Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Guide for RVers

America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains is an ideal getaway. Hike, camp, and experience one of America’s oldest mountain ranges.

I love all things nature. I enjoy visiting the National Parks, 22 so far and numerous National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas.

However, America’s highways and byways offer many unique sites along the way. Like you, we discuss where we want to go and work backward from there. That allows us to research all of those spots in between that fall into the must-see column. Therein is my motivation for this new series of articles: A Guide for RVers.

A Guide for RVers will provide you with not only hints and facts about nature found on your road trip but those often missed stops along the way. For example, if you are heading from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park take time to visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in Escalante and view the historic grounds of Anasazi State Park in Boulder. 

Perhaps you find yourself on a layover in Mitchell, South Dakota heading to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills. Take time to tour the World’s Only Corn Palace

My new series of articles, A Guide for RVers will run intermittently in the months ahead. It will include links to related articles, interesting nature facts associated with those places, and a shout-out to good eats along the way. I will add a special line called “Wait. What?!” in each column to give you some jaw-dropping facts about the specific topic and nature in general. 

I hope that you will find that A Guide for RVers is interesting, informative, and entertaining as well.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ll begin our adventure with the most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 13.2 million visitors in 2023. That is only slightly less visits than Yellowstone (4.5 million), Grand Canyon (5.2 million), and Zion (4.6 million) combined. Why is that? It is within one day’s drive of one-half the U.S. population. Plus, plenty of side attractions have located just outside its protected borders.

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

Getting there

Using your favorite GPS navigator, U.S. Highway 441 bisects the park from the most popular entrance on the northside to Sugarlands Visitor Center at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It ends, or begins, depending on your starting point, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center via the Southside entrance at Cherokee, North Carolina. Known as Newfoundland Gap Road, US-441 curves its way through the park to an elevation of 5,046 feet before dropping back down.  

Once close to Knoxville, head south to any one of the popular towns: Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, or Cosby. Among these, you will find more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds.

Coming in from the Southside, you will head toward Cherokee. RV parks are few and the roads to any are winding. The same goes for getting to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. There is a KOA and a few Good Sam parks along with a plethora of campgrounds.

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are looking to rough it in your RV, the park offers nine campgrounds. The only one with water/electric hookups (10 sites) is Look Rock plus the means to park RVs up to 48 feet. All others are dry camping only with limited site lengths: Cades Cove and Smokemount—40 feet motorhomes, 35 feet for trailers; Elkmount—35 feet for motorhomes, 32 feet trailers; Cataloochee—31 feet; Balsam Mountain—30 feet; Deep Creek—26 feet; and Cosby—25 feet. Availability goes quickly, so a 6-month advance reservation is recommended. You can only reserve at recreation.gov in all national parks. 

You are there. Now what?

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

Visitor Center

Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

The park has two historic gristmills, Cable Mill and Mingus Mill that provide demonstrations of corn meal milling. (Mingus Mill is closed until further notice for rehabilitation work.)

Parking permits

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. However, parking tags are required for all vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes.

The best method is to purchase online. Otherwise, you can purchase one at a Visitor’s Center or kiosk. 

Three tag durations are available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

  • Daily: $5
  • Weekly: $15
  • Annual: $40
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving tours

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

Visitors can choose from 384 miles of road in the Smokies. Most are paved and the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a scenic valley surrounded on all sides by mountains south of Townsend, Tennessee. A popular 11-mile one-way loop road encircling the valley provides access to hiking trails, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and chances to explore the many historic homesites, cemeteries, and churches. The area also holds a visitor center, campground, picnic area, and riding stable.

Many of the early settlers’ houses and a few primitive churches remain standing. Pull-out parking is available, but limited.

Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. Trust me when I say, avoid the weekends!

Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday from May through September.

The beginning of the loop is well marked: from Cherokee, 57 miles; from Gatlinburg, 27 miles; and from Townsend, 9 miles. Restrooms are available about halfway at the Cades Cove Visitors Center. From spring through fall one can expect to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. There are a few easy- to moderate-difficulty hiking trailheads along the route. Again, parking is limited and by permit only (See above).

