Charted Wilderness

Charted Wilderness: Exploring the national parks of Western North Carolina
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Half of North Carolina’s 12 national park sites are located in WNC, a stunning tribute to the significance of our region’s landscape, history, and culture.  With most entrance fees waived for day one of National Parks Week (April 20-28), it’s a great time to visit these one-of-a-kind locales across the country.  

The National Parks Service (NPS) doesn’t only preserve scenery or ecology, it also protects prominent properties, monuments, and more. There are many types of national parks, not just forests and landscapes. This country contains 423 “units” of the national park system, but a mere 63 of them are what most folks would call “true national parks,” as in “Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” the only true national park in our region.

To get a sense of their significance, look at the demand for our national park experiences. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire nation. Yes, Yellowstone and other Western icons: eat your hearts out. The Blue Ridge Parkway—believe it or not—is even more visited than the Great Smokies. “The Parkway,” so ubiquitous in our daily discourse, is the nation’s single most visited unit of the entire National Park system. And it has been each year since 1946, except four (1949, 2013, 2016 and 2019). 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

You have to see and explore one of the East’s largest tracts of wild land to really grasp it—and to appreciate the scale of the achievement that brought these majestic mountains back from the brink of destruction. In 1919, Acadia National Park in Maine became the East’s first national park. The Smokies was the East’s second, and the Southern Appalachians’ first, chartered by Congress in 1934. But the comparison ends there. Acadia was a comparatively tiny summer colony enclave protected (and yes, donated) by wealthy families. The vast Great Smokies was the first national park where the cost of the land was, in part, paid with federal funds. >>READ MORE

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is to National Parkways what the Great Smokies is to National Parks—a singular national treasure. There are parkways all around the country, but only four are managed as parkways by the National Park Service. At 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway is both the longest parkway and the nation’s longest linear park (25 miles longer than another parkway, Natchez Trace). It’s also the nation’s most visited Park Service site. >>READ MORE

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one more icon of North Carolina’s stature at the pinnacle of the National Park pyramid. When first proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye (Mc-KIE), the idea for a cross-Appalachian trail was labeled “an experiment in regional planning.” The AT would preserve the East’s wilderness while offering the laboring masses an uplifting escape from the manufacturing economy. It did both, but creating the AT was a huge task. >>READ MORE

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site

Carl and Lillian Sandburg (nicknamed “Paula”) were quite a couple. He was one of America’s greatest, and most American of poets (read his poem Chicago). His was a unique modern style. He was also an essayist and biographer of Abraham Lincoln, winning Pulitzer Prizes for both his four volumes on Lincoln and his 1951 Complete Poems. In 1959, he addressed a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. >>READ MORE

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

Western North Carolina’s landmark national parks reveal their American significance in remarkably rich and multifaceted ways. Diversity plays a role. Case in point: “national trails” aren’t all the same. Unlike the Appalachian “National Scenic Trail,” the Overmountain Victory Trail (and the Trail of Tears) are both officially “National Historic Trails.” >>READ MORE

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Besides winning the War of 1812’s most resounding victory, Andrew Jackson followed up with one of the United States’ most, “uncivilized,” acts, the near-genocidal eviction of the “Five Civilized Tribes” from their Southeastern homelands. >>READ MORE

From the Author:
If you end up thinking that Western North Carolina’s national parks are globally, and not just nationally, significant, you’d be right. The Smokies’ website literally focuses on that, naming the park as both an International Biosphere Reserve and one of the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I had an offbeat indicator of that status one day in the Scottish Highlands. My twelve year old son and I got off an overnight train from London in Inverness and were touring the Highlands by car and hiking a lot. We pulled into the ruggedly icon cleft of Glencoe and found a brand new visitor center having a grand opening.

We met a uniformed interpreter, an actual soldier in a Highland Regiment, and after hearing some of the tragic history of strife between the Scots and English, he wrapped my son in a full body kilt and helped him aim a real musket. Having absorbed more than a little Scottish history from my Grandfather Mountain neighborhood, we had a great time. 

That’s when the soldier asked, “Where are you Yanks from?” When I replied North Carolina, he gave me a quizzical look. “Where exactly,” he asked. “Well,” I said, suspecting he’d have no clue where Boone was, “It’s the mountain area, west of a fairly sizable city named Greensboro. Ever heard of it?”

