The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the jewel of East Tennessee. For beauty, recreation, and history it can't be beat. The variety here is stunning: over 10,000 species of plants and animals, elevations ranging from 875 to 6,643 feet, and numerous ecosystems, trails and historic areas to explore.
Encompassing 814 square miles, with 270 miles of roads and 850 miles of trails, the Park offers ample room to roam, even during the peak tourist seasons, when crowds jam the most popular areas. And it won't cost you a thing to enter; there are no entrance fees to this National Park.
You'll have no problem finding things to do in the Smoky Mountains. Whether you plan to spend a few hours or a few weeks, you'll run out of time (and energy!) before you run out of new places and activities to explore.
Hiking: With over 800 miles of maintained trails, it's easy to get away from it all in the Smokies. You can take a short stroll on one of the Quiet Walkways, usually located right off the main roads, or choose a longer hike. There are short nature trails, trails that pass waterfalls or historic structures, and trails that delight you with their stunning vistas. And the grandaddy of all trails, the Appalachian Trail, runs through the park for 70 miles, roughly following the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Fishing: Fly fishing is a popular activity in the Smoky Mountains. There are over 700 miles of fishable streams in the Park, and anglers will find ample brook, brown, and rainbow trout as well as smallmouth bass. A fishing license or permit from either Tennessee or North Carolina is valid throughout the Park.
Camping: How far away from it all do you want to get? You can choose from 10 developed campgrounds with restrooms and cold running water, 7 group campgrounds, 5 horse camps and numerous backcountry campsites you have to hike to.
Horseback Riding & Hayrides: You can rent a horse at 4 commercial horse stables in the park, or bring your own to explore some of the 550 miles of trails open to horses. In addition to the developed horse camps, some backcountry camps are also available to equestrians.
Picnicking: If you want to enjoy a cook-out, there are eleven picnic areas in the park, complete with picnic tables and grills. Many also have pavilions that can be reserved. Just remember to clean up thoroughly afterwards to avoid attracting bears.
Bicycling: Most roads in the Park are ill-suited to bicyclists. But the Cades Cove Loop Road is different. From mid-May to mid-September the road is closed to motor vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 am. This is absolutely perfect, because the Cove is at its best in the morning, and your chances of seeing deer or other wildlife are excellent. During summer and fall, bicycles can be rented at the Cades Cove Store in the Cades Cove Campground. Bicyclists can also ride on Greenbrier and Tremont Roads, and the Gatlinburg Trail.
Sightseeing: Sometimes you just want to drive around and stop here and there to see the sights. Both the Little River Road and the Newfound Gap Road offer a leisurely drive through the Park, with plenty of opportunities to stop and explore a bit. Or you can try the Cades Cove Loop Road or the Roaring Fork Nature Trail, both very popular with visitors.
Ranger Guided Programs: The Park Service offers a variety of programs, including guided walks and hikes, informational lectures, campfire programs, and history demonstrations. Programs are offered primarily from June through October. You can check the Great Smoky Mountains National Park web site for a schedule, or check at one of the Visitor Centers. Information is also posted on bulletin boards throughout the Park.
Water Recreation: The National Park Service does not recommend water recreation inside the Park, due to numerous hazards and dangers. However, white water rafting on the Pigeon River is available just outside the Park, and tubing on the Little River is popular in Townsend.
Photography: The Smokies offer endless opportunities for photographers. Some of the more popular subjects include wildflowers, fall color, historic structures, sunsets and sunrises, streams and waterfalls, and wildlife.
There are so many wonderful places to explore in the Park, it's hard to know where to start. So we'll just hit a few of the high points to give you a feel for the place. But keep in mind that some of the best places are spots you happen on "accidentally" while just wandering around.
