Great Smoky Mountains National Park

North Carolina

Half-Baked Plan: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

ACRES: 64,700. VISITORS (2008): 63,947. ISLANDS: 7. ISLANDS OPEN TO HUMANS: 2. STORES: 1 ARRIVE: $177 round-trip ferry from Key West to Garden Key (yankeefreedom.com). PACK WISELY: Tent, food, water, rum, snorkel, fins, inflatable sea kayak (aire.com). PITCH TENT: Garden Key campsite ($3; 305-242-7700). PADDLE to Loggerhead Key (two miles): frigate birds, masked boobies, goliath grouper, nurse sharks. SNORKEL with loggerhead turtles. Head back. RUM: Zacapa 23 ($45; ronesdeguatemala.com).

THE INSIDER: George Minnigh, backcountry ranger and 25-year park veteran
THE BOTTLENECK: Nine million people visited the park last year, and, according to Minnigh, "probably half never left the park's roads." The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, on the western end of Great Smoky, receives two million visits per year.
THE BACK DOOR: Suffer through six miles of traffic on Cades Cove Loop Road and you're home free: Turn south onto Forge Creek Road, then right onto a one-way gravel route called Parson Branch Road for a pretty eight-mile drive through a mature forest and next to several mountain streams. From there, head to Fontana Village, a remote enclave for in-the-know tourists on the edge of Nantahala National Forest. Rent a sea kayak at Lake Fontana's marina ($60; 828-438-2129) and paddle five miles to Campsite 86, near the logging ghost town of Proctor. Or park at the trailhead past Fontana Dam and hike a 12-mile loop along Lakeshore, Lost Cove, and Appalachian trails. "There's an unmarked path off the Appalachian Trail that goes two-tenths of a mile to Shuckstack, a fire tower with good views of the surrounding peaks," says Minnigh. "If it's cloudy, you can see why the Smokies got their name."
THE LAUNCH PAD: Lakeview at Fontana Resort (from $80; lakeviewatfontana.com), on the outskirts of Bryson City, offers unpretentious accommodations and indulgent hot-stone spa treatments.

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