Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. Called the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is famous for its diverse flora and fauna, including black bears. The best way to move around is in an SUV with a panoramic sunroof. We choose Mercedes-Benz GLS550
“Feel the cool mist near a waterfall, camp under the stars, explore a historic building or, if you get lucky, watch the elusive American black bear cross your path in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” an adventurer from New York gives me a few ‘to do’ tips, as I get ready to visit the most visited national park in the US, situated on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or the Smokies, lies to the southwest of New York, over 700 miles (1,200 km) away. The ‘conventional’ way of reaching the park is taking a flight to Knoxville and then driving down to Gatlinburg, an hour away. However, from the East Coast, the best way of travelling to the Smokies is driving via the picturesque state of Virginia (New York to Gatlinburg is 11 hours, via I-81 S; Washington, DC, to Gatlinburg is 8 hours).
Gatlinburg is a small town; it serves as the gateway to the Smokies. Hotels are plenty, as are eateries. If day-long hikes and camping are not your thing, a good way to experience the Smokies is the Cades Cove road trip.
Cades Cove is a broad, grass-covered valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Smokies. It offers very good opportunities for viewing wildlife in the park. Deer is a certainty, but if you get lucky, you can see the American black bear and the elk, one of the largest land mammals in North America. Other animals found in the Cades Cove are coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon and skunk.
The best way to move around is in an SUV with a panoramic sunroof. We choose Mercedes-Benz GLS550. It is a tall SUV, and gives you better all-round views, compared to people travelling in a sedan.
An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the Cades Cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Ideally, you should give yourself full day to tour the Cades Cove, and your trip must include short treks that start from multiple points on this circular road. While there is no mobile phone connectivity inside the Smokies, the navigation maps of the GLS550 work perfectly. In fact, the GLS550 comes with no-charge navigation map updates for three years.
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For adventurers, there is a lot to do inside the Smokies. Trails include Charlies Bunion, Alum Cave Bluffs, Andrews Bald, Rainbow Falls, Chimney Tops, among others. There are multiple camping sites, too, including Cades Cove Campground, Anthony Creek Horse Camp and Backcountry Camping. One must remember that camping requires permits.
For camping and hikes, caution is advised. It’s a natural environment, and nature rules. Heavy rainfall can make streams overflow and wash out makeshift bridges. The Smokies are the best place in the US to see the elusive American black bear. There are an estimated 1,500 bears inside the park, so that means two bears per square mile. While bears don’t always attack, they are dangerous. One must make sure to complete the trek before it gets dark and, as a rule of thumb, carry a bear pepper spray, designed specifically to deter aggressive bears. It is available at numerous shops in Gatlinburg. In addition, if you see a bear or a large animal like the elk, maintain at least a 50-yard (150-feet) distance.
Since Gatlinburg is as the base, it is a good idea to spend your evenings in the small town. Restaurants serve cuisine from across the world.
The trip to the Smokies must include half a day, or more, in Pigeon Forge, 20 minutes away from Gatlinburg, on the highway towards New York. The town is famous for Dollywood, a theme park jointly owned by entertainer Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment. From Pigeon Forge towards New York, it is one long but scenic road trip via Virginia, passing through the state’s spectacular mountain towns.
You just won’t miss taking a flight. (Mercedes-Benz GLS550 is priced $93,850 onwards. In India, the company sells two GLS models: GLS350d diesel and GLS400 petrol, both about Rs 80 lakh, or $120,000.)