Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide & Planner
|Rushing waters in Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans over 800 square miles, or 522,000 acres, in Tennessee and North Carolina, and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the Eastern part of the United States.
Elevations in the park range from approximately 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome. Sixteen mountains peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.
The park offers visitors and endless variety of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, climbing, bicycling, fishing, horse riding, historical sights, picnicking and involvement in ranger-led programs. Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks.
The park includes 850 miles of backcountry trails, frequented by over 400,000 hikers annually. Approximately 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park.
Ranger-led programs are scheduled in spring, summer, and fall. Other special events happen through the year, such as Music of the Mountains, the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, the Mountain Life Festival, and the Festival of Christmas Past.
An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences, including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.
As America's most visited national park, traffic and crowds should be a consideration when planning a trip. Times when visitation is highest are July 1-August 15 and the month of October (especially October weekends). During these times, traffic congestion is frequent, especially on the Newfound Gap and Cades Cove Loop roads.
When planning a trip in the park, remember that elevations range from approximately 875 feet to 6,643 feet, and temperatures can vary 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit from mountain base to top. Prior planning and weather-wise clothing will help ensure an enjoyable visit during any time of the year.
Nearby is the popular Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.
Spend a day, or more, and enjoy and explore the Great Smoky Mountains. We have visited the park several times over the years ... it is a highly recommend road trip!
|Cades Cove Grist Mill ... A popular stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
Accessing and Getting Around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. The three main entrances to the park are in the Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, and and Cherokee in North Carolina.
|Sugarlands Visitor Center|
There are 384 miles of road to choose from in the park. Most are paved, and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars. Posted speed limits on most of the park's paved roads is 35 miles per hour.
There is no public transportation to the national park from major cities in the area. However commercial businesses operating in the smaller communities surrounding the national park offer transportation from cities such as Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC to the park. Information is available from local Chambers of Commerce.
The City of Gatlinburg offers trolley service from Gatlinburg, TN to Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont on the "Tan/National Park" route during summer and fall. Cost is $2 roundtrip.
The nearest major airport in Tennessee is the McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) located just south of Knoxville in Alcoa. This airport is approximately 45 miles west of the Gatlinburg entrance to the park.
In North Carolina, the Asheville Regional Airport is located approximately 60 miles east of the Cherokee entrance to the park.
|Beautiful winding roads cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Oconaluftee Visitor Center|
Visitors to the park should begin their trip at one of the four visitor centers, where they can pick up a park map or newspaper, have questions answered, and purchase books and guides to the park.
- Sugarland Visitor Center - Free 20-minute film about the park. Natural history exhibits. Ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Bookstore and shop. Public restrooms. Soda and water vending machines. Backcountry Permit Office.
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center - Cultural history exhibits. Ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Bookstore and shop. Public restrooms. Soda and water vending machines. The adjacent Mountain Farm Museum contains a collection of log structures including a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn cribs and others.
- Cades Cove Visitor Center - Indoor and outdoor exhibits of Southern Mountain life and culture, including a grist mill which operates spring through fall, the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. Ranger-led programs conducted seasonally. Bookstore and shop. Public restrooms.
- Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station - Park information, bookstore and restrooms
|Rushing water over moss-laden rocks at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A sample of the natural experiences waiting for visitors all over the park!|
Lodging Options In/Near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park<
There are no motels or rental cabins located within the national park other than Le Conte Lodge, which is accessible only by foot. The lodge sits atop Mount Le Conte, the park's third highest peak, at an elevation of 6,593 feet. Hiking routes to the lodge vary in length from 5 to 8 miles. The lodge is generally open from mid-March through mid-November. Advance reservations are required.
The park offers several different types of campsites:
- Backcountry - Requires hiking several miles to a site located in the park's backcountry.
- Frontcountry - camping near your car in a developed campground that has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table.
- Group Campgrounds - large campsites suitable for groups of eight people or more. Located in frontcountry campgrounds.
- Horse camps - Small campgrounds, accessible by vehicle, that offer hitch racks for horses and primitive camping facilities.
Lodging is available in numerous cities and towns around the perimeter of the park in Tennessee and North Carolina. Visitors can choose from upscale hotels, B&Bs, inns, cabins, campgrounds, RV parks and lodges. October is a busy month in the park, so it is advisable to make hotel reservations as early as possible.
Included below is just a small sampling of lodging options and locations with hotel reviews from TripAdvisor ... there are many more!
Touring the Smoky Mountains by Jeep
Summer is the perfect time to head to America’s most visited national park, where the mountain air is cooler and high country vistas can soothe the soul. Now, Pink Jeep Tours of the Smoky Mountains are departing out of Pigeon Forge!
Their iconic, custom-built 4x4 Jeep Wranglers have taken to the roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! They are offering fully-narrated, professionally guided tours on paved roads through some of the most pristine landscapes in the eastern United States.
- Newfound Gap departing out of Pigeon Forge takes you to the mountain top, nearly a mile-high. (3 hours)
- Foothills Parkway departing out of Pigeon Forge is touted by some as “America’s prettiest drive.” (3 hours)
- Roaring Fork departing out of Pigeon Forge meanders through heavy forest past cascading waterfalls. (2.5 hours)
- Oconaluftee Farms departing out of Pigeon Forge showcases pioneer life from over 100 years ago. (4 hours)
Each tour ends with a thrilling 4x4, off-road adventure on private land exclusive to Pink Jeep Tours. Sure, you can explore the scenic roads of the Smokies on your own. But, when you can leave the driving to Pink Jeep Tours, why would you?
What to See and Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has attractions and things to do for all ages, and interests, year-round. Some of the popular attractions include the following:
|Clingmans Dome tower ... A must-see for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|The Top of the Smokies ... Clingmans Dome|
|Clingmans Dome Trail ... Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|View from the Clingmans Dome tower|
The Seasons of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Spring in the Smoky Mountains offers visitors a special visual treat ... Rhododendrons!|
|Summer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park ... miles and miles of green!|
|Not all days in the park feature clear, blue skies weather ... taking a drive on a foggy, misty morning|
Autumn is both a beautiful and a busy time in the Great Smoky Mountains. The annual splash of fall colors attracts large numbers of tourists, especially during the last three weeks of October. Areas in the park which experience the longest traffic delays are Cades Cove and Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441).
The park usually experiences an autumn leaf season of several weeks as fall colors travel down the mountain sides from higher elevation to low ones. The fall color display typically reaches peak at mid and lower elevations between mid-October and early November.
|Winter brings snow in the deep forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Courtesy of the National Park Service)|
Interactive Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area
More Scenes Around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Alum Cave Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|Stone bridge over a stream with rushing waters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|Abrams Fall Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|Approaching an auto tunnel in summer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|The Morton Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains, named in honor of Ben Morton
Ben Morton, Knoxville mayor and member of the Knoxville Auto Club, was a strong supporter of building park roads. He and others did much to boost the building of the Newfound Gap Road, which today is one of the most pleasurable and scenic roads in the National Park System.
|Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|Stone marker at Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|The North Carolina - Tennessee State Line in Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
Elk, and other animals, need privacy too! View and photograph elk from a distance of at 50 yards
|Gentle waterfall in the deep woods of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park|
|Notice to hikers at Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains|