Family Travel Guides and DestinationsWestern North Carolina Area Hikes and Trips

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

Since moving to western North Carolina last year, I live just a short drive from the park. Visiting in all four seasons is possible, as long as you take weather-related road closures into account.

The park offers a wealth of seasonal recreational opportunities and other things to do such as hiking the Appalachian Trail or other trails, paddling on Fontana Lake, driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, celebrating colorful wildflowers at the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, rejoicing in glorious fall foliage, participating in park special events, and so much more!

You won’t want to miss any of the fun that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer. For current conditions, click here.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with BibiLocation: North Carolina and Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located within the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. These famous mountains and associated Blue Ridge Parkway are part of the southern Appalachian Mountains.

The eclectic community of Asheville is less than an hour’s drive from the Oconaluftee entrance, and the town of Gatlinburg, a much-loved tourist destination, can be found near the Sugarlands entrance of the park.

The iconic Appalachian Trail passes through the Great Smoky Mountains for 72 miles from Fontana Dam in the south, to Davenport Gap in the north. Many park visitors choose to thru-hike, section hike, or day hike along the scenic trail. The park offers nature lovers nearly endless choices in  campgrounds, hiking trails, outdoor activities, and opportunities to view flora and fauna.

Pro Tips: Elk were reintroduced into Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. Park visitors can catch a glimpse of these majestic animals in the large fields around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, usually just after dawn and again very late in the afternoon. See Cataloochee Valley below for the best location to view the main herd.

Clingmans Dome

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

Located approximately in the middle of the park, Clingmans Dome is the highest point (6,643 ft.) and undoubtedly the most well-known feature of the Smoky Mountains. Visitors can reach the dome tower via a paved but steep 1-mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot (not suitable for wheelchairs or most strollers).

At the top, hikers are rewarded with 360-degree views of the park and beyond. Make a stop at the visitor center near the trailhead to ask a ranger a question, get more information about nearby trails, or purchase souvenirs.

Note: While Clingmans Dome observation tower is open year-round, the 7-mile long road to the trailhead is closed from December 1 through March 31 due to winter weather conditions. Access to the tower would be via hiking the road or nearby trails, and hikers must be prepared for winter hiking conditions.

Cades Cove 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the park is a real treat and should not be missed by any who venture to the Smokies. The 11-mile one-way road takes visitors on an enchanting trip through verdant meadows, alongside historic buildings and under canopied trees, all while in the shadow of magnificent mountain views.

Visitors typically see black bear, wild turkey, white tail deer, and sometimes even coyote during their time exploring the area. There are numerous vehicle pull-out spots that permit visitors to park and explore the historic buildings (churches, mills, homes, barns) and hike nearby trails.

For Adventure Lovers

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

The Appalachian Trail is a well-loved 2,181-mile hike that runs right through the Smokies. Many people choose to section-hike the 72-miles that run through the Park. It typically takes section hikers approximately 7 days to pass through the Smoky Mountains section of the Appalachian Trail.

Pro Tips: As you can see from the small brown sign on the image above, dogs are not allowed on the Appalachian Trail through the park. This is true of all most other trails in the park as well.

The park’s pet policy says: Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. The leash must not exceed 6 feet in length. Dogs are only allowed on two short walking paths—the Gatlinburg Trail and the Oconaluftee River Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other park trails. Pet excrement must be immediately collected by the pet handler and disposed of in a trash receptacle. Pets should not be left unattended in vehicles or RVs.

If you seek trails where your pup is allowed to hike with you, Bring Fido Along! Where to Find Pet Friendly Trails will help you out!

Best Photo Opportunities

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers innumerable opportunities for memorable photographs.

Some favorite photographs are taken at Clingmans Dome during the golden hour period (first hour of light after sunrise and the last hour of light before sunset), at sunrise from the Oconaluftee Overlook off of US Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road), and during morning light hours around Cades Cove.

When traveling US Highway 441, there are many photo spots deemed Instagram worthy. You can easily find them by identified mile markers along the road.

Road to Nowhere

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

On the North Carolina side of the park right outside of Bryson City, you’ll find the infamous Road to Nowhere. A visit here is a must-see destination where you’ll find plenty of hiking trails and views of Fontana Lake in addition to the tunnel that leads to, well, nowhere.

Cataloochee Valley

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. This is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pro Tips: Park visitors will find most of the elk herd located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. The easiest way to reach Cataloochee is from Interstate I-40. Exit I-40 at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee Valley. Since reaching the valley includes a long winding dirt mountain road, allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40.

Elkmont

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

The park’s largest campground, Elkmont, is just steps away from a true ghost town, where visitors can explore the remains of a logging community and two turn-of-the-century-era resorts.

This world-class resort community turned ghost town in the Smokies doesn’t look so world-class now, but it’s where the area’s huge tourism industry got its humble start—and where the movement to create the park was born.

Fun Facts About GSMNP

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide Travels with Bibi

  • Estimated to be 200 and 300 million years old, the Smoky Mountains are among the oldest in the world.
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established on June 15, 1934.
  • The National Park Service maintains developed campgrounds at nine locations within the park. There are more than 100 backcountry campsites for those wanting to explore more rugged wilderness areas.
  • The 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America’s most famous stretches of road. It runs through the Smokies, connecting it to Shenandoah National Park where it becomes Skyline Drive.
  • Around 1,500 black bear live in the park. At over 800 square miles, that means a population density of approximately 2 bears per square mile!
  • The park is known as one of the greatest hiking destinations in the east with over 800 miles of trails.
  • Each year (late May – early June) there is an eight-day peak synchronous firefly display with the park offering a lottery system for viewing and organizing a shuttle service to the Elkmont viewing area.
  • The Cherokee called the area the “Land of the Blue Smoke.”
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the US, with an astonishing one-half billion visitors since 1934.
  • There is no entrance fee to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Plan Your Visit Today!

With so much to see and do for families of all ages and physical abilities, you’re sure to find something to see and do at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hiking, biking, paddling, nature drives, firefly and elk viewing, camping, or just some serious relaxing are a few of the things you can do in the park. Come join in the fun and plan a visit to the best free national park!

For a more detailed guide to the park, head to this guide to things to do in Smoky Mountain National Park.

Have you been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What was your favorite thing to do there? Be sure to let us know in a comment below.

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49 Comments

  1. I love this! We often visit Gatlinburg, but I haven’t been to some of the North Carolina areas of the park – I definitely need to add this to a future trip.

    1. Need a personal tour guide? I would love to hang out with you and show you some of my favorite places in the park.

    1. Thank you. Everything about the Smoky Mountains is gorgeous, even on rainy days. That’s when you can see the most “smoke”.

  2. I have never been to this NP. Is it better to go on the Tennessee side or the North Carolina side? I really want to go one day.

    1. The North Carolina side is much quieter and less touristy. If you like much bigger crowds and a tourist town, then the Tennessee side is our best bet.

  3. I think I want to become your neighbor! Love everything about this post and sounds like the place where we need to retire (in a few years). Beautiful photos of a gorgeous area!

    1. The trails are so diverse and truly offer something for every level of hiker. Let me know if you need more information.

  4. I remember Skyline drive from when I was a kid. I remember being in awe of the views. I’m trying to see when I can get my kids down there. Thanks for all this info.

  5. We went to Townsend, TN the end of 2018, and my kids have been asking to go back ever since. Their favorite part was Cades Cove. It’s was amazing to drive through and see all sorts of animals like black bears.

  6. Tennessee is on my bucket list. I have a few friends that live there but life has been so busy recently. They’ve told me about how beautiful the Smoky Mountains are and your photos really show that! Beautiful photos!

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