Editor’s note: Please consult the CDC or your state health department for information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. When spending time outdoors, please recreate responsibly. Some locations within Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Check with the NPS for current conditions.
For the 76th year in a row, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) earned the title of the most visited national park in the National Park System. The expansive swath of the Southern Appalachian Mountains straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border drew 12.5 million visits in 2019, according to NPS statistics. (Grand Canyon National Park was a distant second, with nearly 6 million visits.) GSMNP has no entrance fees, and it sits within a day’s drive of between one-third and one-half of the country’s population. But its allure lies in more than just its convenience.
With its old-growth forests, airy peaks, lush river valleys, the Appalachian Trail and Southern Appalachian history, opportunities for adventure abound within the park.
And so, the people show up, by the millions, which can cause challenges, says Tim Chandler, the CEO and executive director of Friends of the Smokies, the park’s official fundraising partner. Some days last year, people stood in a single-file line for hours to see the popular Laurel Falls and waited in traffic jams to drive through Cades Cove, a picturesque valley in the Tennessee section of the park, Chandler says.
But people shouldn’t be deterred by the sheer volume of visitors, because most of those visitors tend to stick to the same places. For instance, they drive Newfound Gap Road, taking short walks from the mountain pass. Or they visit Laurel Falls and Cades Cove, largely staying close to their cars. “It’s pretty easy to avoid most of the crowds,” Chandler says. “Study the trail map, look to areas that don’t get a lot of traffic, and go explore.”
So, here is your guide to avoiding the crowds in the most popular national park in the country.
The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the original “drive through” national parks, where visitors can get a taste of the landscape from the seat of their car.
The majority of visitor traffic is concentrated on Newfound Gap Road and the Foothills Parkway. Because both of these roads also serve as commuter routes for communities surrounding the park, the congestion is compounded. Cades Cove Loop Road also sees a high volume of traffic, with more than 2 million people visiting the 11-mile road every year. There’s no doubt that these routes are stunning. If you visit the park, you will likely spend at least some time on Newfound Gap Road, which runs for 33 miles between Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forming its main artery, the only route that completely traverses the park.
But with a hardy sense of adventure, and a car with good ground clearance, you can leave the crowds (and pavement) behind. The park has miles of winding gravel roads that cut through the loneliest stretches of the forest that are typically only open to one-way traffic and closed to RVs and trucks.
Heintooga Round Bottom Road might be the highlight of this gravel road system. The drive begins at the top of Balsam Mountain on the eastern edge of the park and ends in Cherokee. Plan for at least an hour to travel from end to end and bring a camera. You’ll have the chance to see elk and turkey, have the occasional long-range view deep into the park, including Clingmans Dome on a clear day, and get an up-close look at the Smokies’ signature hardwood canopy, which is particularly vibrant in the fall. The bottom portion of the road meanders along the Straight Fork stream, and there’s a short hike to Mingo Falls before the road to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Less Popular Day Hikes
More than 800 miles of trails traverse the 522,000-acre national park. The Appalachian Trail is the star, but short day hikes along Newfound Gap Road and inside Cades Cove are also extremely popular. Here are several trails that offer the stunning scenery GSMNP is known for, without the traffic jams.
The remote Twentymile Ranger Station was the loneliest in the park in 2019, drawing just over 8,600 visitors all year compared to the more than 4 million who traveled through Gatlinburg’s ranger station, the park’s primary visitor center, that same year. It’s a difficult section of the park to get to, requiring a 55-mile, winding drive from Bryson City, North Carolina. The effort pays off, though. Hike the 5.2-mile Twentymile Trail along a creek before climbing more than 2,000 feet to Shuckstack Gap, where a restored fire tower offers one of the best views on the eastern side of the park.
Or hike the Hemphill Bald Trail, which follows the Cataloochee Divide on the eastern border of the park, hovering at elevations around 5,500 feet as it climbs and descends a series of gaps and knobs. The highlight is Hemphill Bald itself, a grassy mountaintop with long-range views into the pastoral Maggie Valley outside of the park. Combine Hemphill Bald with Rough Fork, which drops deep into the forest, where stands of old-growth yellow poplars still tower. The two trails form a roughly 14-mile loop with backcountry camping options along the way.
One (Popular) Day Hike Worth a Visit
If the Smokies has a signature day hike, it’s probably Alum Cave Trail, a 2.3-mile path (each way) that starts on the side of Newfound Gap Road fewer than 9 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg.
