With forests, waterfalls, and mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is brimming with adventure… it’s no surprise that is the most-visited National Park in the United States! The park encompasses more than 500,000 protected acres and is spread across two states, Tennessee and North Carolina. This guide to one of the country’s most beloved national parks will help you plan your perfect mountain adventure. Next stop: Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
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History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The concept for the park was first concocted in the late 1920’s as the National Park Service was itching to establish a park east of the Mississippi. The Smoky Mountains were the perfect location! The local community partnered with wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. to establish the park in the midst of the Great Depression. The goal was to save the Smokies from deforestation. It’s safe to say that they succeeded!
Getting to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There are two main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains. On the Tennessee side of the park, you will enter through the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, TN. And on the North Carolina side of the park, you enter through the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC. Between the two entrances, you will find the beautiful Newfound Gap Road that gives you stunning mountain views around every corner.
Must-do’s at Great Smoky Mountain National Park
There is an endless supply of things to do when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you like inspiration and to find great deals check out the list below.
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The hiking trails at Great Smoky Mountains National Park are absolutely one of the highlights. There are more than 800 miles of trails in the park and they range from easy rambles to challenging, all-day hikes. If you are looking for something a little less strenuous, opt for one of the trails with an “Easy” rating. If you are feeling extra adventurous, try one of the multi-day treks and stay at one of the backcountry campsites. Some of the most popular hikes in the park include:
Distance: 3.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 164 ft
This is a great trail for hikers of all skill levels. Even though it’s right on the edge of bustling Gatlinburg, the trail itself is quiet and serene. The trail is either paved or gravel throughout for easy rambling. Bonus: this trail is one of the few dog-friendly trails in the park! Just make sure to keep your pup on a 6-ft leash at all times.
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
Distance: 1.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 331 ft
Looking for a great view? Try the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail, one of the most popular trails in the park. The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower is the highest point in Tennessee, and this trail takes you right to it! The peak is 6,634 ft. so it’s a good idea to dress for cooler temperatures, no matter what time of year.
Alum Cave To Mount Leconte Trail
Distance: 10.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,896 ft
This is one of the more challenging hikes in the park, but the rewards are worth it! You’ll get a chance to explore caves, take in beautiful views, and enjoy a very well-maintained trail on your 10 mile trek. The hike begins with a climb along Alum Cave Creek and leads to the gorgeous Inspiration Point. Shortly after, you’ll find yourself at Alum Cave. If you’re looking for something more strenuous and are an intermediate or advanced hiker, this is a great choice.
Because the Smokies have the perfect ingredients to create gorgeous waterfalls, including just the right amount of rainfall and an elevation gradient, there are an impressive 40+ waterfalls to choose from! The abundant rainfall at higher elevations trickles and rushes down the mountain sides and creates beautiful waterfalls, which makes for some breathtaking views. Sometimes, rainfall drops more than a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills! Some of the most popular waterfall hikes in the park include:
Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 396 Ft
Distance: 2.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 544 ft
Distance: 5.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,617
Visiting Cades Cove
You don’t want to skip visiting the lush valleys of Cades Cove on your trip. To get there, you’ll take the 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the cove and can take between two to four hours to complete. To get a feel for what it must have been like in the past, you can rent a bike for your journey. Check out as many of the old buildings as you can, and don’t forget to stop at the Visitors Center to see the working Grist Mill. If you’re looking to spot a black bear, you’ve come to the right place because Cades Cove is also the premiere spot in the park for wildlife viewing. Read on for all the details you need to visit Cades Cove:
Experience Appalachian History
Take a journey back in time at Cades Cove and see a working grist mill, numerous old houses, barns, churches, and more. The “Bud” Ogle Cabin and Elkmont Historic District are both historic favorites. Elkmont is a bit of a hidden gem, but it’s a great way to experience the history of Appalachia.
