The best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the busiest park in America, hosting over 11 million visitors annually. To get the most out of your visit, you better have a plan, so we put together a list of the very best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We loved our visit here and there’s a lot to keep anyone busy. From tubing the rivers to horseback riding, our guide will help you discover the best of the best in this beautiful National Park.

AftT’s Complete Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Parkthings to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In this post: Best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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1.) Take in the incredible views

Great Smoky Mountains National Park TennesseeWith “Mountains” in the name, you’d be right to assume that this park has some pretty spectacular viewpoints and vistas. Most are really easy to get to and are just a pull-out along Newfound Gap Road. Here are some of the best.

Most popular views in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap is the lowest mountain pass in the park accessible by automobile. It’s nearly 1 mile high, and is also the access point to Clingmans Dome.

Clingmans Dome

hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
A clear day from Clingmans Dome

On top of “Old Smoky” is where you’ll be when you hike up to Clingmans Dome. It’s the highest peak in the park, the highest point in Tennessee, and also the highest point along the Appalachian Trail.

Clingmans Dome Tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

From Newfound Gap, take Clingmans Dome Road 7 miles up to the parking area and then hike the last half mile up to the top. It’s steep, but you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views of the Smokies. On a clear day, you can see for miles from the Observation Tower. At the top is also where you’ll find the Appalachian Trail.

Clingmans Dome Road is closed from December 1st to March 31st.

Cades Cove Loop

Great Smoky Mountains National Park TN - Cades Cove
A morning drive through Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a sprawling valley on the western side of the park – perfect for spotting wildlife and to catch a sunrise or sunset. Get there early to avoid traffic and for a chance to see the most wildlife. Early morning is also a great time to watch the fog burn off from the surrounding mountains.

Less-traveled spots for great views in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Look Rock Tower and the Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway is an ongoing project and stretch of road that runs along the northern border of the Park. About half has been completed, with the other half TBD. A short section runs from Interstate 40 west towards Cosby, while a longer section runs from Wears Valley east towards Chilhowee.

The parkway is administered by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and offers plentiful views of the Park. Be sure to stop at the Look Rock Tower along the way.

Cataloochee Valley Overlook

Cataloochee is a little off the beaten path, but is a popular auto tour destination. It winds through some of the highest peaks in the park and is great for wildlife viewing, including an elk herd that has been reintroduced here recently.

2.) Spot some wildlife

Swallowtail - animals in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkWildlife spotting in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is pretty easy to do. The park has an amazing amount of biodiversity and wildlife. In fact, the park has been designated a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve for this reason. One of our best tips to see several types of wildlife is to get up early and drive either to Cades Cove in the north or to Oconaluftee to the South.

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop has several wide-open fields and valleys that are home to deer, elk, turkey, black bear, woodchuck, and raccoon. During our drive we were able to spot a small herd of elk, a few deer, and some turkeys.Wild turkey in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Be sure to get up early for this drive – it’s a one-way loop that will get congested with traffic by 9 a.m. By the time we had visited the Cades Cove Visitor Center and exited the loop, traffic was really backed up. Do yourself a favor, get up at the crack of dawn and make the drive. The kids can doze off on the way there, and when you arrive, you’ll be treated to some great wildlife and amazing views of the sun rising over the Smoky Mountains.

wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkIf you want to head south for the day, get up early and drive towards the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. On the way, you’ll be treated to some fantastic views of the sunrise as you cross over Newfound Gap. Keep a look out for the signs that point to the Oconaluftee Job Corps just before you reach the Visitor Center. Out in the field, we found a huge herd of elk that were leisurely grazing and enjoying the warm sun. They were even up in the yards of the local residents that live there.

If you don’t find them there, head over to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center which is just a quick minute away. You might see them out in the field next door to the Visitor Center where you can hopefully get a good view. While you’re there, pop in to the Visitor Center to get your passport stamped, have a look at the museum, and do a little shopping.

Related: Check our our guide on the best travel cameras before your trip so you don’t miss a moment!Elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Travel time to Cades Cove and Oconaluftee

From Gatlinburg, Cades Cove is 27 miles (or about 1 hour) and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is 33 miles (also about an hour away).

Driving to Cades Cove and driving the loop – taking time to stop halfway at the Visitor Center to look around – will take all morning. If you want, pack a cooler with lunch and enjoy a picnic at the Cades Cove picnic area. If you are interested in stopping and looking at the historic homesteads along the way, add another hour or so.

