American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
Outdoor (and Indoor) Adventures in the Smokies, Part 2
In the wee hours of Friday morning, I posted the first installment of a three-part interview with Katy Koontz – Knoxville resident, longtime travel writer and Smokies expert, and author of the Smoky Mountain Travel Guide ($2.99), a handy app available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. As I mentioned on Friday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738, 865/436-1200, 24 hours daily, free) is one of my favorite locales under the purview of the U.S. National Park Service, which recently celebrated its 96th birthday.
Situated in both Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation's most visited national park, luring everyone from outdoor enthusiasts and amorous couples to those on a family vacation. It's a gorgeous region, after all, with oodles of scenic views, hiking trails, fishing spots, and other recreational diversions, including the chance to see the synchronous firefly phenomenon in June and climb 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. At this time of year, it's also a popular place for “leaf peeping.”
In the first part of my interview with Katy – admittedly, the most passionate Smokies expert I know – she shared her favorite memories of exploring this diverse region, highlighted the contents and features of her app, and described the various gateway towns surrounding the Smokies. She also offered suggestions regarding the region's most unique outdoor activities as well as the best places to catch the Smokies' famously scenic views.
If you're still curious about the Smokies, here's the second part of my interview:
American Nomad: Where would visitors have the best chance of spotting the Smokies' native wildlife?
Katy Koontz: Definitely Cades Cove, but the downside is that it is one of the most crowded places in the park, so the 11-mile loop drive can take hours, even without stops to get out and explore. The best times to see wildlife are near dawn and at dusk, so I'd recommend going then. And the road is closed to vehicles before 10 a.m. every Saturday year-round (and every Wednesday in summer), so you can walk or bike it then for a totally different experience. (You can even rent a bike at the Cades Cove Campground near the beginning of the loop drive.) Another first-rate wildlife encounter is seeing the elk in the fields around Cataloochee. Fall is their rutting season, when you can catch males locking horns and bugling. They're easier to spot at dawn or dusk, although they often hang out within view of the road all day in cloudy or rainy weather (and in winter).
AN: What’s your favorite hiking trail in the Smokies?
KK: I have many, although I tend to return to the various waterfall hikes more than most. Hiking to Grotto Falls (on the Trillium Gap Trail) is a favorite that I've already mentioned because it's so fun to be able to walk behind the waterfall. The Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte is also great because it goes to Arch Rock as well as the overhang known as Alum Cave Bluffs on the way to the summit of Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the Smokies. But be prepared – it's steep! The hike from Metcalf Bottoms to the Little Greenbrier School (a one-room, split-log schoolhouse that dates from 1882) is an easy hike with a terrific historic payoff. I like to sit in the schoolhouse and try to imagine what it must have been like for kids to go to school there back before the national park was established. And I absolutely adore the Cosby Self-Guiding Nature Trail (in the Cosby campground). It's only a mile long, but it's absolutely magical. It's a pretty little walk through the woods where you crisscross the gurgling, bubbly creek several times. The spring wildflowers, many moss-covered rocks, and remains of rock walls from pioneer days make it absolutely special. If fairies exist, this is surely one of the places where they'd want to live.
AN: What's your favorite campground in the region?
KK: I like Elkmont Campground. It's the largest campground in the park, but it has lots of sites right along the river, and it has its own nature trail and amphitheater for ranger programs. There's even a little camp store with convenience items, as well as wood and ice. It's the most convenient place for watching the synchronous fireflies – in fact, with the park's new reservation system for shuttle busses to see the fireflies, camping at Elkmont is the only way to see them for more than one night (because you can walk over yourself and don't have to rely on the shuttle). It's also one of the campgrounds that takes reservations.
AN: For visitors not interested in outdoor activities (as if!), which attractions would you recommend most?
KK: The surrounding gateway towns are bursting with attractions, so visitors have a lot to choose from. The Titanic Museum is truly awesome – you could easily spend half a day there. It's housed in a half-size replica of the ship, and in addition to being able to see hundreds of artifacts, you can walk out on a re-creation of the captain's bridge at night and touch the iceberg, walk up the grand staircase, see the first-class suite (where Jack sketched Rose in the movie), and even watch the water rush toward you down the stairs of the third-class section. Dollywood is another fun way to spend the day. The thrill rides get better every year, but you'll also find craftsman's shops, music shows, parades, and great food. Dollywood is especially wonderful during the holidays, when everything is encrusted with lights. Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies has a lot to offer, including an underwater tunnel where you travel by moving-sidewalk through a tank with sharks and other sea creatures. If you like haunted house attractions, the Mysterious Mansion is hands-down my favorite – it starts out with your having to find the secret passageway out of the parlor. And Sweet Fanny Adams gets a big thumbs-up – its old-fashioned, vaudeville-style, slapstick humor is the Smokies answer to Monty Python (without the accent). It simply has no equal.
AN: Where can shoppers find the best local goods and artwork?
KK: The Arts & Crafts Community is an eight-mile stretch outside of Gatlinburg that's filled with shops and studios. It started back in 1937, so it's been a fixture for quite some time. You'll find painters, weavers, candle makers, leather workers, potters, broom makers, quilters, and all sorts of other artisans. There's a lovely little restaurant in the community called the Wild Plum Tea Room, as well as a fabulous British-style pub called the Fox and Parrot. And an old-fashioned soda fountain, too! So you can spend the whole day there. In downtown Gatlinburg, I highly recommend the Arrowcraft shop, which is owned by the Southern Highland Craft Guild and dates from 1926. Their Appalachian crafts are top-notch.
For more information about the Smokies, consult Katy's other offerings, such as Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family-Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as Deborah Huso's Moon Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains guidebook. Deborah's author Q&A is also a helpful resource. In the meantime, stay tuned for the final part of my interview with Katy – and be sure to check out my Laura's Simple Pleasures blog for more stunning photos of the Smokies as well as screenshots of Katy's app.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below, contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com, or connect with me on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Screenshot of Katy Koontz's Smokies app / Text © 2012 Laura Martone