Planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Check out our guide that covers hiking trails and waterfalls to camping spots.
Do you love the great outdoors? Are you looking for a new adventure to embark on this summer? Then look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! This massive park offers something for everyone, from hiking and camping to fishing and wildlife watching.
Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited and one of the most beloved National Parks in the United States.
Jagged mountain peaks and lush forests give way to tumbling waterfalls in this park that is brimming with adventure. The park is spread across Tennessee and North Carolina and encompasses over 500,000 protected acres.
With majestic mountains and pristine forests, this park offers something for everyone. Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just looking for a relaxing day in nature, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is sure to impress.
So if you’re ready to explore one of America’s most beautiful natural treasures, read on for our guide to the best of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
History Of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains are among the oldest mountains in the world, they were formed hundreds of millions of years ago. The Smokies are also one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, with more than 19,000 species of plants and animals.
The first people known to inhabit the area were the Cherokee, who called the mountains “Shaconage” (pronounced Sha-Kon-O-Hey) meaning “Land of Blue Smoke” is the Cherokee word for the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee used the mountains for hunting and gathering, and also built settlements in the area.
In 1786, the area was ceded to the United States by the Cherokee Nation as part of the Treaty of Hopewell. As white settlers arrived, logging became a major industry in the mountains. By 1920 about two-thirds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area had been logged or burned by fires from logging operations.
In 1916, the National Park Service was created, and by the late 1920’s the National Park Service was itching to establish a park east of the Mississippi, and the Smoky Mountains were the perfect location.
The park was established in the depths of the Great Depression and it was only made possible by the local community and wealthy philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr, who together helped spare the Smokies from further deforestation.
On May 22, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill that established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park was officially dedicated in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today, the park is more than 500,000 acres and is visited by more than 11 million people each year.
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There are 2 main gateways to Great Smoky Mountains, on the Tennessee side of the park you will enter through the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg. And on the North Carolina side of the park you enter through the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC. Between the two entrances you will find the beautiful Newfound Gap Road that gives you stunning mountain views around every corner.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Highlights
Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the great draws of the Smokies is the extensive trail system that covers the forested valleys and misty mountains of the park. There are over 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains and they range from easy rambles to challenging day hikes. If you are really into adventure consider taking a multi-day trek and staying at one of the backcountry campsites.
Some of the most popular hikes in the park include:
This quiet and serene trail is right on the edge of bustling Gatlinburg. It is also one of the few dog friendly trails in the park, but make sure to keep the pup on a 6 ft leash at all times. This easy trail is great for all skill levels and is paved or gravel for easy rambling.
- Distance: 3.9 miles
- Rating: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 164 ft
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail
This is one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This moderate trail leads you to the highest point in Tennessee, the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. The peak is 6,634 ft so it’s a good idea to dress warmly no matter the time of year.
- Distance: 1.2 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 331 ft
Alum Cave To Mount Leconte Trail
The rewards are great for this challenging hike as you’ll get incredible views, cave exploration and a very well maintained trail that makes this 10 mile hike a bit more enjoyable. You’ll begin with a climb along Alum Cave Creek and by mile 2.3 you will arrive at the gorgeous Inspiration Point. Shortly after you’ll find yourself at Alum Cave. This hike is very popular and a great option for intermediate or advanced hikers looking for a challenge.
- Distance: 10.9 miles
- Rating: Challenging
- Elevation Gain: 2,896 ft
Waterfalls to See in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There are an impressive 40+ waterfalls in the Smokies. The Smoky Mountains have all the right ingredients to create gorgeous waterfalls including just the right amount of rainfall and an elevation gradient. The abundant rainfall at higher elevations trickles and rushes down the mountain sides, sometimes dropping over a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills creating beautiful waterfalls all over the park.
Some of the most popular waterfall hikes in the park include:
- Distance: 2.4 miles
- Rating: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 396 Ft
- Distance: 2.6 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 544 ft
- Distance: 5.1 miles
- Rating: Difficult
- Elevation Gain: 1,617
Learn More About The Appalachian History in Cades Cove
You can learn more about the history of Appalachia and the Smokies by visiting Cades Cove where you can see a working grist mill, numerous old houses, barns and churches. Make sure that you don’t miss the Noah “Bud” Ogle Cabin or the Elkmont Historic District.
