Backpacking -- Backpacking enthusiasts are required to obtain permits from one of the ranger stations, the Oconaluftee and Sugarlands visitor centers, or the Cades Cove Campground Kiosk, before setting out. These permits are used to keep track of visitors for safety reasons, as well as to prevent popular campsites from becoming overcrowded. Campers are allowed to use only designated campsites and shelters. You will be fined if you're caught camping outside one of these sites. A rationing program limits the number of campers at 13 of the 80 campsites and at all 18 of the shelters. Plan your route in advance to determine whether you'll need any of these designated areas. The maximum number of people allowed in a hiking group is eight.
You must obtain shelter and ration campsite (aka, those with electrical and water hookups) permits in person before departing on any given trail, calling for permits between 8am and 6pm only. Stays are limited to 1 night at shelters and 3 nights at campsites. Tents are not allowed in the shelter areas or along the Appalachian Trail. Shelters are located on the Appalachian Trail and at Laurel Gap, Kephart Prong, Mount LeConte, Rich Mountain, and Scott Gap. Permits for nonration (those without electrical and water hookups) sites can be obtained upon arrival. For more information, call tel. 865/436-1297 from 9am to 1pm daily, visit www.nps.gov/grsm, or write to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Attn.: Backcountry Office, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738.
Biking -- Bicycles are not allowed on the trails, so areas for cyclists are limited. You can ride on roads, but traffic can be very heavy and the inclines quite steep. Try the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop from May to mid-October on Saturday mornings before 10am, when it's closed to all automobile traffic. Another possibility is the Cataloochee Valley. From April to October, you can rent a bicycle from the Cades Cove Campground Store (tel. 865/448-9034) for $4 to $6 daily 9am to 7pm.
Birding -- With more than 200 species of birds in the park, you should be able to spot a few on your ramblings. The higher elevations support bird life that's typical of parts of northern New England. Also to be seen in the high country along mountain crags are falcons, hawks, and ravens. Throughout the park, you may spot grouse and wild turkey, although the latter are quite shy of people.
Fishing -- The park contains more than 700 miles of streams suitable for fishing. Fishers must have a valid North Carolina or Tennessee state fishing license, which can be purchased in the gateway towns at sporting-goods stores. In North Carolina, anyone 16 or older must have a license. Trout stamps are not required. Fishing is permitted from sunrise to sunset year-round, although the optimum seasons are spring and fall. Popular fishing areas include Abrams Creek, Big Creek, Fontana Lake, and Little River. The limit is five fish, with the exception of brook trout, which are illegal to possess.
Golf -- Named as one of Southern Living's Top 50 Golf Courses, the Maggie Valley Golf Course is located on U.S. 19, 35 miles east of Asheville (tel. 828/926-6013; www.maggievalleyclub.com). A par-72, 6,377-yard course, it offers 18 holes. Greens fees range from $45 to $80, including cart.
Horseback Riding -- The park offers some of the state's most panoramic scenery for equestrians. All off-trail and cross-country riding, as well as use of trails designated as foot trails, is prohibited in the park. Horses are restricted from developed campgrounds and picnic areas and on maintained portions of park roadways. Any overnight riders must obtain backcountry permits. The following five drive-in horse camps offer easy access to designated trails: Anthony Creek, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Towstring. You can make reservations 30 days in advance with the Backcountry Reservations Office by calling tel. 865/436-1231.
If you have your own horse, write for an information packet that describes the park's trails, campsites, and regulations. Contact the Superintendent at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738 (tel. 865/436-1200).
Horses can be rented for $20 an hour April to October. Ask for details at the individual concessions within the park at Cades Cove (tel. 865/448-6286), Smokemont Riding Stable (tel. 828/497-2373), Smoky Mountain Riding Stables (tel. 865/436-3535), and Smoky Mountains Riding Stables, U.S. 321 (tel. 865/436-5634). The park service requires that a guide accompany all rental treks.
Nature Trails -- Self-guided nature trails offer even couch potatoes an opportunity to commune with nature. These trails are staked and keyed to pamphlets with descriptions of points of interest along the way. You can obtain a keyed pamphlet from one of the visitor centers or stands at the trail heads. There are about a dozen such trails, ranging in length from a third of a mile to 6 miles. All offer easy walks through peaceful surroundings.
White-Water Rafting -- Starting at the Waterville Power Plant, a 5-mile stretch of the Pigeon River has 10 rapids and offers some of the most challenging white-water rafting in the South. Water for rafting is released by the Carolina Power & Light Company. Rafting in the Smokies rafts both the Pigeon and the Nantahala rivers. A trip on the Pigeon costs $39 per person, but only $18 per person on the Nantahala. For reservations and details, contact the company's central office in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (tel. 800/776-7238 or 865/436-5008; www.raftinginthesmokies.com).
Wildlife-Watching -- Your chances for seeing wildlife are best in the spring, summer, and fall. Mammals are the main interest for many park visitors. As in all national parks, native wildlife is protected by federal law. Printed material, available at the visitor centers, can provide additional information. For your safety as well as the protection of the wildlife, do not tease, harass, feed, or approach any wild animal, and be especially cautious when encountering mothers with their young.
The best-known park mammal is the black bear, which has been known to stop traffic -- a situation that park officials try to keep from happening because bears can become too used to humans. If this happens, bears are relocated to other, less-traveled areas of the park. When bears lose their innate fear of humans, they become more susceptible to poachers. Visitors should heed the rules about bears and the warnings given out by park authorities.
Frequently sighted smaller mammals include cottontail rabbits, squirrels, and woodchucks (groundhogs). Mammals that are seldom seen are raccoons, skunks, opossums, weasels, bobcats, red and gray foxes, mink, and beavers.
The park is home to at least 23 varieties of snakes. The poisonous ones are timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. If you stay on the trails and away from warm rocky slopes, abandoned buildings, and stone fences, you should have no close encounters. These snakes are not aggressive and generally stay away from areas used by people. Among the nonpoisonous snakes, the most common are the Eastern garter and Northern water snakes. Other varieties include the Northern ringneck, the Eastern king snake, and the Northern black racer.