Ultimate Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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guide to the great smoky mountains

Ah, the Great Smoky Mountains – a slice of paradise right here in the southeastern United States. If you’re a nature lover, adventurer, or just someone in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, here’s why you should pack your bags and head straight for this majestic mountain range.

I’ve lived in Knoxville, Tennessee for thirty years now and one of the initial draws for us moving here was living near the Great Smoky Mountains. And after 30 years, it is still one of the best reasons for living here…

  1. Breathtaking Scenery: Picture this – rolling hills covered in lush greenery, cascading waterfalls, and misty mountain peaks that seem to stretch on forever. The Great Smoky Mountains offer some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll ever lay your eyes on, perfect for avid photographers or anyone looking to reconnect with nature.
  2. Abundant Wildlife: Wildlife enthusiasts, rejoice! The Smokies are home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including black bears, white-tailed deer, and over 200 species of birds. Whether you’re hiking through the forests or simply enjoying a scenic drive, keep your eyes peeled for these magnificent creatures.
  3. Outdoor Adventures: From hiking and biking to fishing and horseback riding, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities to enjoy in the Great Smoky Mountains. With over 800 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the famed Appalachian Trail, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore this natural wonderland.
  4. Rich History and Culture: Dive into the region’s rich history and Appalachian culture by visiting historic sites, museums, and quaint mountain towns. Learn about the area’s early settlers, Cherokee heritage, and traditional crafts such as quilting and woodcarving.
  5. Scenic Drives: If hiking isn’t your thing, fear not! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers plenty of scenic drives that showcase the beauty of the area without requiring much physical exertion. Take a leisurely drive along Newfound Gap Road or the Cades Cove Loop Road for panoramic views that will take your breath away.
  6. Spectacular Fall Foliage: Autumn transforms the Smokies into a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, making it the perfect time to visit if you’re a fan of fall foliage. Witness the mountains ablaze with hues of red, orange, and gold, as the leaves change, creating a truly magical experience.
  7. Affordability: Unlike some other national parks, visiting the Great Smoky Mountains won’t break the bank. Entrance to the park is free, and there are plenty of affordable lodging options both inside and outside the park boundaries. However, since March 2023 there is a parking fee.

The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited and one of the most beloved National Parks in the United States. Jagged mountain peaks and lush forests give way to tumbling waterfalls in this park that are brimming with adventure.

The park is spread across the states of Tennessee and North Carolina and encompasses over 500,000 protected acres.

This guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park will help you to plan your perfect mountain adventure…

Ultimate Guide To the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

History Of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By the late 1920s, the National Park Service was itching to establish a park east of the Mississippi, and the Smoky Mountains were the perfect location.

The park was established in the middle of the Great Depression, and it was only made possible by the local community and wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr, who helped spare the Smokies from further deforestation.

You’ll quickly understand that for much of Great Smoky Mountains National Park time has seemingly stood still, when you reach Cades Cove you will be instantly transported to the past.

Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

great smoky mountains national park entrance

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has no entrance fee and there are two main gateways to the park, on the Tennessee side of the park you will enter through the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. On the North Carolina side of the park, you enter through the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC.

Between the two entrances, the beautiful Newfound Gap Road gives you stunning mountain views around every corner.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Highlights


hiking great smoky mountains

One of the great draws of the Smokies is the extensive trail system that covers the forested valleys and misty mountains of the park. There are over 800 miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, ranging from easy walks to challenging day hikes.

I haven’t hiked all the trails in the Smokies yet, but a lot of them. And many of the trails I’ve hiked probably more than a dozen times each.

If you are really into adventure, consider taking a multi-day trek and staying at one of the backcountry campsites. Some of the most popular hikes in the park include:

Gatlinburg Trail
Distance: 3.9 miles
Rating: Easy
Elevation Gain: 164 ft

This quiet and serene trail is right on the edge of bustling Gatlinburg. It is also one of the few dog-friendly trails in the park, but make sure to keep the pup on a 6 ft leash at all times. This easy trail is great for all skill levels and is paved or gravel for easy rambling.

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
Distance: 1.2 miles
Rating: Moderate
Elevation Gain: 331 ft

This is one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This moderate trail leads you to the highest point in Tennessee, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. The peak is 6,634 ft so it’s a good idea to dress warmly no matter the time of year.

Alum Cave To Mount Leconte Trail
Distance: 10.9 miles
Rating: Challenging
Elevation Gain: 2,896 ft

The rewards are great for this challenging hike as you’ll get incredible views, cave exploration, and a well-maintained trail that makes this 10-mile hike more enjoyable. You’ll begin with a climb along Alum Cave Creek and by mile 2.3 you will arrive at the gorgeous Inspiration Point.

Shortly after you’ll find yourself at Alum Cave. This hike is very popular and a great option for intermediate or advanced hikers looking for a challenge.

Check out one of my favorite hiking trails – Greenbrier School & Walker Sister’s Cabin.


waterfall in the great smoky mountains

There are an impressive 40+ waterfalls in the Smokies. The Smoky Mountains have all the ingredients to create gorgeous waterfalls including just the right amount of rainfall and an elevation gradient.

