The Definitive Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Year after year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tops the list of the most visited national parks in the United States. With around 12.5 million annual visitors, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most popular national parks in the world. Despite a large number of visitors, the Smokies still provide an incredible natural escape with plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten path.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of the park, including the history and key facts, and cover the most important things you should know before planning your visit.

History

Early History

The human history of this mountainous area covers thousands of years. From the prehistoric Paleo Indians who lived in the area at least 9,000 years ago to the arrival of European settlers in the late 1700s to the millions of people who visit the Smokies today, many groups have left their mark on the land.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Smokies were home to the Cherokee Indians, who cultivated the land and built permanent towns and extensive trail networks. The Cherokee called the Smokies Shaconage, which means “place of the blue smoke.” The name reflects the mountain range’s signature whitish-blue haze, which clings to the ridges and blends the peaks together as they extend towards the horizon.

European settlers based their own name of Smoky Mountains on the Cherokee term and later added “Great” to capture the mountains’ magnificence and grandiosity.

Journey to Becoming a National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains had a long, expensive journey to becoming a national park.

The Smokies were officially established as a national park on June 15, 1934, but conservation efforts in the area began several decades earlier. Starting in the late 1890s, conservationists sought to limit the impacts of farmers and loggers by protecting the primeval forests throughout the Smoky Mountains.

It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that efforts to establish a national park began to garner support and see some success. By 1928, the North Carolina and Tennessee State Legislatures had provided $2 million each for land purchases, with various individuals and private groups contributing additional funds totaling $5 million.

The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund then matched these funds and donated $5 million, thereby allowing the remaining land to be purchased. Still, it was challenging to acquire all the land needed for the park even with this money.

Out West, it was relatively easy for Congress to establish national parks because the US government already owned a substantial amount of land. However, on the East Coast, there were significantly more stakeholders and obstacles. In the Smokies, for example, the land was divided between thousands of small farms, timber companies, paper companies, and other individual parcel holders.

By 1934, the park was officially established, and Congress authorized the development of public facilities after receiving the deeds for 300,000 acres of land. Construction soon went into full swing, and President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the park on September 2, 1940.

Only a year later, the annual number of visitors had already reached one million. Since then, the park’s territory has been expanded to encompass more than 500,000 acres and it has cemented its place as one of the most popular national parks in the world.

Stream at Tremont in the Smoky Mountains

Key Facts about Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is world-renowned for its incredible biodiversity, well-preserved historical structures, and 850+ miles of hiking trails, including 71 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail.

The park protects one of the most pristine natural areas in the eastern US and contains many virgin forests. Within the park’s boundaries is one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forests remaining in North America, as well as the largest block of virgin red spruce remaining on the planet.

The park’s easy access from major cities in the Southeast, like Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte, and numerous outdoor adventure opportunities contribute to its popularity.

Here are some key facts about Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

Size: 522,426.88 acres (2,114.2 km2)

Number of visitors: 12.5 million in 2019

Established on: June 15, 1934

Formally dedicated on: September 2, 1940

Miles of hiking trails: 850+ miles (1,368 km)

Number of official hiking trails: 150

Highest point: Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet (2,025 meters) above sea level

Biodiversity: 400 vertebrae species, 100 tree species, and 5,000 plant species

Other interesting facts about the park:

  • Great Smoky Mountains is one of the only national parks that doesn’t charge an entry fee. Activities like overnight camping and pavilion rental come at a small cost, but entry is entirely free and has been since the park’s founding.
  • With more than 100 tree species, the Great Smoky Mountains has almost as many different types of trees as all of Europe.
  • Great Smoky Mountains is one of only three national parks in the US that span multiple states. The other two are Yellowstone in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and Death Valley in California and Nevada.
  • While the first national parks in the western US were initially accessible only by train, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was designed with cars in mind. The park received support from the American Automobile Association (AAA) and other auto organizations.
  • During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps completed a large portion of the work to build the Smokies’ facilities. Many of the campgrounds, trails, and stone bridges and buildings seen in the park today are examples of their work.
  • The Smokies’ iconic haze stems from a natural photochemical process. Plant life in the Southern Appalachian forests emits terpenes, which are a type of natural hydrocarbons. The terpenes then react with ozone particles from the stratosphere to form aerosols on which moisture condenses. This results in scattering of blue-violet light and creates the classic haziness the park is known for and named after.
  • Over 1,200 land owners were forced to leave when the Great Smoky Mountains was established as a national park. More than 70 of the farm buildings, mills, churches, and schools that they left behind have been preserved. As a result, the park contains the eastern United States’ biggest collection of historic log buildings.

