When is the Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains? Your Decision Making Guide
On the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets more visitors than any other national park. In 2020, the park welcomed over 12 million people. By comparison, Yellowstone National Park welcomed more than 3.8 million people.
The Smoky Mountains has 14 major waterfalls, over 150 trails, and more than 500 miles of scenic drives. On top of that, there are tons of attractions in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
So, when is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains and all of these attractions?
Our answer is that there is no wrong time to visit the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, as each season of the year has something unique to offer visitors. And since that’s the case, we’ll cover the reasons why you should visit the park during each season.
Visiting the Smoky Mountains During Spring
“Wildflower National Park” is one of the nicknames for the Smokies. The reason is that the park has more than 1,500 different flowering plants that bloom during the spring months. In fact, it has more than any other national park in North America.
You can take numerous trails to view the wildflowers — such as Gregory Ridge Trail, Schoolhouse Gap Trail, Little River Trail, and Porters Creek Trail. These hikes range in length and difficulty, and they offer awesome opportunities for photographs.
Keep in mind that spring brings unpredictable weather. In particular, March has quite a bit of rain and temperatures can still be pretty cold, so you should wear appropriate clothing and take an umbrella. You might even see snow at high elevations (over 5,500 feet), so you should stay at low elevations around Cades Cove and Greenbrier to see the wildflowers.
Despite that, the rain lets up and temperatures get warmer in April. That’s when the park hosts a Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. This weeklong festival revolves around wildflower viewing and includes guided hikes and walks, as well as other wildflower-focused activities.
In addition to the wildflowers, late spring is an incredible time to explore Smoky Mountain waterfalls — such as Ramsey Cascades, Rainbow Falls, and Abrams Falls. The snowmelt creates spectacular flows, and there are fewer crowds.
As a matter of fact, being the least crowded season makes spring an ideal time to visit the Smoky Mountains.
Wildlife Tip: Spring is bear season in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During late March and early April, female bears start emerging from their dens. Although bears are dangerous at any time, they become particularly defensive when cubs are nearby. You can learn more about bear behavior and what to do if you’re attacked here.
Summer: A Favorite Time to Visit Smoky Mountains
One of the most popular seasons for visiting the Smokies is summer. As a result, the summer months are the most crowded time to visit the Smoky Mountains, with July being the busiest month.
You may prefer to visit less popular locations like Foothills Parkway, Balsam Mountain, and Abrams Creek to avoid some of the crowds.
Planning Tip: Like most places, the Smoky Mountains area has more expensive lodging costs during the summer, so just be prepared if you plan to take a summer vacation here. Furthermore, rooms fill up very quickly, so we recommend booking a room a few months in advance.
You still have a chance to see wildflowers in summer, but there are far fewer wildflowers than during spring. The warmer weather opens up better opportunities for going hiking and camping.
Actually, hiking is a fun way to visit the park’s numerous waterfalls and outlooks. Summer is a popular time for biking, horseback riding, fishing, boating, zip-lining, and whitewater rafting in the Smokies.
Temperatures usually rise to the 80s and 90s in July and August at low elevations. At high elevations, summer temperatures average around the high 70s and low 80s, which is more comfortable for most people.
If you’re doing outdoor activities and visiting outdoor attractions in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, you might want to schedule them for the morning and late evening when temperatures are the coolest.
When it comes to unpredictable weather, it’s not uncommon to have thunder and lightning storms during summer. July usually has the most rainfall, while March, June, and August are close behind.
Because of those storms, humidity can really amp up throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In those cases, you can take a scenic drive through the entire park and to a few waterfalls.
Wildlife Tip: Summer is the prime time to see a variety of wildlife — bears, deer, and turkey — because these animals are more active during this time. July is a sensitive time for bears because it’s mating season, so be careful during the early morning and late evening.
