The AFT Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the NPS system—by a long shot. In 2016, the park saw 11 million visitors, almost twice as many as the next most-visited, Grand Canyon.

So it wins Most Popular, but there are plenty more superlatives to describe this park. Great Smoky Mountains is stunning in its size and diversity—especially for an Eastern park. Its location makes it a unique spot biologically—it contains the northernmost instances of many southern plants, and the southernmost instances of many northern plants.

Because of this confluence, the number of species contained in the park is staggering. Of the one million named bugs in existence, 800,000 of them exist in the park. There are more varieties of trees in GSM—130 species—than in the whole of Europe, including several species that are found nowhere else on Earth. The only place in the world that is more biologically diverse is the tropical rainforest.

Read about our first visit to Great Smoky Mountains here.

family hiking in great smoky mountains national park

Where Great Smoky Mountains is located:

Great Smoky Mountains straddles the border between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

Getting to Great Smoky Mountains:

The nearest major airports are in Knoxville, TN (1 hour from the park) and Asheville, NC (2 hours from the park.) Enter the park from Gatlinburg to the west or Cherokee to the east. US 441 is the main road that cuts through the park.

autumn on the blue ridge parkway

Fees in Great Smoky Mountains: 

The park doesn’t charge admission because the Rockefellers made free entry a condition of their five million dollar donation, the money that was crucial to the park’s establishment.

So because they’re missing out on that entry-fee revenue, the park charges for things that other parks give for free, like brochures, trail guides, and Jr. Ranger books. 

kids in cades cove in great smoky mountains

Where to stay in Great Smoky Mountains:

There is only one lodge within the park: LeConte Lodge. It’s electricity-free, can be reached only by foot, and has all its supplies carried in by llama. It’s typically open mid-March through mid-November and you can make reservations here. Generally, you’ll need to reserve a year in advance.

The park maintains 10 campgrounds; some have only a dozen sites, some have over 200. All campgrounds have running water and flush toilets, but no showers or hookups. Eight of the campgrounds allow you to make reservations in advance and some require it—check here for details.

While we recommend staying within the park for the best access to sites, there are also lots of lodging options in the gateway towns of Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

baby camping

How long to stay in Great Smoky Mountains:

Plenty of Great Smoky Mountains visitors never get more than a 1/4 mile from their cars. You could take in a lot of beauty in the park just by spending a day driving around, as many do. But we recommend staying at least 4 days to seek out some quieter corners of the Smokies and to take advantage of its many trails.

When to go to Great Smoky Mountains:

Great Smoky Mountains is open year-round and there are perks to each season, from spring blooms to incredible fall foliage. Peak visitation runs through July and August, then spikes again when leaf peepers come in October, particularly on the weekends. In winter, some roads and facilities may close.

blue ridge parkway in autumn

Best for:

  • Wildlife
  • Hiking
  • History
  • Scenery

Pair with:

Great Smoky Mountains is bordered to the north and south by national forest. Roads and trails in the forests have much of the scenery of Great Smoky Mountains without the crowds.

Blue Ridge Parkway is an beautiful scenic drive that follows the ridge of the mountains from Shenandoah National Park all the way down to Great Smoky Mountains. We highly recommend driving it if you can.

blue ridge parkway in autumn

Activities:

Driving:

Driving is the classic Great Smoky Mountains NP experience. At any visitors center, you can grab a booklet detailing the history and features of several popular roads, including Cades Cove, Newfound Gap Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

During peak times, the park can see a lot of traffic on popular roads. For a scenic drive without the bumper-to-bumper, try Rich Mountain Road or Foothills Parkway.

converted shuttle bus in national park

Biking:

There are few biking trails in the park and while bikes are allowed on most park roads, they don’t come highly recommended since there’s so much traffic and elevation gain.

The glowing (and popular) exception: Cades Cove Loop Road. The 11-mile, one-way route is mostly flat and there’s a very good chance you’ll see wildlife along the way. You can also make stops at several historical sites on the road.

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings from May through September, the road is closed to vehicles so bikers can have it all to themselves. We highly recommend this! When cars are on the road, it’s easy to get stuck in their exhaust and it doesn’t make for a very pleasant pedal. If you can’t bike when the road is car-free, try to leave very early in the day.

bike path in cades cove

History:

Great Smoky Mountains has over 90 historic structures, mainly from the days of its early European settlers. The best places to see them and learn about the regions history are Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Oconaluftee and Roaring Fork.

A visit to Great Smoky Mountains wouldn’t be complete without learning about the Cherokee people who lived on this land before European settlement. The Cultural History Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is a great place to learn about this people and their relationship with the Smokies.

Another excellent spot to learn more is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC, just outside the park.

historic building in cades cove

Wildlife Viewing:

Great Smoky Mountains boasts loads of wildlife, but it can be hard to spot the animals because most of the park is so densely forested. In the more open areas of Cades Cove and Cataloochee, you have a better change at viewing black bears, deer, elk, turkeys and all sorts of other critters. Keep your eyes well open on hikes too—you might just luck out with a sighting.

turkeys in cades cove

Waterfalls:

Great Smoky Mountains gets more than 85 inches of rain every year, which means there are lots and lots of waterfalls here. Some of the most popular include Grotto, Abrams, Rainbow and Laurel Falls. A few falls are visible from the road, including Meigs Falls, The Sinks, and Place of a Thousand Drips.

waterfalls in great smoky mountains

Viewpoints:

Clingmans’ Dome is the highest point in the Smokies. You can drive most of the way up, then hike a steep half-mile to reach the top. Along the way, there are incredible views over the Smokies—on a clear day you can see 100 miles and 7 states from the peak. This is a great place to watch the sunset.

view from clingmans dome

Hiking:

There are 150 official trails within the park, for a huge range of abilities and interests. Here are a few:

Laurel Falls:

A popular 2.6-mile hike to one of the park’s taller waterfalls, with two pools at the bottom for dipping your feet.

