Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Complete Guide

Sunset over a series of misty ridges and mountaintops

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Address
United States
Phone +1 865-436-1200

When it was first officially designated as a national park back in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains instantly became the premier outdoor playground in the eastern United States. Covering more than 522,000 acres of prime wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is home to a stunning array of wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and some of the highest peaks on this side of the Mississippi.

A subset of the Appalachian Mountain Range, the Smokies feature seemingly endless scenic vistas, which have helped make them one of the crown jewels of America's national park system. Its breathtaking beauty has also made the park incredibly popular, drawing more than 12 million visitors annually. To put things into perspective, that's more than twice as many as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.

But don't let those large visitation numbers deter you; there are still plenty of places to escape the crowds and find solitude inside the park. Whether you're looking to take an amazing hike, set up camp at a remote location, or just go on a beautiful drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered. This is everything you need to know before you go.

A hiker carefully crosses a stream in the middle of a forest

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Things to Do

As you would expect in an outdoor setting like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are many things to see and do. Visitors enjoy spotting wildlife, taking photos of the mountain landscapes, exploring historic buildings, and just soaking up the sights and sounds of the Smokies. Wildflower-covered meadows make excellent spots for a picnic lunch, while the park's scenic byways make excellent—if challenging—cycling routes as well.

Other popular activities inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park include fishing for trout and bass, horseback riding on many of the trails, and camping in one of the designated campsites. If you're looking to pitch your tent or park you're RV, the park has numerous places where you can do just that.

Hiking

All of that said, the most popular activity in the park is, without a doubt, hiking and backpacking. With more than 850 miles of trail to explore, visitors can spend weeks wandering the backcountry without ever walking on the same path twice. Some of the routes wanter high along the mountain ridges, providing outstanding views as they go. Others meander past open meadows, through thick forests, and around towering waterfalls. Some are short and easy, while others are long and difficult, but each is unique and satisfying.

Some of the best hikes in the park include the 2.7-mile walk to Rainbow Falls, which is short but challenging and rewards travelers with stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall. The 4-mile long Chimney Tops Trail will start steep but provides some of the best views around, while the trek to Alum Cave meanders through hardwood forest and under a stone arch on its way to a towering peak.

Backpacking

Backpackers will also discover that a 72-mile section of the Appalachian Trail passes through the Great Smoky Mountains. In fact, this is one of the more popular legs of the AT's entire 2,193-mile route that stretches from Maine to Georgia. If you're looking to take on a longer hike and do some backcountry camping, this is a great option for sure. Just be sure to get the proper permits before you go and pack your bear spray.

Scenic Drives

Those who would prefer to explore the Smokies by car will find a lot to love here too. Scenic drives have been a part of the park's heritage since the very beginning, which continues to this day. Popular routes include the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the Newfound Gap Road, although there are plenty of others. During the busier summer months, these roads can sometimes be quite busy, so allow yourself extra travel time. Take advantage of the more leisurely pace to enjoy the breathtaking views that can be found around nearly every bend.

An illuminated tent sits in a mountain meadow with thousands of stars overhead

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Where to Stay

Unlike some other national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains doesn't offer many options for hotels located inside its boundaries. Most visitors will seek accommodations in the numerous small towns and cities located just outside the park itself, where a wide variety of options are available.

The one exception to this is the LeConte Lodge, which offers a unique experience for a limited number of adventurous travelers. Located on the summit of Mount Le Conte, the lodge can only be reached on foot, requiring a hike of 5 to 8 miles depending on the route you choose to get there. Hikers will find several rustic cabins available by reservation, a gift shop, a dining hall, and other onsite amenities. As you would expect, advanced reservations are required, but those who make an effort will be rewarded with a truly memorable stay.

As already mentioned, camping is a popular activity in the Smokies and another way the visitors can overnight inside the park. Options include backcountry campsites that require a hike to reach, front-country campsites located not far from a parking lot, and group campgrounds specifically designed to accommodate a larger number of visitors. There are even a few campsites designated for horse camping that have been built for vehicle and trailer access. All sites can be reserved at recreation.gov.

It goes without saying that the backcountry campsites provide the most solitude. They also require the most effort to reach and are primitive in nature, providing very few amenities. Conversely, Frontcountry campgrounds feature restrooms with flush toilets, running water, fire grates, and picnic tables. They do lack showers and electrical outlets, so plan accordingly.

Two favorite campsites include Deep Creek, which offers some of the best views, and Balsam Mountain, which is more remote and quiet than some other locations. For those who like to be closer to the action, reserve a spot at Elkmont Campground, which can often be quite busy but is accessible and comfortable year-round.

A wheelchair accessible building inside the national park

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How to Get There

There are three entry points to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, with the main entrance located in Gatlinburg, TN. Visitors will take Interstate Highway I-40 to Exit 407, turning south on TN-60. From there, continue to US-441, which heads straight into the park.

Alternative entrances can be found in Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. Both locations feature ample signage to assist park visitors with locating the entrances, which are often less busy and crowded than the one in Gatlinburg. If you're looking to save some time during the busy season, it may be worth seeking one of the other ways in.

Accessibility

The National Park Service has gone to great lengths to make as much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park accessible to all visitors as possible. Parking lots have designated spaces to accommodate the special needs of visitors, while visitor centers have been built for accessibility too. That includes restrooms, drinking fountains, doors, shops, and special attractions such as lectures and presentations.

A number of the campgrounds also feature accessible units, which can be reserved at recreation.gov. There are also ranger-led outings that have been designed to be wheelchair accessible too, and the amphitheater at Cades Cove is extremely accommodating to travelers with special needs.

Because the park is so car-friendly, it is a great destination for travelers with special accessibility needs. While the rugged and remote hiking trails can't be altered to accommodate these visitors, so much of the natural beauty of the Smokies are on display from the road that it remains a great option for every kind of outdoor adventurer.

Dramatic skies hang over a mountain top inside Great Smoky Mountain National Park

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Tips for Your Visit

  • The busiest time in the park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. To avoid large crowds and potential traffic jams, plan your visit for other times of the year. The weather is generally mild, even during the winter, and the landscapes are majestic in all four seasons.
  • Autumn is an especially great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. While crowds can be large at that time of year, they're generally not as bad as in the summer, and the changing color of the leaves is spectacular.
  • Entrance into the park is free all year round. This isn't the case with many national parks, but it is a nice perk at GSMNP.
  • Changing conditions in the park can often cause roads or trails to be closed. Be sure to check the official Great Smoky Mountains website for the latest information on those closures.
  • Permits and reservations are needed for various activities in the park, including backcountry hiking, camping, spelunking, and even getting married. To find out which permits you need, check out this handy webpage.
  • In addition to bringing a camera with a long lens, be sure to pack a pair of binoculars. Both will help you spot black bears, elk, deer, raccoons, and various other creatures that call the park home.
  • Bring extra layers and a rain jacket, even if you're visiting during the warmer months. The weather can vary dramatically from one part of the park to another, and conditions can change rapidly. Having an extra layer or a water/windproof jacket won't just keep you comfortable; it could save your life.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Complete Guide