Access and Resources
ANNUAL VISITS: 9,300,000 (high: July, 1,326,666; low: January, 305,430)
CONTACT: 865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm
MILES FROM NEAREST MAJOR AIRPORT: 30 (Knoxville)
DON'T MISS: Turtleback Falls on Horse Pasture River near Highlands. This 30-foot stretch of rock slabs, topped with fast water, makes for some high-speed bare-butt glissading that ends in the pool at the fall's base.
NANTAHALA NATIONAL FOREST
ANNUAL VISITS: 2,100,000
CONTACT: 828-257-4200, www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc/
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
IN THE SMOKIES, THE NUMBERS TELL good news and bad: 800 miles of trails, almost 700 miles of fishable streams, hazy blue ridges topping out above 6,000 feet (some of the highest east of the Rockies), 5,600 species of plants, more than 60 of native mammals and upwards of nine million humans every year. So head where the masses aren'tthe Greenbrier area, on the Tennessee sidefor three sweet and soothing days of HIKING and FLY-FISHING. Start hoofing it at the Porters Creek trailhead, reached by entering the park off U.S. 321 east of Gatlinburg. Follow the wide creek for 3.6 miles until you reach Campsite 31, gaining about 1,500 feet of elevation in the processgood reason to stop and wet a line along the way. Casting is easier here than in many of the park's cramped, brush-banked streams, and you can catch rainbow trout. Next morning, backtrack 2.7 miles from your campsite to the Brushy Mountain Trail. You'll cross trout streams and roam through tulip trees, hemlocks, rhododendrons, and mountain laurels. Bunk that night at the Mount LeConte shelter, a three-sided stone structure at 6,440 feet (free; reserve through the backcountry office at 865-436-1297). Or book a slot at the LeConte Lodge, a rustic haven reachable only by trail and lit by kerosene lamps (cabins and group lodges start at $83.50 per adult per night; 865-429-5704, www.leconte-lodge.com). On the third day, march six more miles on the Boulevard Trail, encountering many a heart-stopping mountain vista, to another shelter, at Icewater Springs near the Appalachian Trail (70 miles of which traverse the park). Finally, a 2.7-mile taste of the AT takes you to Newfound Gap Road, where you thoughtfully arranged for a shuttle to pick you up ($32 for up to five people; A Walk in the Woods, 865-436-8283).
NANTAHALA NATIONAL FOREST
Shake off the quiet of the past few days with high-intensity WHITEWATER RAFTING on the Chattooga near Nantahala National Forest. South of the national park, off highways 441 and 76, there's easy access to the river's sections three and four, a rumble strip of phenomenal Class III-V rapids. You'll see nary a trace of man except your paddle mates, and it's easy to get Deliverance-spooked while navigating rapids that ribbon through hemlock forest and echoing gorges, and dipping into holes ringed with eerie rock formations. After taming the first ten miles, set up camp at Woodall Shoals, where diversions include rope-swing acrobatics. Day two gets burlier, with 4.5 romping miles graciously followed by two calming miles of lake waters. Old Creek Lodge (cabins for two, $89$229; 800-895-6343, www.oldcreeklodge.com), in the artsy town of Highlands, is your post- paddle roost. Spin out your rafting legs by MOUNTAIN-BIKING the 6.6-mile, rhododendron-choked Blue Valley Loop Trail; from Highlands, access the trailhead via Clear Creek Road and Forest Road 367. Squeeze in a two-mile hike to the gray-cliff summit of 4,986-foot Whiteside Mountain, off Highway 64 between Highlands and Cashiers, for views of the rolling hills of North Carolina and Georgia. The Nantahala Outdoor Center (800-232-7238, www.noc.com) leads overnight trips on the Chattooga and rents mountain bikes.