With all the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer, it’s not surprising that over 9 million visitors trek to the area each year.
A sub-range of the Appalachians, the Smokies wind along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee before merging with the Blue Ridge Mountains. The range is home to an estimated 187,000 acres of primeval forest, making it the largest such stand east of the Mississippi. The spruce-fir forest in the Appalachians is also the biggest of its kind.
The Smokies also hold bragging rights to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the continent. Outside the tropics, you won’t find a larger or more varied population of salamanders, and there are more black bears to be found here than in all of the Eastern United States.
The “smoke” is natural fog caused by highly pressurized vapors that are exhaled by the vegetation. From a distance, the fog resembles giant plumes of smoke.
A car trip through the Smokies is nice, but a mountain biking excursion is even better. There’s no greater way to commune with nature than to breathe in the aromas of the forest and feel the elements on your skin. Countless rivers and streams course the range, and you don’t want to miss the sound of a single one.
The range is overseen by Great Smoky Mountain National Park, established in 1934. There are no designated biking trails inside the park, and cycling is allowed on only three hiking trails: Deep Creek Trail, Gatlinburg Trail and Oconaluftee River Trail. Biking on the main roads calls for extreme caution. Traffic, blind curves and steep grades make the going rough.
In short, the best trails in Smoky Mountains for biking is outside the national park.
Cades Cove Loop Road
You’ll see plenty of wildlife on this winding, 11-mile loop. It also features the homes of 19th century settlers. Experienced riders shouldn’t have too much trouble with the few steep climbs on the trail. Starting from Gatlinburg, Tenn., the ride to the cove is 27 miles, and you’ll cross the Little River several times. The best times to go are Wednesday and Sunday mornings when car traffic is prohibited until after 10 a.m. This is easily the most popular mountain biking path in the region. Skilled bikers may complete the course in two hours or so, but most riders require three to four.
The Foothills Parkway is a little over 16 miles long and overlooks Cades Cove and Maryville. There are few drivers aside from motorcyclists, and the views of the Smokies are breathtaking.
Townsend Bicycle Path
Townsend is a 3-mile, paved trail dotted with a few easy hills. It’s fine for any skill level but ideal for beginners and children. A length of the trail runs along the Little River, and there are shops and restaurants along the way.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Starting from Oconaluftee, which is close to Cherokee, N.C., you may take as short or as long a ride as you like; the scenic parkway stretches 469 miles to Waynesboro, Va. However, some climbs are brutal and the dizzying heights are not for the faint-of-heart.
Newfound Gap / Clingmans Dome
Start from Gatlinburg just after dawn to avoid heavy motor traffic, and make sure that you’re at the height of your skills. This 13-mile course is a challenging one with an average grade of over 5 percent. In the Tour de France, it would be classified as Category 1. There are also a number of tunnels, so you might outfit your bike front and back with strobe lights.
After you tackle the stretch to New Found Gap and take some time to enjoy the scenery, follow Clingmans Dome Road to the highest spot in all of Tennessee. It’s a 7-mile route, but the panoramic view of the Smokies from atop the observation tower is well worth your effort. Walk your bike if you must, but it’s really something to see. The road to the summit is closed December through January and in hazardous weather.
Veteran’s Boulevard Greenway
The greenway runs near Dollywood in Pigeon Forge. The greenway itself is 3 ½ miles long, but you can stretch your route to 6 ½ miles by continuing on the Pigeon Forge Parkway. It’s a pleasant ride with rolling hills, but it’s not ideal for warm summer months or the tourist season. There is very little shade, and motor traffic can be horrendous. Several trail extensions are planned for the future.
In the Smokies, dedicated cyclers have countless other options. The path to the Bluff Mountain summit is a steep, intense climb. In Tennessee, Little River Run is an 8-mile path that connects to the Townsend Bicycle Path, and several trails form a network, the Maryville-Alcoa Greenway. Riders there may travel between Springbrook Park and Sandy Springs Park. The Tsali Recreation area in North Carolina has over 40 miles of looping trails with Fontana Lake and the mountains as a backdrop. Some trails have alternating designated days for horseback riding and biking, but two are restricted to biking every day.
Be advised that both North Carolina and Tennessee require helmets for riders under the age of 17, and helmets are strongly recommended for everyone. Some trails are unlit or treacherous when it’s rainy, so it pays to get plenty of information before you choose your routes. Make sure that your bike—and you—are in tiptop condition. The steep terrains can be punishing on both.
Most bikers consider the best trails in smoky mountains to be the ultimate challenge. The physical, emotional and spiritual rewards, however, cannot be overstated.