The following is a guest blog by Angie Picardo:
There are lots fun things to do in the Smokies beyond hiking and backpacking, but you might not have heard about them. Did you know, for instance, that there are over ninety historic structures, such as houses, churches, barns and grist mills that you can visit? Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Cataloochee and the Roaring Fork Nature Trail are among the best areas for viewing the structures. Here’s a list of fun activities for when you tire of hiking and need a break.
1. Horseback Riding
If you like riding horses, there are several stables with horses and saddles for rent and hundreds of miles of trails to ride. Guided trips are available, lasting from 45-minutes up to several hours, and the rate is generally about $30 per hour. Three of the stables are in Tennessee, and the other is in North Carolina. If you like hay rides, they are also available at Cades Cove. Carriage and wagon rides are also available near Cherokee, NC and Cades Cove. If you have your own horse or horses, you may bring them to the park, and there are over 500 miles of trails they can walk on. Horses can also be ridden on country trails, but there may be seasonal hazards to watch out for, such as overflowing streams and washed-out parts of trails.
Kayaking and canoeing are also fun options if you’re in the Smokies. Fontana Lake is the most common destination, and there are commercial operators there who rent equipment and provide guidance on where to go and what to see. In Nantahala National Forest there are paddle sites in the Eagle/Hazel Creek, Chambers/Forney Creek areas. Spring is when many kayakers hit the streams due to the extra water flows from seasonal rains. Though the powerful streams are exciting and challenging, they can also be very dangerous.
Fishing is also a popular activity in the park because of its abundance of water: there are over 2,000 miles of streams within its boundaries. Fishing is allowed in all of them with the exception of the Lynn Camp Prong upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong. You can fish year-round, but you will need a license to do so. There is a five fish limit for smallmouth bass, brook, rainbow or brown trout in combination, meaning no more than five total for each of those species. But the limit for rock bass is 20. The minimum size for the first fish mentioned is seven inches, but there is no minimum for rock bass.
5. Wildlife Viewing
If you like animals, wildlife viewing is possible throughout the park, but there are some areas where you’re more likely to be successful. To see deer, bears, turkey, woodchucks, raccoons and other animals, places like Cades Cove and Cataloochee are two of the best areas. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another place where you can drive slowly for a chance at spotting wild animals. (Wild animals must never be fed, though, because it endangers them.)
Another popular activity is touring from your car, though the park is heavily trafficked from July 1 to August 15, and the Park Service has advised that motorists should drive before 10 am or after 5pm in order to avoid peak traffic. There are over 380 miles of roads for motorists to drive and many things to see. It may help to purchase booklets to serve as guides for some road trips, such as the Cades Cove Loop Road, Cataloochee Valley, Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Upper Tremont Road.
Bird-watching is another popular option, due to the large number of wild species throughout the Smokies. Most birds are located near the southern hardwoods in the lower and middle elevations. In summer in these areas, you might see Wood Thrush, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher and others. The Eastern Screech-Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Song Sparrow, American Goldfinch and Downy Woodpecker are also visible at times here. Hawks, wild turkey, swallows, warblers and even an oriole species can be spotted near or in open fields, though less than one percent of the park is this type of land. If you’re new to bird-watching, it would be a good idea to find a guided tour, so an experienced field guide can help you see wild birds in their natural habitats.
These activities can be done both in the park and in the areas around it. So as you plan your next trip to the Smokies, don’t limit yourself to hiking! Take full advantage of all that this park has to offer.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a financial literacy and travel site that helps people get the most from their money, whether it’s budgeting their vacation plans or starting their retirement planning.
Hiking in the Smokies