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Smokies national park is a world of its own

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    The Great Smoky Mountains National Park's distinctive natural mist rises in Walland, Tenn.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Historic log cabins nestle under towering 5,000-foot mountains. Deer and bears roam through the woods. Panoramic views await on the tops of mile-high ridges ringed by smoky clouds.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Eastern Tennessee, may be the most visited national park east of the Mississippi River -- with an estimated 9 million visitors per year -- because it holds something for everyone.

"We do kind of have two stories going on at the same time," said Bob Miller, spokesman for the park.

Those stories are the natural resources of the park, which include the biology and ecosystem, and the cultural or the historical attractions, he said.

Starting in the early 1900s, people would travel to the area to enjoy its natural beauty. In 1934, the U.S. Congress designated it as a national park and in 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led a dedication of the park.

Towns surrounding the park offer dining, shopping and lodging. They include Gatlinburg, Tenn., Cherokee, N.C., Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Townsend, Tenn. Some of the shopping includes outlet malls in Pigeon Forge, quaint antiques shops in Townsend and American Indian memorabilia in Cherokee.

The history of the park includes American Indians, most notably the Cherokee. Later, settlers moved in and began farming in areas like Cades Cove. Then logging companies came into the area and began giant timber operations.

Atop mountains like Clingman's Dome and Mount LeConte, there are panoramic views that look like they are straight out of a postcard. The valleys of the Smokies include scenic waterfalls such as Laurel Falls, Rainbow Falls and Abrams Falls.

And finally, the Smokies include wildlife that roam freely throughout the park -- turkey that run through the fields of Cades Cove, eagles that soar above the peaks of the mountains and black bears that climb the trees and run through the woodlands.

  • photo
    Visitors to Dollywood Theme Park ride the Thunderhead, the country's top-rated wooden roller coaster, June 12, 2006, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. (Tom Uhlenbrock/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)
    Photo by McClatchey Tribune /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

AT A GLANCE

Population: More than 9 million visitors annually.

Best things to do: Hiking, wildlife watching, camping, shopping.

Biggest employers: National Park Service.

Miles from downtown Chattanooga: 127 miles from downtown Chattanooga to Townsend, Tenn., and 152 miles to Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Date founded: June 15, 1934.

Historic info: Once home of the Cherokee Nation, the Smokies were settled by Europeans after the Cherokees were moved to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears. Franklin Delano Roosevelt later proclaimed it a national park.

Most famous residents: Country singing legend Dolly Parton grew up in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in nearby Sevierville, Tenn.

Unique traditions: Every June, people from around the country go to Elkmont campground to watch lightning bugs give a show.

Best-kept secret: The Smokies can get crowded during the summer and fall months, but seclusion still can be found in the northern part of the park. Head up to Newport, Tenn., and discover a multitude of hiking trails. To the north of the Smokies also lies the quaint village of Hot Springs, N.C., with camping, dining and a hot springs area to rest your weary bones.

PLACES OF INTEREST

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has hundreds of locations to visit throughout the park. A few notable locations include:

Clingman's Dome

Cades Cove

Cherokee, N.C., Visitor's Center

Abrams Falls

Laurel Falls

Rainbow Falls

Mount Leconte

Rocky Top

The Jumpoff

Chimney Tops

PLACES TO STAY

Several cities lie at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and offer lodging, dining and a variety of fun. A few of those places include:

Gatlinburg: Shopping, dining, lodging and attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum and Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies.

Pigeon Forge: Variety of dining, shopping, lodging and attractions such as the ever-popular Dollywood amusement park.

Townsend: Dining, shopping, lodging -- a small quaint town on the southern end of the park, billing itself as "The Quiet Side of the Smokies."

Cherokee, N.C.: The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian Nation make its home here; lodging, dining, shopping available; attractions include Harrah's Cherokee, Museum of the Cherokee Indian.