The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Winding through the heart of the Great Smokies is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country and world to learn, practice and play in the whitewater.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Long-distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the south end of the Park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, the super-cool hipster community of the south, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the street. And above all, this park is very beautiful. 

It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

When it was first officially designated as a national park back in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains instantly became the premier outdoor playground in the eastern United States. Covering more than 522,000 acres of prime wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is home to a stunning array of wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and some of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A subset of the Appalachian Mountain Range, the Smokies feature seemingly endless scenic vistas which have helped make them one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Its breathtaking beauty has also made the park incredibly popular drawing more than 12 million visitors annually. To put things into perspective, that’s more than twice as many as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.

But don’t let those large visitation numbers deter you; there are still plenty of places to escape the crowds and find solitude inside the park. Whether you’re looking to take an amazing hike, set up camp at a remote location, or go on a beautiful drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered. This is everything you need to know before you go.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you would expect in an outdoor setting like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are many things to see and do. Visitors enjoy spotting wildlife, taking photos of the mountain landscapes, exploring historic buildings, and just soaking up the sights and sounds of the Smokies. Wildflower-covered meadows make excellent spots for a picnic lunch while the park’s scenic byways make excellent—if challenging—cycling routes as well.

Other popular activities inside the park include fishing for trout and bass, horseback riding on many of the trails, and camping in one of the designated campsites. If you’re looking to pitch your tent or park you’re RV, the park has numerous places where you can do just that.

Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. It’s kind of a driving safari as is the entire park.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. And during the off-season, you can actually capture an unobstructed shot of the road in the most visited U.S. National Park. Unbelievable!

It’s easy to lose an entire day or many days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window and surpassing views of wildlife, vistas, valleys, rivers, and roads. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains—there seem to be millions and billions and trillions of trees. It’s an odd feeling, being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees.

Two popular activities in the park are hiking and backpacking. With more than 850 miles of trail to explore, visitors can spend weeks wandering the backcountry without ever walking on the same path twice. Some routes wander high along the mountain ridges, providing outstanding views as they go. Others meander past open meadows, through thick forests, and around towering waterfalls. Some are short and easy while others are long and difficult but each is unique and satisfying.

Hiking Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the best hikes in the park include the 2.7-mile walk to Rainbow Falls which is short but challenging and rewards travelers with stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall. The 4-mile long Chimney Tops Trail starts steep but provides some of the best views around while the trek to Alum Cave meanders through hardwood forest and under a stone arch on its way to a towering peak.

Fact Box

Size: 522,419 acres

Date Established: June 15, 1934

Location: Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a subsection of the Appalachian Mountains

Park Elevation: 876 feet-6,643 feet

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name:  The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.  

Iconic site in the park: The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day.   

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for Your Visit: The busiest time in the park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. To avoid large crowds and potential traffic jams, plan your visit for other times of the year. The weather is generally mild and the landscapes are majestic in all four seasons.

Autumn is an especially great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks especially on weekends and the changing color of the leaves is spectacular.

Entrance into the park is free all year round.

How to Get There: There are three entry points to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with the main entrance located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors will take Interstate Highway I-40 to Exit 407, turning south on TN-60. From there, continue to US-441, which heads straight into the park. Alternative entrances can be found in Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

Did you know?

Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the park.

More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir