Start early in the morning to avoid the crowds that increase during the day. When crossing the park on the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), you should allow, at the very least, 1 hour. The speed limit does not rise above 45 mph anywhere in the park. When ascending the mountain slopes, you can rarely go over 30 mph because of the winding roads. Pack a lunch since the park has no restaurants.
Day 1 -- Your best strategy is to visit the sights along the Newfound Gap Road. Begin at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where you can pick up park information and get details about the weather. Oconaluftee (which means "by the river") was owned by the Cherokees until settlers acquired the land through treaties. Today the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum, a replica of a pioneer farmstead, operates here in a collection of original log buildings. Park staff members, dressed in period costumes, make this a living-history farm from April to October.
Travel about half a mile north on the Newfound Gap Road to the Mingus Mill, constructed in 1886 by Dr. John Jacob Mingus, son of this area's first permanent settler. It closed in 1940 and was reopened in 1968 by the park service. This water-powered mill is still in operation, grinding wheat and corn for flour and cornmeal from mid-April to October.
As you travel north, you'll come to a turnoff for Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, soaring 6,642 feet and named for Thomas Lanier Clingman, a 19th-century North Carolina senator. After you turn onto this road, you travel 7 miles southwest to a parking lot, where you can walk a steep half-mile to a viewing platform that features one of the park's best views. The platform is generally closed from December to April.
Next comes Newfound Gap, which, at 5,048 feet, is the center of the park. A path that the Cherokees traveled was 2 miles west of the present-day gap. Later the path was widened and renamed Indian Gap Road. If the sky is clear, you can see for miles around. It's best to call tel. 865/436-1291 or -1200, the park's main number, for weather conditions before you set out.
The next point of interest is the Chimney Tops, twin peaks that rise close to 2,000 feet. The Cherokees named these peaks Duniskwalguni (which means "forked antlers"), whereas the settlers named them for the 30-foot-deep fluelike cavity in one of them. If you'd like a closer look, you can hike a 4-mile trail round-trip.
The drive across the park takes you to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can stroll through the nature exhibit, view a slide show, or browse through the gift shop. At this point, you can either head into Gatlinburg for the night or go west about 5 miles on Little River Road to Elkmont Campground. It's best to make reservations (accepted only from mid-May to Oct).
Day 2 -- Continue your journey west on Little River Road to Cades Cove, where you'll find more pioneer structures than at any other location in the park. The best time to go is early in the morning, when you have a better chance of spotting deer grazing in the fields. Plan to spend half a day exploring the many attractions along the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop. Stop at the visitor center for a pamphlet that contains a key to the numbered sights.
Originally called Kate's Cove, after the wife of John Oliver, the cove's first settler, the name evolved over the years into Cades Cove. Founded in 1818, the cove was a thriving, self-supporting community for more than 100 years. Original log homes still stand today. Other buildings include smokehouses, cantilevered barns, a blacksmith shop, and corncribs. You'll also find cemeteries with such epitaphs as one from the Civil War that reads BAS SHAW -- KILLED BY REBELS. The three historic churches are Methodist Church, Missionary Baptist Church, and the oldest, Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1827. Included on the loop is the John P. Cable farm, where you'll find the 1868 Cable Mill still in operation. Cades Cove offers several nature trails; the shortest in the Cable Mill area consists of a half-mile round-trip.
After you complete the Cades Cove loop, head toward the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the Newfound Gap Road to recross the park, this time taking advantage of the numerous pulloff areas dotting the roadside. At most of them, you'll find Quiet Walkways -- short paths created for moments of solitude in which visitors can experience nature. Don't be discouraged if a pulloff is full, because another one will appear within a mile.