Chimney Tops Trail:

A steep 4-miler leads to a rocky summit with broad views.

Alum Cave Bluffs:

Wind through blueberry bushes and old-growth forest to Mount LeConte, the third highest peak in the park.

Abrams Falls:

A 2.5-mile trail in the Cades Cove area takes you to the park’s largest waterfall by water volume.

Grotto Falls:

Along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, stop for a 1.3-mile stroll to this scenic falls.

Ramsey Cascades:

Reach the tallest waterfall in the park with a steep 4-mile hike.

Deep Creek:

Get more bang for your buck—or in this case, more falls for your hike—on this 2.4 miler, where you’ll pass 3 waterfalls.

Porters Creek Trail:

Those interested in settler history will enjoy this 3.6-mile climb to a 150-year-old barn and cemetery.

Charlie’s Bunion:

Get a taste of the Appalachian Trail by hiking this 4-mile section from the Newfound Gap overlook to a sweeping viewpoint of the surrounding hills.

waterfall in great smoky mountains

Bringing Kids:

We think Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most accessible parks in the NPS system. It’s very well developed and you’ll never be far from facilities unless you venture into the backcountry. The park has a number of family-friendly hikes and kid-pleasers, from giant waterfalls to ample wildlife.

family hiking in great smoky mountains

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our followers about visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

What’s the best hike to do over the course of a few days and backcountry camp on?

We haven’t personally done any overnight backpacking in the park, but these hikes all look fantastic.

I’d like to visit in December around the holidays. Is this advisable?

Yes! A winter visit to Great Smoky Mountains means fewer crowds and beautiful snowy landscapes (plus a slew of fun holidays activities around Pigeon Forge.) Be aware that trails can get icy and plan your footwear accordingly. Also know that not all roads or facilities will be open. But if you go in knowing all of that, winter should be a wonderful time to experience the park.

How do we avoid the crowds?

Visit outside of peak season (which is July, August and October) and on weekdays. Try to get a campsite so you can limit your time getting in and out of the park, and spend more early morning and evening hours seeing the sights. Plan to spend as little time driving as possible and get out on the trails instead.

The park’s website gives some tips on less-crowded areas of the park here.

How do you think Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge affects the park?

I can’t give an educated answer on this! But it certainly seems that many families pair a visit to the Smokies with a vacation to the more commercial sites of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Gateway towns like that tend to crop up near park entrances, especially in more populated areas. Though Gatlinburg is probably the kitschiest I can think of, I don’t mind that its attractions may drive more people to vacation in the area. After all, getting people into nature is one of the goals of the National Park Service. Even if visitors don’t spend much of their vacation time in the park itself, or don’t leave their cars to experience the Smokies’ off-road wonders, at least they’re getting a little taste of wilderness.

elvis and john wayne sculptures in pigeon forge
What’s your favorite hike here?

We loved the Three Falls Loop. We weren’t too ambitious with our hiking on our visit, but would love to go back and explore more trails! You can read about all the hikes and other activities we did in Great Smoky Mountains here.

Why do you think the Smokies are free when all the other big parks cost money?

You can thank the Rockefellers! They made free entry a condition of the $$$$ donation that made Great Smoky Mountains National Park possible.

What are the best kid-friendly trails?

Some great hikes for kids include Grotto Falls, Porters Creek Trail, Deep Creek loop and Laurel Falls. But there are loads more options! Ask a ranger for suggestions specific to your kids’ ability.

What’s the best time of year to visit?

Depends on what you want to do! In general, we’d suggest April through June for wildflowers and good hiking weather before the summer crowds hit. September sees a small dip in visitation, and that would be a beautiful time to go as well.

Even though October is very busy, the fall foliage is worth battling the traffic for! Try to visit on a weekday to avoid the biggest crush.

What’s the best place to camp with kids?

Any of the parks’ 10 campgrounds would be fun with kids! Our kids loved camping in Cades Cove. It’s a well-developed spot with lots of programs and things to see in the area.

kids with campfire in cades cove

Advice from our Readers:

“If you can’t camp in the park, rent a cabin nearby instead of staying in a hotel!”

“If hiking in the winter or spring months, there can be ice. Bring yak trax for better grip!”

“We love Ramsey Cascades Trail and Mouse Creeks Falls Trail. They were quiet and we saw bears and evidence of bears on Ramsey.”

“Visit Cataloochee Valley early in the morning or at dusk to beat cars and see the elk and bear be more active.”

“Enter through Townsend or Wears Valley to avoid traffic.”

“My favorite hikes with kids are Andrew’s Bald (pair it with Clingman’s Dome) and Grotto Falls.”

“Favorite hikes are Charlie’s Bunion, Gregory’s Bald, and Ramsey Falls.”

deer in cades cove

Final tips:

A great year-round destination with some of the best hiking in the Eastern U.S., Great Smoky Mountains isn’t likely to decrease in popularity any time soon. So give yourself enough time to absorb traffic and crowds into your plans, then get deep into the forest to experience the real heart of the park.

family with sign at great smoky mountains national park

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