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The Ultimate Guide to Visit The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is nestled in the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is the most visited national park in the country. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its rolling hills as far as the eye can see.

As part of the Appalachian range, the Appalachian Trail bisects this breathtaking park of rolling hills and spectacular views. The trails goes directly through the park for 72 miles.

The park offers 150 hiking trails, countless fun activities, ten developed campgrounds, and great opportunities to see wildlife. In the park you can spot white-tailed deer, black bears, elk, and turkey. On our last visit to the national park in early August, we were lucky enough to see two black bears!

Depending on which way you enter the park, Sugarlands Visitor Center is reached by passing through the beautiful touristy town of Gatlinburg, TN to the north end of the park. The vibrant city Asheville is an hour drive from Oconaluftee entrance on the south end section of the park at Cherokee, NC.

The main roads within the park are: Newfound Gap Road, which is US route 441 cuts through the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, Clingman’s Dome Road, which leads to the highest point of the park and it is closed during the off season (December through March) due to snow and icy conditions, and Little River Road that runs from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Cade’s Cove at the west end of the park.

General Information before visiting the park

📍 The park is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

🥾The park is known for its rolling hills, outdoor activities, trails, and endless opportunities to view wildlife.

🗓️ It is recommend to stay for at least 2 nights and 3 days to fully explore the park and see its highlights.

✨ It is the most visited park in the US.

💲 There is no entrance fee.

💦 Expect rain and rapid shifts in conditions, no matter what time of year you visit.

⛺ Even though the park and its backcountry sites are open year-round. The off-season, which runs from late October through May, closes seven of the park’s ten developed campgrounds.

🏕️ Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds stay open.

🧺 Rest areas, picnic areas and secondary roads are closed during the off-season too.

The best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful no matter the season. Each season provides endless photograph opportunities. In the Spring you can enjoy the wildflowers and peak of the waterfalls. In the Fall the landscape of the park turns in beautiful colors. It all depends on your preferences, so here is a break down of what you can expect from each season.

  • Spring: The popularity of the blooms that take place from March to June draw the first wave of crowds, with most flowers blooming from Mid april to mid May.
  • Summer: Summer is the wettest season (July) has it has the most rainfall and it is also the busiest time of the year.
  • Fall: The Fall in the other hand is the driest season (September). The park turns yellow, orange and red. You will also find more elks and bears in the valley.
  • Winter: Some of the main viewpoints, Clingman’s Dome Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, are closed to cars due to snow but the park it is relatively empty. It is beautiful when the park is covered in the snow, but to be honest it is not my favorite time to visit the park, as it can be tough to get around.

The best time to visit really depends on what you want to photograph and what landscapes you enjoy the most.

Where to Stay in the Great Smoky Mountains

  • Developed Campgrounds: The park has 10 designated developed campgrounds ranging in price from $17 to $27 a night and offer no-frills amenities, restrooms, and water.
  • Backcountry Campgrounds: The park offers 98 backcountry sites including five boat-in areas and more than 15 shelters along the 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Almost all include fire grates and bear cables. A nightly rate of $4 a person gets you a backcountry campsite or shelter with direct access to springs or running water.
  • LeConte Lodge
  • Outside the park

What activities can you do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

  • Driving along the 11-mile Cades Cove scenic drive, the six-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and the 16-mile-long section of the Foothills Parkway.
  • Cycling along Cades Cove, which from early May to late September is closed to vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 A.M.
  • Fishing: there are close to 2,900 miles of streams in the Smokies. Fishing is permitted year-round in open waters.
  • Hiking: more than 850 miles of trails lead into the park.
  • Rafting and Kayaking.

Best places to photograph at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks in the country with stunning views of rolling mountains, variety of hikes and great opportunities to spot wildlife. The best photo opportunities are reached by the many trails within the park, but you can also enjoy breathtaking views from the viewpoints.

