, if you call and schedule it ahead of time, they will supply a park ranger or a local historian to give you a private tour of the mountain.

Mount Jefferson State ParkBesides the history that surrounds the name and nature of the mountain, Mount Jefferson is home to thousands of species of plants and animals.  Due to the diversity in the altitude, the forests and the animals are broken up by the elevations.  The hardwood forest at the top of the mountain contain a much different set of animals and shrubs then you will find at the lower levels of Mount Jefferson.

Mount Jefferson, one of the most majestic mountains in the Southern Appalachians, is a North Carolina State Park.  Beautiful scenery brought Thomas Jefferson and his father to the area to establish the border between Virginia and North Carolina.  Now the Mountain and the state park bear his name.  Bring the family and your friends to the slopes of Mount Jefferson State Park.  Enjoy the scenery, enjoy the activities and learn about the ecology of this steep environment.

Mount Mitchell State Park

Mount Mitchell State ParkThe highest point east of the Mississippi River is Mount Mitchell.  Rising more than a mile into the sky, Mount Mitchell is as majestic from the bottom of the mountain as it is from the peak.  The facilities at Mount Mitchell allow you to learn more about the geology and history of this amazing land mass.  Also while you are there, you can picnic, hike and spend the day on the tallest piece of land on the east coast.

Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Tennessee side of the Smokies is nothing in comparison to Mount Mitchell.  From the base this monolith seems to scrape the clouds.  On most days, Mount Mitchell is surrounded by a mist of clouds that seem to be unable to get high enough to go over the top of the mountain.  Once you drive to the park you might decide to hike to the top at the summit platform.  This is a short walk but it literally gets you to the highest point on the east coast.  You breathe will be taken away by the incredible view of the mountains and valley around you.

Hiking is only one of the activities at Mount Mitchell State Park.  You can camp on the mountain, picnic or learn more about the history and structure of Mount Mitchell itself.  If you are wanting to bring a small group or a school group, they have small classrooms and prepared materials to teach about the land, the ecology, the wildlife and how Mount Mitchel has figured into the history of our country.

Mount Mitchell State Park

Mount Mitchell State ParkAnd make sure that you visit the exhibit hall.  In the hall, look for the information about Big Tom Wilson.  They have a replica of the cabin he lived in and even artifacts from his life.  Big Tom was one of the guides that led the scientist to the peaks of the mountain during the 19th century.  He is also the man that went in after Dr Elisha Mitchell’s body when he did not return on his last trip up the mountain.  Of course, Mount Mitchell is named after Elisha Mitchell, the person that pushed for the naming of Mt Mitchell as the tallest peak.

Mount Mitchell is a stop that everybody needs to make at least once when while you visit the southern Appalachian mountains.  If you are cruising around the North Carolina side of the Smokies, make the drive up Mount Mitchell.  Explore the summit and learn more about the area and the people.  Take in the scenery, shoot some pictures, do some hiking and have a great day on top of the world on the east coast.

Warriors’ Path State Park

Warrior's Path State ParkWarriors’ Path State Park is named for the Great Indian Warpath that cut through the area and was a trading and travel root for the Cherokee Indians that moved through the area.  People still move through the area and they now spend part of that time inside the boundaries of Warriors’ Path State Park.  Located on the shores of the Patrick Henry Reservoir, this man made lake provides a beautiful backdrop to the amenities that this state park has to offer.

Kingsport is a northeast town in the state of Tennessee.  With the Smoky Mountains providing a backdrop, you are minutes from Kingsport and mere miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The 950 acre park has become known for one of the most unique attractions in any state park in the state:  Darrell’s Dream Boundless Playground

The location of the park on the side of Patrick Henry Reservoir means that some of the amenities are naturally tied to the water.  Fishing, swimming, boating and a public marina are only some of the things that you can get involved in while you are at Warriors’ Path State Park.  You can also enjoy biking, camping, golf, hiking trails and horseback riding.  And then there is the Boundless Playground.

Boundless PlaygroundIn 2007 Darrel’s Dream Boundless Playground was opened to the public.  Darrell Rice, the president of the Friends of Warriors’ Path State Park decided that they wanted to develop a playground that would allow kids of all abilities to play and have fun at Warriors’ Path.  This playground is fully accessible to everyone.  Children with special abilities now have a place to play in the great outdoors.  They no longer have to sit on the side lines while they watch other children having fun.  Included with the playground, is the Lions Narnia Braille Trail which is designed for those children with impaired vision and the Anderson Treehouse – a FULLY accessible treehouse style structure.

Warriors’ Path State Park is a full service state park.  Plenty to do, plenty of activities and opportunities, this state park is designed with citizens of all abilities in mind.  Go hang out on the water, have a picnic in the shade, play in the water or go take in the Boundless Playground.  Either way you experience it, Warriors’ Path State Park is a delight and a special place for a group of special children that now have a playground that keeps them in mind.

