The ridges of the Great Smokey Mountains extending across the valley on the BLue Ridge Parkway near Asheville and Cherokee, North Carolina.

FREE DESTINATION GUIDE: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The signature haze over the Smoky Mountains draws nearly 13 million people to Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year. With lush forests, pristine rivers, spectacular waterfalls, and miles of scenic hiking trails, the park offers endless opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Whether you’re an avid hiker, a wildlife watcher, or just looking to enjoy some of America’s most beautiful mountain scenery, the Smokies have something for everyone. But with over 800 miles of hiking trails, multiple entry points, and a huge diversity of plants and animals, it helps to have some guidance.

This guide will provide tips and advice to help make your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains smooth, enjoyable, and memorable. From the best scenic drives and hiking routes to advice on where to stay, what to see, and how to beat the crowds, you’ll find all the essentials to plan an amazing Smokies getaway.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Lamar Sellers / Shutterstock

History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, but efforts to create the park began in the 1920s. Lumber companies had heavily logged the region, and concerned citizens pushed for its preservation.

The states of Tennessee and North Carolina, along with the federal government and private citizens, raised funds to acquire land and turn it into a national park. By 1940, most of the park’s land had been purchased, and the first visitors began arriving to enjoy its natural beauty and wildlife.

NOTE: The park is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

Home of the Cherokee

The Qualla Boundary is a land trust territory located along the eastern edge of GSMNP. It encompasses around 56,000 acres and is held in trust by the US government for the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Cherokee lived on this land for centuries before being forced out during the Trail of Tears. They eventually returned and regained part of their homeland. More history can be learned at the museums in Cherokee North Carolina.

The Crowds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Everyone wants to know the best places to go and things to do to avoid the Great Smoky Mountains’ crowds and traffic. We’re fully admitting there isn’t an easy answer to this question — just simple strategies to use. But keep in mind that “less crowded” still can mean pretty crowded by Smokies standards.

Why are the Smokies so popular? While not the highest or largest national park, it has been the apex of the National Park Service since 1935, when half a million people visited, nearly doubling the Grand Canyon visits that year. Now, the Smokies bring in more people in a year than the Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Zion National Park combined.

Visits topped 1 million in 1946 and never looked back, hitting 5 million by 1962 and 10 million in 1987 — and 2023 brought in just under 13 million people.

What makes the Smokies stand out is the ease of access. Half of America — more than 167 million people — live within a day’s drive. Add in the stunning fall foliage, robust series of anchor towns like Gatlinburg and Cherokee, and the epic hiking and waterfalls, it’s a hard place to resist.

Visitors by Month

The least visited months in the park and surrounding towns come at the times of the year when the weather isn’t ideal and all attractions aren’t open. Roads might be closed due to weather, and waterfalls won’t be as robust.

  • The smallest crowds are January, February, December, March, and November — in that order. Every other month except May gets at least 1 million visitors.
  • The busiest months are October, July, June, September, and May — in that order. At the peak in October and July, more than 1.5 million people are in and around the park.

4 Ways to Beat the Great Smoky Mountains Crowds

  1. Stay in a North Carolina city. Crowds in the towns and park entrances are smaller on that side.
  2. Get up early. Parking lots fill up quickly, especially on weekends and holidays. Make a game plan for a hike, especially to popular places like Rainbow Falls or Elkmont. The only place this doesn’t hold is at Cades Cove, where people line up as the gates open at sunrise.
  3. If you have one day focused on the park, get a campsite for that night only. You’ll be closer to the trails and won’t get bothered by rangers for having a car parked overnight.
  4. Take the path less traveled by switching out a Clingman’s Dome hike for a Mount Sterling hike. Or change out Rainbow Falls for Baskin Creek Falls.
Cades Cove Loop Road - Cades Cove, Tennessee
Cades Cove Loop Road | photo via @walkthroughlava

Top Destinations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Where you stay and park in the Smokies will largely depend on the type of experience you want in the park. Let’s highlight a few of the top destinations across the park.

Cades Cove

Entrance: Tennessee side, Laurel Creek Road
Best For: Wildlife, history buffs, scenic drives
Extreme Adventure: A day hike up to Rocky Top, a view that inspired the song

Cades Cove is a picturesque valley nestled within the park, known for its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife. Visitors can explore the cove via an 11-mile loop road, which offers opportunities for wildlife viewing, historic homesteads, and captivating views of the surrounding mountains.

