The Ultimate Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Ultimate Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tennessee / North Carolina
The Ultimate Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park , where smoky haze lingers on the lush valleys creating a mystical environment!

The Great Smoky Mountains, a world of beautiful nature featuring spectacular mountain vistas, historic sites, waterfalls, hiking trails, and a diverse variety of flora and fauna!

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the mountainous terrains of two states – Tennessee and North Carolina, features an incredibly diverse landscape and ecosystem along with several historic structures and is a designated International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Smoky Mountains National Park offers several sightseeing opportunities and outdoor activities, including spectacular mountain vistas, scenic drives, numerous hiking trails, gorgeous cascading waterfalls, wildlife viewing, and campgrounds.

The Smoky Mountains was once home to indigenous Cherokee people and later followed by European settlers, who named the mountains “Shaconage,” which literally means – “the place of the blue smoke” as the valleys of Smoky Mountains are often covered with smoky haze and clouds. However, the forested lands of the Smoky Mountains soon were targetted by logging companies, who started cutting down the trees and destroying the area’s natural beauty. Concerned citizens from Tennessee and North Carolina came forward and lobbied for the preservation of the land, and finally, on 15th June 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established.

The busiest of all National Parks in the US, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has well-planned park roads, hiking trails, and vista points, making it very accessible and easy to navigate!

Located in the eastern US, the Smoky Mountains is one of the most visited National Parks in the US! Undoubtedly, its natural beauty is the main draw of the Park, but its proximity to the major populous cities in the eastern US, the well-planned park road systems, and accessibility also play a significant role in its popularity. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast, a history buff, or a nature lover, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has it all!

Here is my ultimate guide to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, featuring essential trip-planning information, attractions map, hiking trails, suggested itinerary, and recommendations on hotels and restaurants near Smoky Mountains National Park!

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Planning Your Trip To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Planning Your Trip To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains is a year-round destination; summer’s great for outdoor activities, fall brings spectacular fall colors, and winters with mild temperatures and a little snow is a great way to beat the crowd at the Smoky Mountains!  

Best Time To Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Summer and fall are the peak seasons in the Smoky Mountains, with the highest visitation occurring in the months of June through October. While summer months are great for outdoor activities and sightseeing, the gorgeous fall foliage in October is a huge draw and brings a ton of visitors to the Park. However, summer and early fall are also the busiest seasons in the Park, and you may experience extended wait times at the Park entrances, and it also might get challenging to find parking at popular vista points. So visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the shoulder months, November through May, early summer, is a great way to beat the crowds at the Great Smoky Mountains. However, even with a mild winter and little snowfall, most campgrounds and a few roads are closed during the winter months. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Operating Hours & Seasons: The Park is open year-round, but some of the park facilities, including all the secondary park roads, one of the four visitor centers, and most campgrounds, are seasonal and are open only outside the winter months. However, winter conditions are not too harsh in the Great Smoky Mountains but still require a little planning. The primary roads, including the Newfound Gap Road and Cades Cove Loop Road, are open year-round, providing access to quite a few vista points even during the winter months. 

Getting To Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in the southeastern US, is located a bit far from all the major international airports, making the regional and domestic airports the best choice to get to the Park. There’s no direct Amtrak train service to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Greyhound offers bus services to Knoxville, Tennessee, which is just 35 miles from the Park.

  • Flight: The McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), Knoxville, Tennessee, about 35 miles from the Park, and the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), Asheville, North Carolina, around 60 miles from the Smoky Mountains, are the closest major domestic airports to the Park. The international airports are pretty far from the Park and require a good amount of driving – Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), Charlotte, North Carolina, approximately 150 miles from the Smokies, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Atlanta, Georgia, nearly 180 miles from the Smoky Mountains.
  • Train: There’re no direct Amtrak train services to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the closest Amtrak station to Park is located in Greenville, South Carolina, approximately 90 miles from the Smoky Mountains.
  • Bus: The closest Greyhound bus stop near Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located about 35 miles from the Park in Knoxville, Tennessee, where you could rent a car and drive to the Park. 

Transportation & Parking In Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The Park has ample parking space at every vista point and trailheads. However, during the peak seasons, there’s a ton of traffic in the Park, and it might become challenging to find parking during summer and early fall. So if you’re visiting during the peak season, it’s a good idea to get an early start and hitting the popular vista points early in the day. Unlike many other National Park in the US, there are no shuttle services in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the Park has very well-planned road systems and vista points, making it very accessible by car. If driving is not an option, you could use one of the local tour companies or the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad to explore the Park. I have reviewed the various guided tour options in the Great Smoky Mountains in a later section of this post.

Time Required At Great Smoky Mountains National Park: While the well-planned roads and the scenic drives make it possible to see the major highlights of the Park in a day, I recommend spending at least a couple of days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’ve more time, you could spend an entire week at the Park, exploring some of the pristine areas, hiking, tubing, and exploring the nearby mountain towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Lodging & Dining In Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The lodging and dining options inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park are limited to its ten campgrounds, one mountain top lodge, which is accessible via a 5 miles hike, and a few Park stores and Concession. However, you will find quite a few lodging and dining options in the nearby town of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge in Tennessee, or Bryson City in North Carolina, which I have reviewed in detail in the later section of the post.

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Things To Do In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Attractions Map

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Attractions Map

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Entrances

There’re six entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, four in the north in Tennessee and two in the south in North Carolina. However, mostly used are the three main entrances, Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee and Cherokee entrance in North Carolina. The three less popular entrances, Cosby and Wears Valley in Tennessee and Cataloochee in North Carolina, are a great way to beat the crowd during the peak seasons.

Great Smoky Mountains North Entrances In Tennessee

  • Gatlinburg Entrance: The most popular entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in Gatlinburg, a charming mountain town bustling with touristy attractions. Gatlinburg Entrance Address: Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738.
  • Townsend Entrance: The Townsend Entrance, located about 25 miles west of Gatlinburg in the town of Townsend, is the second most used entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains offering easy access to the Cades Cove section of the Park. Townsend Entrance Address: Townsend Entrance Rd, Tennessee 37882.
  • Wears Valley Entrance: Also located in the northwest section of the Park, the Wears Valley is located about 7 miles west of Townsend Entrance and is one of the less popular entrances to Smokies. Wears Valley Entrance Address: Wears Valley Entrance, Wears Valley, Tennessee 37862.
  • Cosby Entrance: Located on the northeast section of the Park, the secluded Cosby entrance is a great choice to beat the crowd during the peak summer and fall seasons. Cosby Entrance Address: Cosby Entrance Rd, Tennessee 37722.

Great Smoky Mountains South Entrances In North Carolina

  • Cherokee Entrance: The most popular entrance on the south side of the Park, the Cherokee entrance is the gateway for people coming from the southern part of the country. Cherokee Entrance Address: Cherokee Entrance, Cherokee, North Carolina
  • Cataloochee Entrance: Located on the southwest of the Park, the Cataloochee entrance is one of the less popular entrances to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it a great choice in the peak seasons. Cataloochee Entrance Entrance: Cataloochee Entrance Rd, North Carolina 28785.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitor Centers

There’re four visitor centers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, two in the north in Tennessee, one in the south in North Carolina, and one seasonal visitor center near Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Park. 

  • Sugarlands Visitor Center: Located near the Gatlinburg Entrance in Tennessee, the Sugarlands Visitor Center serves as the starting point of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for most visitors. The Sugarlands Visitor Center offers an information desk, a few exhibits, a park store, vending machines, and plays a movie about the Park. Sugarlands Visitor Center Address: 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.
  • Clingmans Dome Visitor Center: Located near Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center is a seasonal visitor center, closed during the winter months, features an information desk and a park store. Clingmans Dome Visitor Center Address: Clingmans Dome Visitor Center, Clingmans Dome Rd, Bryson City, NC 28713.
  • Oconaluftee Visitor Center: The Oconaluftee Visitor Center, located in North Carolina, serves as a gateway for people coming to the Park from the southern cities. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center features an information desk, a few exhibits, and vending machines. Oconaluftee Visitor Center Address: Oconaluftee Visitor Center, 1194 Newfound Gap Rd, Cherokee, NC 28719.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Scenic Drives & Attractions

Great Smoky Mountains National Park features four primary well-planned scenic drives with several vista points, making it one of the most accessible National Parks in the US. The trailheads and pullouts are strategically placed along the scenic roads with ample parking spaces. Here’re the most popular scenic drives in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with route information, driving directions, and vista points.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be explored by driving the well-planned four scenic drives in the Park!

Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Newfound Gap Road

Mountain Vistas  Clingmans Dome

The 31 miles stretch of US Highway 441, connecting Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee in North Carolina, is popularly known as the Newfound Gap Road. The Newfound Gap Road is actually a mountain pass winding through the hilly terrains featuring spectacular mountain and valley vistas. Several vista points are located along the drive, including Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Mingus Mill, Oconaluftee Visitor Center, and the Mountain Farm Museum. However, to access Clingmans Dome, which is a very popular spot and a must-see in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you would need to drive up to Newfound Gap and turn west and follow the Clingmans Dome Road for seven miles to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. I have saved the route information and vista points on Google Maps, which can be accessed on your phone or computer – Newfound Gap Road Route

  • Highlights: Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Mingus Mill, Oconaluftee Valley
  • Distance: 31 Miles
  • Route MapNewfound Gap Road Route

Cades Cove Scenic Loop

Cades Cove Scenic Loop | Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cades Cove Scenic Loop

Natural Scenery ✦ Wildlife ✦ Historic Structures

Located on the northwest section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cades Cove Scenic Road is an 11 miles loop around a picturesque valley that is home to natural scenery, wildlife, and several historic structures, including churches, barns, mills, and log houses. I have saved the route information and vista points on Google Maps, which can be accessed on your phone or computer – Cades Cove Scenic Road.

  • Highlights: Natural Scenery, Historic Structures – churches, mills, log houses
  • Distance: 11 Miles Loop
  • Route MapCades Cove Scenic Road

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Natural Scenery ✦ Streams ✦ Waterfalls ✦ Historic Structures

Named after a thundering mountain stream, Roaring Fork, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 miles one-way scenic drive that starts at the Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin located on Cherokee Orchard Rd, near Gatlinburg then extends into the valley and finally loops back to Gatlinburg. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail features spectacular alpine vistas, streams, waterfalls, and historic buildings. In addition, two of the most famous waterfall hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Rainbow Falls Trail and Grotto Falls, are also located along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Road. I have saved the route information and vista points on Google Maps, which can be accessed on your phone or computer – Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cataloochee Valley Via Cove Creek Road

Natural Scenery ✦ Wildlife ✦ Historic Structures

The Cove Creek Road is a narrow 11 miles scenic gravel road leading to the picturesque Cataloochee Valley, located on the southwest section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The Cataloochee Valley is home to several historic buildings, including churches, homes, and a school building, from the late 19th century. The Cataloochee Valley also offers spectacular valley views and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. You can use your smartphone or computer to access the route information that I have saved on Google Maps – Cove Creek Road.

  • Highlights: Natural Scenery, Wildlife, Historic Structures – churches, log houses, a school building
  • Distance: 11 Miles
  • Route MapCove Creek Road
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Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers more than a hundred hiking trails, including nature trails, waterfall trails, summit hikes, and multi-day backcountry hikes. Unlike the day hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the multi-day hiking trips require permits which can be obtained from one of the visitor centers in the Park or online on the Smokies Permits website. 

Here’re the most popular hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail: The most popular and iconic hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Clingmans Dome observation tower hike starts at the parking lot at Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point in the Park. The Clingmans Dome observation tower features panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains, and it’s a pretty easy hike, recommended for all age groups. The trail is a wide concrete spiral walkway that gradually climbs to the top of the observation tower, but the walkway is a bit steep and not wheelchair-friendly. 

  • Trailhead: Clingmans Dome Parking Lot
  • Distance: 1 Mile Roundtrip
  • Time: 30 Minutes – 1 Hour

Charlies Bunion Trail: The Charlies Bunion is a moderately strenuous summit hike that traverses a section of the infamous Appalachian Trail, which is the longest trail in the Smoky Mountains, featuring the sweeping mountain vistas. 

  • Trailhead: Newfound Gap
  • Distance: 8 Miles Roundtrip
  • Time: 5 – 6 Hours

Alum Bluff Cave Trail: Featuring rock formations and old-growth trees, the Alum Bluff Cave Trail is a moderately strenuous and pretty popular hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

  • Trailhead: Alum Bluff Cave Trailhead on Newfound Gap Road
  • Distance: 4.6 Miles Roundtrip
  • Time: 2 – 3 Hours

Rainbow Falls Trail: The most famous waterfall hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Rainbow Falls Trail is a strenuous but very rewarding hike. The Rainbow Falls Trailhead is accessible only via the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail scenic road on the northeast section of the Park.

  • Trailhead: Rainbow Falls Trailhead / Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail 
  • Distance: 5.4 Miles Roundtrip
  • Time: 3 – 4 Hours

Appalachian Trail: The longest and the most strenuous hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Appalachian Trail traverses along the Tennessee – North Carolina border for 72 miles, featuring the best views in the Park. However, this hike requires about 6-7 days and is recommended for seasoned hikers. 

  • Trailhead: Fontana Dam
  • Distance: 72 Miles 
  • Time: 6 – 7 Days

There’re many other hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and you can find the route information on NPS Website. Also, keep in mind that Smoky Mountains is home to various wildlife, including bears. So, please be careful, carry National Park Service recommended bear deterrents / Bear pepper spray when hiking in the Park.