 

Climate and Weather

The climate in the Smokies varies according to elevation, which ranges from around 875 feet to 6,643 feet within the park boundaries. On a given day, temperatures can easily differ by 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit from the valleys to the mountaintops. Weather conditions can also vary significantly – sunny skies in the valleys in no way guarantee the weather will be nice as you go higher up into the mountains.

Average low temperatures in the park range from around 19°F (-7°C) in the winter to 57°F (14°C) in the summer, while average highs range from 43°F (6°C) in the winter to 79°F (26°C) in the summer. June, July and August are the warmest months, while December, January and February are the coldest.

Rainfall is somewhat consistent throughout the winter, spring, and summer, with around 9-11 days of rainfall each month. Autumn is the driest season, with only 8 days of rainfall in September and 6 days in October.

More details about what to expect in each season can be found in the ‘When to Visit’ section below.

Recommended Equipment

No special or technical equipment is required for spring, summer, and fall visits. You’ll want to have plenty of layers, including a weatherproof shell and warmer jacket, to ensure you’re prepared for the varying temperatures and weather conditions at different elevations.

We also recommend carrying bear spray and a bear canister with you since the Smokies are home to many black bears. While the bears are rarely aggressive, it’s best to be prepared in the event of an attack and prevent the bears from getting into your food.

Take a look at our backpacking checklist for more advice on what to pack when heading into the wilderness.

For winter visits, you’ll want to bring the following items in addition to the usual hiking essentials:

  • Plenty of layers and a solid layering system, including: a moisture-wicking base layer, an insulating mid-layer(s), and a weatherproof shell with good wind and water resistance
  • Trekking poles to improve your balance on icy trails
  • Crampons or traction devices for your hiking boots to avoid slipping on snow and ice (only required in higher elevation areas)
  • Emergency kit and shelter in case you’re caught in bad weather or a sudden snowstorm

When to Visit

From the spring wildflowers to the brilliant fall colors, the Smokies have plenty to offer in every season. June, July, and October tend to be the busiest months in the park and have more expensive lodging. Winter and early spring are the least crowded times to visit and usually have more affordable accommodation rates.

Below, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of visiting in each of the four seasons and what you can expect at that time of year.

Spring

Expect very unpredictable weather if you visit the Smokies in the Spring (March through May). Snow can fall at any time in March, especially in higher elevation areas. Low temperatures often dip below freezing, with highs extending into the low 60s in the lower elevations.

By mid-April, you can expect milder weather that is better suited to outdoor activities, with temperatures getting much warmer in May. Whether you want to go hiking, biking, or whitewater rafting, many outdoor activities are possible around the park during spring. Just make sure to prepare for the volatile weather.

There are more than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants in the national park, making spring a wonderful time of year to view wildflowers and other blossoms, including lady slipper orchids and trilliums.

Spring is typically much less crowded than summer and fall. However, the park can become busy when wildflower blooms are at their peak, so keep this in mind if you’re looking for a more solitary visit.

Late spring is also a great chance to catch one of the park’s famous spectacles – the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus). One of at least 19 different species of fireflies in the national park, the synchronous fireflies are the only species in the US that can synchronize their flashing. This flashing is part of the fireflies’ mating rituals and occurs over a two week period from late-May to mid-June.

Summer

The summer (June through August) is the wettest time of year in the Smokies. If you plan a summer trip, you’re almost guaranteed to see the park’s signature haze and blue-tinted mountains silhouetted against a burning orange sky at sunset.

Summers are hot and humid with frequent afternoon showers and thunderstorms that can lead to flash floods. Highs in July and August are usually in the 90s Fahrenheit (30+ degree Celsius) in lower elevation areas, with temperatures cooling off to the 60s and 70s in the evenings.

In higher elevation areas, temperatures above 80°F (27°C) are rare, even in the warmest months. As a result, you should always pack some layers when visiting the Smokies, even if you plan to go at the hottest time of the year.

Wildlife, including deer, bears, and turkey, are very active in the summer months, making this a great time to see these animals.

