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The End of a Perfect Day in the Smokies

Nothing is more beautiful than sunset over the placid waters of Fontana Lake. Photographer Aaron Morgan captured this image with fog hovering over the railroad trestle in the Spring.

You can see more of Aaron’s work at the website and Facebook page.

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There’s More To The Nantahala Than Rafting and Kayaking

Each Summer, thousands flock to the Nantahala River for the adventure of whitewater rafting, kayaking, and such headliner events as this weekend’s ICF Canoe Freestyle World Cup Finals — activities that have made the river one of the region’s most popular recreational destinations.

All that happens on the Nantahala’s last eight miles before it flows into Fontana Lake. But on the mountain above the rafting put-in, there’s another, quite different section of river known as the Upper Nantahala. Flowing out of Nantahala Lake — at 3000 feet elevation — the river drops almost 1000 feet before reaching the floor of the Nantahala Gorge. Along the way, it passes through a succession of waterfalls including the spectacular cascades (above) viewable from Wayah Road.

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Soco Falls – An Easily-Missed Cherokee Treasure

Driving the serpentine US-19 from Cherokee to Maggie Valley across Soco Gap requires a driver’s undivided attention, which explains why so many never notice the small sign that says “waterfall .5 mile” (which means ‘keep driving another half-mile’). UPDATE: New, more informative signs have been installed.

It’s also easy to miss the gravel roadside pull-off with space for maybe a half-dozen vehicles. But that’s where you’ll find Soco Falls, a beautiful double waterfall where two separate branches meet for spectacular 40 and 50 foot drops into a dark gorge.

The short trail starts at the break in the guardrail and descends about a hundred feet over some steps to the viewing platform. Some people scramble down the bank to the base of the falls, but it’s extremely steep and not recommended.

Soco Falls is on the Qualla Boundary about eleven miles east of Cherokee, on your right. Coming from Maggie Valley, the pull-off is 1.5 miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway, on your left.

The photo is by Rich Stevenson, an Asheville photographer with a passion for Western North Carolina waterfalls. If you love waterfalls, Rich’s website NCWaterfalls.com is a must-see.

For more about waterfalls in the NC Smokies, visit this page on GreatSmokies.com


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The Clingmans Dome Visitor Center is the Highest in the Eastern US

Clingmans Dome is not only the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s one of the Park’s most heavily-visited sites. To better accommodate Clingmans’ heavy traffic, the National Park Service recently made a number of upgrades to the mountaintop facilities.

The original comfort station, constructed more than 60 years ago by the Civilian Conservation Corp, was renovated and converted into a seasonal information center (above). It also houses a bookstore/sales area managed by the non-profit Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA), which funded the renovation project. At 6300 feet, it’s the highest elevation national park visitor center in the eastern U.S.

A new comfort station consists of three sets of vault toilets installed at the west end of the parking area designed to accommodate all visitors, including those with disabilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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It’s One Of The Nation’s Most Popular State Lines

Like these two travelers from Germany, most people visiting Newfound Gap can’t resist standing with one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina. They were riding one of Cherokee Transit’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park shuttles connecting Cherokee, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. On nice days, the drivers make a ten-minute stop at Newfound Gap to let passengers enjoy the view …and straddle the state line.

Cherokee Transit’s shuttles run back and forth across the mountains several times a day March thru October. Riders can then transfer to local transit systems in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Cherokee.

Photo courtesy Cherokee Transit

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See The Little Tennessee River Up Close on Needmore Road

Robert Davis says he’s “lucky and blessed to have the most beautiful drive going to work and home again that anyone can have”, a drive which leads alongside the Little Tennessee River. One foggy October morning, he stopped long enough to capture the above image, which later won second place in the Marianna Black Library’s annual “Life in Swain” photo contest.

Some of the best views of the Little Tennessee River in Swain County are along Needmore Road. From Bryson City, drive about eight miles west on US 74. At Smoky Mountain Jet Boats, turn left on Needmore Road. Proceed about two miles to the river.

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The View From Mount LeConte. Well Worth The Hike.

The two most popular vistas in the Great Smoky Mountains are at Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome, primarily because both are accessible by car …although there’s a fairly steep half-mile walk from the parking lot to the Clingmans Dome observation tower.

The spectacular view from atop Mt. LeConte requires considerably more effort. It can only be reached on foot, the most popular route being the rather strenuous 5.5 mile trek along the Alum Cave Trail. From the parking lot on US 441, hikers climb 2763 feet to reach the 6593 foot peak, averaging more than 500 feet elevation gain per mile. But the reward is the breathtaking view that Shari Jardina enjoys above.

Most make it a day hike — an 11-mile hike roundtrip. While there are overnight accommodations at the rustic LeConte Lodge, space is limited and in high demand. Reservations generally fill up months in advance.

Shari is an Indianapolis photographer who’s captured many images of the North Carolina Smokies. This one was made by her husband Eric.