Pisgah National Forest

Pisgah National ForestThe Pisgah National Forest is a 500,000 acres of land in Western North Carolina.  This national forest, composed mostly of hardwood trees, is also full of action.  Whitewater rivers, waterfalls, and trails aplenty, there is always something going on in the Pisgah National Forest.  Pisgah also has a lot of history that you can explore while you learn about not only this national forest and the national forest system as well.  Between the outdoor activities and educational opportunities the Pisgah National Forest is always ready to entertain.

The Pisgah National Forest borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.  The lands contained in the Pisgah National Forest were once a haven for the logging industry.  Now those former logging trails are roads and bike paths that allow visitors to experience all that the Pisgah has to offer.  Pisgah National Forest contains the Pisgah, Grandfather and Appalachian Ranger districts so the number of mountain peaks in the Pisgah National Forest is astounding.  As you drive through Western North Carolina you will pop in and out of national forests and state parks all the time.  You will at some point find yourself in Pisgah.

Pisgah National ForestThis area was worked over by the lumber industry before the creation of the National Park and the National Forests.  The hardwood forest were dollar signs for the logging industry.  It is hard to imagine today as you walk among the huge trees in the Pisgah National Forest that at one point this area was almost deforested.  Contained in the Pisgah National Forest was one of the first forestry schools in the United States.  Now it is the site of the Cradle of Forestry in America Historic site.

When you find yourself in the Pisgah National Forest you are in store for as many activities as you can stand.  Biking, camping, fishing, hiking, water activities and much more are around every turn in this national forest.  Whether you are just looking to have a picnic in the outdoors or if you are looking for that adventure that involves boating, kayaking, ATV riding or anything else, the Pisgah National Forest might be the best place to spend a long weekend while you are visiting the Smoky Mountains and the southern Appalachians.

Nantahala National Forest

Nantahala National ForestNantahala National Forest (NNF) is one of the four national forests in the state of North Carolina.  Administered by the United States Forest Service this is the largest of the four, containing more than 530,000 acres of land.  Named for the Nantahala River, this land used to be part of the hunting grounds and tribal lands of the Cherokee.  Now, the NNF is a hugely popular recreational area and if you are driving around on the North Carolina side of the Smokies you are bound to find yourself in the Nantahala National Forest at some point.

The term Nantahala means the Land of the Noonday Sun.  The reason that the Cherokee gave the land this name is due to the extreme valleys and physical features of this terrain.  At some places in the NNF the land does not see the sun until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky.  The word has also given its name to the famous river that runs through the national forest.  The Nantahala River is one of the best rafting rivers in the Smokies.  The Nantahala Outdoor Center has made its home in the valley of the river and provides thousands of people with experienced rafting guides to take them on an adventure down the river each year.

Nantahala National ForestThroughout the Nantahala National Forest, you will find recreational opportunities.  Unlike the Smokies there are designated areas that allow you to take an ATV into the mountains and enjoy a ride on a 4 wheeler.  There are rafting and other boating opportunities along the various rivers and streams.  Parts of the NNF also give you a chance to do some of the best bass and trout fishing that you will find in North Carolina.  The NNF never ceases to amaze those people that pass through it and find that they need to spend an extra day in the mountains just to see what the Nantahala National Forest has to offer.

If you are traveling through the Smokies in North Carolina, once you head south from Cherokee, you will be in the NNF until you reach the state line.  Many great mountain towns are contained in the national forest:  Dillsboro, Franklin, Cashiers, Highlands and Robbinsville – to name a few.  Explore the NNF.  Get out there and see what it has to offer.  Play and stay in the towns contained in this, one of the most beautiful national forest in the country.

North Carolina Arboretum

NC ArboretumIf you’re from Gatlinburg, or East Tennessee, you’ve likely made the short day trip over to Asheville, NC to eat, shop, visit Biltmore, etc. If you’re an outdoors-type person, or more specifically, if you’re into trees and plants, one place you should know about is the North Carolina Arboretum, if you don’t already.

To become more familiar with trees, plants and nature, visit an arboretum. The North Carolina Arboretum is dedicated to providing insight into the trees, plants and nature of North Carolina – especially those located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The arboretum’s revolving yearly exhibits ensures visitors a chance to see something brand new with each visit. The North Carolina Arboretum puts on a revolving show throughout the year, from the exhibits in the Baker Exhibit Center to the gardens outside there’s always something new and interesting to learn.

NC ArboretumThe arboretum’s sustainable shelter project has been on display since the fall.  This particular exhibit gives examples of how people can use recycled materials and natural fibers in their daily life.  One such example is the garden shed which not only captures rain water, but also recycles the water that you use when you are tending to garden plants.  Not only is the garden shed an exhibit, it’s actually being used in the upkeep of the gardens around the shed itself.  Another exhibit shows how mud-daub houses are made with natural materials. All these exhibits demonstrate the arboretum’s views about how these materials can be used to help benefit the planet. More scientific explanations for the need of sustainable shelters will be available in the exhibit hall as well.

Besides the educational aspects of the arboretum, there are also a slew of recreational opportunities.  Numerous trails wind around the grounds of this 434-acre facility.  In all, there are 65 acres of cultivated gardens in this park.  From the winding path in the one of the most unique bonsai gardens in America to the straight trails at the quilt garden, the arboretum’s natural beauty will ease your mind and put your cares at ease while you explore the grounds.

