The first thing you should know about the Great Smoky Mountains is that it is the nation’s busiest national park with more than 11 million visitors every year. It covers 800 square miles of mountainous terrain that spans across eastern Tennessee and crosses the border into North Carolina. The Smoky Mountains, as locals lovingly call them, are home to some of the world's most stunning deciduous forests along with historic churches, cabins, and barns from bygone Appalachian communities.
With 150 official trails throughout the park and countless miles of backcountry, it's surprising that relatively few visitors actually get out of their cars and hike, opting to enjoy the views from inside their vehicles. But this designated international biosphere reserve is home to an incomparable variety of plants and animals and is worth more than just passing through.
Planning Your Trip
- Best Time to Visit: The park is open year-round and each season offers something different to enjoy. The snowfall in winter adds a beautiful serenity to the landscape, but the blooming flowers in spring or river activities in the summer make for excellent hikes. Most people, however, would probably agree that autumn is the best time of year to visit, when the maples, oaks, and hickories are bursting with fall foliage colors (the leaves usually reach peak color in October). The busiest times of the year are July, August, and October when the main roads often get backed up. Summer crowds usually arrive by midday, while October crowds tend to gather in the late afternoon and evening.
- Getting Around: With over 800 square miles to cover, a car is necessary to move around and see the highlights. But visitors who just stay in the car are also missing out on huge swaths of the park only accessible by foot. Other options for getting around the park include biking, horseback riding, or an open-air hayride that takes visitors around Cades Cove Loop.
- Travel Tip: The most popular routes to take through the park are U.S. Route 441, also called Newfound Gap Road, and Cades Cove Loop. If you're visiting during high season or want an off-the-beaten-path experience, try seeking out lesser-used routes, such as Greenbrier Road, Fontana Road, or Foothills Parkway.
Things to Do
Take the time to park your car and fully experience the Smoky Mountains. The views from the road are otherworldly, but you're only experiencing a small fraction of all that the national park has to offer by staying in your vehicle. Several of the most scenic destinations can only be reached by hiking, but visitors can also kayak, go horseback riding, try white water rafting, visit historic sites, look out for wildlife, and so much more. Of course, pitching a tent and sleeping in the park is the best way to experience it.
- Cades Cove is a scenic valley tracing its history to 1850 when settlers moved onto the Cherokee Indian land. Structures and official sites have been marked, creating an outdoor historic gallery. Don’t miss the small cabin known as John Oliver Place or the Primitive Baptist Church which was shut down during the Civil War.
- Visit the highest point of Tennessee, Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet. The peak is accessible by driving Clingmans Dome Road from Newfound Gap, and then walking a half-mile trail. A paved trail then leads to a 54-foot observation tower.
- Mount LeConte is one of the most popular mountains to hike at Great Smoky Mountains. At 6,593 feet, it is the third highest peak in the national park.
- The Great Smoky Mountains are home to some of the most stunning waterfalls in the nation. Some can’t miss falls include Abrams Falls, Grotto Falls, Hen Wallow Falls, Juney Whank Falls, and Laurel Falls.
- If you want to introduce children to hiking without exhausting them, the Porters Creek Trail and Kephart Prong Trail are both designated kid-friendly by the National Park Service.
What to Eat and Drink
If you forgot to pack something to eat, there are some limited options inside the park. The only place to buy hot food in the park is at the Cades Cove Campground Store, which has a snack bar of breakfast items, hot sandwiches, pizza, and the like. Apart from that, the only other options are a couple of convenience stores selling packaged items and vending machines.
For restaurant dining after a day of trekking, you'll have to exit the park and enter one of the neighboring communities, such as Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge in Tennessee or Bryson City on the North Carolina side.
Where to Stay
The most popular option for staying in the Smoky Mountains is, of course, camping. There are several "frontcountry" campgrounds scattered throughout the park where you can park your car or RV next to your reserved site and set up camp. For the more intrepid—and experienced—campers who want a bit more adventure, backcountry camping is also an option. You need a reservation for a campsite or a permit to backcountry camp, and spots fill up quickly.
The only non-camping option inside the park is LeConte Lodge, which is located at the summit of Mount LeConte and only accessible by foot. The various trails to reach it range from five to eight miles, so don't pack heavy if you plan to spend the night. The lodge closes when the weather makes it too difficult to reach, but it's usually open from mid-March to mid-November.
For a hotel that you don't have to hike to, visitors have plenty of options in the neighboring towns, such as Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. For a rustic experience without having to actually pitch your own tent, consider renting a cabin in the area.
There's no official entrance and visitors have several options for getting into the park on both the Tennessee side and the North Carolina side. The nearest big cities to the Smoky Mountains are Nashville, Tennessee; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia, all of which are just two to three hours away by car.
Another popular way to get there is by taking a road trip along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which begins near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and continues south all the way to the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Money Saving Tips
One of the reasons that the Great Smoky Mountains is America's most visited national park: it's free of charge. Unless you reserve a campsite or buy food in the park, you can spend the entire day enjoying the majesty of the Smoky Mountains without spending a dime. It's an unforgettable vacation for travelers on a budget or families with kids.
- Camping is the most affordable accommodation—assuming you already have the gear. Campsites range from $17 to $25 per night depending on the campground and can accommodate up to six people.
- Campsites don't fluctuate in price based on the season but they do get booked up quickly, especially in the high season of summer and October.
- The rates at motels and bed and breakfasts in the neighboring communities do vary depending on the season. Consider traveling in the offseason if you want to spend the night at nearby lodging.
- There are no gas stations inside the national park. Be sure to fill up the tank before you enter or you may end up paying for it.