Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, situated within a day’s drive of half of the U.S. population. US Highway 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road, bisects the park, running east-west, connecting Cherokee, North Carolina, with Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a drive of about 90 minutes.
The nearest airports to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in Asheville, North Carolina, 1:15 from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, and McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, 1:14 minutes from the Sugarlands Visitors Center. The drive into Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Asheville and from McGhee Tyson is easy, with well-marked interstate or major state highways making up the bulk of the route. Major and regional airlines serve both airports, and both airports have car rentals available.
Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap, Chimney Tops, and the Oconaluftee Visitors Center (in Cherokee, North Carolina) and the Sugarlands Visitors Center (in Gatlinburg, Tennessee) are located along Newfound Gap Road/US-441.
Getting to Cades Cove, the park’s most-visited section, is simple; follow TN 73 (Fighting Creek Gap Road/Little River Gorge Road/Laurel Creek Road) for 25 (scenic) miles. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, another popular driving loop studded with hiking trails and historic cabins, is just three miles from downtown Gatlinburg along Historic Nature Trail/Cherokee Orchard Road.
Interstate 40 runs just north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and visitors to the Big Creek and Cataloochee Valley areas will find themselves on the Interstate to reach these remote sections of the park.
In the southeastern part of the park, the town of Bryson City, North Carolina, provides access to Deep Creek and Lakeview Drive areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bryson City sits just 14 miles from Cherokee and the Oconaluftee Visitors Center along NC 19, but is also accessible via NC 73/Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.
Most people tour Great Smoky Mountains National Park by car. There is no public transportation available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, though some hiking outfitters offer shuttle services and prearranged trailhead pickup/drop off. Rental vehicles – Jeeps, UTVs, and other quirky rides – are available in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the nearby town of Pigeon Forge.
Campervans and RVs are popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and with an abundance of campgrounds in the park and in nearby gateway towns, they’re growing in popularity. Be aware though that some tow-behind and fifth-wheel campers and long campervans might not fit on the winding roads of Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, or even parts of Newfound Gap Road, so check your size and clearance against the park’s posted limits.
There is no shortage of where to stay when visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Park has more than 1,000 campsites that accommodate both tent campers and RVs. The LeConte Lodge is the only lodge or cabin in the park; it sits at the peak of Mount LeConte, and is accessible by hiking trail only. Getting a reservation for the LeConte Lodge can be difficult, but each spring a lottery opens and those lucky enough to get picked get reservations. That said, it’s possible to call the Lodge and find last-minute cancellations, but arranging for a 10-mile round-trip overnight hike and all the gear for a stay in a primitive cabin or bunkhouse is a tall order for many visitors.
In the major gateway cities of Knoxville, TN, and Asheville, NC, a slate of well-known hotels and a number of inns, B&Bs, and vacation rentals provide accommodations for those who like to blend a little urban exploration to their trip to the wilds of a national park.
On the Tennessee side of the park there are plenty of campgrounds, RV parks, hotels, motels and vacation rentals to be had. In Gatlinburg, the closest town to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a mix of national chain hotels and mom-and-pop operations blend with the condos, rental cabins, and grand vacation homes to provide ample rooms. Pigeon Forge, just a few minutes west of Gatlinburg, has even more hotels on offer, including the DreamMore Resort, the hotel owned and operated by Dolly Parton as part of Dollywood, the amusement park she owns there; work is underway to add another hotel property of a similar size and scope, adding even more rooms to a robust roster. In Townsend, Tennessee, a handful of hotels and campgrounds provide quick access to Cades Cove and give visitors a chance to stay out of the tourist bustle of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg; that does come at a cost, as Townsend lacks the restaurants, shops, distractions and amenities of those other towns.
In North Carolina, Cherokee, which, like Gatlinburg, abuts Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has a mix of small hotels, recognizable chain hotels, campgrounds and RV parks, and the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. Easily the largest – and nicest – hotel in Cherokee, Harrah’s is expanding and more than doubling their room capacity, hoping to draw visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and to its own casino and concert venue. Just down the road in Bryson City, charming B&Bs and quaint inns add to a robust offering of campgrounds, RV parks, glamping sites, tiny home communities, and chain hotels. Further out, towns like Sylva and Dillsboro – which are only 25 minutes away from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and from Bryson City’s Deep Creek access – offer mountain cabins, small hotels and motels, vacation rentals, and a few chain hotel options.