The scenic road is open from sunrise to sunset. From May through September, Wednesdays are reserved for those who want to walk or bike the loop.

Cataloochee

Entrance: North Carolina, Cove Creek Road on the eastern side of the park
Best For: Elk viewing, history buffs, wild trout fishing
Extreme Adventure: The Boogerman Loop with several water crossings

Cataloochee is a remote valley that provides a glimpse into the region’s Appalachian history. Visitors can discover well-preserved historic structures, including churches, schools, and homes dating back to the 19th century.

Also, the area is renowned for its elk population, offering excellent opportunities for wildlife enthusiasts. Early morning and dusk are the best elk-viewing times. The fall rut is an ideal time to visit here, in addition to the stunning fall colors surrounding the valley.

Deep Creek

Entrance: Bryson City North Carolina
Best For: Waterfalls, water activities, fishing, hiking
Extreme Adventure: Whitewater tubing

Deep Creek is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, offering a variety of recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy hiking trails that wind through lush forests and cascading waterfalls. In just 2 miles of hiking, you’ll pass Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and Indian Creek Falls.

It’s important to note that tubing is only allowed on a specific section of Deep Creek. While the NPS strongly discourages this activity, it’s not illegal or banned.

A campground is located here, with some backcountry sites farther down the trail. One of the longest hikes in this section of the park is the Thomas Divide Trail. Winter hikes offer better scenic views, but spring and fall trips bring beautiful colors.

Elkmont

Entrance: Gatlinburg Tennessee
Best For: Easy hikes and historic building exploration
Extreme Adventure: Two-day hike via Jakes Creek to Appalachian Trail and back

Elkmont is steeped in history and natural beauty, making it a popular destination for visitors. The area features a campground among towering trees, historic cabins dating back to the early 20th century, and access to scenic hiking trails — from a modest nature trail to the infamous AT.

Look for the “Hidden Gem” Troll Bridge among Millionaire’s Row on Jakes Creek Trail. The homes and cabins here were once a resort destination for the wealthy before the park was established. Giant stone chimneys and walls still stand among the towering trees.

Clingmans-Dome-Sunrise
Clingmans Dome at Sunrise I photo credit: Jason Sponseller / Shutterstock

Clingmans Dome

Entrance: Gatlinburg or Cherokee
Best For: The best views in the Smokies
Extreme Adventure: The Forney Ridge Trail to Andrew’s Bald and back

Clingmans Dome stands as the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet, offering breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Even the parking lot offers great views (just keep circling until a spot opens — there’s a good churn rate here).

In addition, visitors can reach the summit via a steep half-mile trail and ascend the iconic observation tower for unparalleled vistas of the mist-covered mountains. On a good day, you can see more than 20 miles in all directions.

TIP: It’s important to give you a small dose of reality at this site — as I had my hopes up for surreal views. Fog, clouds, and even the “smoky” can make this view stunted and not nearly as impressive. Check the cloud cover forecast before heading this way.

For hikers, several trails meet up with the Clingmans Dome trail, including the AT, if you don’t want to drive and deal with parking.

Fontana Dam

Entrance: Bryson City North Carolina
Best For: Views, lake lovers, backcountry campers, and hiking on less crowded trails
Extreme Adventure: Shuckstack Fire Tower

Fontana Dam is a marvel of engineering nestled within the park, offering both recreational opportunities and a glimpse into the region’s industrial history. Visitors can learn why the dam was built so quickly in the 1940s, walk or drive on top of the dam, and explore the reservoir for fishing, boating, and scenic drives along its picturesque shores.

We’ve had several people ask if Fontana Dam is worth it. Bottom line — if the dam design impresses you and you would make a point of seeing Hoover Dam in Nevada/Arizona, you should see this one.

However, there’s more than just the dam in this section. The Road to Nowhere ends at an ominous tunnel that’s part of the Fontana Dam story. One of the most “haunted” trails in the park awaits at Noland Creek Trail.

INTERESTING FACT: Creating the Fontana Dam led to the intentional flooding of several communities and isolated others, forcing people from their homes and leaving ghost towns behind. Evidence of these homes exists in the lake and on the trails and islands.