Hiking, backpacking, camping, horseback riding, biking, swimming, flat-water kayaking, fishing, and canoeing are all excellent activities in the summer, but prepare for it to be hot, humid, and crowded on the trails.

Fall

Fall (September to November) in the Smokies usually consists of warm days and cool nights. September typically marks the first frost, with temperatures falling below freezing by November. Fall is the driest season, and snow is possible in the higher elevations by early November.

The foliage in the Smokies turns into incredible shades of yellow, orange, and red in the autumn months, making this an excellent time for leaf peepers to visit. Some of the best places to see the colors are Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Foothills Parkway.

Peak colors vary from one year to the next, so it’s best to check the park’s fall color report to plan your visit. Expect hordes of people during the weeks where colors are peaking and throughout October. September and November are the fall best months to avoid crowds.

Opportunities to view wildlife also draw many visitors during the fall – it’s common to see bears and elk throughout the park this time of year.

Since fall offers cooler temperatures, it is an excellent time for a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, whitewater rafting, fishing, and more.

Smoky Mountains in Autumn

Winter

With few crowds, visiting the Smokies between mid-November and February, the winter offers a much quieter and calmer experience. The Smokies usually have moderate winters with cooler temperatures and snow at higher elevations. Nearly half of the winter days see high temperatures of 50°F (10°C) or higher, making this an enjoyable time to visit.

Snowfall totaling more than an inch is rare in the low elevations, but the peaks can see more than two feet during snowstorms. Snow is most likely in January and February. If you’re interested in seeing snowy peaks and frozen waterfalls, this is the best time to visit.  You can also try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing on some of the roads closed to motor vehicles or visit Ober Gatlinburg ski resort and Cataloochee Ski Area for some skiing, snowboarding, or tubing.

A December visit is less likely to include snow but will feel festive regardless. Around the holidays, Pigeon Forge turns into a winter wonderland with many twinkling lights and Christmas decorations.

There are numerous road closures in the winter that you should be aware of before planning your visit. Newfound Gap Road (US-441), Little River Road, and the Cades Cove Loop Road remain open throughout the winter but may see temporary closures due to bad weather. You can check the official park website or call +1 (865) 436-1200 for a current list of road closures, weather warnings, and other alerts.

Many other roads in the park close seasonally in the fall and do not reopen until the spring. These include Parsons Branch Road, Little Greenbrier Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and Roaring Fork Mountain.

If you want to camp in the winter, three frontcountry campgrounds are open year-round: Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont.

Where to Stay

The park has 10 frontcountry campgrounds that require a reservation, as well as backcountry sites that require a permit. Except for LeConte Lodge, there are no cabin rentals or hotels inside the park.

The charming wooden cottages at LeConte Lodge are located about 6,400 feet above sea level, just below the summit of Mt. LeConte. You can reach the lodge only by hiking and can choose between five different trails ranging from around 5 to 9 miles in length.

The cabins offer a beautiful, solitary experience in the park and have kerosene lanterns, propane heat, wool blankets, and clean linens. Guests will also get to enjoy hearty, family-style meals in the lodge’s dining room. Because LeConte Lodge is a very popular place to stay, reservations must be made several months to a year or more in advance.

If you’re looking for a hotel, motel, cabin, or campground outside of the park’s boundaries, there are numerous options available, which we discuss in more detail below.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Close to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, Gatlinburg provides easy access to one of the park’s main gateways. The town is one of the best places to stay if you want to spend as much time as possible exploring the national park.

Gatlinburg has a charming, pedestrian-friendly downtown area but can get quite crowded in the high season. Some of the Smokies’ most popular areas, including Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, are very close to Gatlinburg. The town also provides easy access to hiking trails to attractions like Chimney Tops, Mt. LeConte, and Grotto Falls.

Cherokee, North Carolina

Cherokee is located just next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, one of the main entrances to the national park. The town is a tourist hub and is bustling during many parts of the year. Main attractions include a Cherokee Indian museum, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a casino, the Oconaluftee River, and an arts and crafts collective.

Bryson City, North Carolina

Located just 10 miles west of Cherokee is Bryson City, a peaceful mountain town with numerous lodging options, restaurants, galleries, eclectic shops, a fly fishing museum, and breweries.

The small town is an adventure lover’s paradise and is home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. You can take a train ride to the Nantahala River Gorge and try whitewater rafting, kayaking, or ziplining. There is also excellent mountain biking in the Tsali Recreation Area nearby.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Pigeon Forge is just a few miles away from Gatlinburg and is closer to the Cades Cove and Tremont areas of the national park. The town is a popular family destination and has many attractions geared towards kids.

