A dream-like blue haze isn’t the only reason to seek out adventure in the nation’s most-visited national park. From diving into the history of 19th-century Appalachia culture to roaming through wildflowers along the Appalachian Trail, unearth the Smokies’ hidden gems and find inspiration for your next trip. While the Great Smoky Mountain National Park contains broader mountain range, most of the impressive sights are located within the national park.
Established in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park comprises more than 800 square miles along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Its old-growth forests, wildflowers and iconic smoky haze draw more than 11 million visitors annually. But don’t let those numbers trick you into thinking you’ll be bumping elbows at every trailhead. Quiet forests tucked away campgrounds and mile upon mile of backcountry trail reward adventurous travelers willing to venture even slightly off the beaten path.
Feeling inspired? Here’s what our guide to one of the most biodiverse parts of the country will cover:
- Why Visit the Grea Smokies?
- Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Planning Your Trip
Why Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
The Smokies are a densely forested collection of airy peaks and lush river valleys. Abundant rainfall and substantial elevation changes give the park a variety of plant life so expansive it’s said that driving over one of the park’s passes mimics the experience of driving from the woodlands of Tennessee to the forests of Canada.
In the lowlands, old-growth hickory, maple, beech and ash combine with over 1,500 varieties of flowering trees to fill the spaces between grassy meadows packed with wildflowers. Deciduous trees give way to aromatic groves of fir and other conifers as you climb. Along the way, black bears, elk, fireflies and salamanders in a kaleidoscope of colors make regular appearances.
The sum of all that plant life is responsible for the Smokies’ name. Heavy plant transpiration creates the illusion of a thick fog that hovers and swirls between ridgelines. From any of the park’s countless viewpoints, you can watch as the haze casts the mountains in shifting hues of blue, grey and green. Ridgelines grow ever lighter until they disappear endlessly into the horizon.
Whether you’re looking to cruise along scenic roads leading to breathtaking vistas, explore the history and culture of early Appalachia, or spend a night under the stars on the Appalachian Trail, the Smokies are ready for your next adventure.
Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountain National Park
This broad open valley offers visitors clear views of wildlife like deer and bear, which, along with its collection of log cabins, churches and barns from the late 19th century, make it the park’s most popular destination. A one-way, 11-mile loop makes it an easy spot to visit without ever leaving the car, but more adventurous visitors will grab a bike or lace up their hiking shoes to explore. Popular hiking trails include Abrams Falls Trail, a 4.1-mile out-and-back that takes you past Abrams Creek to the 20-foot-tall falls, and Gregory Bald Trail, a strenuous 7.4 miles that reward you with flame azaleas that bloom each summer and panoramic views of the Smokies. From late April to early September, the road closes on Sundays and Wednesdays from sunrise to 10 a.m. for bicycle and foot traffic.
Photographers will flock to Clingmans Dome for unobscured views from the park’s highest point. At 6,643 feet, the summit is also the third highest point east of the Mississippi. It’s a half-mile hike along a moderately steep paved trail to reach the summit from the parking lot, but the views are definitely worth the walk.
Expansive grassy meadows make this an ideal place to spot grazing elk when you’re not checking out historic grist mills and log cabins. Cataloochee is a great alternative to the more popular Cades Cove, though it requires a more challenging winding drive to access it. If you want to hit the trails, try the Little Cataloochee Trail (5.4 miles) to see rustic cabins and a church, or the popular Boogerman Trail, a seven-mile loop that wends through groves of old-growth forest and offers ridge-top views of the Cataloochee Divide.
For those that want to take a deeper dive into the history behind the park’s original homesteaders, look no further than Ocanaluftee’s Mountain Farm Museum. A smokehouse, springhouse, applehouse and barn carefully transported from their original locations around the park are preserved at the museum grounds. Visitors can tour the buildings for an engaging look at life in the Smokies in the late 19th century. Ocanaluftee is also the site of one of the park’s main visitor centers and entrance points for those arriving from the North Carolina side of the park.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Close to Gatlinburg, this one-way road gives visitors a taste of the Smokies’ wildflowers, waterfalls and old growth forests. You can access trails to Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls here, but keep in mind the road is typically closed during the winter months.
Newfound Gap Road
The lowest drivable pass in the park, Newfound Gap Road splits the park in half. From here, you can access Clingmans Dome and enjoy the changing scenery as you climb more than 3,000 feet in elevation, passing first through forests filled with pine and oak before arriving at the pass, where fragrant evergreens welcome you to sweeping views of endless mountains shrouded in smoke.
The tallest waterfall in the park drops over 100 feet before collecting in a rippling pool known for its rich variety of salamanders, one of the park’s most notable critters. Reach the falls via an that gains 2,000 feet in elevation, passing through old-growth forests, tulip trees and yellow birches.
