The Ultimate Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1926 by President Coolidge and opened to the public in 1940. It was formed because in the early 1900s many companies were logging in the area and people started getting concerned about all the trees being cut down.

After the park was established, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina donated land for the creation of the park and funds were raised to buy another large tract of land.

You can still see remnants of the small communities that were here in the early 1900s when you visit the park today and over 90 historic buildings are preserved here.

During the ‘30s, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to get the park ready for visitors by building roads, hiking trails, campgrounds, and more for everyone to enjoy.

Today, it is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States with over 11 million visitors every year and up to 14 million in 2021. It’s no surprise everyone wants to see it – it’s one of the most beautiful National Parks on the East Coast.

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Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Take a hike

Hiking is one of the most popular activities in the park, with one of the most best trails being Alum Cave. If you’re a seasoned hiker, then you’ll want to try making it from Alum Cave to Mount LeConte. This is a bucket list hike for many people!

Other great trails include Clingman’s Dome, Charlie’s Bunion, and Chimney Tops. For those looking for waterfalls, head to Abrams Falls, Grotto Falls, or Laurel Falls – all three are stunning and the trails are peaceful.

Hitting a trail is the best way to experience the park and immerse yourself in nature.

Go on a scenic drive

There are plenty of opportunities for scenic drives here. Cades Cove is by far the most popular and for good reason. The drive is beyond beautiful and it is great for wildlife viewing.

Note that Cades Cove is closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays so you can only bike or hike the loop. It also has specific opening and closing times each day so check the NPS website for those.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a great choice if you’re staying in Gatlinburg as it begins just outside of town. There are plenty of historic buildings, a stream, and even a couple of waterfall hikes. Both Grotto and Rainbow Falls Trails are on this route.

Newfound Gap Road will take you through the heart of the Smokies, offering many beautiful views from multiple overlooks and pull-offs if you want beautiful photos without the strenuous hikes. Newfound Gap is one of the best places for sunrise in the park as well.

If you’re more interested in historic buildings, then head to Cataloochee Valley but if jaw-dropping views are what you’re after then the Foothills Parkway is a great option.

Rent a UTV

Renting a UTV is a great way to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – enjoy the unobstructed views with the wind in your hair! Typically you can rent a UTV, slingshot, or Jeep if you aren’t quite comfortable driving the smaller vehicles.

Most of the companies that offer rental services are located in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas on the Tennessee side of the park. 

This offers such a unique perspective on this beautiful national park and will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

Try fly fishing

Fly fishing is one of the most peaceful and serene things you can do and there is no better place for it than i the Smoky Mountains.

There are plenty of creeks and streams throughout the park where you can try your luck and catch some trout. 

If you’re looking for a hike with a little fishing on the side, then try Abrams Falls or Little River Trail and find yourself some prime spots along the riverbanks.

Do make sure that you have the proper fishing permit and know the limit and size rules in the park!

Hop on a bicycle

Biking is a great way to take in the scenery of the Smokies and explore a few trails within the park. Cades Cove offers some of the best biking, especially on days when it’s closed to vehicles. This is every Wednesday from early May to late September.

Bikers are allowed on three trails in the park including Gatlinburg Trail, Oconaluftee River Trail, and the lower Deep Creek Trail.

All three routes offer beautiful views of the park and opportunities for wildlife viewing, including black bears and turkeys. If you don’t have your own bike, then you can rent them at the campground store in summer and fall.

Go whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting is something people often overlook when planning trips to the Smokies, but it’s absolutely worth considering. Especially if you’re up for an adventure!

Just outside of the Park, there are several rafting outposts for the Pigeon River. Rafters will find class III and IV rapids along this route, complete with breathtaking scenery and nice swimming holes.

I’ve gone with Smoky Mountain Outdoors before and their guides are wonderful. While the Pigeon isn’t technically inside the Park, it’s too close to miss when you’re visiting and some of the best whitewater rafting in Tennessee.

Check out the nearby cities

There are some adorable cities in the area both on the Tennessee and North Carolina side of the Smokies so plan to spend some time in those as well.

The towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg get the most hype on the Tennessee side and while they are fun, they can get extremely crowded. Sevierville is a smaller option that has a cute downtown and plenty of restaurants and things to do.

On the North Carolina side, Bryson City has a cute downtown area, Maggie Valley is a popular place to stay, and Waynesville is another cute option. These are all great small towns near Asheville.

