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ripley's aquarium of the smokies

According to worldatlas.com, the most visited national park in America is the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies are famous for a natural phenomenon that the Cherokee called the “blue smoke” of the mountains.

What makes the Great Smoky Mountains “Smoky?”

Here’s the brief explanation, without getting bogged down in too much of the scientific terminology. Millions of pine trees and other vegetation in the region exhale naturally occurring chemicals called VOCs, which is short for Volatile Organic Compounds. Now that sounds like some kind of toxic chemical warfare, but don’t be alarmed. Most vegetation on the planet releases VOCs, and expresses them through their natural scent. For example, this is what you’re noticing when you inhale the fresh scent of pine or the sweet scent of a fragrant rose. The VOC’s emanating from the forest of the Great Smoky Mountains have a high vapor pressure, which means they can form vapor easily, even at room temperature. The conditions are just right in this mountain range on the boarder of east Tennessee and North Carolina for these VOCs to form a thick fog, or “smoke” as the natives dubbed it long ago. The reason the fog appears to be blue is that the molecules in the fog scatter blue light from the sky, giving it a blue smoky appearance.

1) Dollywood

dollywood signFamed country singer Dolly Parton opened her dreamland, Dollywood in 1985 and ever since, it has been the number one family attraction in the Great Smoky Mountains. Dolly’s vision was to create “A place for families looking to disconnect from the world’s distractions and reconnect with each other while nestled in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains,” and this park offers just that. Dollywood spans over 150 acres in the Smokys and certainly lives up to its claim of offering “the friendliest park atmosphere in the world!” This is family fun at it’s finest, and at a price that won’t break the bank. Thrill-seekers can ride the Sugarland Slider down Daredevil Falls, or brave the high-velocity twists and turns of the Barnstormer. The little ones will experience their own thrills buzzing around on the Busy Bees carousel or the Flying Elephants. Then it’s all aboard the Dollywood Express, a 5-mile ride through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains on an authentic 110-ton coal-fired steam engine. The main park offers over 40 rides, live shows, and top-notch dining experiences. If you’re traveling in the summer months, you can’t slide past the adjacent waterpark, Dollywood’s Splash Country. From thrill-seeking splashes to poolside lounges and downriver floats, this water park has it all! Catch a live show while bobbing in the wave pool on a hot summer day. There’s no better way to cool off in the Summer Smokies with the fam!

2) Cades Cove

white tailed deerHistory lovers will revel in the sights of Cades Cove, the area of the national park with the most original historic buildings in one place. The Cherokee hunted in Cades Cove for hundreds of years before the first European settlers started to arrive between 1818 and 1821. The cove is encircled by an 11 mile, one-way loop road where you can tour the various 19th-century structures built by the original settlers, including three churches, log houses, a functioning grist mill, and barns, all restored to the way they would have looked back in the day. There is plenty of wildlife on view in Cades Cove, and the loop road is open to bicycle traffic only from May-September. There is plenty of wildlife on view in Cades Cove. Late spring and early fall are the best times to visit the area if you’re in the market for some solid bear-viewing. Deer, raccoons, groundhogs and wild turkey are some of the other wildlife you’re sure to run into during the warmer months in Cades Cove.

Rent a brand new Jeep Wrangler from Smoky Mountain Jeep Rentals and experience additional off-pavement trails and other trips around Cade’s Cove.

3) Clingmans Dome

Clocking in at over six thousand feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and in all of Tennessee for that matter). On a clear day, when the mountains aren’t too shrouded in their famous “blue smoke,” the view from Clingmans Dome extends over 100 miles! The views are still great on an average day (visibility typically extends up to 20 miles) however, the Smokies are known for foggy conditions, so be sure to plan your visit on a clear day if you’re interested in the view. The main attraction at Clingmans Dome is the winding concrete observation tower. This piece of futuristic construction looks like a curving freeway onramp that dead-ends into a UFO and looks especially ominous towering above the verdant surroundings. The sweeping views are definitely worth the one hour hike to the top of the observation tower.

4) Alum Cave

The Alum Cave hike offers incredible views, but is a slightly bit more challenging than walking up to the Clingmans Dome observation deck. Although definitely an athletic experience, this is an entry-level to intermediate hike in the warmer months with a big pay-off in spectacular treetop views from the bluff a couple of miles in. The name is slightly misleading, as Alum Cave is actually an inlay at the top of the bluff which overlooks miles of pristine Smoky Mountain forest. The hike to the bluff can be especially challenging during the winter months, and large icicles form at the roof of the bluff that can drop at any moment! You’ll get the best hiking experience from late spring to late fall. The autumn views are especially spectacular, with miles of fiery reds, yellows and orange tones illuminating the forest. The Alum Cave trailhead begins on Newfound Gap Road, about a nine-mile drive along Newfound Gap Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg.

5) Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies 

ripley's aquarium

This stop is a must for family fun at a bargain rate. This two-level aquarium has it all, from wonder-inducing sea life to interactive experiences and live shows. The upper level boasts the Ocean Realm, Shark Lagoon, Touch A Ray Bay, a Tropical Rainforest exhibit, and glass-bottom boat tours of Shark Lagoon. The kids can even spend the night at the Sleep with the Sharks and PJ Party with the Penguins while you take the night off and hit the town of Gatlinburg for some partying of your own. The “Sleep with the Sharks” event starts at 8 pm and includes a dive show, late-night pizza snacks, and a midnight scavenger hunt. The kids set up camp right next to the shark aquarium and are up for breakfast bright and early, followed by a Creature Feature Tank Talk.

6) Smoky Mountain Jeep Rentals

jeep foothills parkwayOf course, you’ll need to get around and we recommend finding an all-terrain vehicle for traversing the Smoky Mountain wilderness. Before getting started on your adventures around the Smokys, visit the good folks at Smoky Mountain Jeep Rentals and get outfitted with a luxury 4-door Jeep Wrangler to “see the Smokys in style.” Whether you’re a hardcore outdoor enthusiast or just looking to relax with the family and reconnect with nature, a Jeep Wrangler from Smoky Mountain Jeep Rentals is the perfect all-around vehicle for touring the Smokys.

There are plenty of reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States, and it’s no simple task to condense them all into one short article. We’ve only highlighted five of the treasures available for exploration in the Great Smoky Mountains–you’re sure to find plenty more to remember these mountains by once you being your adventure. We chose to include these spots in our top five list because each of these destinations will give the first time visitor the most full experience of what the Smokys has to offer at a bargain rate (or better yet, for free!) So what are you waiting for? Experience the vast wonder and beauty of the Smokys for yourself and see why the Great Smoky Mountains are the ultimate national park in America.