Mountain laurel lines the 2.6-mile trail to this popular 80-foot waterfall. Visit in May and you’ll be treated to the mountain laurel’s big umbrella-shaped blossoms, which range in color from white to light pink and purple.
Flora and Fauna
Climate and elevation combine to make the Smokies one of the most biodiverse places in the country. Over ten thousand species of plants and animals call the park home, including many species that are endemic. Black bears, elk, salamanders and fireflies should be on the bucket list for most visitors, but you might also catch sightings of foxes, bobcats, otters, beavers, coyotes and bats. For budding botanists, look no further than the Smokies’ nickname: “Wildflower National Park.”
The American black bear is the symbol of the Smokies. With well over a thousand in the park, averaging out to about two bears per square mile, there’s a good chance you can spot one on your trip. For car campers, help protect yourself and bears by always locking food in your trunk, while backcountry campers should have the necessary gear and know-how to hang an effective food bag. (Read our articles on Food Storage and Handling and Backcountry Camping in Bear Country for more information.)
Nineteen species of firefly delight guests of all ages with their bio-luminescent displays. The most popular species are known as synchronous fireflies, whose males sync their flashing patterns to aid in attracting a female. Look for their seemingly rehearsed green flashes during peak mating season, which typically runs from late May to early June.
Thirty species of salamanders, the lizard-like amphibians known for their bright colors (that once were believed to be able to endure fire), call the Smokies home, earning the region the title of “Salamander Capital of the World.” Keep an eye out near rotten logs, creeks and under leaves.
From June through July, the park’s nine species of rhododendrons add brilliant dashes of color to hillsides and along creeks in ravines. Rosebay rhododendrons fill with clumps of light pink blossoms at lower elevations and Catawba rhododendrons paint upper elevations in deep shades of purple well into July.
Elegant yellow, orange, red and peach flowers pop up around the park starting in late spring but extend into mid-summer at higher elevations.
White and pink flowers shaped like upturned umbrellas contrast the dark, waxy leaves of mountain laurel along many of the park’s trails and roads in late spring.
REI Adventures also offers a variety of guided trips in the Smoky Mountains for all kinds of experiences.
How to Visit the Smokies
The vast majority of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park don’t venture beyond places accessible by car. This is good for two reasons. First, it means that there are plenty of places to explore for visitors of all ages and abilities. Second, it means that those who choose to venture beyond their car are easily rewarded with quiet trails and slices of solitude.
Activities in Smoky Mountain National Park
There are over 800 miles of hiking trails to explore in the Smokies. Easy trails, like the 2.6-mile route to Laurel Falls or the 1.6-mile hike to Indian Creek Falls, are perfect for families. More strenuous jaunts, including the 8-mile trek to Ramsey Cascades welcome visitors ready for a serious day hike. And for those who want a taste of the Appalachian Trail, nearly 72 miles of it slice across the middle of the park and include the summit of Clingmans Dome. Ranger-led excursions leave from all of the park’s visitor centers during spring, summer, and fall, and offer the opportunity to delve further into topics of biology, ecology, and history within the park. For more, read our Hiking & Camping Guide to the Smokies.
Nearly 400 miles of road carry travelers through winding river valleys, over windy mountain passes and past grassy meadows flecked with historic homesteads. Head to Cades Cove Loop Road for wildlife, flowers and history; Newfound Gap for hazy mountain views from Clingmans Dome; and Roaring Fork for waterfalls and old-growth forests. Embark early or visit during shoulder seasons to avoid slow drives on crowded roads.
The park’s streams and rivers are an oasis for fly fisherman looking for an idyllic place to cast their line for trout and smallmouth bass. Fishing is available year-round with a license from either North Carolina or Tennessee, available online or at sporting goods stores and markets in towns bordering the park.
Riding trails and horse camps welcome equestrian-inclined visitors to discover the Smokies’ 550 miles of ridable trails on horseback. Guided rides are available at Cades Cove, Smokemont, Smoky Mountain and Sugarlands. For those who don’t want to take the reins, carriage rides and hayrides are available at Cades Cove.
One of the best ways to experience the busiest part of the park is by bicycle. On Wednesdays and Saturdays during high season, the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to cars and open to foot traffic and bicycles only from sunrise until 10 a.m. Experienced cyclists may venture throughout the park on any roads open to traffic, but novice bikers may find the curves, hills and frequent traffic a bit challenging. For mountain bikers, all trails are closed to riding except the 1.4-mile Gatlinburg Trail, the 1.6-mile Oconaluftee River Trail and a portion of lower Deep Creek Trail.
Tour operators lead trips throughout the park, from half-day excursions to family trips to multi-day backcountry adventures and can be a convenient way to explore the park while participating in multiple activities.