Elkmont is a bit of a hidden gem but it’s a great way to experience the history of the park.
Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations inside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As one of the most visited spots, you can imagine the crowds that this lush valley draws daily.
The 11 mile one way loop road circles the cove and can take between 2 to 4 hours to complete. You can rent a bike and ride the entire length of the loop road to get a real feel for what it must have been like in the past.
Check out as many of the old buildings as you can and don’t forget to stop at the Visitors Center to see the working Grist Mill.
This is also the premiere spot for wildlife viewing and chances are if you are going to see a black bear in Great Smokies Mountains that it will be in Cades Cove.
Driving Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
This drivable nature trail is a 5.5 mile, one lane, one-way route that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your vehicle. The motor nature trail gets its name from an exuberant mountain stream.
That’s right, the entire nature trail follows the Roaring Forks Stream.
Roaring forks is one of the largest and the fastest moving streams in the park. This is another great place for spotting wildlife in the park.
Best Time To Visit Great Smoky Mountains
The park is open year round and off season is considered late October through May. During the off season 7 of the 10 park campgrounds are closed as well as many of the visitor centers and guest services.
Winter – The winter season brings the beauty of snow to the higher elevations of the park and with that comes solitude. The park can be very busy during peak seasons, but in the winter you’ll feel like you have the entire park all to yourself. If you plan to hike, bring crampons with you for ice and snow.
Spring – The gorgeous flowers of the Smokies bloom during the spring season. Most of the flowers in the park begin blossoming some time between the middle of April and the middle of May. Every April the park celebrates the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.
Summer – Peak season at Great Smoky Mountains National Park brings warmer temperatures and throngs of visitors to the park. Be prepared for trailheads to be filled by mid-morning and for campgrounds to be fully booked in advance.
Fall – Cooler temperatures and beautiful colors draw large crowds to the Smokies in the fall. You’ll find that the animals that call the park home are much more active during the fall season. Keep your eyes open for both elk and black bear during this time of year.
Where To Stay At Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There are a total of 10 campgrounds inside the park and they range in price from $17 – $24 a night. The campgrounds offer no-frills amenities such as flush toilets and potable water, but there are no hookups for campers and RVs inside the park. You can make advanced reservations at Recreation.gov.
There are also 98 backcountry campsites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park including 5 that are only accessible by boat. There is a nightly fee of $4 per person for the backcountry sites.
The LeConte Lodge has been operating in the Great Smoky Mountains since 1926 and offers 60 guest rooms. Perched atop the Smokies on the third tallest peak in the park you’ll find this gem that is inaccessible by car. That view is in high demand and you’ll need to book the LeConte Lodge in advance.
Oh, and you’ll need to use one of the 5 trails that lead to the lodge to get there.
Don’t expect luxury and frills here either, the lodge has remained untouched by time and has rustic touches like washbasins and kerosene lanterns.
Guests are housed in hand built rough hewn log cabins with propane heat, kerosene lanterns, clean linens and warm Hudson Bay wool blankets. Hearty meals are served family style in the dining room.
Things To Know About Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- There is no entrance fee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- The park is very accessible and there are roads that will take you through most areas of the park.
- Some of the most popular roads in the park are 441, Newfound Gap Road and Cades Cove Loop Road. Expect significant traffic on these roads in the peak seasons.
- Being the most visited park in the United States means that there will be crowds no matter when you visit. While there may be crowds, the park’s unique set up means that it never feels overly crowded.
- If you are looking for elk you will only find them on the North Carolina side of the park. Keep your eyes open anytime you are near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The elk are known to frequent the large fields around that area.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is such a great park to visit at any time of the year. It’s easily accessible to most of the country and you can’t beat those beautiful mountain views and waterfalls.
Elizabeth Lampman is a coffee-fuelled Mom of 2 girls who lives in the Niagara region of Ontario. She loves photography, camping, hiking, and travel.