Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Gap Is Where It's At (Part 3)

Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Gap Is Where It's At (Part 3)

It's the end of July and we just sent the files for our Illustrated Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park book over to the press. Months of research/writing/editing are finally over and now we get to see what all of our labor will look like in hardback. It's like the child we've been raising for the last 8 months is about to start their first day of school. We've fed it, cleaned it up, put it in "time out" once or twice, and tried to give it enough self-confidence to stand on its own. Now it's time to let it out into the world, to be viewed, scrutinized, and hopefully enjoyed by thousands of people. It's a weird feeling.

The first 200 copies purchased will be autographed by the authors, so if you haven't joined our email list already, definitely do so! We'll be sending out an email blast announcing the book pre-sale in a couple of weeks.

In this month's GSM blog post, we explore the Newfound Gap region, one of the liveliest sections in the Park. It's a must-see spot if you're visiting the Smokies for the first time. We stopped here twice in the spring, an excellent time of year to hike the trails that stem out from the Gap.  

It's hard to beat April in the South, especially up in the Smokies. Emerald leaves, croaking frogs, and chirruping birds all revel in the warming weather. Our southern mountains have thawed (for the most part) and shorts can be comfortably worn without getting goosebumps. Like fireworks in July, April is the month when nature explodes. Nothing has wilted in the heavy summer sunlight yet, everything is new and fresh and clean. The mosquitos are still dead from winter (may they never return) so this is the perfect month for a new Smoky Mountain adventure.

And Newfound Gap is an ideal place to start. The Gap may be one of the most popular parking lots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sits right on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina (a routine family photo op), and acts as a major stopping point on Newfound Gap Road (US Highway 441) which runs straight through the Park all the way to Miami, Florida. The highway slinks up from the gaudy glamor of Gatlinburg to this mountain pass, 5,046 feet above sea level. Both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the one and only Dolly Parton stood atop Newfound Gap's stone platform to dedicate the National Park (FDR in 1940, Dolly in 2009). 

Unlike other National Parks where reaching the top of the Park's highest mountain may require a 10+ hour, body-destroying hike, the Smokies have a road that drives right up to within a half mile of it. Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, can be accessed via Clingmans Dome Road. The road is less than a quarter-mile from the Newfound Gap parking lot and winds 7 miles uphill to the paved trail.

Word to the wise: pack yourself a pair of long pants and a rain jacket if you visit in the springtime. Even when it feels like summer down in Pigeon Forge, Clingmans Dome is often windy, wet, and chilly. You'll start noticing a more alpine-like feel to your surroundings as you drive up. The evergreens toss about in the breeze while yellow wildflowers bob on the damp slopes. 

Clingmans Dome Road dead-ends into a long parking area where a half-mile uphill hike is all that stands between you and the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. It's a haul (thankfully there are several benches to sit and catch your breath on the way up). A small stone building built by the Civilian Conservation Corps houses the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center. Stop in and get a stamp for your Parks Passport or purchase a black bear stuffed animal for your daughter. She'll thank you for climbing up a mountain to buy her a souvenir someday.

The Observation Tower is a welcome sight after completing the climb. Shuffle up the ramp if you're not too scared of heights and stare out into the expanse of rolling mountains. You're 6,643 feet up, standing on the roof of the Smoky Mountains. Take in the view from the top; if you've got clouds obscuring your panoramic view, wait around for a little bit. Weather changes fast up here.

When we were there in April, a young boy had found a red-cheeked salamander near the base of the tower. He happily showed off his prize to us before releasing it in the nearby forest. Clingmans Dome receives around 85 inches of rainfall a year, creating a mountain rainforest ecosystem that's perfect for salamanders. Their vivid colors are a treat for the eyes.


Another must-hike from Newfound Gap is the 8-mile roundtrip jaunt on the Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion.

While it can be strenuous at times and requires 4-6 hours to complete, a picnic atop the Bunion was one of my favorite moments of our research trips. Charlies Bunion is a bare stone outcropping that was created by a wildfire so hot, the soil mineralized. A massive rainstorm later washed the earth away, revealing this peculiar rock formation.

The hike itself is a ramble over rocks and roots, a winding journey through the woods and across an exposed mountain ridge. We tackled the trek to Charlies Bunion in March when a river of ice still slicked the shaded trail. The ice added another layer of challenge to the hike; it was like playing "Don't Step in the Lava" when you were a kid on the playground. You had to think about every single step you made so you didn't fall and break your coccyx. Don't wanna give the bears anything easy.

The A.T. runs ~2,200 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Ketahdin, Maine. You'll likely see gear-laden backpackers, hiking sticks in hand, following the white trail markers painted on tree trunks. Overnight shelters dot the trail all the way to Maine; you'll pass one on your way to Charlies Bunion.

Whether you are taking the family for a daytrip into the Park or beginning a week-long backpacking excursion, the Newfound Gap area is an excellent starting point to get acclimated to the Smoky Mountains. We hope to see you up there soon. 

Stay tuned for our upcoming preorder announcement for the brand new Great Smoky Mountains coffee table book! The release date is October 1st but those who preorder just might receive theirs earlier...

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