You can avoid the crowds here, though, by hitting Alum Cave in the middle of the week or first thing in a weekend morning. Alum Cave begins in a rhododendron forest along a creek before taking hikers into a stand of old-growth hardwoods. As the trail climbs, it passes through a tunnel in a slate arch before hitting Inspiration Point, a rocky outcropping with a long-range view of the valley below. And that’s not even the best part. The trail culminates with Alum Cave itself, an 80-foot-tall black slate overhang perched on the edge of the mountain. It’s a 2.3-mile hike to the cave. The trail continues for another 2.5 miles farther before reaching the Boulevard Trail at the base of Mount LeConte.
If you want solitude, head for the Lakeshore Trail on the southern border of the park. The entire Lakeshore Trail is a 35-mile point-to-point adventure that rambles along the edge of Fontana Lake, climbing and descending the ridges and creek drainages that drop into the 10,000-acre man-made finger lake.
The trail combines singletrack and former logging roads that offer occasional access to the lake while also passing historic homesites and cemeteries. You can do a point-to-point hike by dropping a shuttle car at either end or use one of the intersecting trails to fashion a loop.
Either way, you’re likely to have a quieter experience. The creation of Fontana Lake in 1944 separated this corner of the park from the surrounding communities outside of the park, and a lack of interior roads means you can only reach this section’s mountains and creeks by foot or by boat. A handful of backcountry sites are scattered along the trail. Backcountry camping requires a reservation and permit ($4 per person per night).
GSMNP features 10 frontcountry campgrounds with all the national park amenities you’d expect. Most visitors to the park aren’t spending the night. In 2019, there were fewer than 300,000 overnight stays within the parks’ frontcountry, and more than 100,000 of those visitors were sleeping in an RV. Still, many of the park’s campgrounds are booked months in advance and can feel cramped. Your best bet for a quiet night’s sleep is to choose a campground that’s off the beaten path. Here are two solid picks.
Balsam Mountain Campground is in an isolated corner of the park on a mile-high ridge that divides the Cataloochee Valley from Cherokee and Oconaluftee. Because of the high elevation, Balsam Mountain is only open from May 14 through October 3, but the remote nature of the area and the fact that the campground is tent only (42 sites) keeps larger crowds at bay. You’ll also have a chance to hike some of the less popular trails in the park. Flat Creek Trail is a 2.7-mile one-way trail with an optional side trip to Flat Creek Falls, a narrow 200-foot cascade. Hemphill Bald Trail takes you along the Cataloochee Divide offering views from high-elevation grassy balds. Combine it with the Rough Fork Trail for a 14-mile loop that takes you through old growth. The Heintooga Round Bottom scenic drive also begins at the campground. Make reservations six months in advance ($17.50).
Abrams Creek is a tent-only campground that is open from May 14 through October 3 and saw more than 2,000 campers in 2019, making it the least-visited frontcountry campground in the park. It’s in a relatively quiet corner of the Smokies near the western border and has no hookups for RVs. With a number of trails leaving from the campground and ranger station, you can park your car and leave it for a few days. Abrams Falls is a very popular hike, and deservedly so, but you can reach the falls without the crowds via an 8-mile, out-and-back hike on Little Bottoms Trail. Meanwhile, the 2.2-mile Cane Creek Trail will take you through an old farmstead and cemetery. It’s also a primo campground for anglers: Abrams Creek runs alongside the campsites, and Chilhowee Lake is a 10-minute drive. Make reservations ($17.50 per night) up to six months in advance.
The Other Elk Valley
Elk once again are thriving inside the park. The species were extirpated from the region in the mid-1800s, but the park service reintroduced 25 elk in 2001 as an experiment to see whether the massive mammal could survive. Almost 20 years later, park biologists estimate there are more than 150 elk living in and around the park. The elk were originally released in Cataloochee Valley, in the southeastern corner of the park near Waynesville, and that is still the most popular place to see the animals inside the park, with visitors driving the loop road through Cades Cove to spot herds in the meadows. Cades Cove drew more than 800,000 cars last year, making it one of the busiest roads in the park.
But you don’t have to deal with crowds just to see elk, says Kim DeLozier, the wildlife biologist responsible for introducing elk in 2001. “They’ve spread out quite a bit. You can see them throughout GSMNP, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, even a few in the national forest around the park.”
The best place to see elk outside of Cataloochee Valley is next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, on the eastern end of Newfound Gap Road, says DeLozier.
Show up early in the morning or evening, when the elk are most active, and you’ll likely find a herd of elk hanging out in the meadow next to the visitor center. They’re massive animals, with adults weighing as much as 700 pounds and hitting 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Their heads and antlers climb a couple of feet taller than that. Be sure to keep your distance (aim to keep 50 yards between you and elk) and follow other wildlife safety guidance.
You can also brush up on the history that makes GSMNP so culturally significant. There’s an outdoor museum that houses original farm buildings built in the early 1900s and a working gristmill close to the visitor center.
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