If you are interested in Native American history, then check out the Oconaluftee Indian Village and the outdoor play, Unto These Hills.

Weather changes quickly

Afternoon thunderstorms can pop up very quickly in the Smokies. My sister and I were caught in one ourselves when hiking together.

Make sure you check the weather before you head out on your hike and ideally before you get into the park as cell phone service can be spotty.

Bring layers because it can be much colder at higher elevations than when you are down in town.

Be aware of wildlife

While it’s a special experience to view wildlife in the Park, it’s important to remember that these animals can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Especially the black bears, elk, and snakes.

If you see an animal, be sure to give it plenty of space and under no circumstances should you approach it or feed it. Other animals you may see are white-tailed deer, turkey, squirrels, racoon, and more.

Have a backup plan

As the most visited National Park in the US, the Smokies can get very crowded in the summer and especially in the fall when leaf peepers flock to the park.

You’ll want to have a backup plan in case you arrive at your hike or an overlook and the lot is already full. Have a list of other hikes in the area that you are interested in or head down to the next overlook.

Cades Cove is one of the most popular areas in the park so be prepared for traffic backups and allow yourself more time than you expect to complete the loop.

For the best chance at getting a spot in the lot that you want, arrive early. The earlier the better.

New parking payment system

While no entrance pass is required to visit the park, they did implement a new parking system in spring of 2023. If you are going to be parked longer than 15 minutes, you must have a parking pass visible in your vehicle.

There are daily, weekly, and annual versions available with multiple purchasing options from in-person to automated machines to purchasing online.

Where to stay in the park

Campgrounds

One of only two ways to stay inside the Park is to stay at one of its many campgrounds. There are 10 developed campgrounds plus options to camp in the backcountry for backpackers.

You’ll want to book your stay well in advance during peak times for visiting the park as the campgrounds do fill up quickly.

The largest campgrounds in the park are Smokemont, Elkmont, Cades Cove, and Cosby.

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LeConte Lodge

The only option for lodging in the park other than the campgrounds is LeConte Lodge and it is only accessible by foot.

This lodge is truly a bucket list experience in the park as it offers stunning views of the Smokies, has no electricity, and they serve meals family style in their dining room.

You can reach the lodge from a few different trails ranging from 5 miles to 9.1 miles. The lodge is on the expensive side but it makes for an incredibly memorable getaway.

Options outside the park

The only other options for lodging are outside of the park. The closest option on the Tennessee side is Gatlinburg but Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are also great choices.

On the North Carolina side, many people choose to stay in Bryson City or Maggie Valley for a quaint, quieter experience with the park.

There are a variety of independently owned hotels, bed & breakfasts, or inns on the North Carolina side. If you have a favorite chain hotel, then you can find any of those in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.

When is the best time of year to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The best time to visit the Smoky Mountains depends on what activities you’d like to do, what kind of weather you prefer, and the amount of crowds that you can deal with.

Spring is ideal for wildflower viewing, seeing wildlife – especially baby animals, and fewer crowds in the area as school hasn’t yet let out. Late spring is also a great season for fishing.

Summer days are perfect for finding a swimming hole and the annual synchronous firefly viewing is in June. Wildflowers stick around through summer in many areas and everything is so lush and green.

Fall brings vibrant leaf-peeping opportunities as well as some of the best weather days of the year. Great fishing opportunities also come back around during this time. This is one of the most crowded times of year in the Smokies though so be prepared for that.

Winter offers quieter trails and a great opportunity to experience snowfall in the mountains at the higher elevations. However, some of the roads are closed seasonally so you won’t be able to fully experience everything at the park if you visit during winter.

FAQs on the Great Smoky Mountains

How many days do you need for the Great Smoky Mountains?

Three days is generally the sweet spot for visiting the Great Smoky Mountains if you just want to hit the highlights. If you want to experience some longer hikes and explore the area a bit more then you can spend an entire week here.

What is the best way to explore the Smoky Mountains?

The best way to explore the Smokies is on foot! There are so many hiking trails that allow you to fully experience the beauty of this park.

If you aren’t able to hike for long or need an accessible trail, then check out the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail or trails at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Where is the prettiest part of the Smoky Mountains?

Many people believe that the prettiest part of the Smoky Mountains is in Cades Cove and it truly is a gorgeous section of the park!

You can find beautiful views anywhere you look though. Start with a drive on Newfound Gap Road or take the Foothills Parkway. Both are stunning as well!