Backcountry camping here is excellent for those who want to be near water and away from others. However, be prepared to cross cemeteries along the path to your campsite.

Mingus Mill

Entrance: Cherokee North Carolina
Best For: River views, rafting, history buffs
Extreme Adventure: Mingus Creek Trail

Mingus Mill is a historic grist mill that provides insight into the region’s milling heritage. Visitors can explore the meticulously restored mill, learn about traditional milling techniques, and stroll along the adjacent Mingus Creek, offering serene natural beauty.

The Mountain Farm Museum preserves some of the buildings that were across the land before the park was established. You can also explore the 1.5-mile Oconaluftee River Trail — another tubing hot spot in the summer (keep in mind that this activity is dangerous). This trail is family-friendly, and if parking is an issue, park in Cherokee and pick up the trail there to walk to the Mingus Mill.

Newfound Gap

Entrance: Gatlinburg or Cherokee
Best For: Escaping the worst of summer heat and humidity
Extreme Adventure: Rainbow Falls Trail or Trillium Gap Trail to the top of Mt. LeConte, where the lodge (only accessed by hiking) sits among stunning views

Newfound Gap is a pivotal point within the park, serving as the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains. No matter which entrance you take, you’ll drive through different ecosystems, climbing 3,000 feet to Newfound Gap.

Visitors can take in breathtaking views from the Newfound Gap overlook, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, and access a variety of hiking trails, including the iconic Appalachian Trail.

If roads are clear in winter, you can walk Clingmans Dome Road or cross-country ski if there’s enough snow on the ground.

Roaring Fork

Entrance: Gatlinburg Tennessee
Best For: Rigorous road trippers, waterfalls worth the hike, and old-growth forest fans
Extreme Adventure: White water rafting on the Lower Pigeon River

Roaring Fork is renowned for its stunning waterfalls, scenic drives, and historic structures. Visitors can embark on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail — winding through old-growth forests and past cascading streams — while also exploring historic homesteads and witnessing the beauty of landmarks like Grotto Falls, Rainbow Falls, Baskins Creek Falls, and The Place of A Thousand Drips.

As a reminder, this road is closed from approximately December through March. Even during clear weather, the road is narrow and winding. It’s also a popular route. Give yourself about two hours to drive 5.5 miles, just counting the drive and scenic stops. Several trails are available to explore too.

The ridges of the Great Smokey Mountains extending across the valley on the BLue Ridge Parkway near Asheville and Cherokee, North Carolina.
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina | photo via jadimages / Shutterstock

Getting to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GSMNP spans more than 522,000 acres (816 square miles) and is cut right down the middle by the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Knoxville Tennessee and Asheville North Carolina are the bookend cities of the Smokies. They offer the two closest commercial airports:

  • McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) (Knoxville): 50 miles from Gatlinburg entrance
  • Asheville Regional Airport (AVL): 55 miles from Cherokee entrance

Here are a couple more airports that are semi-close to the GSMNP entrances:

  • Tri-Cities Airport (TRI) (Blountville TN): 105 miles from Gatlinburg
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) (Atlanta GA): 184 miles from Cherokee

While the Atlanta airport is the farthest away, you also get the bonus of driving through three national forests on the way to Cherokee NC.

Entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Another draw to the Smokies is that the national park does not have an entrance fee. You can enter at the main entrances or side entrances around the clock and any day of the year, provided there isn’t a seasonal or weather-related closure in place.

INTERESTING FACT: The creation of GSMNP required that Little River Road and Newfound Gap Road, the two main arteries in the park, could never be toll roads. An entrance fee would be considered a toll.

Three main entrances take you into the park. The first is the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg. On the opposite side of the park in Cherokee is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Cades Cove has a visitor center on the west side of the park too.

Beyond that, several less prominent access points line the outer edge of the park. And, keep in mind that Clingman’s Dome’s Visitor Center is closed in the winter but usually opens between mid-April and December.

NOTE: A Visitor Center is not the same as a Ranger Station, though it is helpful to know where each of them is located in the park. More than a dozen ranger stations are spread throughout the park, giving an indication of some of the less traveled routes to get into the park or to specific sections.

