Spanning the two states of North Carolina and Tennessee and crossing the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountain Ranges is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the United States. Part of the park’s popularity comes from its proximity to many major cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Knoxville, and Nashville. Running through the park is 72 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile wilderness trail steeped in cultural history all the way from Georgia to Maine.
The Smoky Mountains hold on to remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. While exploring the park you may come across old homesteads, churches, schools, cabins, and mills, slowly being reclaimed by the persistence of the old-growth forests and wildflowers. The park’s aim is to protect these structures and artifacts that piece together the stories of the different people who used to inhabit these ancient mountains, beginning thousands of years ago with the Native Americans and spanning until the arrival of early European settlements in the 1800s. The park has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its exceptional beauty, intact wilderness, and biodiversity including the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species. Whether you hike, picnic, camp, or auto tour, the park is guaranteed to invoke the feeling that you are part of living history.
Best Time to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Early spring can be cool and unpredictable. Late spring brings an explosion of wildflowers, flowering trees, and frequent afternoon showers. This time of year will have fewer crowds and lower rates on accommodations on the weekdays.
Summer is the best and most popular time to visit the park. The weather can be hot with temperatures above 80°F (26°C) but can vary widely based on elevation. Hikers can cool down at mountain streams and roaring waterfalls. Afternoon thunderstorms are common.
Fall brings warm days above 70°F (21°C) and cool nights. Fall colors begin to cascade down the mountainsides from higher to lower elevations around mid-September. This is the second most popular time to visit the park because of the changing foliage and the comfortable hiking temperatures.
The winter months see moderate temperatures above 30°F (-1°C). January and February bring the most snowfall. Some visitor centers, campgrounds, historic attractions, and roads will close during the winter months due to weather. Visiting in the winter months offers uncongested roads and solitude on hiking trails. It also provides new views along trails caused by the absence of deciduous leaves where stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other historical remnants may be revealed.
Getting To / Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park
McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) is located just south of Knoxville TN in Alcoa. From the airport, it is about 45 miles (72 km) to the park which takes over 1 hour to drive to the Gatlinburg entrance via US-321 S.
Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) is on the North Carolina side of the park. From the airport, it is 60 miles (96 km) to the Cherokee entrance
Public transportation to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from major cities in the area is not offered. Businesses operating in the smaller communities surrounding the park offer transportation to the park from cities such as Knoxville TN and Asheville NC.
A trolley service is offered by the city of Gatlinburg TN to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont on the “Tan/National Park” route during the summer and fall months for $2 roundtrip.
There are 384 miles of road to explore in the Smokies that are mostly paved or well maintained. Drivers should be prepared to drive extremely narrow, winding roads with blind corners. Because of these narrow roads, trailers, RVs, and buses are prohibited on some secondary roads in the park.
Visitor Centers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
It’s always a good idea to start off any National Parks trip with a stop at a visitor center where you can speak to rangers, watch the park film, enjoy exhibits about the natural and cultural history of the area, join a ranger-led program, pick up your backcountry permits, or shop for books and maps.
Cades Cove is located on Cable Mill Road, Townsend, TN. Open all year.
Oconaluftee is located at 1194 Newfound Gap Road, Cherokee, NC. Open all year.
Sugarlands is located at 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Road, Gatlinburg, TN. Open all year.
Clingmans Dome is on Clingmans Dome Road, Bryson City, NC. Open April 1- November 30.
Things to Do and Main Attractions
There are plenty of notable scenic drives throughout the park. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most famous drives. The relaxing pace will take you through the Appalachian Highlands exposing dramatic open views of the rugged landscapes. The Foothills Parkway crosses a series of high ridges that run more or less parallel to the Tennessee border of the park. From here you can see spectacular views of the Great Smokies to the south and the Tennessee Valley to the north.
Take yourself on a historical tour of the park and visit some of the cemeteries that provide a rich insight into the lives and customs of past communities. You can also take a self-guiding auto tour and visit some of the park’s historic buildings such as houses, barns, churches, and schools and get a glimpse into how people used to live in the area.
Bicycles are allowed on many roads throughout the park but some are safer than others. Cades Cove Loop Road is a popular bicycling area. The road will take you past some 19th-century homesteads and offers a good chance to view wildlife. Mountain biking is an option on national forest and recreation lands outside of the National Park.
The park protects one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. Because of this protection, most of the streams remain near their carrying capacity and can offer a great place to fish throughout the year with a valid license.
You can enjoy hiking in the park during all months of the year. Some of the most popular hikes in the park include Charlies Bunion which leads to mountain vistas and is found along the famous Appalachian Trail. The Alum Cave hike offers everything from hiking through the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock, the Alum Cave Bluffs, and sweeping views seen from following the edge of the ridge. The hike to Rainbow Falls crosses a series of creeks over log bridges before the 80ft (24m) falls are revealed, named after the effect of the afternoon sun shining through the mist. A short but steep climb leads to Clingmans Dome, the highest point of the Smoky Mountains with an observation tower offering 360-degree views.
The dense forest cover makes it challenging to spot wildlife within the park but some animals you may spot would be white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, raccoons, turkeys, and woodchucks.
Hire a guide for a guided horseback tour that will take you along scenic park trails.
Where to Stay in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Lodging is only available in the nearby towns surrounding the park including hotels, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds.
For those hiking up Mount Le Conte, the third highest peak in the park, it is possible to stay at Le Conte Lodge. Parks required advanced reservations.
Camping is the only way to stay the night within the park. The established campgrounds have no electrical or water hookups. RV-accessible campgrounds include Cades Cove Campground, Cosby Campground, Elkmont Campground, and Smokemont Campground.
Backcountry camping requires a permit and advanced reservations.
Things to Remember While Visiting the Park
- There is no public WiFi within the park.
- There is no cellphone signal throughout much of the park.
- Stock up before entering the park. Limited groceries, camping supplies, food, beverages, and convenience items are available in the park.
- Gas stations are located in the communities surrounding the park.
- Pets are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. Pets are only allowed on two short walking paths, the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. This is for their safety and the safety of park wildlife.
- Respect wildlife from a distance: don’t feed or approach them or let them approach you.
- Human food has a serious impact on wildlife. Don’t feed wildlife, keep camps free of all traces of food and store food in an animal-proof food locker. Place all garbage in an animal-proof trash can.
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