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The best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park depends on you. Summer and Fall are the park’s high seasons. Summer sees visitors flocking to the Smoky Mountains to cool down with high-elevation hikes and days spent wading in streams or tubing in rivers, and to hike. In Fall the mountains turn into patchwork quilts of color as the leaves change, and this brings leaf peepers, artists, fall-lovers and Nationals Parks fans to the Smokies in droves.
Conversely, Winter and Spring see fewer visitors. During Winter, some facilities will be closed, but hikers will have trails to themselves and can experience the park in a way few visitors do. Spring begins to see visitors return, drawn by wildflowers, warming days and wildlife. In Cades Cove, wildlife photographers capture shot after shot of bears and their cubs, deer and their fawns, and Tom turkeys strutting their stuff.
Inclement weather – typically ice or snow or both – causes the temporary closure of some roads – like Newfound Gap Road – during winter. Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to all vehicles on Wednesdays from early May through early September to accommodate cyclists and their safe use of the scenic loop road.
Some roads within the park are subject to seasonal closures. Clingmans Dome Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail close to automobile traffic in late November and reopens in early April. Off-highway roads like Rich Mountain Road and Balsam Mountain Road (also called Heintooga Ridge Road) close seasonally. Rich Mountain Road typically closes from early November through the first week of April, and Balsam Mountain Road typically closes on November 1 and reopens by mid-May.
Only two of the front country campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park remain open year-round, the Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds. All others are open seasonally, typically from April through November (closing during winter months), though exact dates vary by campground.
Several of the picnic areas follow a similar schedule to the campgrounds, with Cades Cove, Deep Cree, Greenbrier and Metcalf Bottoms picnic areas staying open year-round and the others closing during winter (from early November through April or mid-May; exact dates vary).
Visitors Centers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are open daily except Christmas Day, when they close. Operating hours vary by visitors center, but a good rule of thumb is 9am-5pm, except in summer when they stay open until 7pm to accommodate late-day hikers and visitors.
Most visitors can experience Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 3 days, visiting pockets of the park like Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, Cades Cove, and the areas around Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitors Centers; getting in a couple of short hikes; and finding a waterfall or two where they can rest and recharge.
Four days gets you more time to explore in the park or the gateway towns, or allows you to visit Deep Creek or Cataloochee. Avid hikers, anglers and photographers will want to spend an extra day or two in Great Smoky Mountains National Park so they can squeeze in a couple of long hikes; stake out those sunrise, sunset, or perfect wildlife shots; and get in plenty of time on the water, reeling in trout.
And, of course, if you’re there to bag a few peaks, spend the night at LeConte Lodge, or log a few more miles on you trek to hiking all 800 miles of trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’re going to need more time.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited park in the United States, with more than 12 million visitors a year, so avoiding the crowds can be tricky. But it can be done. For starters, try visiting the Smokies in off times: mid-week (many visitors come by for a long weekend, which makes that Tuesday-Thursday visit more attractive) or during Spring or Winter. You can even visit during “shoulder season,” which is to say at the start of Summer, the earliest weeks of Fall (but still expect the leaf-peeping crowds), and at the back end of Fall; crowds are smaller then but all of the trails, picnic areas, and amenities in gateway towns will be open.
Next, plan to arrive at popular trailheads early. Hikes like Laurel Falls and Alum Cave Bluffs are wildly popular and therefore crowded, but if you’re one of the first groups on the trailhead, you’ll avoid most of those crowds. Also plan an alternate hike. If you’re on the way to Laurel Falls and the trailhead is crowded, then you can hike your Plan B and head to Elkmont or Tremont for hikes every bit as scenic. On many hikes you can simply hike more. Look for mid-range to long-range hikes of 5-8 miles; many hikers go for shorter hikes of 1-2 miles or for hikes of 3-4 miles, so the further you push down the trail, the more you’ll have it to yourself.