  • Newfound Gap: It runs through the park with plenty of viewpoints along the way, where you can pull over and take beautiful photos. The best viewpoint on this road is located on the parking lot and viewpoint with the same name as it provides a great view of the mountain range and it is one of the best spots for sunrise. and is an ideal place for sunrise photography.
  • Clingman’s Dome: It is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it is accessible via the seven-mile long Clingman’s Dome Road that leads to a parking lot. It is the best spot for sunset. You can either stay at the parking lot and climb on the rocks for a better view or walk uphill on a steep paved half-mile walkway to the top of Clingman’s Dome observation tower. Sometimes it can get cloudy up there, so I personally prefer the parking lot view. Just keep in mind that the Clingman’s Dome Road is closed December through March.
  • Mount Le Conte: It is the third-highest peak within the park, behind Clingman’s Dome and Mount Guyot. It is accessible by hiking an intense 5.5 miles from the Alum Cave Trailhead.
  • Chimney Tops: It is a mountain that offers a popular hike with beautiful panoramic views. The trail is about 3.4 miles roundtrip and is very steep in certain locations. At the moment you cannot hike all the way to the peak of Chimney Tops as it is close. Unfortunately, many people are trespassing and go around the fence, but we ask you to please follow the rules.
  • Mingus Mill: Here are some fun opportunities to play around with your camera and get some cool perspective shots of the Mingus Mill. Head up to the far end of the millrace and capture the scene from the viewpoint of the running water, with the mill in the background!
  • Cade’s Cove: It is located at the western side of the park and it is one of the best places in the park for viewing wildlife. It’s common to see deer, and if you are lucky you might spot a black bear. We did have the chance two see to black bears, but they moved so quickly we could not snap a photo. There is an 11-mile one way road that loops that goes around the valley. Be aware that depending on when you are visiting it might be consistent slow-moving traffic, so do not expect to drive around the area very quickly.
  • Charlies Bunion: This 8 mile round trip hike takes you out to Charlies Bunion, a large rock outcrop with sweeping views of the mountains.

Must do hikes in Great Smoky Mountains NP

Waterfalls:

Rainbow Falls

Hiking to Rainbow Falls is moderate to difficult 5.4 mile round trip hike. Wind your way through the beautiful green forests while passing over a handful of small mossy waterfalls and flowing creeks. When you reach Rainbow Falls you are greeted with a 80 foot waterfall that shows a rainbow almost every afternoon when the sun hits it right.

Laurel Falls

Without a doubt, Laurel Falls is the most popular waterfall in the park. The trail to Laurel Falls is about 2.5 miles roundtrip. It is an easy hike on a paved road.

Ramsey Cascade

Do not miss out on the Ramsey Cascades, the tallest waterfall in the park at 100 feet. It is a difficult 8-mile round trip hike, but the views are completely worth the trek. Along the way you pass many rushing rivers and pass through old growth forest.

Abraham Falls

Walk the trail along Abrams Creek to reach the powerful Abraham Falls. This small but mighty waterfall ends a moderate 5.2-mile round trip hike. Along the path you have the opportunity to spot many wildlife, including deer. This picturesque hike is well worth the effort. The trailhead is located on the Cade’s Cove loop at stop number 10.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls is not part of the national park, but it is a beautiful fall worth visiting. It is located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The trail to Mingo Falls is only about .5 mile round trip. It is an easy hike but it does involves climbing 160 stairs. While you are in the area make sure to stop by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

The best viewpoints in Smoky Mountain NP

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the most iconic view and highest point of the entire park at 6643 feet. It is a  steep one mile round trip hike to the top. Keep in mind that the trail is not wheelchair accessible and it is closed during winter (December 1st – March 31st) due to adverse weather conditions. The hike is worth it as you can enjoy a 360 degree view of the park.

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap is the perfect stop by car for panoramic views across the Great Smoky Mountains below. Being one of the highest points accessible by car year round, there is often fog covering the view. Make sure to check the weather before heading to this overlook.

Alum Cave

The steep hike up to Alum Cave brings you up nearly 1200 feet in just 2.2 miles. The first highlight is Arch Rock, where the path takes you through the arch and upwards! When you finally reach Alum Cave you will find a massive concave bluff, with a cool shade to enjoy a snack.