Visitor Centers: the Park Visitor Centers are good places to begin your visit to the Smokies. Get a copy of the Park's free newspaper, the Smokies Guide, which contains general information about the Park. You can also purchase, books, guides and a variety of maps. There are 3 Visitor Centers in the Park, at Sugarlands and Cades Cove on the Tennessee side, and Oconaluftee on the North Carolina side. There are also 4 Visitor Centers outside the Park: 2 in Gatlinburg, 1 in Sevierville and 1 in Townsend, (all in Tennessee).
Cades Cove: The Cove is famous for its loveliness and its history. This lush valley was settled up until the Park's founding, and many historic structures are well-maintained here. Set aside at least a couple hours to explore the 11 mile loop road.
Clingmans Dome: This place is cool -- literally! As the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, the weather here is considerably brisker than it is at lower elevations. The observation tower at the end of a half mile path offers a 360 degree view of the mountains, at least it does on a clear day. A favorite spot for photographers.
Newfound Gap: This is a great spot to take in the scenery. Just pull into the large parking lot off of Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) and there you are. For photographers, Newfound Gap is a good, easily accessible choice to get those beautiful sunrise shots. The Appalachian Trail runs through here, and there are restrooms.
Roaring Fork: This motor nature trail is a favorite side trip for visitors in the Gatlinburg area. A narrow winding 5.5 mile road takes you past old growth forest, rushing mountain streams and well-preserved historic buildings.
Laurel Falls: This is one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains NP. It's easily accessible, not too difficult, and paved. You can even push an umbrella stroller up it, though I wouldn't recommend anything bigger. Roundtrip mileage to the falls is 2.6 miles. There's a parking area at the trailhead, but you may have difficulty finding a spot during peak tourist season, so have a backup plan.
Wildlife: There's an abundance of wildlife in the Park, and your chances of spotting a white-tailed deer or even a black bear are pretty good if you know where to look. Cades Cove (or Cataloochee on the North Carolina side) offers the best opportunity because of its open spaces. Early morning or early evening are the best times to go. Other critters you might spot include raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, and a variety of birds.
Wildflowers: The Great Smoky Mountains NP is renowned for its wildflowers. With over 1,660 kinds of flowering plants, the Park has something in bloom all year round. But spring and summer are the prime times for blooms. To celebrate, the Park hosts the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a 5 day event featuring nature walks, photo tours, seminars, an art competition, and more.
Fall Color: Hordes of leaf peepers descend upon the Park during the last three weeks of October, and for good reason. The Smoky Mountains are simply glorious in the fall. The color display actually starts in mid-September in the higher elevations, and continues into November in the lower elevations. This is a good time for a trip to Clingmans Dome. However, traffic can get jammed up at Cades Cove and on Newfound Gap Road during peak color, so you might want to enjoy the quieter views at Look Rock on Foothills Parkway.
Waterfalls: Virtually every river and stream in the Park has a waterfall, but the most spectacular waterfalls require a bit of a hike. However, there are 3 waterfalls you can drive to; Meigs Falls and The Sinks are both off of Little River Road, while Place of a Thousand Drips is on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. You can pick up a handy guide to waterfalls, complete with map, at any Visitor Center.
Historic Buildings: The Great Smoky Mountains NP has an outstanding collection of log buildings and other historic structures, nearly 80 in all, including houses, barns, grist mills, and churches. The best places to see them are at Cades Cove or along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. On the North Carolina side, Cataloochee and Oconaluftee feature a variety of historic structures.
Spring and Fall are the loveliest seasons in the Smoky Mountains. The weather is mild, and nature puts on quite a display. The summer months also have their charms, with the deep greens and summer wildflowers. If you visit in winter, keep an eye on the weather. Snow and winter storms may cause road closures. You should also be aware that some of the Park's roads are regularly closed during the winter months.
The Park is the most crowded from July 1 through August 15, and during the month of October (especially on weekends). If you want to visit during these times you can avoid some of the traffic by arriving early in the morning and by visiting some of the less traveled areas of the Park. You don't necessarily have to get up at the crack of dawn; arriving at 9 am instead of at 10 am can make all the difference in the world.