Explore the iconic national parks in the South these six scenic road trips in Shenandoah, the Smokies, and the Blue Ridge Parkway.
by Jess Daddio
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Cades Cove, Tenn.
The abundant presence of history, wildlife, and scenery make Cades Cove one of the most popular places in the Smokies. Sprawling for 6,800 acres across the Tennessee side of the park, Cades Cove is home to over 70 preserved structures including churches, barns, log houses, and even a working gristmill. Visiting the cove is about as close as you can get to experiencing early 19th century mountain living without the harsh winters and Native American quarrels.
You can tour the perimeter of the valley by bike or foot via the 11-mile, one-way loop that circles the cove. From early May until late September, the loop is closed to vehicles until 10am on Saturday and Wednesday mornings, allowing human-powered adventurists the chance to soak in the glory of the cove without the hum of engines whizzing past. You can rent a bike at the Cades Cove Bicycle Rental and Campground Shop for $7.50 per hour for adults, and $4.50 per hour for children under 10.
Newfound Gap, N.C./Tenn.
The drive to Newfound Gap alone is worth a tank of gas and a Sunday, especially in the height of leaf peeping season. Begin in Cherokee, N.C., or Gatlinburg, Tenn., and ascend for 3,000 feet through hardwood and pine oak forests until you arrive at the evergreens atop Newfound Gap. The elevation here is 5,046’, so if it’s raining when you begin, it’s not unlikely that there will be snow at the gap. The Appalachian Trail crosses Newfound Gap Road, straddling the North Carolina/Tennessee border for most of its journey through the Smokies.
South of the gap is Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak and an iconic spot along the Appalachian Trail. Follow the road for seven miles before parking and trekking the steep but short half-mile trail to the observation tower. The views here are sometimes completely socked in, but if you happen to visit on a clear day, the endless chain of mountain ridgelines will have you head over heels in love with the Smokies.
SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK
Big Devil Stairs
With fewer crowds, a moderate grade, spectacular gorge, and classic Blue Ridge views, it’s a mystery why more people don’t frequent this 5.5-mile out-and-back hike. Located in the northern district of the park, Big Devil Stairs is a nice alternative for visitors wanting the Shenandoah National Park experience without the mobs of tourists.
Park at Gravel Springs Gap around milepost 17.5 and follow the fire road down to the yellow blazed horse trail toward Gravel Springs Shelter. This hike will give out-of-towners a taste of the “green tunnel” effect for which the Southeast is known, with dense stands of mountain laurel choking the trail and the views. For those who press on and climb the steep stone stairs for which the trail is named, the two overlooks of the park are a perfect place to picnic before returning to the car.
Jones Run/Doyles River
Unlike Big Devil Stairs to the north, the Jones Run – Doyles River circuit is one of the most popular hikes in the park. Located in the southern district of Shenandoah, hikers flock to the cascades along Doyles River each summer for the ample swimming pools situated at the base of the falls.
The most common loop is 6.6 miles in length and begins at Browns Gap near milepost 83. From the trailhead, it’s a gradual descent to the verdant, lush streambed. We recommend coming a day or two after a summer storm, as water levels tend to get lower in the warm months.
BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY
Campbell Creek Gorge, Campbell Creek, Va.
This Appalachian Trail blue-blaze is a classic among thru-hikers, thanks in part to the dramatic gorge that pool-drops its way to the 40-foot Campbell Creek Falls. Whether or not you’ve had a shower in the past week, this creek is an absolute must for taking a dip (skinny or otherwise).
Access the falls via the Reeds Gap parking lot at milepost 13.5. Take the white blaze south for 1.6 miles before jumping on the blue-blazed Mau-Har Trail for two miles. The going is steep, rooty, rugged, like many of the hikes in Shenandoah. It’s certainly not the most family friendly swimming hole in the park, but it’s definitely among the most picturesque.
Hunt Fish Falls, Wilson Creek, N.C.
Wilson Creek in the Grandfather Ranger District is largely considered a crowned jewel of Pisgah National Forest. In the spring and fall months, the water here swells and pours from the mountainsides, making this a classic destination for Southeastern paddlers. In the summertime though, when lower water levels expose boulders and create calm pools, Wilson Creek becomes an ideal place for swimming hole exploration.
Find your own mini oasis, or head straight to Hunt Fish Falls, where two consecutive 10-foot falls create three deep and wide swimming holes. Consider bringing a book and some sunscreen should you decide to spend a lazy day basking on the flat rocks along river right. To find the Hunt Fish Falls parking lot, take Old Jonas Road off of the parkway at milemarker 311.1. Once you arrive at the parking lot just off of FS 464, it’s a one-mile hike to the falls on trail 263.
Hit the road, snap a pic, and tag us on your adventures! @blueridgeoutdoors #gooutsideandplay