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11 Things to Know Before Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As the most popular National Park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws people from all over the world to witness its incomparable natural beauty and unique wildlife.

If you’re new to the Park, you’ll find the following list of items helpful to your enjoyment of this special place.  Even if you’ve been here before, you just might be reminded of a few old favorites about the Smokies, or discover something new…

10 Things to Know Before Visiting the Smoky Mountains
photo courtesy of Your Reflections Photography.

Smoky Mountain Weather Can Vary

Smoky Mountains weather and temperatures vary with changes in elevation, sometimes as much as 10 to 20 degrees.  So always check the latest forecast, dress in layers, and be prepared for anything.

Related: When is the Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains? Your Decision-Making Guide

There are No Fees for Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Unlike many of the other National Parks in the country, the Great Smoky Mountains NP does not charge admission, thanks to the Tennessee and North Carolina state legislatures both agreeing to this arrangement when it first opened. 

But please feel free to contribute when you see a donation box.

Hours/Seasons/Visitor Centers

The primary roads are open 24 hours a day, weather permitting, while secondary roads are closed seasonally.  The exception to this is Cades Cover Loop, which has sunrise to sunset hours. 

Three visitors’ centers make good starting points for your introduction to the Park: Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove. Clingmans Dome also has a smaller contact station at its base.

Cades Cove Photos
photo via Your Reflections Photography

Things to Know About Cades Cove

With a combination of breathtaking landscapes, abundant wildlife, and primitive sites from a long-standing settlement, this area is the most visited point of interest in the Park. 

While the 11-mile road circling the 6,800-acre valley is open to cars from dawn to dusk, bicycles only are allowed during the summer on Wednesdays until 10 AM. 

Tip: try to plan your visit to Cades Cove as early as possible in the day.

Do You Know the Gatlinburg Locals’ “Secret” Entrance?

If you want to follow those who live around the park and avoid the crowds, then head to the Cosby entrance of the Park. It may take a little effort to get there, but it will be worth it when you won’t encounter lines of traffic or people waiting. 

You’ll find an abundance of spring wildflowers, as well as hiking trails, including Hen Wallow, Low Gap/Appalachian/Snake Den Trail, and Cosby Nature Trail.

black bear in smoky mountains
photo via https://www.flickr.com/photos/folioroad/

Don’t Forget About Bear Safety

Even though it may seem that you’re among many visitors to the National Park, you are essentially still in the wilderness. 

Of course, that means you could encounter black bears the further you venture out.  Whether you see a bear or a bear approaches you, remember to take appropriate safety strategies.

Above all, never try to approach bears or feed them.

Don’t Miss Rainbow Falls

This hiking destination is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Smokies

Eventually heading up Mt. LeConte, the trail will start out relatively easy and take you over several bridges over LeConte Creek.  It then ascends 1,700 feet through a series of switchbacks, until you finally arrive at the 80-foot falls and don’t-miss photo opp.

Primitive Buildings Smoky Mountains
photo via https://pixabay.com/en/users/gordangraham-755519/

Be Sure to Explore Smoky Mountain Primitive Sites

The area encompassing the current National Park was once a community of homesteaders. Many of the former residents’ buildings – including houses, churches, barns, and places of business – appear well-preserved enough that people could still occupy them. 

You’ll find these sites at Cades Cove, the Chataloochee and Oconaluftee Valleys, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

GSMNP Contains a Portion of the Appalachian Trail

Just a little over 70 miles of this famous pathway run through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. 

It starts at Fontana Dam and ends at Davenport Gap, hitting its highest point at Clingman’s Dome at 6,625 feet above sea level. Along the way, hikers can also view Mt. Cammerer, Rocky Top, and Charlie’s Bunion.

To guide your way, look for a series of painted “blazes” on trees to keep you on the “AT.”  At the foggier points on the trail, rock piles or wooden signs also provide directions.

Smoky Mountain Moonshine

The Smoky Mountains Boast Drinks, Spirits, and Libations

You won’t just find moonshine here in the Smokies. Of course, you can sample the strong homegrown spirit – not in someone’s backyard or porch, but in a modern distillery right in town.

There’s also a growing wine-growing and producing area that has five wineries worthy of a taste just northwest of Gatlinburg and is called the Rocky Top Wine Trail.

If you love craft brews and freshly made beers, then try some of these places in and around the Smoky Mountain area.

Have You Heard About the Sinks?

Want to explore an old-fashioned swimming hole?  Then take a second right turn at the Gatlinburg entrance, past the visitors’ center, and head toward Elkmont. 

On the right just near the turnoff for the town, you’ll come to the Sinks waterfall. The large whirlpool at its base, which swirls like water draining in a sink, inspired the name of this powerful 15-foot waterfall.

When near the water’s edge at the Sinks, exercise extreme caution. People have been hurt or killed when climbing on rocks or being swept into the pounding hydraulics of the falls throughout the years.

On hot summer days, this is a popular swimming hole and jumping point, but please be advised that this location has been the site of several drownings and many serious injuries. We highly advise against swimming here.

Note: Please refer to the NPS website for water safety precautions.

driving tours in smoky mountains

You Must Take a Drive on the Road to Nowhere

On the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains, the government built a hydroelectric power dam in the 1940s and displaced some of its residents.

For their inconvenience, a road would be built to access the cemeteries where family members were laid to rest. But it was never completed – just under one-quarter of the proposed highway.

If you go here now, just head to the other side of the long stone tunnel, and you’ll find some of the best hiking in the Smokies.

More to Explore in the Smoky Mountains

Whether you’re here for a day, a week, or a lifetime, you’ll never run out of things to do in the Smoky Mountains!

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