How to get to Cades Cove and Oconaluftee

From Gatlinburg, just take US-441 into the park heading south. Just past the Sugarlands Visitor Center, you will make a right turn onto Fighting Creek Gap Road. Follow this all the way to Cades Cove where the loop will begin. The roads are all very clearly marked.

For Oconaluftee, head south on Newfound Gap Road for about 33 miles. You will see signs for the Visitor Center.

Important! - From May 8th to Sept. 25th, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from sunrise until 10 a.m., only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed on Cades Cove Loop Road. If you plan to take the loop early, don't do it on a Wednesday or Saturday morning in summer!

3.) Hike part of the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail - places to visit in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkGreat Smoky Mountains National Park is unique in that it is shared by two different states, and it’s split by one of America’s most iconic trails, the Appalachian Trail. The trail is nearly 2,200 miles long and is also the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.

If you want to see or even hike a portion of this legendary trail, there are several places in the park where you can hop on or off. We visited Clingmans Dome for our little slice of this experience, and it’s a great place to do it (more on this below). Other easy places to hop on are near Fontana Dam to the south, Newfound Gap just off of highway 441, and along Interstate 40 near the Big Creek Campground to the east.

You can spend as little or as much time on the trail as you’d like (we only hiked it for a few minutes because we didn’t have all our gear), and the requisite photo by the trailhead is a fun keepsake from your trip. For the ambitious among you, there are 71 miles of Appalachian Trail inside GSMNP just waiting for you!

Distance to the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome

We parked at the Clingmans Dome parking area and hiked up to see the trail (as well as the tower overlook) which only takes about 10 minutes each way. It’s steep, so it make take you a bit longer depending on your fitness level.

How to plan your time here

We spent about an hour looking around Clingmans Dome, hiking a bit of trail, and stopping by the Visitor Center. Be sure to take some water with you because the altitude and exertion will make you thirsty! We combined this with an early morning at Cades Cove and were finished in time for a late lunch. Pack some snacks to tide you over.

Directions to Clingmans Dome and the Appalachian Trail

Clingmans Dome is 23 miles (or about ¾ hour) from Gatlinburg. Once you arrive, you can take a short but steep hike up to the Appalachian Trailhead and also the observation tower. Leave early! The parking lot is small and you will most likely be jockeying for one of the few spots with lots of other visitors. This is one of the most popular parts of the park, so do it early if you can.Appalachian Trail - things to do near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Fun Fact - Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, clocking in at 6,643 feet. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. It is also the highest point along the Appalachian Trail.

4.) Go tubing down the river

Go tubing - what to do Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tubing down the river in GSMNP

We discovered a fun little secret down at Deep Creek during our visit – tubing! There are a ton of little shops who will rent you a tube for the day. Just find a spot to park, take a short hike up the river, find a place to drop in, and float back down to your car or campsite.

How fun is that!

Since we didn’t know you could do this, we didn’t plan for it, but it sure looked like everyone was having a great time. If you decide to camp at Deep Creek, you have easy access to the river and could just hang out for a few days exploring, hiking, and floating the river.

The nearby town of Bryson City is a fun place with little cafes and a gourmet chocolate shop (just in case you’re tired of roughing it) and is the closest place to restock on groceries if you need to. It’s also less than an hour to drive over to Fontana Dam, which we heard is a great place to visit. It’s the tallest dam in the Eastern United States and also has its own Visitor Center.

Travel time to Deep Creek

It’s about one and a half hours to drive to Deep Creek from Gatlinburg.

How to plan your time here

If you plan on tubing, you could easily spend all day here, but be sure to arrive early. Pack a picnic lunch and maybe some dinner for an all-day adventure. Picnic sites have grills and plenty of shade to enjoy the day as well as bathhouses and full bathrooms.

Parking spots and picnic tables began filling up quickly by mid-morning and especially around lunch, so plan accordingly.

Directions to Deep Creek

From Gatlinburg, take Highway 441 all the way through the park until you get to Cherokee. Head east on Highway 19 until you get to Bryson City, and then turn north on Water St./Toot Hollow Rd. Follow Toot Hollow Rd. (hilarious, I know!) to Deep Fork where you’ll see a National Park sign and parking.

