From the misty peaks of Clingman’s Dome and Mount LeConte to the verdant valley of Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers over 800 square miles of brilliant landscapes. Whether you’re a hiker, a camper, or simply looking for a scenic drive, here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Smokies.
- Established: June 15, 1934
- Area: 816 mi2 (2,113 km2)
- Time Zone: EST
- Visitors: Over 11 million in 2016
- Opening hours: 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.
Where in the world
Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 816 square miles and straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. From the lush forests at lower elevations to the sprawling views from atop peaks such as Clingman’s Dome and Mount LeConte, these ancient mountains are teeming with wildlife and gorgeous foliage. Even a drive along the scenic roads that cut through the hills will take you on thrilling journey into Southern Appalachia.
A Bit of History
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first national park whose land and other costs were paid for with federal funds (other parks were funded completely by states or private funds).The park was certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and it is one of only 12 U.S. National Park to have earned that designation.
Accessing the park
The main park entrances are located along U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) in the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. Nearby cities include Knoxville, Tennessee (60 minutes by car) and Asheville, North Carolina (90 minutes by car).
The park features two visitor centers, Sugarlands and Oconaluftee, both of which are open every day except Christmas. Most campgrounds and trailheads in the park offer parking spaces. From Gatlinburg you can take a trolley to Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground on the “Tan/National Park” route during summer and fall. Cost is $2 roundtrip.
When to Visit
Keep in mind that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in America, so you have to be strategic if you want to avoid the crowds. There are two peak seasons in the park: mid-summer (June 15 to August 15) and the month of October (fall foliage in the Smokies is spectacular!). Visiting during an offseason will help you avoid traffic.
Temperatures during the summer months peak around 95 degrees F (35C). During the winter, temperatures often drop below 0F (-18C) at night, though they stay rather moderate (~50F, 10C) while the sun is up. Elevations in the park range from 875-6,643 feet (267-2025 meters), and temperatures will often vary 10 to 20 degrees from mountain base to summit.
Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free, though if you want to camp overnight, you will have to purchase a permit (see below).
Where to stay
There are no cabins or motels within the park, but the surrounding communities offer a wide assortment of hotels, lodging, cabins, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds. The only lodge within the boundaries of the park sits atop its third-highest peak, Mount LeConte. LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. is only accessible by hiking trails, but it’s well worth the trek. It feels like a rustic resort, with its snug guest houses and dining hall that commands a spectacular view of the countryside.
Far from major cities, campers within the park will have the opportunity to lay out beneath a star-studded sky. The park offers both frontcountry and backcountry camping, though those who prefer the latter will have to secure a permit beforehand. The backcountry permits, which you can book online, generally run at $4 per person per night.
What to Do
At least 850 miles of hiking trails snake through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, one of America’s quintessential long treks. You can either choose a day hike or plan out a multi-day route in the backcountry.
Not sure which trail to take? Try the Charles Bunion trip, a popular eight-mile out-and-back that follows the Appalachian Trail. Traversing some exposed cliffs, this moderate hike features some gorgeous mountain views and ends at the breathtaking eponymous stone outcrop.
If you’d like to up your mileage a bit, try summiting Mount LeConte. It’s 5.5 miles along the Alum Cave Trail to the top, so you’re in for an eleven-mile round trip trek, but if you conquer the trail on a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with a scenic Smoky Mountain panorama at the top.
If you’re up for the challenge, try to hike Rocky Top on Thunderhead Mountain (13.9 miles), which passes Spence Field, one of the most beautiful spots along the entire Appalachian Trail. Or, opt for Mount Sterling via Baxter Creek, which rises 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) over six miles and concludes at a fire tower offering incredible views.
To add some mileage to your AT section hike, try to tackle the park’s entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail (70 miles). Or, if you’d prefer to plan out your own loop, check out the park’s official trail map.
Not the hiking type? No problem! You can experience plenty of the park from the comfort of your driver’s seat! Check out the Cades Cove Loop, or maybe the Newfound Gap Loop. But don’t get too distracted by the sprawling views — use the pull-offs at the scenic overlooks to avoid causing traffic and soak it all in safely!
Know before you go
Cell service is sparse throughout the park, so don’t rely on your phone — make sure you have everything you need when you enter. If you’re going to be on the trails, download a copy of the map beforehand.
Though the park contains beautiful rivers, creeks, and waterfalls, refrain from any form of water recreation. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death within the park. Exercise caution when walking near riverbanks and never try to climb to the top of a waterfall.
Pets are allowed in the campgrounds, picnic areas, and on roads, but they must be kept on a leash six feet or shorter at all times. Only two short walking paths — the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail — allow pets. They are restricted from all other trails.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is home to roughly 1,500 black bears, so if you’re camping, make sure to store your food properly in a bear box or bear bag. If a bear approaches, talk loudly or shout at it to scare it away.