National Parks

Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains
Visit the largest protected area on the East Coast. Credit: Pixabay

Spanning two states, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S. Yet don’t let that discourage you, with over 520,000 acres find plenty of space to wander. Offering a different landscape to explore for every season, it’s a robust year-round destination. Fall foliage attracts leaf peepers from all corners. Wildflowers pop coloring the forest floor in the spring. The synchronous fireflies dazzle with a summertime light show. And the winter offers a snow-draped landscape to explore. Read on for the top top things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Stop at a Visitor Center.
Take a Scenic Drive.
Hike in the Smokies.
See a waterfall.
Bike along a trail.
Take a horseback ride.
Earn a Junior Ranger Badge.
See some wildlife.
Camp in one of the campgrounds.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park at a Glance

Year Established: 1934
Located: Tennessee and North Carolina
Size: over 520,000 acres
Best Features: Waterfalls, Forests and views of the Great Smoky Mountains

Top Sites in the Great Smoky Mountains

Cades Cove—South of Townsend, Tennessee, it’s a popular area with the Cades Loop Road. Find lots of wildlife viewing opportunities along the highest concentration of historic buildings. Additionally Cades Cove features a visitor center and campground, plus a horse camp. 

Cataloochee—Located on the east side of the park on the North Carolina side and the road into the area is narrow and winding. Find an elk herd in Cataloochee along with historic buildings. Cataloochee Creek is noted for wild trout. Also find camping along with a horse camp. 

Clingmans Dome—At 6,643 ft (2,024m) it’s the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. It’s also the third highest peak on the East Coast. Find a paved path to the observation tower off of Newfound Gap Road.

Deep Creek—Located on the southern edge of the park, near Bryson City, North Carolina. This area is known for its creeks, waterfalls and fishing. Find seasonal camping and hiking as well. 

Elkmont—A hub for activity from early logging to a private resort area to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Located southeast of Sugarlands Visitor Center, south of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Find a large campground along with historic cabins, like the Appalachian Clubhouse.

Mountain Farm Museum—Located next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, north of Cherokee, North Carolina. Find a collection of log buildings reconstructed in this area. Walk through a farm house along with the out buildings, like a springhouse, barn and blacksmith shop. 

Newfound Gap—At 5,046 ft. (1,538m), it’s the lowest drivable mountain pass so this area offers some of the best views without a hike. Located at near Clingmans Dome. 

Roaring Fork—As a Motor Nature Trail close to Gatlinburg, it’s a popular destination. Find waterfalls along historic buildings.

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Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains

Sugarlands Visitor Center 

1420 Little River Road Gatlinburg, Tennessee 

Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6:30 p.m. during the summer). Interpretive film along with exhibits. Backcountry Permit Office. Trolley Service from Gatlinburg. 

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Located north of Cherokee, North Carolina, entrance.

Mountain Farm Museum located nearby. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Cades Cove Visitor Center

Located near the Townsend, Tennessee, entrance. 

Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  (4:30 p.m. in winter).

Clingmans Dome Visitor Center

Located at the base of the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed from December 1 to March 31. 

Grist Mill Cades Cove
Visit the Grist Mill in Cades Cove. Credit: Pixabay

Scenic Drives in the Great Smoky Mountains

One of the easiest ways to explore the park.

Cades Cove Loop—11-mile one-way road near west side of park

Newfound Gap Road—33-mile road that bisects the park from north to south

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail—5.5-mile one-way narrow road, near Gatlinburg

Upper Tremont Road—2-mile road on east side of park, just south of Townsend.

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains

Find 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the legendary trail that bisects its namesake mountain range from Georgia to Maine. 

Clingmans Cove—.5-mile paved trail to lookout and highpoint in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Kephart Prong Trail—4-mile roundtrip trail between Newfound Gap and Smokemont 

Porters Creek—2-mile roundtrip trail, near Greenbrier Cove

Charlies Bunion—4-mile one-way trail to the scenic rock outcropping, on the AT

Alum Cave Trail—2.5-mile one-way trail with 1,000-foot elevation change, south of Sugarlands VC

Forney Ridge Trail—1.8-mile one-way trail to Andrews Bald, near Clingmans Dome

Rainbow Falls—2.7-mile one-way to falls

Laurel Falls—2.6-mile paved round trip trail, between Sugarlands and Cades Cove 

Check out the Hike the Smokies for Families booklets ($1.00) available at any visitor center. Hike miles then collect mileage stickers. 

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The Abrams Waterfall is a top stop in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Credit: Pixabay

Waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains

Several waterfalls that don’t require a hike. 

Meigs Falls—Off Little River Road, 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.

The Sinks—Off Little River Road, 12 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Place of Thousand Drips—Off Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at Stop 15.