You can visit the Dollywood theme park, founded by country music star Dolly Parton, in the summer to ride roller coasters or catch some music shows. The town is also known for its entertainment and shopping and has a large variety of dinner shows and music theaters.

If your main priority is outdoor adventure, you may prefer staying in a different location, such as Bryson City or Gatlinburg.

Asheville, North Carolina

At around a 70-minute drive to the Cherokee entrance, Asheville is further away from the national park than the options above. Still, it’s an excellent place to stay when visiting the Smokies if you don’t mind the additional driving time.

The liberal mountain town is known for its breweries, restaurant scene, live music, and cool vibe. There are tons of places to stay and interesting things to do, with many outdoor adventures available nearby.

RV Rentals

If you’d rather explore the park in an RV, there are many RV rental companies in nearby cities and towns, including Knoxville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. You can also rent an RV in major cities in the surrounding area, such as Atlanta and Nashville, and then take a road trip to the Smokies.

What to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

With more than 850 miles of hiking trails and 100+ backcountry campsites and shelters, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a paradise for hikers and backpackers. No permits are necessary for day hiking, but the park requires reservations and permits for overnight stays in the backcountry.

The park contains some of the highest mountaintops in the eastern US, including Clingmans Dome, Mt. Guyot, and Mt. LeConte, which means you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take in panoramic views of the mist-shrouded peaks.

Additionally, 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park between Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap, so visitors can hike a portion of this famous long-distance trail.

Here are some of the best and most popular hikes in the park:

  • Charlies Bunion: This 8-mile out-and-back hike along the famous Appalachian Trail offers stunning mountain views. The destination is an iconic rocky outcrop called Charlies Bunion, where you can take in the park’s lush forests and endless peaks.
  • Alum Cave Trail: This 5-mile hike will take you over log bridges, through an old-growth hardwood forest, and to the summit of Mt. LeConte. The trip takes around 4 hours and includes sweeping mountain vistas and interesting rock formations.
  • Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald: Experience spruce-fir forests, wildflowers, and grassy peaks on this moderate 5.6-mile hike. Once you’ve reached Andrews Bald, you’ll have panoramic views of Fontana Lake and the southern half of the national park.
  • Rainbow Falls Trail: Follow LeConte Creek to see the stunning 80-foot tall Rainbow Falls on this 5.4-mile hike. The trail is not long, but it is known for being strenuous. In the winter, the falls sometimes freeze into a unique hourglass shape.
  • Chimney Tops Trail: At only 4 miles, the Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies. The trail is steep and features 1,400 feet of elevation gain over 2 miles, so make sure you’re prepared for a challenging climb. Hikers are rewarded at the top with one of the most incredible panoramic views in all of the Smoky Mountains.
  • Clingmans Dome: This peak is the highest point on all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On a clear day, you can enjoy 360-degree views with visibility extending over 100 miles. A scenic drive will take you most of the way up, with a steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top.

If you’re looking for a multi-day trek, consider doing a longer portion of the Appalachian Trail or check out the Mountains to the Sea Trail extending from Clingmans Dome to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Golden Hour in the Smoky Mountains

Winter Hiking

Hiking is possible all year round in the Smokies. Without any leaves on the trees, winter hikes in the Smokies provide hikers with better visibility from the trails and with incredible vistas from the mountaintops.

Some of the best winter hiking trails include the Laurel Falls Trail, where you can see interesting ice formations on the frozen waterfall. The Alum Cave Trail. Andrews Bald, Charlies Bunion, and Porters Creek also make for excellent winter hikes.

If you decide to plan a winter hike, make sure to check the current conditions and trail closures.

Camping

Camping is an amazing and affordable way to experience the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can choose between 10 different frontcountry campgrounds and many backcountry areas.

All campgrounds include flush toilets and cold running water with a picnic table and fire grate at each site. They do not have showers, electrical hookups, or water hookups, making camping here a more natural experience.

Camping in the Smokies will cost you between $14 and $25 a night per campsite. While backcountry camping is free, you will need a reservation and a permit, as we mentioned above.

