I’m planning a trip to GSMNP in a few weeks. I’m looking forward to trying to find the parks 30+ species of salamander and seeing some black bears (hopefully from a safe distance). I’ve never been before, though, and don’t know which spots are the best for wildlife viewing. If anyone who’s been there has some recommendations for their favorite trails and spots, I’d love to hear about it. I expect it to be very busy when I’m there, though, so I’d rather avoid some of the main tourist attractions in favor of some quieter spots.
I’m going in July, so I’m also interested in these answers
Whatever do you want in the Smokies? So boring, nothing to see except for lots of tourists clogging roads and taking all the parking spots.
(On a more serious note, let me gather my maps and thoughts and I can definitely provide some tips for finding places to go that are off the beaten path.)
Mostly to get an observation of a wild hellbender ^^ I’ll probably be happy just finding as many little salamanders as I can.
Penstemon and bees for me
Avoiding the crowds: In general, weekdays are better than weekends, and the NC side of the park near Cherokee is less busy than the TN side near Gatlinburg. On my recent trip, Sugarlands Visitor Center was crowded with the line at the register in the gift shop snaking around all the way outside. By comparison, no line at all at Oconaluftee Visitor Center - I could just walk up and pay without a wait.
Some popular trails get overrun with lots of cars parked along the road. They are cranking down on illegal parking so if you have your heart set on one of those go early to beat the crowds. If you’re looking for a quieter hike, you may want to pass by the obviously crowded spots and find yourself a “Quiet Walkway.” These are actually signed like that and are short trails starting at small parking areas that most people pass by. They still have the same flowers and wildlife than other areas though and can be especially nice for making nature observations.
Wildlife viewing - Bears: Your best chances are probably in Cades Cove. I’ve consistently seen multiple bears there on my trips over recent years. A couple of things to note: There is a one-way loop road around the valley that does get very busy and clogged with slow-moving traffic, especially on weekends. It’s the only road to get in and out. It’s closed for vehicles on Wednesdays if you want to hike/bike around. Other days it opens at 8 AM and closes at sunset. Your best bet is to get there early. I try to plan my Cades Cove loops for weekdays and be in and out by 10-11 AM before the road gets too busy. The most direct access to Cades Cove is from the Townsend side.
Cades Cove with its meadows is also great for bees and butterflies. On a fall trip with my mom, we caught the rear end of the monarch migration passing through.
Wildlife viewing - Elk: There’s a good chance you’ll see some in the big meadow at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC, or nearby areas especially at dusk or dawn. That’s the easiest-to-get-to place to see them.
If you are adventurous enough to navigate narrow winding gravel roads, Cataloochee Valley is another prime spot for elk viewing. From the website: “The entrance road to Cataloochee Valley is a winding, gravel road that has some steep drop offs with no guard rails. The road is narrow, so drivers may be required to stop or back up their vehicles to allow oncoming motorists to pass.” I can tell you they are not kidding. But because of that, it’s going to be a lot less busy and crowded than other parts of the park. There are plenty of hiking trails as well. I recently went on a Sunday afternoon, met a grand total of three cars on the gravel road, was the only car at the trailhead, and saw nobody during my two hour hike.
Salamanders: I personally haven’t looked for them specifically, but I know of others who have. One place to go appears to be the Cosby area. This is far off the beaten path so might be a good area to explore on otherwise crowded days anyway. It’s on the TN side near the north end and you can get there by taking 321 N from Gatlinburg and then route 32. You’ll pass a big sign saying “No Smokies this way - turn around.” Laugh and ignore and continue to the Cosby Campground (turn right onto Cosby Entrance Rd and continue to the large parking area at the shelter). There are several hiking trails that start in that area, some along creeks and apparently with good chances to find salamanders. There are also plenty of spring ephemerals in that area. Bring bug spray - we got swarmed by pesky little black flies out there.