Stay close to the action in Bryson City. Check here for the latest hotel prices.

5.) Ride a historic steam engine through the Smokies

Like trains? Consider taking a ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad from Bryson City. Steam and diesel engines depart daily for excursions through scenic North Carolina and the Smoky Mountains. Their historic #1702 Steam Engine is one of only two still operating today.

Families will love the themed rides in fall featuring the PEANUTS gang on The Great Pumpkin Patch Express and the Polar Express during the winter holidays. For those looking for more than just a train ride, packages are available that include ziplines, rafting, and Jeep tours.

Check Tripadvisor here for reviews.

For more information and booking, click here.

6.) Go for a hike

Great Smoky Mountains National Park hikingLike any other National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a ton of hiking trails available to explore. We’ve mentioned the Appalachian Trail already, but if you’re looking for something shorter and slightly less intimidating, here are a few to try.

Related: Be sure to stay hydrated! One of our favorite ways is with a CamelBak, which is ideal for carrying water AND your gear for a day hike through the Smokies.

Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls

How to get here: These are accessed from the Deep Creek campground at the south end of the park.

Distance: Round trip distance is 1.6 miles and 1-2 hours to complete.

Quick take: This is one of the easiest hikes we did (although we did not hike all the way to Indian Creek Falls), and is great for families with small children. To add something a bit more challenging, combine this with a hike to Juney Whank Falls (see below).what to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Toms Branch Falls

Kephart Prong Trail

How to get here: Take Newfound Gap Road and drive 8.8 miles from Newfound Gap. If you’re coming from the south, it’s 5 miles north of Smokemont.

Distance: Round trip distance is 4 miles.

Quick take: See remnants of the logging industry and the Civilian Conservation Corps that existed here in the 1930’s and 40’s. It’s also a good trail to find salamanders along the river.

Fun Fact - GSMNP is the "Salamander Capital of the World" with at least 30 different kinds of salamanders living within the park. Some are endemic to the park and can only be found here.

Juney Whank Falls

How to get here: Head to Deep Creek towards the southern part of the park. Once you park, head to the trailhead (where you’ll also find Tom Branch Falls) at the end to Deep Creek Road.

Distance: Round trip distance is .8 miles, but it is a little steep in spots. Plan on 1-2 hours to make this hike.

Quick take: This is a hike that we did, and it’s a good reward for families. The falls are beautiful. This hike is considered moderate in difficulty, but is suitable even for smaller children if you take your time through some of the steeper areas. Be sure to take plenty of water.

Alum Cave Bluffs

How to get here: The Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead is 8.6 miles south from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There are two large parking lots here located just off the road.

Distance: Round trip distance is 5 miles to Alum Cave and back, but it’s another 2.5 miles to Inspiration Point and the summit of Mt. Le Conte.

Quick take: If you have the time, keep going past Alum Cave for nice views of the mountains and valleys, and also a hike through Arch Rock. Like other trailheads in the park, this is a popular one and the parking fills up early!

Porters Creek

How to get here: Just 6 miles east of Gatlinburg in the Greenbriar Cove picnic area.

Distance: Round trip distance is 2 miles

Quick take: At the end of Porters Creek Trail is Porters Flat, an 18th century community that was settled here by Europeans living in the area. Some of the structures remain, as well as other evidence of this early community.

Fun Fact - 100 species of native trees are found in the Smokies, more than in any other North American National Park. Almost 25% of the park is old-growth forest - one of the largest stands remaining in North America.

7.) Discover historic buildings

history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Old whiskey still at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of old homesteads, mills, and leftover evidence of the people that used to carve a life out of these mountains. If you’re interested, here are some place to find it.

Cades Cove

How to get here: From Gatlinburg, take US-441 into the park heading south. When you reach the Sugarlands Visitor Center,  turn right onto Fighting Creek Gap Road and follow until you reach Cades Cove.

Travel times: Cades Cove is 27 miles (or about 1 hour) from Gatlinburg.

What you’ll find: Three churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and many other faithfully restored eighteenth and nineteenth century structures can be found here. Cades Cove has the most historic buildings of any place in the park.

Catalooche

How to get here: Take Highway 321 east towards I-40. Take I-40 south until you reach exit 20 towards Catalooche.

Travel times: 65 miles or about 2.5 hours from Gatlinburg.

