The lure of downtown Gatlinburg and such attractions as Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies can sometimes make visitors pass up some of the more natural opportunities you won’t find anywhere but just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And while most point to Cades Cove and its Loop Road cycling/hiking opportunity in the area, the Gatlinburg Trail, as well as the Oconoluftee River Trail are two of the quicker ways to get out of downtown Gatlinburg and back to nature.
The big draw to the Gatlinburg Trail is it allows people to hike/walk, bike, and walk their dogs. The emphasis being that pets are allowed on this trail. You won’t find any other trails like the Gatlinburg Trail in the national park.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Gatlinburg Trail traverses 1.9 miles of forest one-way just outside of town. The trail features a very scenic route running along side the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. The trail offers beautiful views of the river and is relatively flat. A pedestrian foot bridge even crosses the trail at one point. Along with wildlife and numerous species of wildflowers, several old homesites are visible along the trail. The sites’ old foundations and chimneys being the markers.
Located about 30 miles from Gatlinburg, the Oconaluftee River Trail is another trail near the park on which dogs and bicycles are allowed. At Oconaluftee, you’ll find the Mountain Farm Museum. This museum maintains a collection of historic log buildings that were once scattered throughout the Smokies. Some of these include a house, barn, springhouse, and a smokehouse. The Oconaluftee River Trail (1.5 miles) starts near the entrance to the museum. The trail follows the river to Cherokee, N.C. Mingus Mill, a historic, working grist mill, is 0.5 mile north of Oconaluftee. Oconaluftee is 1.0 mile north of Cherokee, NC on US-441.
Like most hikers and trail-goers, you’re likely wondering about the best times to traverse the trail for such things as fall foliage and wildflower blooming periods. For those of you looking to get a head start this spring and summer on the native wildflower species, here is a listing of typical bloom times, along with some of the more popular shrubs:
Spring Wildflowers – Spring wildflowers can best be seen blooming in mid to late April, although late March and early April can offer a spectacular blooming preview during those warmer years.
Flame Azalea – This wild shrub will be in bloom at the low and mid-elevations in April and May. On Gregory Bald, late June and early July are typical bloom periods. On Andrews Bald, early July is the yearly period.
Mountain Laurel – Its white and pink flowers come into full view from early May through June.
Rhododendrons – Catawba rhododendron, growing at 3,500 feet and above, blooms in June. Rosebay rhododendron blooms in lower elevations in June and at mid-elevations during July.