The Greenbrier area along 321 N is another less visited area that may be worth exploring. It’s another gravel road and got washed out by heavy rain in 2022. It was closed for repairs until recently and I think some trails in that area are still closed. There is a creek-side trail starting behind the Greenbrier Ranger Station that offers a variety of mosses and liverworts that I imagine could be another prime spot to look for salamanders. Porters Creek Trail has a great variety of spring ephemerals in April/May.
If you get tired of exploring the Smokies, the Blue Ridge Parkway starts (or rather ends) at Route 441 near Cherokee, NC. Much of its southern end should be lined by blooming azaleas and rhododendrons in early summer making for a very scenic drive. Waterrock Knob at milepost 451 is a great spot to stop and explore for a high elevation hike with sunset/sunrise views and might make a nice addition to the trip.
I love the smokies so much it hurts - if hubby and I ever move out of Ohio we’re moving to Asheville.
Personally I’m a huge fan of some of the trails up leconte, the views are gorgeous but most of the wildlife I’ve seen up there is birds, insects, and squirrels - that said most of the trails are fairly crowded, especially lower down, though the higher you get the more they thin out since a lot of people only hike partway up. (Also Trillium Gap trail has some phenomenal wildflower blooms)
There’s a partially-completed road tunnel just outside of Bryson City, hiking through it leads to some trails (though I haven’t personally taken the trails, just gone through the tunnel) https://www.greatsmokies.com/road-nowhere/ - but its a very neat site.
If you want some really great driving, check out the Cherohala skyway and while you’re out that direction, check out Joyce-Kilmer memorial forest for its old growth trees and Huckleberry Knob for a PHENOMENAL view of the smokies while you have yourself a nice lunch on the bald.
If you find yourself on 441, stop in at mingus mill; its just north of the Ocanaluftee visitors center, its an old grist mill that makes for a nice little historic area - there is a stream running through, so maybe salamanders? XD
That’s a great tip! Thank you. I know it’s going to be crazy busy on the weekend that I’m heading up there, but I’ve got a limited window of opportunity, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be back in that part of the U.S. again. It will be good to have some options to escape the noise and the crowds. Fortunately, I’m staying for a whole week, so hopefully I’ll have the run of the more populular areas after everyone else has cleared out and gone home for the weekdays.
I’m back from my trip and had a wonderful time. I can’t say I really made much headway in finding all 30+ species of salamander in the park, though. I found salamanders on several different trails, but I only managed to get pictures of one or two different species (Duskies mostly, and I found a pygmy that got away before I could get a picture). Bit of a bust in that regard, but I found so many other great things. I did see the bears and I think I added about 100 new species to my life list (a lot of new arthropods. I got a great picture of a giant millipede!) and broke a few personal milestones. I also thoroughly enjoyed the “quiet walkways”. Given how crazy everything in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is, it was nice to be able to escape the crowds.
A couple of tips for anyone else who might be visiting: Townsend is a nice place to stay. It’s quiet, it’s got green space and there’s still plenty of good food. Gatlinburg is waaay too crowded, and Pigeon Forge feels like tourist trap hell. Cherokee is not as crowded as Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, but seeing advertisements for the “Indian Show” that takes place in a strip mall parking lot next to a gas station and the row of shops selling knickknacky native-themed junk definitely reeks of cultural debasement.
If you’re going to do Cades Cove, go on Wednesday and get there early. Cars are not allowed on the loop road on Wednesdays, and hiking the short half-loop was much better than being stuck in a four-hour traffic jam. I definitely got a closer look at everything, too. If Cades Cove is too crowded, the area around the Tremont Institute nearby was a great little corner of the park.
Lastly, a side trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway is another great way to escape the crowds. I found lots of different flowers in the many different road pullouts along the way, including some really unique ones (like cancer-root, a mycoheterotroph like the snow plants I find back in the Sierras in California).
Usually what I do in Cherokee is stick to the museum and the art co-op, the latter especially because you can get great locally made crafts.
It is land owned by the tribe, though, so i assume all the knick-knacky shops are at least going to support locals, despite feeling… mmm, slightly exploitative?
Native Brews is a great little brewpub though