The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is (by far) the most-visited National Park in the USA. Maybe because it’s conveniently located? Maybe because it’s awesome? Probably both. Also: it’s free!
Overview: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
As you’d expect, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses the Great Smoky Mountains. Those peaks are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in turn are a section of the Appalachian Mountain Chain. The park stretches into Tennessee and North Carolina, with the state border running along the peaks right through the center of the park.
About 11 million people visit the park every year – that’s almost twice as many as the next most-visited national park, Grand Canyon NP. Btw we believe if there’s anything that makes America great, it’s the National Parks.
Of course, the popularity can be linked to its central location in the populated Eastern part of the USA. By car, the Smoky Mountains are only about 4 hours away from Atlanta or Nashville – and only 8 – 9 hours from Washington, New Orleans, Chicago or Jacksonville, Florida.
But you still must have a good reason to sit in the car for so many hours! Of course, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is popular because it offers half a million acres (211,415 ha) of gorgeous nature. The park features hardwood and evergreen forests, meadows and rivers. And there are the mountain peaks that overlook North Carolina, Tennessee and the haze that makes the mountains appear so smoky.
The Smokies are worth a visit year-round. Fall is popular for the fall colors – especially among visitors from further south, like Florida. Of course, Floridians also flock to the North Carolina mountains in the winter just to see snow for the first time. Spring is especially beautiful in the park as the hills slowly turn to bright green, wildflowers are abundant and the rivers and waterfalls rush with snow melt. Summer visitors appreciate the shady forest trails.
The park is full of forest creatures, most notably about 1,500 black bears – but also white-tailed deer, elk and all the other usual suspects. There are also a few historic districts, featuring buildings from the pioneering days and old Appalachian culture.
A 70-mile stretch of the famous Appalachian Trail leads through the park – mostly along the state border. As a matter of fact, the highest point of the 2,180-mile Georgia-to-Maine trail happens to be in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Clingmans Dome. With the summit at 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is also the highest point in the park and Tennessee’s highest mountain.
The park was established in the 1930s, and originally centered around US Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road), which connects North Carolina to Tennessee. Because of its connection to the road and land previously owned by the states, the entry to the park has always been free.
Location, Hours, Contact, Maps and Other Visitor Facts
The park has three main entrances: From Gatlinburg, Tennessee, via US-441 heading south; from Cherokee, North Carolina, via US-441 heading north; and from Townsend, Tennessee, via TN-73.
The park is open 24 hours a day, year-round. Some backroads and campgrounds are closed in the winter. Additional, road closures due to weather can be expected especially in winter and spring.
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is near the Cherokee entrance on the south side of the park. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is near the Gatlinburg entrance on the north side. Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome Visitor Centers are deeper in the park.
The visitor centers are open every day, except for Christmas Day. They have different hours seasonally, but generally are open from morning to late afternoon or early evening.
The Smoky Mountains NP contact phone number is (865) 436-1200 for recorded information, including current road conditions.
There are various hiking trail, driving and camping maps available for download on the official park’s website.
Pets are only allowed in picnic areas, campgrounds, along roads and on two short trails (Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail). Of course, they have to be on a leash. Pets are not allowed anywhere else in the park.
Top Things to Do (Or at Least See)
First of all, you can enjoy many magnificent views simply from the car on scenic drives and during quick stops at overlooks and picnic areas.
If you’re pressed for time and just taking the main state-to-state road (US-441 aka Newfound Gap Road) through the park, you should at least get out at the Newfound Gap. Here you can step onto the Appalachian Trail, jump over the Tennessee-North Carolina border and stand in the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated the park in 1940.
Spring through fall, you can also drive the 7 miles up to Clingmans Dome for the awesome views of the peaks all around. You’ll have to hike another half mile up to reach the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Beware, that paved trail hike is pretty steep. And honestly, unless you really want to see that tower and look into Tennessee, that hike might not be worth the effort. From the parking lot you can already see pretty much the same view of the North Carolina side.
Cades Cove Loop Road on the west side of the park gets you access to a historic grist mill, log cabins and churches. Also recommended are the paved Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail on the north side (waterfalls and history) and the Cataloochee Valley on the east side (wildlife).
If you want to experience the park more fully… 850 miles (1,370 km) of hiking trails invite you to go deeper into tall forests, along rushing creeks, through lush meadows, past old cabins and mills and up to the peaks for the big vistas.
A few of the most popular destination trails are Charlies Bunion, Alum Cave Bluffs, Andrews Bald, Rainbow Falls, and Chimney Tops. If you want to be spontaneous, there are plenty of short trails right off the main roads. Just stop your car and start wandering into nature.
As mentioned above, the Appalachian Trail stretches for 70 miles through the park. Supposedly some of its best views are in this park. So it’s a great opportunity to hike a bit of the AT. There are several spots where you can get onto the trail in the park, including at Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome.
Fishing, especially fly-fishing, for wild trout and smallmouth bass is popular along the 2,000 miles of streams. Horseback-riding and cycling are also possible in the national park.
Just outside of the park are the towns of Gatlinburg (Tennessee) and Cherokee (Cherokee Indian Reservation, on the North Carolina side) that are worth checking out and maybe staying for a while.
Right by the Cherokee entrance (near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center) starts the magnificent and super scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The 469-mile National Parkway is America’s longest linear park and connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We will soon publish an article dedicated to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, are each only about an hour away from the respective park entrances. While we can’t speak for Knoxville (yet)… We cannot recommend Asheville enough: the restaurants, the breweries, the chocolatiers, the book store, the live music… It’s also the perfect home base, from where to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway (it passes through), DuPont State Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Chimney Rock and all that western North Carolina has to offer.
Lest we forget: Dollywood is only 20 minutes north of the Gatlinburg entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Next time…
Springtime Photos of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Smoky Mountains vs. Smokey Mountains
It turns out, there’s a whole big debate about which is correct: Smoky Mountains or Smokey Mountains. Admittedly, at first, it seemed odd to write Smoky Mountains without an “e”.
Maybe because of the association with Smokey Bear. Maybe because it feels more natural to write “something is smokey” vs. “something is smoky” – because: where there is smoke, there’s smokey air. However, both “smokey” and “smoky” are accepted spelling in the American language. Brits? Canadians?
Also, it throws you off a bit because it feels right to shorten the name to “The Smokies” (not “The Smokis”), so a part of you wants to add an “e” somewhere. But the same goes for the Rocky Mountains and “The Rockies”. And we don’t spell that grand mountain range Rockey Mountains with an “e”.
The National Park Service has made it official by naming the park Great Smoky Mountains National Park on all their signage – without the “e”. Still people like to get fired up debating if that is the correct name for the mountains themselves.
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All photos in this post were taken by Luci during spring 2019. By clicking on most images, you can see a larger version (and even purchase a photo). You can see more of our Smoky Mountains photos on Luci’s photography website.