The abundant rainfall at higher elevations trickles and rushes down the mountainsides, sometimes dropping over a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills creating beautiful waterfalls all over the park.

Some of the most popular waterfall hikes in the park include:

  • Laurel Falls
    Distance: 2.4 miles, Rating: Easy, Elevation Gain: 396 Ft
  • Grotto Falls
    Distance: 2.6 miles, Rating: Moderate, Elevation Gain: 544 ft
  • Rainbow Falls
    Distance: 5.1 miles, Rating: Difficult, Elevation Gain: 1,617

I think Laurel Falls is my favorite. We’ve hiked to the falls many times over the years. And Grotto Falls is a close second. I highly recommend either one.

Visiting Cades Cove

cades cove at the great smoky mountains tennessee

Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and one of my all-time favorite places to visit.

As one of the most visited spots, you can imagine the crowds it draws daily. The 11-mile one-way loop road circles the cove and can take 2 to 4 hours to complete.

You can rent a bike and ride the entire length of the loop road to get a real feel for what it must have been like in the past. Be sure to check out as many old buildings and don’t forget to stop at the Visitors Center to see the working Grist Mill.

This is also the premiere spot for wildlife viewing and chances are if you are going to see a black bear in the Great Smokies Mountains it will be in Cades Cove.

Learning More About Appalachian History

You can learn more about the history of Appalachia and the Smokies by visiting Cades Cove where you can see a working grist mill, numerous old houses, barns, and churches.

Oh, and make sure you don’t miss the Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin or the Elkmont Historic District. Elkmont is a bit of a hidden gem but it’s a beautiful way to experience the history of the park.

Driving Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail

This drivable nature trail is a 5.5-mile, one-lane, one-way route that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your vehicle. The motor nature trail gets its name from an exuberant mountain stream.

That’s right, the entire nature trail follows the Roaring Forks Stream. Roaring Forks is one of the largest and fastest-moving streams in the park. This is another great place for spotting wildlife in the park.

Best Time To Visit the Great Smoky Mountains

The park is open year-round and the off-season is considered from late October through May. During the off-season 7 of the 10 park campgrounds are closed. As well as many of the visitor centers and guest services.


The winter season brings the beauty of snow to the higher elevations of the park and with that comes solitude. The park can be busy during peak seasons, but in the winter you’ll feel like you have the entire park all to yourself. If you plan to hike, bring crampons along for ice and snow.


The gorgeous flowers of the Smokies bloom during the spring season. Most of the flowers in the park begin blossoming sometime between the middle of April and the middle of May. Every April the park celebrates the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.


Peak season at Great Smoky Mountains National Park brings warmer temperatures and throngs of visitors to the park. Be prepared for trailheads to be filled by mid-morning and for campgrounds to be fully booked in advance.


Cooler temperatures and beautiful colors draw large crowds to the Smokies in the fall. You’ll find that the animals that call the park home are much more active during the fall season. Keep your eyes open for elk and black bears during this time of year.

Where To Stay At Great Smoky Mountains National Park


There are 10 campgrounds inside the park and they range in price from around $17 – $24 a night. The campgrounds offer no-frills amenities such as flush toilets and potable water, but there are no hookups for campers and RVs inside the park. You can make advanced reservations at Recreation.gov.

There are also 98 backcountry campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park including 5 only accessible by boat. And there’s a nightly fee of $4 per person for the backcountry sites.

LeConte Lodge

LeConte lodge sign smoky mountains

The LeConte Lodge has been operating in the Great Smoky Mountains since 1926 and offers 60 guest rooms. Perched atop the Smokies on the third tallest peak in the park you’ll find this gem that’s inaccessible by car.

That view is in high demand, and you’ll need to book the LeConte Lodge in advance. Oh, and you’ll need to use one of the 5 trails that lead to the lodge to get there.

Don’t expect luxury and frills here either, the lodge has remained untouched by time and has rustic touches like washbasins and kerosene lanterns.

If you don’t want to stay in the actual park but be nearby, there are plenty of cabin rentals and hotels in the nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas. It’s easy to make day trips to the Smoky Mountains and take in lots of hikes.

Things To Know Before You Go To Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There is no entrance fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

However, there is an active fee program. The Smokies has long charged fees for front and backcountry camping and beginning March 1, 2023, will charge for parking.

These fees are an important source of revenue for the park, allowing them to maintain services as visitation increases.

The park is very accessible and some roads will take you through most areas of the park.

Some of the most popular roads in the park are 441, Newfound Gap Road, and Cades Cove Loop Road. Expect significant traffic on these roads in the peak seasons.

Being the most visited park in the United States means there will be crowds no matter when you visit.

While there may be crowds, the park’s unique setup means it never feels overly crowded. We have visited many times throughout the year when the crowds are at a minimum.

If you are looking for elk, you will only find them on the North Carolina side of the park. Keep your eyes open anytime you are near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The elk are known to frequent the large fields around that area.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great park to visit any time of the year. It’s easily accessible to most of the country and you can’t beat those beautiful mountain views and waterfalls.

I hope this guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will help you on your next visit. If you plan on visiting the Smokies and have any questions, just let me know… I’ll do my best to help you.