Visiting the Smoky Mountains During Fall
After summer, fall is a busy time for the Smokies. The crisp air and colorful leaves are two reasons why some people consider autumn the best time to visit Smoky Mountains Tennessee.
At high elevations, the fall colors start to emerge in mid-September, when daytime temperatures average in the 70s and nighttime temperatures dip into the 50s. The lower in elevation that you are in the park (2,000 to 3,000 feet), the later that the color change occurs. Because of that, the peak times for Smoky Mountain fall colors are in October, when temperatures get cooler.
No matter when in October that you visit, you’re practically guaranteed to see some colors from about midway up the mountains to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg below as the peak color season moves through the mountains’ various elevations.
The colors begin to fade around early to mid-November as the temperature significantly drops, but it’s possible for them to last through the end of the month.
Planning Tips: Lodging rates begin to drop temporarily in late September when the crowds begin to thin. On October weekends, though, lodging rates slightly spike again along with visitors who want to see the fall colors.
Accommodations can fill up quickly on those weekends, so we recommend making reservations a few months ahead. If you’re making last-minute travel plans, weekdays have lower rates and increased availability.
As temperatures fall in November, lodging prices become more stable, and there are fewer crowds. Just remember that some roads begin to close as the colder weather brings snow. Despite that, November is still a beautiful time to visit the Smokies. Just take layers and jackets to stay warm during your hiking or scenic driving adventure.
Biking and hiking to waterfalls and taking scenic drives to see the fall colors are two of the best things to do in the Smokies during the autumn months. Cades Cove Loop Road (an 11-mile, one-way loop) is a fantastic place to do either of those things.
In Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are several attractions that offer amazing views of the colorful trees — such as Anakeesta, Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, and the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at The Island.
Winter: A Best Time to Visit Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park becomes a gorgeous winter wonderland from December through February. At high elevations, in particular, temperatures can dip below freezing. You’re likely to see snow in January and February at Clingmans Dome, Mt. LeConte, and Newfound Gap.
Temperatures don’t get quite as cold at low elevation areas like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Cades Cove. Because of that, they don’t get as much snow. When they do get snow, it usually falls in January and February.
Whether the snow is natural or made with equipment, you can go skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing at Ober Gatlinburg.
The cold temperatures offer unique opportunities as well. For instance, you can hike or drive to see frozen waterfalls. Also, you can get better views of the waterfalls and mountains since the leaves have fallen off the trees. Some excellent winter hikes include Laurel Falls Trail and Mt. Cammerer Lookout Tower.
Safety Tip: Snowy hiking trails and scenic roads in the Smokies can be very icy and slippery during the winter months. If you plan to go on such an adventure, consider taking the proper safety gear. Additionally, pack appropriate winter clothing and backup supplies in case you get stranded on a trail.
On top of these activities and attractions, there’s nothing like spending the holidays in the Great Smoky Mountains. You might say that it’s the best time to visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge because the towns decorate everything in Christmas lights and host a variety of holiday events.
Some places to visit and things to do in winter in the Smoky Mountains include the Christmas and Candles Shop at The Apple Barn, The Christmas Story at the Biblical Times Dinner Theater, the Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, and Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood.
FAQs About Visiting the Smoky Mountains
When is the Best Time of Day to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
The best time of day to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park depends on what you’ll be doing there. The park is busiest between 10 am and 6 pm most days.
If you’re planning to hike or bike, it’s best to visit the Smoky Mountains park before 10 am to avoid traffic along the main roads and paths.
If you want to catch the sunrise or sunset, be sure to consult the daily weather report for the best times to see the sun crossing the horizon over the mountains.
Tip: Clingman’s Dome on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a fantastic place to watch both the sunrise and sunset. Newfound Gap is another good place for sunrises, and Morton Overlook is a good place for sunsets.
Where is the best place to stay when you visit the Smoky Mountains?
If you’re looking for an affordable place to stay in the Smoky Mountains, we recommend exploring one of the many Smoky Mountains cabin rentals available!