What you’ll find: Two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. Catalooche is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Oconaluftee

How to get here: Head south on Newfound Gap Road for about 33 miles. You will see signs for the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Travel times: From Gatlinburg, it’s 33 miles (about an hour away) to Oconaluftee.

What you’ll find: In addition to a Visitor Center, Oconaluftee has a Mountain Farm Museum that hosts a collection of buildings like a house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, and smokehouse. They also have a working blacksmith shop.

8.) Take a drive

Scenic drives in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkSpeaking of auto tours, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has several scenic drives to choose from. Here’s little bit of what you can see on each one.

Cades Cove Loop Road

We’ve already talked a bit about the Cades Cove Loop Road here and here, because it’s one of the most popular routes in the park. The views are fantastic, and there is a lot of wildlife to be seen, which is especially great for kids. Get up early for this one, because it will get congested, and expect it to take most of the morning to complete.

Cataloochee Valley

Located in the southeast part of the park, Cataloochee Valley has lots of wildlife (including elk), historic buildings, and lovely scenery. With some of the highest peaks around and gravel road access, Cataloochee Valley is definitely harder to get to, but can be less crowded than other areas of the park.

Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road is the main road through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and divides it down the middle. While it serves as the jumping-off point for several trails and smaller roads like Clingmans Dome, the drive itself is beautiful with many overlooks and points of interest along the way.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a short, winding 5.5 mile loop that runs one-way from Gatlinburg. To get here, turn at traffic light #8 off the main parkway in Gatlinburg and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead, you have the option of taking the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

This drive is closed in winter, but is a favorite during the warmer months. It’s also a favorite spot for hikes to several of the Park’s best waterfalls like Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls.

Upper Tremont Road

On the way to Cades Cove, look for the signs for the GSM Institute at Tremont and make a turn towards Tremont Road. Once the pavement stops (and where most visitors do also), continue 3 miles along the gravel road, which is where you’ll find the serenity you’ve been looking for. The road follows the Middle Prong River towards the Middle Prong Trailhead where you’ll find plenty of scenery, access to other trails and waterfalls, and some quiet places for a picnic. Parking is available along the loop at the end of the road.

At the beginning of these routes, you’ll find brochures to help guide you, and they correspond with numbered landmarks along the way.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Last but not least is “America’s Favorite Drive,” the Blue Ridge Parkway. This stretch of scenic byway runs from Shenandoah National Park to the north all the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The entrance to the  southern end of the Parkway is just past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at mile marker 469. Hop on and drive for a while. It’s gorgeous – especially if you can catch a sunset!

Sunset along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Sunset along the Blue Ridge Parkway

9.) Go camping

campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkCamping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is very popular. There are 10 campsites in the park along with several others nearby. Camp sites can be reserved by calling (877)444-6777 or booking online at recreation.gov.

Maximum stay is 14 days at any of the sites, and each site is limited to 6 people and two vehicles, or one vehicle and a trailer. Here is information about each site.

Abrams Creek
16 sites, elev. 1,125′, opens April 26, $17.50, 12′ trailers

Balsam Mountain
42 sites, elev. 5,310′, opens May 17, $17.50, 30′ RVs

Big Creek
12 sites, elev. 1,700′, opens April 19, $17.50, tents only

Cades Cove
159 sites, elev. 1,807′, open year-round, $21-$25, 35′-40′ RVs

Cataloochee
27 sites, elev. 2,610′, opens April 19, $25, 31′ RVs

Cosby
157 sites, elev. 2,459′, opens April 19, $17.50, 25′ RVs

Deep Creek
92 sites, elev. 1,800′, opens April 19, $21, 26′ RVs

Elkmont
220 sites, elev. 2,150′, opens March 8, $21-$27, 32′-35′ RVs

Smokemont
142 sites, elev. 2,198′, open year-round, $21-$25, 35′-40′ RVs

Look Rock
Closed in 2019

To view all these camping sites, jump to our interactive map.

10.) Enjoy a picnic

hiking Great Smoky Mountains National ParkIn a park like this, just about any place is a good one for a picnic, but if you’re looking for a designated area that’s family-friendly, check out these sites. They all have picnic tables and a grill for cooking – all that’s left is a cool breeze and a quiet stream (and the food of course. Don’t forget that!)