Sometimes, as in the case with campsite or hotel reservations, the crowds can’t be avoided, so the best course of action is to make your reservations early, the earlier the better. Campsites and hotel rooms are often hard to find in Fall and during other seasonal events (Gatlinburg’s Winter Festival, the Spring Wildflower Weekend, the synchronous firefly display in early Summer), so acting fast and making your reservations soon is always a good plan.
Driving Newfound Gap Road is a highlight for many visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This 33-mile road connects the visitors centers in Cherokee, NC, and Gatlinburg, TN, and along the way passes a number of scenic overlooks and trailheads. At Newfound Gap – the point where the road crosses the mountains and the North Carolina-Tennessee state lines – you’ll find an overlook with expansive views and the storied Appalachian Trail, which follows the park’s central ridgeline. You’ll also find Clingmans Dome Road, the 8-mile drive out to Clingmans Dome (a short hike up a steep paved trail is required to reach the summit), where the views are impressive. Descending into Tennessee you’ll find more of those views, but also more hikes, picnic areas, and spots to stop and take a stroll or a few pictures.
This 11-mile loop road in the southwestern corner of the park draws more than 2 million visitors every year. And for good reason. This bowl-shaped valley is ringed by high peaks – including Rocky Top, made famous in song – and was once home to a thriving community. Today a handful of historic cabins and homesites, and the Cove’s historic grist mill, are the only structures save the visitors center, campground store and stables. In summer and fall, Cades Cove Loop gets crowded as higher visitor numbers and gorgeous fall color cause delays; you’ll often experience mini traffic jams in spring as wildlife watchers and photographers stop and look for a place to pull off when they spot a bear and her cubs, turkeys, or white-tailed deer. That said the road is a highlight in any season. The hike to Abrams Falls (at the midpoint of the drive) lures hikers and waterfalls lovers, and the historic churches, cabins and homesites call the curious.
It’s possible to cut off the loop by taking Sparks Lane or Hyatt Lane, unpaved cutoffs that allow you to shorten the loop – or lengthen it – but if you’re driving through Cades Cove looking for places to snap an awesome photo, the cutoffs offer up a number of angles on Cades Cove that other photographers forget about.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail makes a 6-mile one-way loop through the mountains just outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The hills here are steep, so waterfalls and cascades abound along the drive, from the hikeable Grotto Falls (where, if you time it right, you’ll see a pack train of llamas headed up to resupply the LeConte Lodge) and Rainbow Falls to the right-beside-the-road Place of A Thousand Drips. Historic cabins and homesites are peppered throughout Roaring Fork, representing a wide range of building styles found in the Smokies from the time it was settled by Europeans to the early 20th century.
The Foothills Parkway is only partially completed – there’s a 33.5-mile gap in the planned 72-mile scenic road – but three segments totaling 22.5 miles are open. Why the gap? One look at the topography here gives you the answer: road construction here is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, and this project is no exception. That said, the southernmost section from Chilhowie to Wears Valley gives you awesome views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the east (just over those hills is Cades Cove) and the Cumberland Mountains to the west. And the short section connecting Cosby (north of Gatlinburg) to Interstate 40 is a welcome break from highway speeds when arriving in the region and a lovely transition out of the wilds of the park and back into “civilization.”
There are more than 800 miles of hiking trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and we encourage everyone to go out and find their personal favorite hikes, but here are a few of ours.
A steep, paved trail leads from the parking area (which has spectacular views, especially at sunrise and sunset) to the summit, where an elevated observation platform puts you above the treetops for views that on clear days stretch for 100 miles. This is the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, standing at 6,643 feet, making it a bucket list hike (and one of the easiest peaks to bag) in the park.
Accessed from the Clingmans Dome parking area, this hike leads you along the ridgeline to one of the park’s mysterious balds – high altitude meadows – where flame azaleas and mountain laurel bloom in mid-summer.
A moderately-strenuous hike leads to the only waterfall in the park you can walk behind – hence the name Grotto Falls. Not only is this waterfall a lovely sight, but you can also see a rare sight: llamas. Specifically, a llama pack train that carries supplies to LeConte Lodge three times a week. They hit the trail early, so if you want to see them, plan to be at the trailhead by sunup on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
This hike in Cades Cove leads you to the 20’ Abrams Falls and is, for many hikers, their first “long” trek, clocking in at 5 miles round trip. There are plenty of places to rest along the way and the payout at the end – Abrams Falls thundering over the edge and filling a wide plunge pool – is worth every step.