Driving Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Forks is one of the biggest and fastest moving streams in the park, and a great spot for viewing wildlife. This nature trail is a 5.5 mile, single lane, one-way route that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your vehicle. This drivable nature trail gets its name from an exuberant mountain stream, which just so happens to follow the entire trail.
Planning your trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When to visit
The park is open year-round, and off season is considered late October through May. During the off-season, seven of the 10 park campgrounds are closed, along with many of the visitor centers and guest services.
The winter season brings the beauty of snow and solitude to the higher elevations of the park. If you want to feel like you have the park all to yourself, winter is the best time to go! Just remember: if you plan to hike, bring crampons with you for navigating ice and snow.
The gorgeous flowers of the Smokies bloom during the spring season, making this one of the prettiest seasons at the park. For optimum flower power, visit between the middle of April and the middle of May when flowers are blossoming. If you visit in the spring, you also have a chance to catch the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage which takes place every April.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is bustling during the summer, which is considered peak season. This time of year brings warmer weather, and with it comes throngs of visitors. If you are planning a trip to the park for summer vacation, be prepared for trailheads to be filled by mid-morning and for campgrounds to be fully booked in advance.
If seeing wildlife is your goal, fall is the perfect time to visit the park. You’ll find that the animals that call the park home are much more active during the fall season. Keep your eyes open for both elk and black bear during this time of year. Like the summer, the park is still plenty busy in the fall, but you’ll enjoy cooler temperatures and beautiful colors along with the crowds.
Camping at the park
There are 10 campgrounds inside the park and they range in price from $17 – $24 a night. The campgrounds offer no-frills amenities, like flush toilets and potable water, but there are no hookups for campers and RVs inside the park. You can make advanced reservations at Recreation.gov.
There are also 98 backcountry campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including 5 that are only accessible by boat. There is a nightly fee of $4 per person for the backcountry sites.
We were in Sevierville, TN. in April 2023 and stayed at the Honeysuckle Meadows RV Park. I highly recommend this park. The spaces are so big, it’s very well kept, and the views are amazing!
Check below for camping options.
Lodging at the park
Perched atop the Smokies on the third tallest peak in the park, you’ll find the LeConte Lodge. The LeConte Lodge has been operating in the Great Smoky Mountains since 1926 and is inaccessible by car, so you’ll need to use one of the 5 trails that lead to the lodge to get there. There are 60 guest rooms and the view is in high-demand, so you’ll need to book in advance. Don’t expect luxury and frills here either as the lodge has remained untouched by time and has rustic touches like washbasins and kerosene lanterns.
There are many other great places to stay in the Great Smokey Mountains as well. Check here for Great Smokey Mountain Lodging options.
Quick Tips for Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- There is no entrance fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- The park is easy to navigate and very accessible. There are roads that can take you anywhere you’d like to go (for the most part!).
- Some of the most popular roads in the park are 441, Newfound Gap Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road. In peak season, be prepared for traffic.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the United States, and that means there will be crowds no matter when you visit. Don’t let that discourage you! The park is uniquely set up in a way that can make even the most crowded attraction feel secluded.
- Looking for elk? Stick to the North Carolina side, especially near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
- If you are a motorcycle rider and have your bike, make sure you hit the Tail of the Dragon.
Final thoughts on Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Whether you are looking to challenge yourself with a new hike, enjoy the serenity of a waterfall, or experience the history of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a fantastic destination any time of year!
I will tell you that we were in the Great Smokey Mountains in April 2023 and decided to take the Cades Cove Loop Road. That was a huge mistake for us. We took the Harley as it was nice out, but got stuck in traffic for over an hour. When we finally were told what the traffic jam was, we were not happy. People were stopped in the middle of the road trying to see bears that were over 1/2 mile away in a field.
Please, if you do take scenic roads keep in mind you are not the only one taking them. Be respectful, pull off the road and never hold up traffic.
Looking to visit more National Parks? Check out the USA National Park Bucket List.
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