Waterfalls Hikes

Tom Branch Falls and Deep Creek Falls—A 1.6-mile round trip hike on Deep Creek Trail

Laurel Falls—A 2.6-mile round trip hike on Laurel Falls Trail

Lynn Camp Prong Cascades—A 1.3-mile walk on Middle Prong Trail on Tremont Rd. 

Biking in the Great Smoky Mountains

Bicycling is allowed on most roads through not best suited for Newfound Gap Road. 

Cades Cove Loop—11-mile one-way paved road. Rentals available in the nearby campground.

Gatlinburg Trail—1.9-mile multi-use trail near Gatlinburg, TN.

Oconaluftee River Trail—1.5-mile multi-use trail near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Mountain biking isn’t permitted on other hiking trails in the park. 

Horseback Riding in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Find four authorized concessionaires in the park. Age and weight restrictions apply. Reservations are recommended. Rides are offered from mid-March to the end of November. 

Cades Cove—Offering hayrides, carriage rides and guided one-hour. trail rides. 

Smoke Mount—Offering wagon rides along with guided trail rides from one hour to four hours. 

Smoky Mountians—Offering 45-minute trail rides

Sugarlands—Offering one to four-hour guided trail rides. 

Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With 2,900 miles of streams, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects the largest wild trout habitats in the eastern U.S. Fishing is permitted year-round with a valid Tennessee or North Carolina license and both licenses are valid in the park and don’t require a special trout license.

The daily limit is five trout with size restrictions. Fishing licenses are available outside of the park’s boundaries.

Appalachian Trail
Take a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Photo Credit: Spencer Ford

Family Fun in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the badges that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet. 

Pick up a booklet at any visitor center then complete the age-appropriate activities. Return for a souvenir badge and certificate. 

In addition to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger Badge, earn a World Heritage in the U.S. Junior Ranger badge. 

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Wildlife Viewing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Synchronous Fireflies 

As the only species of fireflies, or lighting bugs, in North America to flash in unison, their mating season is a nighttime light show. Beginning in late May, the fireflies start their annual mating ritual that typically lasts for about two weeks of the insect’s 21-day adult life span.

The fireflies use bioluminescence to produce a cool light. Meaning the energy used is 90% light and not heat, unlike traditional lightbulbs. The mating season is determined by the air temperature and the soil temperature where the firefly larvae live. 

To see this natural show, the National Park Service uses a lottery system. Each applicant can request two dated parking spots. For the 8-day window of reservations, a total of 1800 parking spots are granted for $25 each night. Each application is $1. 

If the applicant wins the lottery for a parking spot, the fee is $24. Parking is at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and a $2 per person shuttle fee applies to get to the area. 

Remember to use a red filter on your flashlight to prevent upsetting the fireflies nightly show. 

Bears in the Great Smoky Mountains 

Great Smoky Mountains is the home to the American black bear. As the largest protected area on the East Coast, find about 1500 black bears in the park. 

Though encounters are rare, Park Rangers offer some guidelines to reduce bear encounters:

  • Remain observant. 
  • Hike in groups.
  • Keep campsites clean.
  • Make noise while hiking by wearing bear bells and talking.
  • Don’t approach bears or let bears approach you. 
  • If a bear notices you, you are too close. Back away slowly and if attacked, fight back. Don’t play dead.
A Rhododendron bloom along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Wildflowers in the Great Smoky Mountains

Find over 1,500 different flowering plants in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s often called the Wildflower National Park and a top park for flowers. 

Spring wildflowers begin in early February, like the trillium. And continue to see wildflowers throughout the season, including the lady slipper orchids and the dwarf iris. 

Flowering shrubs like mountain laurels, flame azelas and rhododendon offer a flowery show too. The park also hosts the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in April with several days of programming.  

Summer blooms include Turk’s cap, Butterfly weed and black-eyed Susan. Consider hiking the Oconaluftee River Trail, Deep Creek Trail or the Gregory Ridge Trail in Cades Cove for the best wildflower viewing.

Fall Color in the Great Smoky Mountains 

Plan an autumn trip to the Smokies for one of the top places to see fall color. With about 100 native tree species, find several types of maples along with American beech, scarlet oak, sweet gum and hickories. 

The fall color season runs from September to November, depending on elevation. Take a scenic drive for the easiest way to see fall color though expect traffic delays. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Blue Ridge Parkway

Foothills Parkway

Clingmans Dome

The History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Chartered in 1934 the land was purchased from individuals and lumber operations. The Civilian Conservation Corps arrived as a Works Progress Administration  program in 1933 and stayed until 1943. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

The People of the Great Smoky Mountains

Cherokee People 

Part of the Iroquois nation, the Cherokee people have lived the Great Smoky Mountains for 1,000 years. Living in communities near fertile rivers, they constructed homes of saplings or logs. 