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Smoky Mountains Railroad & Guided Tours

While Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers several well-planned Park roads and vista points, making it pretty easy to drive and explore the Park, there’re a few other exciting ways to explore the Smoky Mountains, including the Smoky Mountains Railroad and a few guided tour options.

Smoky Mountains Railroad: The Smoky Mountains Railroad offers scenic train rides on the outskirts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. The train ride lasts for about 5 hours and features stunning natural scenery, including tunnels, streams, rivers, and mountain vistas. The train ride starts at Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot in Bryson City and makes its way to Dillsboro or Nantahala Gorge. There’re various excursions and packages offered by the Smoky Mountains Railroad, including dinner trains, rafting and hiking packages, and seasonal train rides. You can find more details and book your tickets online on the Smoky Mountains Railroad website. 

Smoky Mountains Guided Tours: If driving is not an option or you would like a knowledgeable guide to drive you around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you could use one of the local tour companies in Tennessee and North Carolina. Here’re a few tour companies that you could use – A Walk In The Woods offering tours from Gatlinburg and North Carolina, Tennessee Mountain Tours in Pigeon Forge, and Pink Jeep Tours in Gatlinburg

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Suggested Itineraries, Hotels & Restaurants

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Suggested Itineraries, Hotels & Restaurants

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Trip Itineraries

I recommend spending at least a couple of days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but if you are pressed for time and just have a day, your best option is driving the Park’s main scenic drives! 

The sprawling Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a ton of sightseeing and hiking opportunities, and to see everything the Park has to offer, I recommend spending at least two days in the Smoky Mountains. While it’s possible to see the major highlights of the Park in a day due to the well-planned scenic drives, you will not be able to spend much time or hike if visiting just for a day. I have organized my Great Smoky Mountains National Park itineraries and recommendations based on the number of days you plan to spend in the Park.

1 Day Great Smoky Mountains National Park Trip Itinerary: If you’re visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just for a day, your best option is to stick to the significant vista points located along the Park’s two of the most popular scenic drives. 

  • Drive Newfound Gap Road, briefly stopping at all major vista points, including Clingmans Dome.
  • Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or Cades Cove Scenic Loop

2 Day Great Smoky Mountains National Park: If you have two days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you must drive all four scenic drives in the Park.

  • Day 1 – Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove Scenic Loop
  • Day 2 – Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cataloochee Valley

3 Day Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Same as the 2-day itinerary, plus a third day either hiking one of the trails in the Park or enjoying a scenic train ride.

  • Day 1 – Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome, and Cades Cove Scenic Loop
  • Day 2 – Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cataloochee Valley
  • Day 3 – Hike one of the easy/moderate trails in the Park or enjoy a scenic train ride offered by Smoky Mountains Railroad.
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Lodging & Dining In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The best lodging & dining options near Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be found in the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and Bryson City in North Carolina!

Lodging Options in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The lodging options inside the Park are limited to its seasonal campgrounds and one mountain top lodge. However, there are some great hotels and resorts in the nearby town of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge in Tennessee, or Bryson City in North Carolina. 

Campgrounds & Lodge In Great Smoky Mountains National Park: There are ten campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a couple of them are open year-round, but most of them are seasonal and closed during the winter months. You can find more details about these campgrounds and reserve them online on Recreation.gov. The only lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the LeConte Lodge is located atop Mt. LeConte and requires a 5 miles hike to access the lodge. 

Hotels Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The two mountain resort towns, Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge, serves as the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee in the north, and Cherokee & Bryson City in North Carolina, in the main hub in the south of the Park. Here’re my top picks for hotels near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Restaurants In Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The dining option inside the Park is limited to the concessions and vending machines. However, you will find a ton of great dining choices in the town of Gatlinburg and Bryson City. Here’re my top picks for restaurants near Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Gatlinburg – The Park Grill for American fare, Crockett’s Breakfast Camp for Southern classics, Log Cabin Pancake House for lunch buffet, and the Peddler Steakhouse for great steaks. Bryson City – Guayabitos Restaurant for Mexican Food, Pasqualino’s Italian Restaurant for traditional Italian food and Pizzas, and Everett Street Diner for American food.

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The Ultimate Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains National ParkI hope you enjoyed reading the post, The Ultimate Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I hope this will help you plan your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can find other attractions near Smoky Mountains in my Tennessee Travel Guide & North Carolina Travel Guide

Happy feeding your soul!
Shreyashi

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