Parking at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While the park entrance is free, if you plan to park for more than 15 minutes, you need a parking permit. The roads are protected from fees, but the parking lots are not. All fee money stays in GSMNP for maintenance and preservation.

Two things to note about the parking pass — (1) it does not guarantee a spot, and (2) it covers any parking area within the park. If you visit during fee-free days in national parks and other public lands, a parking pass isn’t required (but good luck finding a spot after 9:30 a.m.).

SAFETY TIP: A fake parking ticket scam was reported in 2023. No discount tickets are available for parking, and valid parking passes are sold through providers listed on the NPS site.

Shuttles at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you’re used to the park shuttles at places like the Grand Canyon, Acadia National Park, or Zion National Park, you won’t find a park shuttle here. However, several authorized shuttle providers are available to take you around to specific locations at the park. Visitors must book those rides themselves.

Winter Road Closures in the Smokies

Winter visitors at GSMNP need to know the roads that close each year, regardless of the weather. For example, Clingmans Dome Road closes from late November through early April annually. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail opens in April and closes in early December. The full list of closures can help you plan the right time to visit.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park-Autumn
Great Smoky Mountains National Park | photo via crystallogiudice

Best Seasons to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The best time to visit GSMNP largely depends on what you hope to get out of the experience, but fall is a hands-down favorite due to the stunning foliage and various fall festivals in the neighboring communities.

Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage

Leaf peepers show up from late September through early October — with mid-October being the best time to get stunning shows at all elevations. When you visit in the fall depends on where you plan to spend most of your time. If you’ll be above 4,000 feet, arrive in early October. For lower elevations, mid to late October is ideal.

TIP: About 1.7 million people visit the Smokies in October. Look for less traveled routes like Rich Mountain Road to avoid the crowds.

Winter Visits to the Smokies

Communities throughout the area go big in November and December for the holiday season. On average, though, only 750,000 people visit the park in December. It’s a great time to explore trails after the leaves fall to get better views from some of the trails.

Most of the snow in the Smokies falls in January and February. Obviously, the higher elevations get more snow. I’m sure many of you live in a place where “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes, it will change.” The Smokies have that same challenge.

The biggest risk of winter is the road closures that can happen on Newfound Gap Road. Usually, snowfall in Gatlinburg is much lower than the higher elevations.

The Smokies in Spring

Melting snow gives way to brilliant wildflowers lining the trails and robust waterfalls, and wildlife sightings are more common as the season wears on. However, spring is iffy with fluctuating temperatures, a risk of severe weather, and potential muddy trails for those who want to explore the park. March is the least crowded month, while April attracts the first 1 million or more visits for the year.

Summer in the Smoky Mountains

One of the most popular summer activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the synchronous fireflies. If you want to see this activity, set a reminder in mid-April to check the park website for vehicle reservations to see the phenomenon.

ABOUT: During this display, fireflies appear to sync their blinks, with several flashes followed by eight seconds of darkness. This event only lasts two weeks of the year, usually in early June.

Additionally, summer is the peak for waterfalls and wildflowers, and the most visitors come in July. However, July also happens to be the hottest month. Plan activities in the higher elevations or stay on the North Carolina side for the coolest temperatures. After all, the escape from oppressive humidity is what made this region popular in the first place.

Smoky-Mountains-Winter
Great Smoky Mountains National Park I photo credit: kurdistan / Shutterstock

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

As a brief overview, you can choose between staying in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge-Sevierville area on the Tennessee side or the Cherokee-Maggie Valley-Bryson City area on the North Carolina side. Both provide easy access to the main north/south artery of Newfound Gap Road, which spans 35 miles between Gatlinburg and Cherokee.

NOTE: Newfound Gap Road can be closed in the winter during storms due to ice, snow, or winds. Gatlinburg is 2-3 miles closer to the Newfound Gap overlook, but the road will also have more traffic coming from that direction.

Looking at traffic count data from 2023, more people enter the park via Gatlinburg in a month than via Oconaluftee in Cherokee. The North Carolina side is always quieter than the Tennessee side.

Camping is available across the park for front country, group campsites, backcountry, and horse camps. Cades Cove Campground on the Tennessee side and Smokemont Campground on the North Carolina side are the only year-round front country camping options in the park.