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

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Another popular loop of 5.5 miles takes you through an old-growth forest alongside a mountain stream. At about 2.5 miles is the trailhead for the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail (0.7-mile easy loop). This takes you across two brooks, past his 1880s “saddle-bag” farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and around his “pass-through” barn. Do not miss the “tub mill” used for grinding corn and the only one still existing out of a dozen in the area.

To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). Please note that RVs are not permitted on the motor nature trail.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingman’s Dome

At an elevation of 6,643 feet, not only is it the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but it also boasts the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1959, the observation tower allows visitors a 360-degree panorama of the Smokies. On a clear day you can see more than 100 miles. However, most days are smoky limiting visibility to about 20 miles.

Due to the steepness of the paved ramp up to the tower (1 mile round-trip), wheelchairs, pets, and bicycles are prohibited. Also, remember that at this elevation the ambient temperature is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

Hiking trail to Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands out as a hiker’s heaven with more than 800 miles of trails through an old-growth forest including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. No wonder it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983).

One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. Five miles roundtrip is a good maximum distance for novices.

Trails range from easy (Spruce Fir Trail, 0.4 miles r/t, 25-feet elevation gain), to moderate (Rainbow Falls, 5.4 miles r/t, 1685-feet elevation gain), to strenuous (Mt. Le Conte via Trillium Gap, 13.9 miles r/t, 3401-feet elevation gain). Remember, always check with the rangers at the Visitors Center for trail conditions, wildlife spotting, and permits, if required.

Some of the most popular destination hikes in the park include:

  • Charlies Bunion (4.0 miles one-way; 1,600 feet elevation change)
  • Alum Cave Bluffs (2.5 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Andrews Bald (1.8 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Rainbow Falls (2.7 miles one-way; 1,700 feet elevation change)
  • Chimney Tops (3.5 miles roundtrip; 1,400 feet elevation change)
Cable Mill, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flora and fauna

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shows more than 1,500 flowering species with spring offering the showiest of wildflowers. Of course, timing is everything. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (75th annual; April 23-26, 2025) offers guided walks and talks.

This is black bear habitat. They crawl from hibernation in the spring and forage all summer. July is mating season with bear cubs abundant shortly after. Follow NPS bear safety instructions should you encounter one. Speaking of safety, there are 23 species of snakes, but only two are venomous: Timber rattlesnake and Northern copperhead. Watch your step.

When hiking you may encounter sightings of coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. Enjoy from afar. Park regulations prohibit feeding any wild critter. 

Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus)

Of the 19 different species of fireflies that live within the GSMNP, the synchronous fireflies stand out among them all. The flash pattern alerts females that the males are of their species. It begins with a series of 5-8 flashes, a pause of about 8 seconds, and then this repeated pattern. Watching this mating ritual ranks as a truly unique experience.

To stand among the viewers requires one to enter the park lottery. This happens in late April to early May when the lottery for vehicle passes closes. The viewing begins when the adults seek to mate usually in June. To enter one must go to recreation.gov.

Another opportunity awaits in northeast Tennessee at Rocky Fork State Park. Again, admission is by lottery only. 

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Makin’ merry

Pigeon Forge seems like a carnival that never ends. From Dollywood to the Old Mill Historic District there are plenty of places for excitement. When it comes to eats, you name it, from fast foods to dinner theaters.

Big names like Guy Fieri’s Downtown Flavortown, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen are located on The Island, another tourist destination. In the mood for fried chicken or catfish, try J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen. Plenty of barbecue available, but Preachers Smokehouse is hard to beat. Get there early as they sell out quickly. Finally, do not forget to taste the moonshine. It will make you merry!

I hope that these few words piqued your curiosity and motivated you to roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do not let the crowds put you off. You just have to plan your trip and be smarter than the average visitor. One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all in one visit. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

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

Wait. What?!  

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms is not limited to fireflies. Several other species light up. These include certain fish, shrimp, plankton, jellyfish, fungus, and gnats.

Want more travel ideas for this area?

Happy Travels!

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