Escape the park's notorious crowds on a four-day backpack that begins on the mellow Big Creek Trail in Great Smoky's northeast corner. Just 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) in, you'll hit the Midnight Hole, a paradisiacal plunge of dark blue-green water that demands a brisk swim. Dry off and proceed another four miles (6.4 kilometers) to Campsite 37. On day two, pick up the Gunter Fork Trail and start the steep six-mile (ten-kilometer) hike up to Laurel Gap Shelter on the flanks of Balsam Mountain. Day three drops eight densely wooded miles (12.9 kilometers) to Campsite 39 by way of the Balsam Mountain and Palmer Creek Trails. On the final day, start early for the nine-mile (15-kilometer) hike out through Cataloochee Valley—you'll see reintroduced elk grazing in meadows as you pass by remnants of historic Appalachia like the Beech Grove School and Palmer Chapel. Climb out of the valley on the Big Fork Ridge Trail then the Hemphill Bald Trail. You'll end up at the Swag hotel, the ultimate place to drop your bag, grab a meal or a bed, and celebrate what you've just accomplished.
All overnight hikes require backcountry permits; Campsite 37 and Laurel Gap Shelter require reservations (free; 865-436-1231). For car shuttle service, check with A Walk in the Woods (prices vary by trip; awalkinthewoods.com).
The 5.5 miles (8.9 kilometers) to Mount Cammerer Lookout from Cosby Campground take in old-growth forests and one of the park's best views, ridgelines north into Tennessee.
Haute rustic is an apt description of the Swag, a luxury inn at the edge of Great Smoky. Bearskins hang above a huge stone fireplace. Adirondack chairs are placed to maximize views. And the food is new southern. Example: crab and wild mushroom cheesecake (doubles from $490, including meals; theswag.com)
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2009," National Geographic Adventure magazine
National Parks Photos
The quiet splendor and patchwork history of the popular national park offer lessons in how humanity can coexist with nature.
National Geographic Guides and Maps
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!