The Cherokee society is maternal and lineage is traced through a mother’s side. The Cherokee language is a written language with 86 characters.  

After the signing of the Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee People were evicted and forced to move to Oklahoma. More than 4,000 people died in the Trail of Tears. 

The Walker Sisters 

After the Civil War, the Walker family had 13 children in Little Greenbrier Cove. Though some married and moved on, five unmarried daughters inherited the farm after their father died in 1921. 

The sisters worked the farm together and stayed on with a lifetime lease after the park was created. They welcomed visitors to the area and sold crafts and traditional food for many years. 

Their original farm became known as Five Sisters Cove and included the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse, built by their father and brother. Both the log house and schoolhouse are still standing. 

The CCC 

During the Great Depression FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put young men to work building many national and state parks. Using native construction materials located on-site, the CCC corps built roadways, trails and constructed buildings across the U.S. 

Nearly 4,000 enrollees worked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During their time, they constructed many of the roads along with fire watch towers and structures throughout the park. 

The CCC grew native trees and reforested areas of the park clearcut by lumber companies. They also built fish ponds to hatch trout for the rivers in the park. 

CCC stone masons built the guard rails and the Elkmont Bridge during their tenure. 

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Lodging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

LeConte Lodge

Accessible by hiking a 5 to 8-mile trail, LeConte Lodge sits near the top of Mt. LeConte. Enjoy rustic accommodations with a hot breakfast and dinner. Light is by lantern and sleep in bed with Hudson Bay wool blankets. Rates start at $155 per person, per night.

Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains 

Abrams Campground 

    • Year-round
    • Reservations Required 
    • 16 sites with a 12-foot RV limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Balsam Mountain Campground 

    • Year-round
    • Reservations Required
    • 46 sites with a 30-foot RV limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Big Creek Campground 

    • Year-round
    • Reservations Required
    • 12  sites and No RVs 
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Cades Cove Campground 

    • Year-round
    • Reservations required
    • 159 sites with a Dump Station and 35-foot RV limit with a 40-foot motor home limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Cataloochee Campground

    • Year-round
    • Reservations Required 
    • 27 sites with a 31-foot RV limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Cosby Campground 

    • Year-round
    • No reservations
    • 157 sites with a 25-foot RV limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

Deep Creek Campground

    • Year-round
    • Reservations Required 
    • 92  sites with a 25-foot RV limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets 

Elkmount Campground

    • Year-round
    • No Reservations
    • 220  sites with a Dump Station and a 32-foot RV limit and a 35-foot Motorhome limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets 

Smokemont Campground 

    • Year-round
    • No reservations
    • 142  sites with a Dump Station and a 35-foot RV limit and a 40-foot Motorhome limit
    • Potable water and flush toilets

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Gateway Towns

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Located to the north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a four season destination, find dining, lodging and attractions in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area. Find a shuttle to the Sugarlands Visitor Center from Gatlinburg. The McGhee Tyson regional airport (TYS) is just south of Knoxville, about 40 west of Gatlinburg.

Cherokee, North Carolina

Located at the southern entrance of the park, find an assortment of lodging and dining along with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Closest town to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Use the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) for air transportation, about 60 miles east of Cherokee. 

Townsend, Tennessee 

Located 20 miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee, Townsend is closest to Cades Cove area. Find traveler’s services and activities. 

Weather in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

Winter: Highs—low 40sF (4 to 7C) Lows—20sF (-3 to -5C)

Spring: Highs—60sF (15 to 19C) Lows— (16 to 19C) 

Summer: Highs—70sF ( 22 to 25C) Lows—50sF (11 to 14C)

Fall: Highs—60sF (15 to 19C) S Lows—40sF (4 to 9C)

Rainfall is consistent year-round with 5 to 7 inches ( 140 to 180mm) monthly.

How to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open 365-days a year, 24-hours a day. It’s free to enter. 

Find EV recharging stations at the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee visitor centers. Don’t not trust vehicle GPS units and directions while driving in the park. Pick up a free visitors map at any visitor center.

Check for seasonal road closures before departing. Cellular service is unreliable in the park. 

U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) bisects the park. 

The largest protected area on the East Coast of the U.S. visit a national park overflowing with waterfalls, wildflowers, mountains and animals. Get all the details on what to do while exploring the part that's both in Tennessee and North Carolina. Find hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing and more in this comprehensive guide. #NPS #NationalParks #Smokies What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Best Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains | Where are the Sychronous Fireflies in the U.S. | Top Waterfals in the Smokies
Credit: Pixabay

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