Off the Beaten Path
Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws nearly twice as many people as the Grand Canyon. However, most visitors to the Smokies flock to only a handful of the park’s top attractions. Get off the beaten path to find a slice of the Smokies to call your own. Here are a few tips.
At the northeast corner of the park, Cosby offers something for everyone. A quiet campground that almost always has room, three trails that range in difficulty from 2-mile afternoon strolls to 10-mile Appalachian Trail treks, and plenty of wildflowers to keep your camera happy.
The tallest dam in the eastern United States creates Fontana Lake’s 240-mile shoreline. Visitors can take tours of the dam, enjoy the serenity of the Smokies reflected off the park’s largest body of water, or hop on the Appalachian Trail where it joins the park boundary.
Close to Gatlinburg, Greenbrier Cove is a perfect destination during high season when the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is busier than normal. The road into the cove winds through wildflowers before giving you two trail options: the falls at Ramsey Cascades or the woods around Porter Creek.
Running along the northeastern boundary of the park, the Foothills Parkway is a classic Smokies drive that’s big on views and light on crowds.
Planning Your Trip
Whether you’re looking to explore the park by car or embark on a multi-day backcountry trek along the Appalachian Trail, get a grip on the logistics of driving, hiking, biking and riding your way through the Smokies.
Where to Stay Near the Smokies
There are 10 campgrounds located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The largest are Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont and Smokemont, each offering advance reservations. The rest are first-come, first-served, with the exception of Cataloochee which requires reservations.
Facilities at each campground include restrooms, drinking water and flush toilets, but no showers or hookups for trailers. Keep in mind that most campgrounds are only open from April or May into late fall. However, Smokemont and Cades Cove are open year-round.
Backcountry camping permits are available online, by phone, or in person at one of the park’s visitor centers. Primitive shelters, one of the iconic features of the Appalachian Trail, are also available on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are 12 such shelters along the Smokies portion of the Appalachian Trail. Some shelters have primitive toilets, but campers must bring in or treat their own water.
Built in 1926, this hike-in lodge at the top of the park’s second highest peak features seven rough-hewn cabins and a host of lodge rooms for those who want a bed in the backcountry. Expect 1926 amenities, including hearty meals in the lodge, and make a point of getting up early on at least one morning, both for the incredible sunrise views and for the chance to see the lodge’s llamas, who pack in supplies three times a week.
A wide variety of accommodations, from luxury hotels to cozy B&Bs and vacation rentals abound just outside the park. Gatlinburg, just a mile from the park, is the park’s tourist hub and features the most options. Also, on the Tennessee side of the park, the towns of Cosby, Townsend, and Pigeon Forge are alternatives for in-town places to stay within 10 miles of the park. On the North Carolina side, Maggie Valley (18 miles), Cherokee (3 miles) and Bryson City (14 miles) are just a short drive from park entrances.
Best Times to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The spring and summer are the busiest times of year to visit the Smoky Mountains. October is when fall foliage peaks and autumn views are at their best.
There’s no bad time to visit the Smokies. In general, Keep in mind, temperatures fluctuate a great deal across different elevations in the park. From Gatlinburg to Clingmans Dome, you may encounter a temperature swing of more than 20 degrees on any given day.
- Fall – In autumn, the Smokies transform into a rich tapestry of yellow, gold, orange and red. Diehard fall foliage visitors will aim for October, when the colors peak, but September and November are an ideal time to catch some color without the crowds.
- Winter – Low season in the Smokies offers the greatest opportunity to experience the park in solitude, and the lack of foliage means it’s easier to spot wildlife through the trees. Keep in mind, many of the park’s scenic roads, passes and campgrounds shut down during this time. On particularly snowy days, snowshoers and cross-country skiers flock to Clingmans Dome Road, which marches seven miles up from US 441 to the parking area for the park’s highest peak. The good news: it’s all downhill on the way back.
- Spring – The Smokies are home to more flowering plants than any other national park. Over 1,500 varieties add infusions of color throughout the year, but the most dazzling displays happen in spring. It’s also when campgrounds and most of the park’s scenic roadways open for the season.
- Summer – Hot, humid weather ramps up plant transpiration, making summer the best time of the year to catch the Smokies at their smokiest. It’s also an ideal season to spot bear and elk, wildflowers at higher elevations, and fireflies.
How to Get There
The nearest major airport to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS), near Knoxville, about 24 miles from the park. On the North Carolina side, the Asheville Regional Airport also receives daily flights from cities mainly on the east coast, Chicago, Denver and Dallas, and is about one hour away from the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has four visitor centers located at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Sugarlands and Clingmans Dome. Each operates seven days a week throughout the year. Information centers in Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Townsend also serve visitors outside the park boundaries.
No public transportation options are available directly to the park. However, a seasonal trolley service from Gatlinburg is available to take visitors to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont.