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Illustration by Wade Mickley


SMOKIES

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the wildest parks in the Eastern United States—mainly because of its size. With only a few roads penetrating the park, most of the Smokies is a de facto wilderness—the largest mountain wilderness in the Southeast.

The Smokies offer 900 miles of trails—far more than Shenandoah or any other parkland in the East. Those trails climb some of the highest peaks east of the Rockies—including four summits over 6,000 feet. Shenandoah never climbs over 6,000 feet.

Best of all, the  Smokies still belong to the bears and wildlife. Even though the Smokies is the most visited national park in the country, virtually all of the tourists stick to the perimeter of the park or along Newfound Gap Road. The interior of the park is lightly used and still feels wild and pristine, with old-growth forests and more diversity of flora and fauna than any other spot in the country.
—Emily Diznoff, Asheville, N.C.

My relationship with the Smokies reminds me in many ways of marriage. I have a 40-year history now with the park. The memories sustain me, while the new experiences there reinforce my connection. And every summer, I help the Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail (S.W.E.A.T.) Crew maintain backcountry sections of the A.T. It is rewarding to work with basic hand tools outside all day with like-minded humans and then share the simple gifts of a meal with them in the evening. When we are done, I think we all leave feeling like we are taking away more than we gave.
—Gary Eblen, Hendersonville, N.C.


SHENANDOAH

Shenandoah National Park is my favorite part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, because there are different ways to enjoy it. I can take a bike ride on Skyline Drive and soak in the huge views, or I can escape to a backcountry forest and wander across amazing waterfalls and the occasional bear sighting. As a parent, campgrounds like Big Meadows have also been a great way to introduce the kids to a night in the tent.
—Joel Richardson, Leesburg, Va.

Shenandoah is a far more accessible and recreation-friendly park than the Smokies. Skyline Drive provides cycling opportunities and easy access to trailheads for the Appalachian Trail. The grade of the Appalachian Trail is relatively flat through Shenandoah, making it far more enjoyable for day-hikes. And you can get to waterfalls, swimming holes, and fun picnic spots a lot more easily than in the Smokies—and with far fewer crowds.  Shenadoah also offers many different kinds of hikes—from breathtaking panoramic vistas to lush wooded treks to creekside strolls along trout streams—all with quick, easy access. The park has recently added a GPS-guided tour of the park as well, enabling you to discover park highlights using GPS to guide you.
—Ben Wylie, Washington, D.C.