Along Newfound Gap Road and on the way out to Cades Cove, Quiet Walkways provide short, easy-to-navigate trails a little ways into the woods away from the road. Here you’ll be surrounded by the sounds of nature, from creeks and rivers to small cascades and mini-waterfalls to birdsong and the croak of frogs, and get the chance to stretch your legs and introduce novice hikers to the terrain, sights and sounds here.
A strenuous hike to the summit of Mount LeConte, this trail passes through a natural tunnel, beneath the impressive Alum Cave Bluffs, and along rocky, exposed sections before finally reaching the summit some 5 miles later. The LeConte Lodge is here – and they sell bag lunches to day-hikers – as is a network of trails that can connect you to the Appalachian Trail, to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (via Trillium Gap/Grotto Falls), and a number of other trails.
The Appalachian Trail follows the crest of the Smokies for more than 70 miles, and for many hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, dreams of hiking from Georgia to Maine have filled their heads for years. Now’s your chance to hike a bit of the AT. At Newfound Gap you can pick up the AT and hike south to reach Clingmans Dome or north to get to Charlies Bunion. The hike to Charlies Bunion is nearly 8 miles round trip, but the length is the toughest part about this moderate trail. Views from Charlies Bunion are awe inspiring as the mountain slopes and winding valley below give you a big picture of the terrain and topography of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In Bryson City, NC, the Deep Creek area offers up tubing and gentle hikes that pass by a trio of waterfalls. Three Waterfalls Loop – a 2.4-mile hike – takes you past Juney Whank Falls, Tom’s Branch Falls, and Indian Creek Falls. Tom’s Branch tumbles 60’ down the mountain to the creek below, and Indian Falls’ 25’ cascade is camera worthy. Juney Whank Falls is the highest, dropping 90’ in two tiers.
The best places to see wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are Cades Cove, the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm Museum, and Cataloochee. At Oconaluftee Visitors Center and Mountain Farm, a herd of elk come to graze in a field nearby and to wade the Oconaluftee River, they’re often joined by turkeys and sometimes white-tailed deer. Sightlines around the field are excellent, making for easy viewing (from a safe distance, of course) of whichever animal is in the field.
There’s also a herd of elk in Cataloochee, a secluded valley in the northern part of the park. Elk and deer graze in the fields here, and you may spot turkeys and black bears – sometimes with cubs – from time to time. In both Cataloochee and at Oconaluftee the highlight of elk watching is when young males practice sparring, clashing antlers and wheeling about as they learn to fight; and established bulls protect their harem of cows, swinging their huge antlers at challenging bulls and locking horns with them.
Cades Cove is, without a doubt, the most popular place for wildlife viewing and photography. Deer hug the tree line and make their way across fields; Tom turkeys fan their tails and display their showy best for nearby hens and rivals; and black bears forage for food, climb trees, and, if you’re lucky, lead their cubs from place to place. Be aware: Cades Cove Loop is a one-lane, one-way road, so when the wildlife watching is hot, traffic comes to a standstill.
There’s plenty for families to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from day hikes to days spent lazing in one of the creeks or rivers.
Tubing in Deep Creek is a rite of passage for many visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The relatively shallow and quite picturesque stream here has a few spots deep enough for swimming and just enough current to carry you and your tube downstream at a leisurely pace.
Wildlife watching near Oconaluftee Visitors Center (where you’ll see elk galore) and along Cades Cove Loop (where you’ll see white-tailed deer, turkey, and, likely, black bears) are highlights for many. But you can also join Rangers and Volunteers for hikes focused on birds, nocturnal animals, and more.
Elkmont is the home to a rare sight: a colony of synchronous fireflies. For two weeks from late- May through early-June, they rise from the grass in a field near the campground to blink out their mating call message. But these aren’t just any fireflies. Synchronous fireflies blink in unison, often dividing up in several groups and blinking en masse, creating an eerie effect as sections of the field blink together. Each spring, a lottery for parking passes and access to the synchronous firefly field takes place. It’s only $1 to put your name in the hat for a chance at one of a few thousand passes.
Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the park, standing more than 6,600 feet above sea level, and the shows put on by sunrise and sunset are nothing short of spectacular. If you’re pressed for time, there’s no need to hike to the summit – the views from the parking are awesome. You’ll find photographers setting up tripods and camping chairs an hour before sunrise or sunset, hoping to capture the perfect image.
Cades Cove Loop – the wildlife hotspot – is closed to automobile traffic on Wednesdays, but it’s open for bicyclists and joggers, walkers and hikers, meaning you can enjoy a car-free ride through 11 miles of quiet wonder. You can rent bikes from the Campground Store, but they tend to sell out fast, so if you want to guarantee you have a ride, BYOB – Bring Your Own Bike – and bring plenty of water (and a few snacks, maybe lunch) and make a day of it.
Trillium Gap Trail leads from Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to the summit of Mount LeConte, and three mornings a week, a llama pack train makes the trek to resupply the LeConte Lodge and pack out the trash and dirty laundry. If you arrive at the trailhead or at Grotto Falls early enough (typically you’ll need to arrive pre-dawn as they get on the trail around first light), you’ll see the llamas getting a last-minute treat and headed up the mountain. They make for an unusual picture as the sight of a dozen llamas walking behind Grotto Falls is an unexpected sight in the Smoky Mountains.
Clothing Layers: With the varied elevation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find a temperature variance of 15˚ or more between towns like Gatlinburg or Cherokee and Newfound Gap. Layers make this a lot easier to deal with, so in summer be sure to pack you flannel, your hoodie, or your puffy jacket or coat along with your regular wear. Packing a raincoat is a good idea even if there’s no rain in the forecast; storms can pop up suddenly in summer and you don’t want to be caught with nothing to protect you from a deluge.
Footwear: You’ll need sturdy hiking boots or trail runners as well as a pair of sneakers or something else that’s comfortable to wear when you’re not on the trail. Be sure your shoes have plenty of traction and that they give you the foot and ankle support you need for rocky, root-strewn paths, for stream crossings, and for even the smoothest of trails.
Daypack: A daypack is a great idea for hikers, and daypacks that store your camera gear are a must for photographers. Look for something large enough to hold your water, some snacks, a map, an extra batter for your phone, and your camera or other gear you’d like to carry.
Headlamp: If you’re camping or doing any sort of nighttime exploration, you’ll need a headlamp, preferably one with a red lens cover (the red light is easier on your eyes in the dark). Be sure it’s charged or has fresh batteries.
Hiking Poles: It’s never a bad idea to have a pair of hiking poles, a hiking staff, or a staff/monopod (which lets you mount your camera for better stability while shooting) if you plan on doing a bit of hiking. The added stability, the extra confidence, and the assistance they provide you when fording streams or making your way downhill makes them worth the investment.
Sun Protection: It’s sunny in the Smokies, so you’ll want something to keep you from getting burned. Long sleeved, moisture-wicking shirts with built-in UPF are a good idea, as are wide-brimmed hats (we love our Tilley hat), but at the minimum you’ll want to bring some sunscreen and sunglasses.
Food and Drink: Any time you’re on the trail, bring a snack. And then bring an extra snack. The same goes for water. Bring a bit more than you think you’ll need (you never know if you’ll encounter someone who needs a little help or if you or your hiking companions will need an extra boost). We like to use refillable water bottles – Nalgene, Klean Kanteen, and the like – as well as hydration bladders built into backpacks. For snacks, we avoid things that will melt or get crushed in a bag or pocket – so no candy bars or crackers or crunchy granola bars for us – but we do like easy-to-eat snacks like energy bars, dried fruit, nuts, trail mix, even hard cheese and cured meats like pepperoni or chorizo.
Plastic Bag: We always carry a plastic bag when we hike. Why? So we can do our part and help keep the trails and waterways clean. If you see some trash along the way, pick it up, drop it in the bag. When you get back to the trailhead, drop your bag in the recycling or trash bin. Voila, you’ve helped keep the parks beautiful for everyone who visits.