Eight more campgrounds open in the warmer months, but each one has a specific timetable. Reservations are required and can be made six months in advance.

CAMPING TIP: To escape the worst of the summer heat and humidity, get a campsite at Balsam Mountain Campground. At 5,300 feet, temperatures hover in the 60s while the lower elevations can swelter and be bug-ridden.

Pros & Cons of Staying in Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge-Sevierville

Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville are all centered around the Parkway and become more packed with things to do and places to see. The biggest attractions and dinner shows are here. Lodging, dining, shopping, and sightseeing are abundant.

The downside is the traffic congestion, crowds, wait times at restaurants, and mind-boggling number of things to do. It’s not a great place to escape to nature and relax. However, it’s impossible to get bored.

Pros & Cons of Staying in Cherokee-Maggie Valley-Bryson City

Staying in places like Bryson City or Maggie Valley offers a respite from the crowds, with the national park and a national forest flanking the north/south side. Also, you get easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway, Nantahala National Forest, and Pisgah National Forest. Cities on this side are more spread out and have small-town offerings.

The downside is the distance to get to the attractions in Gatlinburg and the fewer elite hotel options. If you aren’t into hiking or outdoor experiences, you might not be as entertained here. However, the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is only available on this side of the Smokies.

Each town here is worth exploring, but don’t expect the robust experiences of the Tennessee side (in all the best ways).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park | photo via @trademark_studios

Safety Tips for Visiting Smoky Mountains National Park

We know — nobody wants a safety guide pointing out the obvious risks of a national park. However, we’re going to be straight to the point and mention some things you might not think about before you visit.

Wildlife

The Smokies have an average of two bears per square mile. That puts nearly 2,000 black bears roaming the woods with you. Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows visitors to carry bear spray and only use it if a bear attack is imminent. Stay back at least 150 feet from a bear, and don’t do anything to draw its attention. If you can take a selfie with a bear, you are too close.

Backcountry explorers should know that there’s a roaming wild boar population. These animals are not indigenous to this area — they were brought here in the early 1900s. If you come across one of them, climb a tree at least 6 feet. They are riddled with highly contagious diseases.

Most elk-viewing locations keep you a safe distance away, but bull elk become aggressive during the fall rut and have been known to ram cars. Leave calves alone, as one interaction with a human can cause the mother to reject it.

Bugs & Spiders

The Smokies have more than 500 species of spiders, including venomous ones like black widows and brown recluses. Ticks, mosquitoes, and chiggers are a risk on the trails in humid, warm conditions. To lower the risk of interaction, take these steps:

  • Always wear bug spray and reapply often, especially if you’ve been sweating a lot. Wearing a citrus-based perfume or cologne is another deterrent for bugs.
  • Even if it’s warm outside, wear pants on trails to prevent bug bites and tick attachments.
  • Check for ticks after every hike, taking special notice of sweaty areas, like the crotch or armpit.
  • A mosquito net for your head should be carried with you in case you reach a high density of bugs.
  • Staying on the trail is the best way to avoid unwanted bug, spider, or snake interactions.

Water Safety

More than 60 people have drowned or died after slipping and falling in the park since it first opened. Some people were riding kayaks, and others were climbing waterfalls. Heed all warning signs about slippery rocks and dangerous spots. The rocks are slick as ice with layers of moss and algae on them, and winter waterfalls covered in ice and snow exacerbate this risk.

With dozens of water parks and water tour guides in the Smokies region, save the water activities for guided tours or lifeguard-only areas.

Driving Safety

Since 2007, more than 50 people have died in automobile accidents on the roads inside GSMNP. Roads here are narrow, curvy, and on top of steep drops at some points. The park offers so many places to pull over and soak in views along every road that there’s no reason to attempt a photo while driving.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Greatest Part About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While I’d love to say we have all the secrets to getting the best value for your time at the park, there’s only one group of people who get that title — park rangers!

Once hidden gems in the Smokies are now exposed and hunted down by eager tourists. A waterfall that was hot two years ago might be having a lackluster year. Talking to the park rangers to get the best of whatever you are looking for is one of the best (and FREE) ways to score secrets.

In addition, you can engage with our followers on social media to get unique advice and tips from people of all ages, backgrounds, and experience levels.

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