The peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, encased in greenery and reaching over 6,000 feet, have a national park named in their honor. It’s home to more biodiversity than any other in the park system. Spanning the borders of both Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the most visited park in the system with over 10 million annual visits. Just east of the park, the bustling city of Asheville couples unmatched scenery and easy access to the park. Add in a friendly, outdoorsy vibe and Asheville is the perfect landing spot for your Great Smoky Mountains getaway.
Access an unbusy visitors center and trails in the heart of the park.
Asheville is located between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northern part of North Carolina. You’ll get more peak views driving into the park from Asheville than from the popular vacation towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to the west of the park — and the drive from Asheville to the park gate takes less than an hour. Another bonus of basing yourself in Asheville is that you’ll experience far less traffic heading into the park during the busy months of summer. Along the way you’ll pass shimmering lakes, forests, and bustling businesses, all of which provide plenty of things to do and see before and after you head into mountains.
From Asheville, you have a few options to get into the national park. The most straightforward is to hop on Interstate 40 and cruise west. However, this is more of a streamlined interstate to get drivers through the park more quickly, so there aren’t many pull-offs to enjoy the views along the way. To get into the heart of the park, get off the interstate at exit 27 onto US-74 and head towards Cherokee, then go north on US-441 towards Oconaluftee. Here, you will find trails that are just as beautiful as those on the main side of the park but less frequented during peak season.
When you pass Cherokee and continue north, Oconaluftee is the next significant point of interest. This scenic area has a small visitors center and a historic village, offering a unique vantage point of the area even to those who’ve visited the Smoky Mountains before. As a bonus, the elk that frequent the area can usually be seen at dusk or dawn before they head back into the mountains. Keep your eyes peeled as they love to scrounge for food. If you happen to see an elk while driving, never stop your vehicle. Find a parking spot or turn around to see it again as sudden stops can cause a collision and back up the roadway.
Take advantage of lesser-visited attractions on the park’s eastern side.
If you’ve never seen an old grist mill, make sure to stop by the one at Mingus Creek after you’re done at Oconaluftee. This 1886 mill is still operational and debatably makes the best cornmeal around. But the real perk is that this is where you’ll find the trailhead to the Mingus Creek Trail, a hike as breathtakingly beautiful as it is isolated. The trail is an out-and-back hike of 5.8 miles rated moderately challenging, and if you feel like pushing on further, it does connect to other trails along the way. You don’t have to do the whole trek in order to reach incredible views, however. After a little over a mile of walking, you’ll encounter a fork in the road that leads to a spooky old cemetery on the right fork.
Keep driving along US-441 until you encounter the Swinging Bridge Quiet Walkway Trailhead, a name much more convoluted than the hike itself. This trail is a short out-and-back jaunt with breathtaking views of the hills and forest. Many people actually miss the trail by never looking past the overlook. Look for a small weathered tan sign at the edge of the parking lot and, upon closer inspection, you will see “quiet walkway” and a set of pointed instructions to “take your time.” Once you’ve abided the directions at the overlook, taking in all of the expansive mountain views, venture over to the trail to soak in even more natural beauty.
Toast to your adventure in town with craft beer.
Few things go better with exploring the outdoors than beer, and few places do beer as well as Asheville. Opportunities abound all over town to cheers with a well-deserved brew and chat away about the day’s adventures. Asheville Brewing Company is your first port of call, a friendly brewpub that not only serves amazing craft beer but also delicious pizza and burgers, as well. You can sit outside at both its downtown and North Asheville locations.
Another strong pull is Wicked Week Brewing, located downtown and offering a bustling patio scene. For something a little more lively, hop on over to Off The Wagon Dueling Piano Bar Asheville. You’ll find it on the last brick road in Asheville. The inside has a very 1920s vibe though the musicians here are anything but old-school. Prepare to have an exciting and entertaining night as the over-21 crowd experiences a different kind of piano dueling.
No matter where you stay, drink, or play, you will not feel the “touristy” vibe in Asheville. It’s easy to feel like a local here, particularly if you’ve spent time in similarly outdoorsy, hipster-friendly, mid-size cities like Boulder or Missoula. Asheville blends southern history, good food, and a friendly atmosphere. These features, coupled with it’s close proximity to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, make the town your perfect basecamp. If you haven’t had enough adventure by the time the next morning comes, the river of beer awaits.