Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitors’ Guide
Planning a trip to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? We are sharing the best ways to experience the park’s wildlife, hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic drives, and historical sites. Our comprehensive visitors’ guide lists all the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and also when are the best time to plan your visit to the park.
Year after year millions of visitors come to the Smokey Mountains to experience one of the most unique and beautiful destinations in the entire United States. This jewel of the Appalachian Mountain Range boasts over 500,000 acres or 800 square miles of beautiful dense forests, stunning waterfalls, pristine rivers, and wildlife galore. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits in the southeastern United States spanning the divide between Tennessee and North Carolina and is America’s most visited national park.
Best Things To Do In The Smoky Mountains National Park
What is there to see and do in the Smoky Mountains National Park? The scenery and the history of this unique and centrally located national park make it a must-see destination. The park has more than 500,000 acres of forest ridges and ancient mountain ranges to explore. This breathtaking row upon row of cloud-covered mountains blankets the landscape where visitors flock to take photographs that are cherished for a lifetime.
The Smoky Mountains are famous for the blue fog or “smoke” that hangs over the range. The fog is caused by volatile organic compounds released by the plants of the forest. The VOCs are also the reason for the blue tint. When the vegetation releases vapor the molecules in it scatter blue light from the sky. The Cherokee’s word for the Great Smoky Mountains is Shaconage (pronounced Sha-Kon-O-Hey) meaning “Land of Blue Smoke”.
The park is also known for its flora and fauna. There are over 1,800 different flowering plants, and hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles that call the park home. The park also has stunning hiking trails, breathtaking waterfalls and streams, scenic drives, fishing, horseback riding trails, campsites, picnic areas, and historic buildings to explore.
There is so much to experience at the park and you will find new discoveries on each of your visits. The Smoky Mountain National Park is the perfect destination to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and take a step back into time to relax and get back into nature.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an incredibly diverse habitat. It’s always ranked at or near the top of the list as the most biodiverse park in the National Park system. There are hundreds of different species of birds, over 60 native species of fish, 80 types of reptiles and amphibians, and 65 species of mammals.
The most famous resident of the park is the American black bears. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest protected bear habitat in the East. It is estimated that there are 1,500 bears living in and around the park.
Imagine seeing black bears and elk in their natural habitat. Or watching the famous synchronous fireflies dance in the night sky, or watch a Peregrine Falcon soaring above the mountain tree line. All of these beautiful creatures call the park their home.
It can sometimes be a challenge to see all of the wildlife that lives in the Smokies because of the thick forest. Open areas like Cades Cove and Cataloochee offer some of the best opportunities to see the wildlife in the park. The wildlife is most visible in the winter because the trees have fewer leaves. Wildlife is also most often seen high in the branches of trees, and the animals are often most active at night.
Things To Do In The National Park
There are many reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is so popular. With countless opportunities for adventure activities, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a ticket to the rugged outdoors. With over 150 miles of bicycle trails, 200 miles of hiking trails, 600 miles of horseback riding trails, stream fishing, bird and wildflower watching, and historic buildings to explore, you cannot run out of out of things to do.
And guess what? You can enjoy all of the amazing things the park has to offer for free. There is no entrance fee to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Start your visit at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where you can pick up a free park map. The visitor center also has a museum and bookstore to enjoy.
Hiking In The Smoky Mountains
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hikers of all levels appreciate mountain footpaths, rolling valleys, and challenging trails from the casual walker to the experienced trail expert. Some of the most popular destinations to hike are to Charlies Bunion, Alum Cave Bluffs, Andrews Bald, Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, Laurel Falls, and Chimney Tops. There are also kid-friendly hikes in the park. Families enjoy hiking the Kephart Prong Trail and Porters Creek Trail.
The highest elevation point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Clingmans Dome. At 6,443 feet, it is also the highest point in Tennessee and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On a clear day, you can see 100 miles in any direction from the top of Clingmans Dome which is the highest peak in the park.
It’s a popular destination to hike to in the park. The hike to the observation tower takes about an hour. The half-mile trail to the summit of Clingmans Dome is paved, but it is steep. It’s considered moderate in difficulty for hiking trails. There is also a 7-mile, scenic drive on Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap Road.
Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains all year long. In the Spring, hikers enjoy the budding wildflowers and trees. In the summer, hikers can enjoy the cool mountain streams and waterfalls. You can see more about the best waterfalls to see in the park here.
The Fall brings glorious color displays in the foliage. And in the Winter, hikers can see new vistas with fewer leaves on the trees. No matter what trial or season you choose to hike in the park, you will enjoy the stunning mountain views along the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
Fishing In the Smoky Mountains
Fishing is permitted year-round in the park in all of the streams. The park has headwater trout streams and cool water smallmouth bass streams. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States.
If you want to fish in the park, don’t forget to get your Tennessee fishing license. Fishing licenses are not sold in the park but can be purchased in the nearby towns or online.
Drive Through The Smoky Mountains
It is easy to drive through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are over 400 miles of well-maintained roads in the national park itself. Visitors can enjoy the beautiful scenery right from their vehicles and auto tour the park.
There are several popular mountain scenic drives like the Cades Cove loop road or the Newfound Gap road and each one has unique things to see, parking areas, and historic attractions. With breathtaking views all around in every direction, a leisurely drive in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always extraordinary.
Another scenic drive that is popular is the Little River Road. It begins at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, near Gatlinburg, takes you along the Little River, and then dead-ends into Cades Cove.
Newfound Gap is a popular scenic drive. It is the lowest drivable pass in the park and is about 30 miles long. Newfound Gap starts at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and takes you over the mountains via U.S. Route 441 into Cherokee, North Carolina, and ends at the Mountain Farm Museum.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is also another popular scenic drive in the park. It is a 5.5-mile-long, one-way, loop road that features mountain streams, old-growth forests, log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings.
Most Popular Destination In The Park
The most popular destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a broad valley surrounded by the mountains. This valley is one of the best places to see the wildlife in the park.
Cade Cove has an 11-mile, one-way loop road that allows motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a relaxed pace. Most visitors spend two to four hours touring Cades Cove. There are also hiking trails, a trail to the waterfall Abrams Falls, and historic buildings to explore.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to cars on Wednesdays from May 5th through September 1st. The loop is open to bicyclists and pedestrians. The park also offers bike rentals at the Cades Cove Campground Store.
There is no entrance fee for Cades Cove. The park does offer an auto tour booklet for $1 at the Loop Road entrance. The booklet features the historic buildings and other sites to visit in the cove.
The park has over 90 historical buildings that have been preserved or rehabilitated. These include barns, churches, grist mills, houses, outbuildings, and schools. Some of the structures preserved in the park are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The most popular parts of the park to see these historic buildings are Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Oconaluftee, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Visitors are also allowed to picnic at the park. Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks. There are also picnic pavilions available and can be reserved for large groups.
Campgrounds and Lodging
The park has several different types of campsites. The Backcountry campsite is for backpackers. It requires hiking several miles to a site located in the park’s backcountry.
The Frontcountry campsite is camping near your car in a developed campground that has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table.
Group Campgrounds are for large groups of 8 or more. It is located in the Frontcountry campgrounds.
Horse Camps are small campgrounds that are accessible by vehicle. This campsite offers hitch racks for horses and primitive camping facilities.
Each campground has different facilities, regulations, requirements, and reservation options. You can get more detailed information about the park’s campgrounds here.
Another option for lodging in the park is the LeConte Lodge. The lodge is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It is located within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the top of Mt. LeConte. The lodge is a destination only for hikers. It is only accessible by one of the five trails that lead to the summit.
When Is The Best Time To Visit the Park?
Every season of the year is a fantastic time to visit the Smokey Mountain National Park. Each season in this park is unique and you can have a completely different experience depending on when you go. East Tennessee’s climate is moderate to mild with four distinct seasons. Each season comes with countless activities and one-of-a-kind events.
So when is the best time to visit the park? It really depends on what type of experience you are looking for.
If you are looking to travel during the summer, June is probably your best bet since July and August are the busiest months of the summer. If you want to plan your visit to the park when it’s not super crowded, April or November are the best months.
April, May, September, and October are the best months to see the diverse wildlife that calls the park home. If you are looking to travel on a budget, the months of October and April are less expensive for lodging. If you are wanting a more solitary experience, the months of January or February are the quietest in the park.
Summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The best times of year to visit for warm-weather activities in the park are from mid-May to late September. During the summer months, everything is open and there are plenty of events to enjoy.
East Tennessee summers are hot and humid with the highs reaching into the 90s. But even on the warmest days in the heat of the summer, there’s always a cool river or vast freshwater lake nearby to jump in and cool off.
July and August are the busiest months of the summer. The month of June is a little less busy with summer vacationers.
Fall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The fall in the Smokies is especially spectacular. Beginning in October of each year, the leaves throughout the region start their beautiful transformation. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is particularly famous for the distinctive fall colors that drape the countryside.
The best time of the year to see all the leaves in their full spectrum of autumn colors is typically the last week of October and the first week in November. Fall is a very busy time for the park with visitors and leaf-peepers. Campgrounds, lodging, and activities in the park and in the surrounding communities are still available during the Fall season.
Winter in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With all the highlights that the other seasons bring to the Smokies, don’t forget the mild but crisp winter season. The park does not close for winter, so it makes for a wonderful adventure even after the temperatures fall.
The most popular spots when visiting the park during the winter will not be crowded. You also enjoy a quieter experience during the winter months than can usually be found in America’s most visited national park.
Hiking in the cool winter season is a favorite visitor pastime. Because the trees have less foliage, it’s easier to see both the animals and new vistas. January is normally the coolest month of the year, and even then, the average snowfall is only 4-5 inches with daily highs averaging in the low to mid-40s.
Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Last, but certainly not least, is springtime in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is home to over 1800 varieties of flowering plants, and the colorful wildflowers make for a spectacular show. Some people call the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the “Wildflower National Park”, and that’s easy to see why in April and May of each year.
The mild temperatures and short, but sometimes frequent rain showers make spring another great time to explore all the beauty the park has to offer. Because Tennessee weather can be a little unpredictable in the Spring, in the month of March there are sometimes seasonal closures. Waiting to visit the park in April or May will pretty much guarantee you have access to all the popular spots in the park
Getting to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It doesn’t matter which direction you are coming from to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll take a scenic drive alongside the amazing rivers with rolling mountains in the ever-nearing distance. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is easily accessible from Interstates 40, 81, and 75. The easiest way to get to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is by vehicle.
If you are driving to the park from Pigeon Forge you should take the Gatlinburg Bypass. This road takes you around downtown Gatlinburg and leads right to the park’s Sugarlands entrance.
If you are flying in to visit the park, the Townsend entrance to the national park is only a short 30-minute drive from the Knoxville McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS). The Knoxville Airport provides one-way flights from over 30 destinations and airport connections provide access to just about every city in the country and several internationally.
The National Park has three main entrances coming from different directions. To enter the park on the Tennessee side, utilize US-441 coming through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg or US-321/TN-73 coming from Townsend. To access the park from the North Carolina side, utilize US-441 through Cherokee, North Carolina.
There are four visitor centers located within the national park at Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Clingmans Dome. The visitor centers are loaded with resources for just about every activity in the park.
Make sure to take a look at the National Park’s maps for the park, the trails, and the campgrounds. These maps are great for planning your trip to the park. Whether you want to go for a scenic drive, go for a hike, or set up a campsite.
Visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Open year-round, there are tons of activities and attractions to explore in the national park and around in the gateway towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Townsend. Another great thing about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding areas is that accommodations are plentiful. Campgrounds, lodges, and cabin retreats are plentiful at the gateway entrances around the park, and the dining options are exceptional.
There is also literally no end to the dining options in the Smoky Mountain region. From Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge to Knoxville, you can find all your Smoky Mountain favorites from Tennessee BBQ, fresh mountain trout, southern fried chicken, buttermilk biscuits, old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes, and apple dumplings.
There are no two ways about it, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always an amazing adventure whatever the purpose of your visit! Year after year, this perfect slice of undisturbed nature, with its unrivaled landscapes, ancient mountains, ridges upon ridges of dense forest, waterfalls, breathtaking peaks, and diversity of plants and wildlife, continues to be the most visited National Park in the United States.
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