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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide & Planner

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.

The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park.

View of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from one of many stone cliffsView of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from one of many stone cliffs

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.

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.

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!

Accessing and Getting Around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Beautiful winding roads cross the Great Smoky Mountains National ParkBeautiful winding roads cross 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.

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.

Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National ParkSugarlands Visitor Center

In North Carolina, the Asheville Regional Airport is located approximately 60 miles east of the Cherokee entrance to the park.

Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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 ... Great Smoky Mountains National ParkOconaluftee Visitor Center
    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

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.

TripAdvisor reviews and travel guides for the Great Smoky Mountains

Gatlinburg, Tennessee Lodging

Sevierville, Tennessee Lodging

Cherokee, North Carolina Lodging

Waynesville, North Carolina Lodging

Bryson City, North Carolina Lodging

Asheville, North Carolina Lodging

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.

Included to the right is just a small sampling of lodging options and locations with hotel reviews from TripAdvisor ... there are many more!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Some of the popular attractions include the following:

  • Clingmans Dome
  • Cades Cove
  • Noah Bud Ogle Cabin
  • Cades Cove Grist Mill ... A popular stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National ParkCades Cove Grist Mill ... A popular stop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Abrams Falls Trail
  • Mount LeConte
  • Alum Cave Trail
  • Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church
  • Chimneys Picnic Area
  • Roaring Fork Nature Trail
  • Newfound Gap Road
  • Little River Road
  • Ramsey Cascades
  • Spruce Flats Falls
  • Roaring Fork
  • Chimney Tops Trail
  • New Found Gap
  • Cades Cove Loop Road
  • Cataloochee Valley
  • Upper Trement Road

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome tower ... A must-see for visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Clingmans Dome tower ... A must-see for visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
 The Top of the Smokies ... Clingmans Dome
The Top of the Smokies ... Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome Trail
View from the Clingmans Dome tower
View from the Clingmans Dome tower
View from the Clingmans Dome tower

 

The Seasons of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Spring

Spring in the Smoky Mountains offers visitors a special visual treat ... Rhododendrons!

A special treat for visitors to the Smoky Mountains in the spring ... Rhododendrons!

Summer

Summer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park ... miles and miles of green!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park ... the classic "blue" mountains, in the summer

Autumn

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park vista in the fall

Winter

Winter brings snow in the deep forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Snow-covered forest in the deep of winter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 

What Weather to Expect in the Park

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.

Not all days in the park feature clear, blue skies weather ... taking a drive on a foggy, misty morning
Not all days in the park feature clear, blue skies weather ... taking a drive on a foggy, misty morning

Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

(Courtesy of the National Park Service)
Click for full size map at NPS

Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

 

 

Interactive Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

 

The Trails Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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.

Alum Cave Trailhead
Alum Cave Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Abrams Fall Trail
Abrams Fall Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Morton Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Morton Overlook in the Great Smoky Mountains

Named in honor of Ben Morton, Knoxville mayor and member of the Knoxville Auto Club, who 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.

Chimney Tops Trail

The Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of its length and spectacular views.

Notice to hikers at Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains

 

More Scenes Around the Park

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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
The North Carolilna - 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
Elk, and other animals, need privacy too! View and photograph elk from a distance of at 50 yards

Yes, bear are all around in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!


Yes, bear are all around in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!


 

Visiting National Parks During the COVID-19 Outbreak in 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the national parks of the United States offer wide open spaces, and opportunities for family fun, hiking, fishing, biking, plenty of fresh air and a break from the rigors of Coronavirus Lock Downs.

The National Park Service is closely monitoring and responding to the pandemic. Some facilities and services may be limited. As operations are changing on a park-by-park basis, we recommend visitors check with individual parks for specific details about their operations, including campgrounds.

So if you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains or another national park, plan ahead ...

Read more ... National Park Service: Public Health Update

More Information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Area

Great Smoky Mountains National Park official website at NPS

 

 

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

 

Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina

 

Skyline Drive in Virginia

Stone bridge over a stream with rushing waters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Stone bridge over a stream with rushing waters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park


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