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The Bookends Of A Perfect Day In The Smokies

This week’s double postcard illustrates the perfect beginning and end to a day in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. The misty morning view is what John and Nancy Greenfield see from their condo at Smoky Mountain Country Club in Whittier (Photo by Nancy). And Bruce Watson, a visitor from Huntersville, NC captured the spectacular sunset from the ‘Moonshine’ Cabin, near Bryson City.

If you want to know what happens between sunrise and sunset, simply browse through the more than 100 Postcards From The Smokies we’ve published over the past two years. It’s a composite picture of small town life in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

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Snowy View From the Top of Alarka

Julia Thompson photographed this winter scene at the top of Deep Gap Road in the Alarka community south of Bryson City. At 3000 feet, the scene includes a spectacular skyline view of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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A “Catbird Seat” for Smoky Mountain Backcountry Hikers

When hiking deep into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the last thing you expect to find is a piece of office equipment. Yet that’s just what Sharon McCarthy discovered last Fall when she and fellow hiker Judy Gross reached the peak at High Rocks, high above the North Shore of Lake Fontana.

In her excellent “Smoky Scout” online hiking journal, Sharon explained, “High Rocks is the site of a long-removed fire tower, but the view is still there. The short trail up seemed endless as we fought our way through more blackberry brambles and overgrowth. We topped out at the rocky bluff upon which the tower once stood. The foundation and the caretaker’s cabin remain, although the cabin is extremely deteriorated and there are currently no plans to rehab it. Since I was here last year, someone has made a statement by placing a chair on top of the rocks, inviting valiant hikers to pause and enjoy.”

Photo by Judy Gross

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It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas

The peaks of the Smokies have already seen several snows this year, but Friday’s snowfall was the first to blanket the bottomlands. By nightfall, the Bryson City area had accumulated more than six inches of the white stuff.

The above scene was photographed early Saturday just as the morning sun reached this picturesque valley in the Whittier community, with geese on the half-frozen pond and the cows waiting on their morning hay.

Meanwhile, high in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Doug McFalls, the winter caretaker at Mt. LeConte Lodge, reported 20 inches of snow with drifts up to three feet. You can see photos on Doug”s Blog “Life on LeConte.”

Sorry Doug, but after seeing your photos, we’d rather stay home in the valley …and maybe watch “The Shining.”

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Mountain Golf is a Year-round Activity in the Smokies


On just about any nice day throughout the fall and winter, you can play a round of golf at the 18-hole Smoky Mountain Country Club near Bryson City. It’s a true mountain course with elevation changes of 400 feet; and at the top, the views are spectacular. The 6000 yard, par 70 public course is open daily until the Christmas holidays; and through the winter months they’ll be open any day when the temperature is 50 and above.

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How to Enjoy an Early Morning Fog


With temperatures dropping in the Fall, early morning fogs are fairly common in the Smokies. Obviously, when clouds are touching the ground, there’s not much to see. But if you head for the higher elevations, along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Newfound Gap Road in the National Park, you can enjoy a spectacular sunrise above the clouds.

Photo by J.R. vanLienden

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It’s All Downhill From Here


From the very top of the Smokies at Clingmans Dome, Sharon McCarthy (aka “Smoky Scout”) surveys the mountains that have become very familiar to her over the past year. She’s in the process of hiking all 900 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to raise money for the Girl Scouts in North Carolina.

Sharon anticipates that her final hike will be the Old Sugarlands Trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center on April 11. Including the additional miles she’s walked to access each of the trails, she will have hiked more than 1000 miles altogether. It’s a feat that will reward her with membership in the elite 900 Miler Club, a group that has added just 250 hikers since its founding in 1995.

You can read Sharon’s journal on her blog “Great Smoky Mountains Girl Scout Challenge“. And while there, why not support the Girl Scouts with an online contribution?

Photo by Jim McCarthy

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A Clouded View From Newfound Gap


Early morning views from the top of the Smokies often look down on a blanket of clouds. Then, as the temperature rises, the cloud cover slowly lifts – at first completely shrouding the view and then dissipating to reveal the majesty of the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Autumn’s Annual Guessing Game — When is “Peak” Leaf Season?

October Color in the North Carolina Smokies

Fall visitors to the Smokies often try to plan their visit around the “peak season” for autumn color. Yet no one except Mother Nature knows when the “peak” will occur …and she’s not talking.

Fall arrives first at the higher elevations, suggesting early-to-mid October drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway (above), Cherohala Skyway, and US 441 across Newfound Gap. Yet at the lower elevations around Bryson City, the best color usually arrives mid-to-late October …sometimes as late as early November.

Truth is, if you visit the Smokies just about any time in October, you’re certain to find Fall foliage. Just look high and low.

Photo by J.R. vanLienden, Masterpiece Portraits

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Clingmans Dome — On Top of Old Smoky

At 6643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located in the northernmost part of Swain County along the North Carolina–Tennessee border, the temperatures at Clingmans Dome are often 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Bryson City’s. On a clear day, take the (steep) half-mile walk from the parking lot to the observation tower, and you’ll be rewarded with a stunning 360-degree view of the Smokies and beyond. The seven-mile road from US 441 to Clingmans Dome is open Aprll thru November. Photo by J.R. vanLienden, Masterpiece Portraits.

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