NC ArboretumA huge collection of sculptures also calls the arboretum’s gardens home.  This outdoor art collection reflects the culture of the region and is all a representation of the area’s local artists.  Take a self-guided tour of the art walk. There are brochures to get you started. The two indoor facilities also house collections of arts and crafts. Paintings of the natural landscapes in the area to mountain crafts are just a few of the noted works.  Be sure to visit the arboretum website before your visit so that you can make the most of your time at the North Carolina Arboretum.

The arboretum is centrally located in Asheville, NC, and only minutes from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  The cost to enter is $8 per vehicle so it is also a very cost effective place to visit during your Smokies vacation.  The North Carolina Arboretum is a natural history museum that you definitely want to add to your itinerary.

Asheville Art Museum

In the heart of the metropolis that is Asheville, NC there is a bight spot of culture in the downtown area:  The Asheville Art Museum.  Right off Pack Square, the Asheville Art Museum is packed with art of every shape form and fashion.  With a hugely popular permanent collection and traveling shows that change the experience of the museum throughout the year,  and of course special events to fit every taste this is one of the best art museums in the Smoky Mountains.

Asheville Art MuseumThe permanent collection of the Asheville Art Museum focuses on art and artists from the 20th century forward.  The art contained in their permanent collection ranges in media and subject matter.  Both regional and national artists are represented in the collection as well as a diverse collection of art types and medium.  In this collection there are more then 3500 works of art and almost 5000 architectural drawings (though all of this are not on display all the time).

There is also a Black Mountain Collection at the Asheville Art Museum.  This collection of pieces is designed to celebrate the 24 counties of Western North Carolina, those that are located in and in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.  And, as you can see by the name, this collection also focuses on artists that have a connection with Black Mountain College.  This project is an ever-growing repository of works and they are also in the process of digitizing the collection so that it will be available to people both at the museum and online.  Right now, this collection houses more than 520 works of art.

The traveling shows that come through the Asheville area always have a home in the exhibits at the Asheville Art Museum.  Some of these exhibits stay for years but some are there for a very short amount of time.  Ranging from collections that focus on niche markets to collections of world renown artists, the special exhibits in the art museum in Asheville bring people to the area for the purpose of viewing and appreciating art, the fact that you can buy a Membership that will get you and your family into the museum throughout the year just goes to show that people come back as the exhibits in the halls change.

If you are visiting the Asheville, make sure that you take in Pack Square.  And while you are in Pack Square walk towards the back of the square.  Head inside the cool pristine gallery that houses one of the best art collections in the southeast.  You may find that you have found one of the spots that you will revisit year after year as your knowledge and appreciation of these art forms grows.

Asheville Art Museum
2 South Pack Square
Asheville, NC

Biking the Smokies

If you brought your bike with you into the Smoky Mountains you are in for a treat.  Even though bikes are not allowed on any of the trails in the National Park, there are plenty of places to bike while you are visiting.

  • Biking in Cades CoveCades Cove – This is possibly the most biked area of the GSMNP.  Due to the low elevation and the gentle rise and fall of the roads makes this a great place to bike for the whole family.  You don’t have to be an experienced bicycler to enjoy a trip around the 11 mile loop road in the mountains.  Also, the park service shuts down motor vehicle traffic in Cades Cove on Wednesday and Saturday morning so that the bicyclists have the area to themselves, until noon.
  • Cataloochee – Another great place to take a bike.  The roads inside the valley are flat and give you plenty of space to ride around and enjoy the pristine beauty of this location.  While you ride you will be able to take in the not only the natural beauty but the wildlife that calls this valley home.
  • Newfound Gap Road – Not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced,  if you are a serious ‘biker’ this is a grueling uphill climb from the Sugarlands visitors center to the top of the mountain.  Be sure to keep the drivers in mind and use the pull-offs to keep traffic flowing.
  • Foothills Parkway – The Foothills Parkway has long been a source of consternation to the people of Tennessee, but if you have a bike with you, you will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place to ride in the mountains.  After a brief climb from Townsend, you will hit a nice relatively straight road that doesn’t see a lot of traffic and is a great place to put some miles on your bike.
And if you are looking to do some mountain biking, don’t be sad because you can’t tackle the trails in the GSMNP.  The state parks and national forest on both sides of the mountains provide plenty of trails that you can get on for the adventure of biking on the mountain.  These areas are designed for mountain biking and you will have room to enjoy yourself while practicing this extreme sport.

If you didn’t bring a bike, there are places where you can rent a bike while you are in the area.  One of the most popular is the Cades Cove Campground Store.  Either while you are staying in the campground or while you are visiting Cades Cove for the day, a bike from the campground store will give you a way to cruise around the campground or to tackle the Cades Cove Loop Road.  Also, if you are in one of the towns around the Smokies and you need an accessory for your bike or a repair, there are a number of bike shops ranging from small mom and pop stores to mountain bike shops that can help you replace a chain or a set of brakes.