Although we’re already half-way through the summer, there’s still a lot of time left for vacations and adventure travel. Instead of traveling to some far-off vacation destination, why not travel over to the national park in your own backyard? With roughly 50 percent of the U.S. population within 500 miles, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an excellent choice for a little adventure travel.
With a sluggish economy and high gas prices, traveling to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great way to stretch your entertainment dollar. You can’t beat the price of admission; Great Smoky Mountains is the only major national park that doesn’t charge an entrance fee. The main attractions in the park are all free as well. Choose from over 800 miles of trails to create your own adventure. Check out one of the many waterfalls in the park, or take a hike in the high country for some spectacular vistas. If your preference is seeing wildflowers, stop by one of the ranger offices and ask what’s in bloom. There’s something in bloom somewhere in the park almost any time of year. Another free adventure option is to take your bike for a ride around the pastoral settings of Cades Cove. The Park Service closes the 11-mile Cades Cove loop to motor traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
Another adventurous way to see the national park is on horseback. The park has hundreds of miles of horse trails as well as five drive-in horse camps. If you don't own a horse, there are four rental stables that will provide you with mounts and guides.
Maybe hiking and adventure travel isn’t really your cup of tea. Don’t worry; the park still provides many activities for those that like more leisurely pursuits.
Wildlife viewing is very popular within certain areas. Go to Cades Cove in the mornings and early evenings to see black bears, white-tailed deer and wild turkeys. The Cataloochee Valley is the best place for spotting elk which were recently reintroduced to the park in 2001.
The Smoky Mountains also boasts nearly 80 historic structures that have been preserved or rehabilitated. Feel free to walk in and explore the many houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
All this sightseeing is naturally going to make you hungry. Make sure you bring a picnic lunch or dinner with you. There are eleven picnic areas within the park. There’s also more than 2100 miles of streams where you could roll-out a blanket and enjoy the scenery while picnicking. With all those streams, there’s also plenty of fishing opportunities.
You can really make your dollar stretch by camping in the great outdoors. There’s nothing better than sitting around a camp fire and watching the stars after a hearty dinner cooked over an open flame. The park has 10 campgrounds from which to choose from.
If you’re not into roughing-it you could stay in one of the gateway communities. Being as popular as it is, Gatlinburg can be a relatively expensive option. However, if you travel to Townsend, Cosby, Cherokee or Bryson City, you’ll be able to find more affordable lodging. Restaurants will also be cheaper in these towns. Furthermore, if you opt to stay at one of the many cabins that the Smoky Mountain area is famous for, you could save a lot of money by cooking your own meals instead of eating out every night.
Another reason to stay at one of the smaller towns is that you won’t have the constant temptation of dropping cash on places like Ripley’s Haunted Adventure or Hillbilly Golf.
Whether you’re looking for adventure travel or just an inexpensive vacation, the Great Smoky Mountains is an excellent way of getting more bang for your buck. And, it’s most likely right in your own backyard. You could spend a weekend or a full week here and you’re almost guaranteed to spend much less than you would if you were to go to Disney World or Las Vegas.