Outdoor Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains

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Outdoor Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains
Whether you want to reconnect with nature, test your athletic aptitude, learn wilderness survival techniques, or simply bask in the beauty of the mountains, the Smokies has a special spot to fit the bill.
Photo by John Shaw/age fotostock
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    Scenic Drives
    Drive along Laurel Creek Road early in the morning or later in the evening and stop at the various overlooks for a breathtaking view of the mountains covered in fog and mist—the "smoke" that gives them their name. Soak up the view of the cascading waters called The Sinks. Head up to Cades Cove and follow the 11-mile loop through picturesque landscapes and watch the wildlife feeding in the lush grasslands. Another scenic drive is Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It's a little more secluded and is a narrow road, but it rewards with six miles of beautiful views and wildlife sightings.
    Photo by John Shaw/age fotostock
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    The Alum Cave Bluff Trail
    If you're looking for adventure and a physical challenge, a highly recommended hike is the Alum Cave Bluff Trail, one of the most scenic trails in the Smokies. (Note: The trail is closed for restoration until fall 2016.) You'll pass by 10-foot-high rhododendron bushes, cross over streams via wooden bridges, and ascend through Arch Rock. Alum Cave Bluff is approximately 2.3 miles from the trailhead and is a popular destination. The dust here is one of the rarest kinds and is made up of minerals only found in the driest regions of the world. Venture on up another mile and the trail opens out on a spectacular view of the vast mountain range. Expect the hike to take about four hours round-trip.
    Photo by Angela Simpson
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    Skiing in the Smokies
    During the peak of winter season, the Smokies' higher elevations can see nearly 70 inches of snow. Although it is good for skiing, road closures often make it difficult to reach Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee's only ski resort. This resort has all the mountain sports you can think of and features nine trails for beginner and intermediate skiers, as well as facilities for snow tubing, snowboarding, indoor ice-skating, and an alpine and simulated bobsled ride. The Aerial Tramway provides ease of access as well as great views of Gatlinburg. On the North Carolina side of the Smokies is Cataloochee Ski Area, with 16 trails and more challenging descents for experts. You can also go snow tubing, snowboarding, or air boarding at Cataloochee.
    Photo courtesy of Cataloochee Ski Area
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    Light Up the Sky with Love
    Between May and June, busloads of visitors show up in the park near Elkmont at night to witness one of nature's most intriguing spectacles. Adjacent to the Elkmont campgrounds is Little River Trail, which leads to a stunning display of flashing lights courtesy of the park's synchronous fireflies, one of 19 species of firefly that live here. Thousands of fireflies light up the night among the trees; their flashes are part of a mating ritual which occurs at the same time each year. Synchronous fireflies are the only kind in North America that can synchronize their flash patterns.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Multi-Day Hikes
    One way to experience nature is to partake in an overnight backpacking trip along one of the various trails in the Smokies. Acquiring a permit is easy—just stop by one of the park's four visitor centers or ask about permits at any ranger station. If you're backpack-savvy, take on the scenic Alum Cave Bluff trail; it's five miles to the peak of Mount LeConte, and you can overnight at the shelter just past the lodge. (Note that Alum Cave Bluff trail and the LeConte shelter are closed until fall 2016; LeConte Lodge remains open.) Another option for the less experienced backpacker is to schedule a backpacking trip with A Walk In The Woods for a two-night, guided backcountry trip. Gear, meals, and wilderness survival lessons are included.
    Photo by Larry Walden
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    An Afternoon on the River
    On the north-west side of the Smokies, in Townsend, you can find one of the park's more laid-back activities. River tubing companies cluster together along scenic Route 73, wooing customers to take a lazy afternoon float on the Little River. Enjoy one of the most scenic waterways in the Smokies as you drift along under the shade of bowing trees on a hot summer's day. Outfitters provide all the equipment you need, and some—such as River Rat—will even provide water shoes and sunscreen. If you're with kids, be aware that there are two sections of the river, each with different conditions. The Upper Section features Class III rapids; the Lower Section is ideal for floating with small children.
    Photo courtesy of Emory Cantrell
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    Fly-Fishing the Smokies
    If you enjoy fishing, you've come to the right place. Hire a guide from Fly Fishing the Smokies for a fly-fishing excursion around the park. If you're not an experienced angler or you left your equipment at home, they have all of the gear and clothing you'll need. The company is family-owned and offers a variety of trips, depending on the size of your party and on your interests. They can plan kid-friendly adventures as well. A Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license is required for fishing in the park; however, this is easy to obtain in a nearby town or online. Avoid confusion about which permit is best by purchasing a one-day, type 083 permit, which will allow you to fish all species for $16.
    Photo by Corey Nolen/age fotostock
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    Horseback Riding
    If you enjoy horseback riding, the Smokies are an ideal place for a trail ride. Family-owned and operated for five generations, the folks at Cades Cove Riding Stables in Townsend offer a perfect hour-long trail ride that leads to a beautiful waterfall. A second option for some great trail riding is the Five Oaks Horseback Riding Stables in Sevierville. The horses are gentle and the guides are friendly, offering help and support to unsteady first-timers; the smoothly graded trail will set any mind at ease. They have half-hour rides as well as full-hour rides, with prices ranging from $27 to $35 per person.
    Photo courtesy of Five Oaks Horseback Riding Stables
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    Rafting the Smokies
    Get the adrenaline flowing with a trip through Class III and IV rapids on the Upper Pigeon River. White Water Rafting with Smoky Mountain Outdoors has a wide selection of trip packages, including some combo discount packages for other area attractions, such as the aquarium and Aerial Tram. You can enjoy a six-mile river rapids trip with the option to stay on for the milder second half of the ride, for a total of 12 miles down the river. There's also the choice of combining activities, such as a hike-and-ride excursion that takes you two hours along hiking trails and then on the raft for a wild ride back. This is a great option if you're short on time and wish to experience a greater number of activities in the Smoky Mountains.
    Photo courtesy of Pigeon River Photos
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    Adventure Courses
    High above the tree canopies, you can walk across sky bridges and glide along extensive zip lines, basking in the views of the Smoky Mountains as you pass over streams, ravines, and wildlife. Climb Works has 13 unique treetop adventure courses and nine different zip lines that will keep your feet off the ground for more than two hours. Another fun activity offered by Climb Works is a mountain bike course. If you didn't think you'd be into mountain biking, you'll change your mind after seeing their flow trail suspended in the air. This is definitely one of the most unique mountain biking courses in Tennessee. A second option for zip lining is Zip Gatlinburg, which includes a 27-element rope course and an optional 30-foot free fall.
    Photo by Harrison Shull/age fotostock