“Oh yeah,” he exclaimed. “I’ve been there, and a few other places in those mountains. Actually studied some about it. Back during your Revolution, Highland units like mine had some very bad times there…”
That’s when the really interesting conversation started!

History of the National Park Service
Ken Burns’ iconic “America’s Best Idea” name for our national parks immortalizes our country’s claim to the entire concept. The first of our now-63 national parks was Yellowstone in 1872, but there would only be six more, mostly in the West, before 1916 when the National Park Service was formed to manage parks (instead of the military before then). Yosemite was the third, spearheaded by an immigrant, Scot John Muir. The rest came about over the following century, the final one in 2020 (New River Gorge in West Virginia). North Carolina’s (and Tennessee’s) Great Smoky Mountains National Park wouldn’t debut until mid-1934, barely before Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park in late 1935. Both were later linked by the Blue Ridge Parkway, completed in 1987.

Great Reads
Randy Johnson is a preeminent author and outdoorsman, and has several books on our National Parks—and on adventuring them. 

  • Hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Best Easy Day Hikes Blue Ridge Parkway, both of which are Parkway Foundation-recommended 4th editions.
  • Hiking North Carolina, 4th Edition for an AT mileage log and guide to day hikes and backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.
  • Best Easy Day Hikes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 3rd Edition for more resources and inspiration for your visit. 
  • Author recommended: The Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas by John Buchanan.

Fee or Free?
As we look ahead to National Park Week, (April 20-28) let’s not forget that national park sites in Western North Carolina are free, while almost all of the “true” national parks have entrance fees, and most are not at all cheap. Luckily there are a handful of times a year when even entrance fee-based parks are free, and the first day of National Park Week is one of those six dates. 

Nevertheless, the Smokies is a little different. Despite the park being one of the true national parks, it is one of the few that has no “entrance fee.” That's because US 441, across the park, is a federal highway and a public transportation artery of huge importance. 

Ironically, because the park’s funding does not benefit from an entrance fee, 2023 saw a new “parking fee” instituted in the park to charge those who “visit” (as in, pull off and park for more than 15 minutes). If you do that, which you’d need to if you wanted to actually take a hike or tour a cabin or historic spot, you must pay a parking fee and have an easily acquired parking tag. (The exception is motorists with a valid handicapped license plate or placard, including a disabled veteran’s plate.)  

Luckily, when all other entrance fee-based national parks are free to enter, including day one of National Park Week, the Great Smokies will also waive its parking fee/tag. The new parking fee in the Smokies may not make everyone happy, but it’s something that we all, especially park proponents, should know about. Lacking adequate up-front legislative funding for parks, the new parking fees will generate added resources for a very special and very popular park. Visit the NPS website for info on fee-free days at national parks.

Parking Tag Basics in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • A valid parking tag must be displayed when parked for more than 15 minutes anywhere in GSMNP.
  • Three tag durations are available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types (daily $5, weekly $15, annual $40).
  • Interagency passes (senior pass, access pass, etc.) are not accepted in lieu of parking tags.
  • Parking tags are not replaceable, refundable, transferable, or upgradable.
  • Each tag is valid for a single vehicle and must include a license plate number matching the vehicle in which it is displayed.
  • Backcountry campers, picnic pavilion reservation holders, and concessions customers are not exempt from the parking tag requirement.
  • Registered frontcountry campers do not need a parking tag to park at their campsite.
  • Visitors with a handicap license plate or placard do not need a parking tag.
  • Parking tags are available for purchase both online and onsite. Visit for more info on fees and parking.
Photographs By Luke Sutton; courtesy of the Library of Congress; Kelly Vandellen; Alex Buess; Ethan Quinn; Jason Sponseller; Dndavis; Sean Pavone; courtesy of Adobe Stock; May Lebby Thompson; courtesy of the National Park Service; Margaret Wiktor; Cvandyke; Zach Frank; Randy Johnson; James W. Thompson; Joe Chansak; Lybrand; Steve Samples; Scott Alan Ritchie; Doug Ash; Jennifer Stanford; courtesy of adobe stock; Trevor McGoldrick; May Lebby Thompson; courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy; Cecil W. Stoughton; Mark Vandyke Photography; Charles Collard; courtesy of the National Park Service; Randy Johnson; courtesy of the Library of Congress; courtesy of the Overmountain Victory North Carolina State Trail - Friends; courtesy of EBCI; courtesy of Western Carolina University