Picnic areas at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek – 10 sites
Chimneys – 68 sites
Cades Cove – 81 sites – Open year round
Collins Creek – 182 sites – pavilion
Cosby – 35 sites – pavilion
Deep Creek – 58 sites – Open year round – pavilion
Greenbrier – 12 sites – Open year round – pavilion
Heintooga – 41 sites
Look Rock – 51 sites
Metcalf Bottoms – 122 sites – Open year round – pavilion
Twin Creeks – 1 pavilion

There are also pavilions for rent for larger groups. They can be reserved online or by calling (877)444-6777. Those are located at Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks, and can be reserved up to one year in advance.

11.) Find a waterfall

Great Smoky Mountains National Park waterfalls - Toms BranchDue to high annual rainfall, water pours down the mountains into nearly every part of the park, and that means waterfalls are pretty easy to find. Hiking out to a beautiful waterfall is one of our favorite things to do in a National Park, and GSM is no different. Here are some you might want to track down.

Waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Ramsey Cascades

Ramsey Cascades is the tallest waterfall in the park. Access the trailhead from the Greenbriar. The hike is a strenuous eight miles round trip and will take up a day. This trail gains around 2,000 ft. in elevation, so take snacks and plenty of water!

Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls

Toms Branch Falls - Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Toms Branch Falls

Toms Branch Falls is one of the easiest to get to and is perfect for families. Access the trail from the Deep Creek Area and follow the short path along the river to the falls. Continue a bit farther to get to Indian Creek Falls. The entire hike is an easy 1.6 mile roundtrip and pairs well with tubing the river or a hike to nearby Juney Whank Falls.

Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls can be reached from Cades Cove and is a five-mile round trip hike (3-4 hours). The falls are only 20 feet high, but the huge amount of water spilling over makes them impressive.

Grotto Falls

Access the trail from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at stop #5. Here you’ll find a large parking area and the Trillium Gap Trailhead that will take you to the 25 ft. falls. Roundtrip distance is 3 miles and can be completed in 2-3 hours. It is rated as a moderately difficult trail.

Hen Wallow Falls

These 90 ft. high falls can be reached from the Cosby Campground and following the Gabes Mountain Trail. The 4.4 miles roundtrip hike is considered a moderately difficult hike and will take about 3-4 hours to get there and back.

Juney Whank Falls

waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Juney Whank Falls
Juney Whank Falls

From the Deep Creek Campground, find the Juney Whank Falls Trail that leads you up to the 90 ft. falls. Roundtrip distance is only .8 miles but it is steep in places. This hike combined with hikes to Toms Branch and Indian Creek Falls make for a great morning outdoors in the park.

Laurel Falls

The hike to Laurel Falls is considered moderate and is one of the most popular hikes in the park. It is only 2.6 miles round trip and will take you about 2-3 hours to hike to the falls and back. Access the Laurel Falls Trailhead by driving down Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center for 3.5 miles towards Cades Cove. There will be parking on either side of the road.

Lynn Camp Prong Cascades

This easy 1.3 mile round trip hike is a great one for families. You can access it from Laurel Creek Road towards Cades Cove and turning left at the sign towards Tremont. Continue past the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont and continue another 3 miles to the parking area at the end of the road. Once you get started, take the trail that follows the river.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls is one of the tallest in the southern Appalachians at over 120 feet tall! To get here, drive to the Mingo Falls Campground and find the trailhead for Pigeon Creek Trail. The hike is only .4 miles to the falls, but is rated moderately difficult.

Mouse Creek Falls

These falls are in Big Creek and are more remote than some of the other locations, so it’s a good bet if you want to avoid the crowds. These 45 ft. falls can be access by driving down I-40 and taking the Waterville Road exit #451. Turn left after crossing the Pigeon River and drive 2.3 miles to an intersection. Continue straight, past the ranger station, to the parking area at the end of the road. This hike will take you 2-3 hours.

Rainbow Falls

Getting to Rainbow Falls is a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike and continues on to the summit of Mount Le Conte. From Gatlinburg, follow the Historic Nature Trail road into the park until you get to the Rainbow Falls parking area. If it’s a sunny day, the mist from these 80-ft. falls will shimmer with color, hence the name.

As with all hikes in the park, pack plenty of water, wear good shoes (no open-toed shoes), and have fun!

Don’t forget the sunscreen!

