Great Smoky Mountains National Park presents something of a paradox: Here, within a day’s drive of a third of the U.S. population, you have what is arguably the most pristine wilderness east of the Mississippi, home to a staggering 14,000 species of flora and fauna, 600 of which are endemic. Yet the roads near the busier entrances are lined with motels, gas stations, and, in the summer months—when the bulk of the park’s nine million–plus annual visitors pass through—cars. Which is why you go in March, when spring has arrived but the crowds have not.
March 15 is opening day for rapids along the Ocoee "Coaster" River, where major Class III and IV rapids roll like, well, you can imagine. Take on the 4.5-mile stretch of the Middle Ocoee with the Nantahala Outdoor Center ($42; noc.com). During a half-day trip, you’ll power up to 20 rapids, including the notorious Tablesaw, which bucks and churns through a narrow chute. When your stomach settles, try the famous chicken-salad sandwich at Jenkins Deli, in Cleveland, Tennessee, near the put-in.
As the weather warms, so do the trout. Fly-fishing on the Little River—which, ironically, is one of the largest waterways in the Smokies—kicks off in March. Stop by Little River Outfitters; owner Byron Begley has an uncanny awareness of what’s biting and where (littleriveroutfitters.com). Sleep at the Four Sisters’ Inn, just a five-minute walk from the live-music hub of downtown Gatlinburg (doubles from $125; 4sistersinn.com).
At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte may not be the tallest peak in the East (it’s third), but it may well be the prettiest. Park ranger Mike Maslona recommends the secluded Bullhead Trail, which winds through red spruce and balsam firs to Cliff Tops, a rocky overlook near the summit. At the halfway point of the 14-mile round-trip trek, refuel with a mountaintop lunch at LeConte Lodge, accessible only by trail (lecontelodge.com).
Drive down Newfound Gap Road, which bisects the park and climbs over 5,000 feet before reaching Cherokee, North Carolina. The 31-mile trip runs along the Little Pigeon and Oconaluftee Rivers, glimmering among the hardwood and pine. Stop and stretch your legs on the two-mile Chimney Tops Trail, which ends at the summit of its 4,755-foot namesake. Base camp is the Appleview River Resort, located on a peninsula overlooking the west prong of the Little River (doubles from $135; appleviewresort.com).