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Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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  • States:
    North Carolina

The lively country music scene, innovative Southern cuisine and funky neighborhoods of Nashville, Tennessee, will charm anyone itching to tap into the urban culture of the Southeastern United States.

But drive just 313 kilometers southeast and you'll find yourself in the thick of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There lies some of the nation's most breathtaking natural beauty, including sweeping green valleys and the hazy mountain vistas that inspired the park’s name. Before exploring the park's serene trails and taking in its sprawling views, spend a few days in Nashville to better understand the current pulse of the Southeast.

Get a Little Bit Country in Nashville

Nashville is the U.S. capitol of country music. The city's country music bars (some known as honky-tonks) and record labels helped launch the careers of country legends like George Jones and Patsy Cline. Blake Shelton, the Band Perry and more of today's hottest country musicians launched their careers in what is known as Music City.

Before paying homage to Nashville's musical greats, fuel up with breakfast or brunch. In true Southern style, biscuits often play a major role in the city's morning meals. One place to get your fix is at Biscuit Love, home to decadent morning grub, like the East Nasty, which consists of fried chicken, cheddar cheese and sausage gravy served over a biscuit.

With a full belly, walk just over a kilometer to downtown's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Less than 2 kilometers from the museum is Historic RCA Studio B, where stars like Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers recorded thousands of hits.

Enjoy dinner at one of Nashville's groundbreaking restaurants. The city's dining scene has gained international accolades, thanks to local chefs launching new dining concepts and reimagining Southern cuisine. Experience this innovation at Farm House, where you'll dine on Southern grub with a contemporary twist.

The Cumberland River snakes its way through downtown Nashville, the epicenter of country music.

The Cumberland River
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Traveling From Nashville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

To reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Nashville, drive east on Interstate Highway 40, continue east on Interstate 140 and turn north on U.S. Route 321, which brings you to the park's Townsend, Tennessee, entrance, a quieter and less-trafficked alternative to the one farther east in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Townsend route rolls through Nashville's outer suburbs and eventually into the park's heavily forested wilderness.

Get to Know Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With up to 10 million annual visitors, Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the United States. The more than 211,000-hectare expanse straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina border and is marked by steep mountain passes often cloaked in a gray-blue haze.

Though it's possible to see many of the park's major sights, like Cades Cove Valley, in a day, spend a few days exploring. Nature lovers, take note: More than 17,000 species of animals, plants, flowers and trees have been documented in the park. You might spy deer, elk and even black bear.

It's easy to traverse the park in a car. More than 600 kilometers of roadways offer access to 1,368 kilometers of hiking trails. A good first hike is the easy 6.4-kilometer Porters Creek Trail. You'll escape the park crowds and stroll alongside a rippling stream and through an old-growth forest, before stumbling upon a waterfall and the ruins of a 19th-century barn. Keep an eye out for wildflowers like bloodroot and violets.

The Oconaluftee Valley Overlook on Newfound Gap Road is one of many places to stop and take in the blue haze and sprawling landscapes of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Oconaluftee Valley Overlook
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See the Park’s Major Sights

Drive the 53-kilometer Newfound Gap Road to see some of the park's most striking mountain views. Multiple pullovers, like the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, allow you to park your car and ogle the undulating green hills that seem to tumble endlessly into the distance. For other photo-worthy views, ascend to the park's highest point, 2,025-meter Clingmans Dome. Drive nearly to the mountain's peak, park your car, then walk a steep, 0.8-kilometer trail to a viewing platform.

Note: Summer is the park's busy season. Traffic can be heavy, so start early to avoid some of the crowds.

Where to Eat and Sleep

More than a dozen campgrounds dot the park. Many provide picnic tables, fire grates and flush toilets but no showers or electrical hookups. The park also houses the LeConte Lodge's rustic cabins, which lack electricity and showers. The shortest route to the lodge is a steep, nearly 9-kilometer trail.

For more well-appointed lodging, the nearby town of Gatlinburg, located just 2.5 kilometers outside the park, offers all manner of lodging, from hotels to bed-and-breakfasts.

Don't miss breakfast at the Pancake Pantry. Try one of 24 different varieties of pancakes, including sweet potato and banana pineapple. For lunch or dinner, get your protein fix at one of the town's many steak houses, including the Peddler.

To return to Nashville from Gatlinburg, drive west along Interstate 40.