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Most Popular: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina + Tennessee)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park road over the peaks Happier Place

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.

Cascading stream in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Cascading stream in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

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 view south from Clingmans Dome over the smoky peaks with their signature haze and spring green creeping up the hillsides.
The view south from Clingmans Dome over the smoky peaks with their signature haze and spring green creeping up the hillsides.

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.

Elk (wapiti) mother and her young grazing in the National Park.
Elk (wapiti) mother and her young grazing in the National Park.

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.

Appalachian Trail and Tennessee North Carolina state line seen from Clingmans Dome Tower
The Appalachian Trail and the Tennessee – North Carolina state line seen from Clingmans Dome Tower.

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.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park can claim to be an International Biosphere Reserve and an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Chasteen Creek in Smoky Mountains NP
Chasteen Creek in Smoky Mountains National Park.

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.

People hiking circular ramp up to Clingmans Dome Tower and the Smoky Mountains beyond
Circular ramp up to Clingmans Dome Tower and the Smoky Mountains beyond.

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.

There are several campgrounds and even a lodge (not accessible by car) inside the park.

Scott Solary wearing Happier Place Trucker Hat on Clingmans Dome
Scott at the top of Great Smoky Mountains National Park – wearing a Happier Place Burlap Trucker Hat.

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.

Spring in Smoky Mountains: Newfound Gap Road next to rushing stream
A rushing stream runs along Newfound Gap Road.

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.

Appalachian Trail sign to Katahdin Maine at Newfound Gap Smoky Mountains Park
Appalachian Trail sign at Newfound Gap – just 1972 more miles to Katahdin, Maine!

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.

Clingmans Dome Tower ramp up
Clingmans Dome Tower is the highest point in the park and offers 360 degree views of Tennesssee, North Carolina and the Appalachian Trail.

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.

Sun-dappled trail through tall springtime forest smoky mountains
Sun-dappled trail through tall springtime forest smoky mountains

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.

Appalachian Trail sign near Clingmans Dome Tower highest point of AT
Appalachian Trail sign near Clingmans Dome Tower, the highest point along the AT.

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.

Streams full of trout and bass lure fly fishermen to the Smoky Mountains.
Streams full of trout and bass lure fly fishermen to the Smoky Mountains.

Nearby Attractions

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…

Scenic spring drive on Newfound Gap Road connecting Tennessee and North Carolina
Scenic spring drive on Newfound Gap Road connecting Tennessee and North Carolina.

Springtime Photos of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Purple spring wildflowers in North Carolina great smoky mountains national park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its abundant wildflowers in springtime.
A snowmelt waterfall cascades down along Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A snowmelt waterfall cascades down along Newfound Gap Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Sun flare through the forest and small creek glistening.
Small creek along a hiking trail cuts through the forest.
snow and moss covered fallen tree along Appalachian Trail Smoky Mountains
Snow and moss covered fallen tree along the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains.
A variety of lichen and moss covering a tree in North Carolina smoky mountains
A variety of lichen and moss covering a tree.

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.

Tennessee North Carolina State Line Smoky Mountains
Tennessee – North Carolina State Line

Like it? Pin one of these images…

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.

America\'s Most Popular Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee 
#HappierPlace #USA #NationalPark #travelguide #outdoor #hiking #travel #Tennessee #NorthCarolina

17 thoughts on “Most Popular: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina + Tennessee)

  1. You’re so lucky to live in a country with so many national parks! I’ve never been to one when I’ve been in the US (hangs head in shame) but would love to visit Great Smoky Mountains. Your photos capture the scenery and nature well, it’s beautiful.

  2. Oh wow it looks so amazing out there! I would definitely love to visit too. Thank you for being a travel inspiration. Great post!

  3. That’s awesome that it’s open 24/7. It does look like a wonderful place to spend some time.

  4. I love traveling to national parks, it is exceptionally beautiful! it is the best way to recharge for me

  5. Total WOW! This place is really stunning! I would love to see and experience this wonderful place very soon!

  6. This sounds like an amazing place to visit and it feel so relaxing and refreshing to be there. Hope to visit that place someday!

  7. Wow how incredible! I’ve never been but I would LOVE to visit and experience it myself. The scenery is breathtaking.

  8. What a beautiful place to get out of the routine. Exploring new places is one of our favorite activities. I hope to meet this place soon!

  9. this is my kind of trip! those views are gorgeous!

  10. I have never seen an Elk before in my life and it would be so great to spot one in the national park. Been to Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park, both are so beautiful. America is so blessed with so many national park. We don’t even have one in Singapore.

    1. I’m not from the US either, and I think the National Parks are possibly the best aspects of America. I have yet to go to Grand Canyon and Yosemite. So awesome you got to go explore those. Having lived near Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ve seen tons of elk. Amazingly, they often hang out close to the road, like they’re waiting to have their picture taken.

  11. Wow. I had no idea these mountains were so beautiful. That ramp is awesome, and such lovely views. I think my favourite of your shots is the one with the sunburst.

    1. Having lived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains until fairly recently, I was surprised by how beautiful it was here, too.

  12. This is so beautiful!!! I would love to hike there one day, just amazing! Thank you so much for the amazing review, gorgeous.

    1. Hey Chad! I’m glad you liked the post and the photos so much. I hope you get to hike around there one day, too!

  13. What a wonderful and complete review of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park! I did not know that they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I would love to visit this place someday

    1. Thank you so much! I didn’t know that either until doing research. That whole park had a lot more to offer than I realized before going. I hope you get to visit some day – and I hope I get to go back for more ๐Ÿ˜‰

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