Rafting, Kayaking, and Canoeing

There are opportunities for whitewater rafting on the Pigeon River with local outdoor adventure companies in spring and fall when water levels are ideal. The upper section of the river has rapids ranging from Class III to IV, while the lower part near Pigeon Gorge has calmer waters and swimming holes.

Those seeking a less adrenaline-inducing experience can visit Fontana Lake for kayaking and canoeing on flat water in the spring, summer, fall, and possibly the winter, depending on the weather conditions.

 

Scenic Driving

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its incredibly beautiful scenic drives.

The most famous and popular is Newfound Gap Road, which stretches 29 miles and connects the two main entrances to the park: the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, TN, and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC.

Newfound Gap Road includes many of the park’s significant historic sights as well as trailheads for some of the most popular hikes.

Blue Ridge Parkway is another excellent drive that connects Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The 469-mile drive features breathtaking views of one of the best-preserved natural areas in the eastern US.

Other popular routes to consider include: Cades Cove Loop Road, Cataloochee Valley, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Upper Tremont Road.

Horseback Riding

Around 550 miles of hiking trails in the park are open to horses, making horseback riding a popular activity in the Smokies during spring, summer, and fall.

The park has four stables (Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Smokemont, and Smoky Mountain), with guided horseback rides available from mid-March to late November. The rides take place on scenic trails throughout the national park and last anywhere from around 45 minutes to a few hours.

Fishing

Nearly 2,900 miles of streams run through the Smokies, making the area an excellent destination for fishermen. The park contains one of the eastern US’ last wild trout habitats and around a fifth of the area’s streams can support trout.

Fishing is allowed in all streams year-round from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset. To legally fish in the Smokies, you’re required to have a valid fishing license or permit from either the state of North Carolina or Tennessee. You must purchase the permit before entering the park and can do so in a nearby town or online.

Some of the most sought-after species include brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass, and rock bass. The streams are abundant with fish and offer excellent opportunities to catch these species throughout the year.

Historical and Cultural Activities

In addition to incredible natural beauty, the Smokies are home to a rich historical legacy and have many interesting cultural and historical attractions.

You can visit the park’s well-preserved log buildings, including old grist mills, barns, churches, and one-room schoolhouses, and get a glimpse into what life in Appalachia was like more than a century ago. The best places to view these structures include Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Cataloochee, and along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. There are also interesting burial sites in Cades Cove.

Wildlife Viewing

The Smokies are world-renowned for their diverse flora and fauna. Wildlife is more easily visible in the winter because many trees have lost their leaves, but all times of year provide good opportunities to see the park’s plants and animals.

65 mammal species have been documented in the park, including black bears, coyotes, deer, bobcats, elk, groundhogs, chipmunks, and squirrels. The park is known as the “Salamander Capital of the World” because it has one of the most diverse collections of salamander species on earth.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is one of the best places to spot wildlife. You can also visit the Cataloochee Valley to see elk, which were reintroduced into the park in 2001.

grey bird on water during daytime

How to Get There

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has several different entrances. The main ones are Sugarlands near Gatlinburg, TN and Oconaluftee near Cherokee, NC, which both include visitor centers. The smaller entrances of Deep Creek, Balsam Mountain, Cataloochee, and Wears Valley do not have visitor centers and may operate seasonally.

Unless you’re thru-hiking the AT, you’ll want a car to visit the Smokies. There is no train or bus service to the national park, nor is there public transport once you’re inside.

There are some commercial transfers available from cities like Knoxville and Asheville. There is also trolley service from Gatlinburg, TN to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont ($2 round trip), but this service is only available in the summer and fall.

If you plan to fly in and then rent a car, the closest major airport is the McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, which is around an hour away from the park’s Townsend, TN entrance. The Asheville Regional Airport is slightly further away and takes around 80 minutes to get to the park’s Cherokee entrance.

There are also airports in Charlotte, NC, and Chattanooga, TN, each located around 3 hours away from the national park.

Road in the Smokies

Conclusion

No matter when you visit the Smokies, you’ll quickly see why it attracts millions of visitors from around the world every year. From the park’s dreamy blue haze and hypnotizing fireflies in the summer to frozen waterfalls and snow-capped peaks in the winter, there are tons of unique experiences in every season.

Whether you’re planning a summer backpacking trip or a spring rafting excursion, the park’s grandiose mountains, primeval forests, rich biodiversity, and cascading waterfalls will make it an experience you won’t forget.

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The Definitive Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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