For a full day hike, the Alum Cave trail is directly connected to the Rainbow Falls trail by passing up and over Mt LeConte in between the two.

Cades’s Cove Scenic Route

The one-way 11-mile scenic road takes you through lush meadows, historic buildings including mills, stables, homes and churches, beautiful mountain views and the possibility to see many wildlife. We saw white tail deers, and unfortunately it was not the season to see black bears, but along this scenic route you have higher chances to see bears. The scenic route has several pullovers and parking areas for you to explore each historic building or go for a hike.

Gregory Ridge Trail

The 17-mile Gregory Ridge hike is the best for wildlife viewing. Remember to stay a safe distance from all wildlife for both your safety and the animals. It is recommend to stay at least 150 feet (50 yards) from all wildlife.

Chimney Tops

The panoramic viewpoint of Chimney Tops and the surrounding area is well worth it, just be prepared for countless rocky steps up, and we mean hundreds of steps.

Due to a 2016 wildfire in this area access to the actual Chimney Tops is forbidden for both human and natural protection. Even if you see others climbing around the large metal gate, do not follow.

Charlies Bunion

Andrews Bald

The hike to Andrews Bald is one of the less routes of the readily accessible trailheads. The trail takes you through beautiful forests until you reach the grassland of Andrews Bald and panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountain highlands.

Mount Le Conte

Hiking to the top of Mount Le Conte can take you passed many of the highlights of the park on a 8 mile one way hike. See Alum Cave and Rainbow Falls all in one go, you just need two cars to park one at each end of the hike to make it easier.

What to pack for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Essentials Camping Checklist:

  • Map or compass
  • Hiking Shoes
  • Waterproof Jacket
  • Extra clothing layer
  • headlamp or flashlights
  • Thick socks
  • Day bag
  • First aid supplies
  • Food 
  • Waterproof matches or lighter
  • 3 Liters of water per day
  • Lightweight pants
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Sweater
  • Tent, Tarp, garbage bag, sleeping bag or blankets

Essentials Photography gear Checklist:

  • Telephoto lens
  • Wide angle lens
  • Tripod
  • Camera

Essentials Hiking Checklist

  • Map or compass
  • Hiking Shoes
  • Extra pair of thick socks
  • Waterproof Jacket
  • First aid kid
  • Energy bars, snacks or trail mix
  • Day bag
  • Plenty of water
  • Lightweight pants
  • Camera
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Sweater
  • Telephoto lens
  • Wide angle lens
  • Tripod

Things to do near the Great Smoky National Park

You can visit any of the nearby towns such as Cherokee outside the Oconaluftee entrance on the park’s south side, Bryson City, which has the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad that takes you into Nantahala Gorge, Pigeon Forge, near the Sugarlands entrance, where you can visit Dollywood theme park and many other museums, and Gatlinburg. You can also visit the nearby cities of Knoxville and Asheville.

Complete three day itinerary to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This three day hiking itinerary does require full days on your feet, but does leave enough time for breaks at the viewpoints and plenty of photography spots.

Day 1:

  • Charlies Bunion: It is a 8 mile moderate hike round trip from Newfound Gap.
  • Carlos Campbell Overlook
  • Cataract Falls: It is a short 3/4 mile hike round trip.

  • Maloney Point
  • Laurel Falls: It is a 2.3 miles hike round trip.
  • Meigs Falls
  • Cades Cove
  • Abraham Falls: The hike is 5 miles round trip.

Total miles: 16.05

Day 2:

  • Mingo Falls: The hike to the waterfall is only 0.4 miles in length climbing over 160 steps.
  • Mingus Mill
  • Newfound Gap Viewpoint
  • Oconaluftee Valley overlook
  • Chimney Tops: 4.5 miles round trip hike.
  • Climgmans Dome
  • Andrews Bald: 3.5 round trip hike.

Total miles: 8.4

Day 3:

  • Alum Cave Bluffs: 2.5 miles
  • Mount Le Conte: 2.5 miles
  • Rainbow Falls: 6.5

Total miles: 11.5

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