12.) Go horseback riding

This is an activity that we really wish we had the time to do during our visit. As we were driving through Cades Cove, we saw a group riding across the road and it looked like a lot of fun. There are four stables that offer riding and other activities in the park. They are located at Cades Cove, Smokemont, Smoky Mountain, and Sugarlands.

Here is more information if you’d like to reserve a tour.

Cades Cove – (865) 448-9009
Smokemont – (828) 497-2373
Smoky Mountain – (865) 436-5634
Sugarlands – (865) 436-3535

Cades Cove also offers hayrides and carriage rides throughout the year. Smokemont offers wagon rides as well.

If you have your own horse, bring it! Great Smoky Mountains National Park has five drive-in horse camps that are open from April through October. They are Cades Cove (Anthony Creek), Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Towstring.

Click here for more information on camping with your horses.

Things to know before you go

Directions to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Where is Great Smoky Mountains National Park? - The park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border in the Eastern United States along the Appalachian Mountain Range. The famous Appalachian Trail divides the park roughly in half and runs for 71 miles through the park.

Flying to GSMNP

Flights to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are easy to find with a variety of carriers to several nearby airports. The closest airports are McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) near Knoxville and Asheville Regional Airport (AVL). For our trip, we drove over from Washington D.C as part of a larger trip (and to drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway), and then flew out of Charlotte (CLT) to get home.

Driving to GSMNP

To Gatlinburg: From I-40, take exit 407 for Sevierville to highway 66 South. This will take you through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and on to Gatlinburg.

To Cherokee: To the south entrance near Cherokee, take I-40 to exit 27 to US-74 West towards Waynesville. Turn onto US-19 towards Cherokee and then turn onto highway 441 through Cherokee into the park.

Best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitor center - Oconaluftee
Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Summer is busy here – that should be obvious – and this is the busiest National Park in the nation. To avoid the crowds, get started early to popular places like Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and Alum Cave.

Fall is a popular time because of the changing leaves, as is spring with the wildflowers. Winter offers a unique perspective if you don’t mind some of the roads being closed. Winter is actually one of our favorite times to visit National Parks because the crowds are down and they are just as gorgeous.

We visited in peak summer season, and while it was busy, we found that getting up at dawn and getting out the door was our best defense against throngs of people.

Entrance fees to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park has no entrance fees! Shocking, I know, but the park is completely free to come and go as you please. Click here to read why there are no fees.

Weather in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Weather in the park can change rapidly, especially between lower and upper elevations. In summer, temperatures range from ~70°F to 90°F in the lower elevations and 10-20°F cooler in the mountains. Rain showers are common in the afternoon along with haze and humidity. Pack some rain gear!

Winter and spring can be snowy but are typically moderate in the lower elevations. Plan for road closures particularly in the higher regions.

Fall weather means cooler nights and warm, clear days. By November, lows usually reach freezing temperatures with a possibility of snow although this is the driest part of the year.

Other tips for visiting GSMNP

Visitor Center at Great Smoky Mountains National ParkThere are four Visitor Centers in the park – Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome. Summer hours of operation are: Oconaluftee and Sugarlands: 8-7; 8-6 in September. Cades Cove: 9-7; 9-6:30 in September. Clingmans Dome 10-6:30; 10-6 in September.

Download a Great Smoky Mountains National Park map here.

Hotels near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park lodging - Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg
The Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg is great for families!

Nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the most popular places to stay when visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For our visit, we stayed at the Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg, which was awesome and perfect for families.

Click here to read all about staying with Margaritaville Resort, including a discount code!

If you want to avoid the crowds, consider staying on the south side of the park in Cherokee or Bryson City. Both are very close the park entrances and several activities mentioned in this post.

If you love to camp, there’s plenty of that as well. Be sure to reserve well in advance of your trip. Refer to our map to see the campsites around the park and our camping section for details on each area.

Compare Gatlinburg hotels on TripAdvisor

Compare Pigeon Forge hotels on TripAdvisor

Compare Bryson City hotels on TripAdvisor

Compare Cherokee hotels on TripAdvisor

Interactive map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Click on the top left corner to expand the points of interest on the map. You can zoom by double-clicking on an area of the map and also click+drag to move it.

Have you visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What was your favorite thing to do?

Check out our Tennessee Destination Guide for other great places to visit on your trip!

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