Ultimate Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide

By HerLifeAdventures | Feb 12, 2023
North America > United States

Great Smoky Mountains National Park rests upon a ridge of forest that straddles the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee. World-renowned for its plant and animal life diversity, the beauty of its forest mountains, and the remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America's most visited national park. This guide will provide you with directions, hiking trails, things to do, and everything you need to know so you can start planning your visit today!

Credit: Her Life Adventures

Never had I imagined a landscape would be so mysterious, wild, and stunning. My Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide will take you through all the unique ecosystems of the smokies. With all, you need to know, including hike suggestions to make the most of your time in the park. I hope you enjoy your time there as much as we did!

Here is your adventure guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

How To Get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the borders of the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. The three main entrances to the park are in Gatlinburg, TN; Townsend, TN; and Cherokee, NC. The closest major airport to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is McGee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Alcoa, Tenn., just south of Knoxville. The airport is served by five major airlines: Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, and United. It's roughly a 41-mile(66 km)/1 hour 15-minute drive from the airport to the Gatlinburg park entrance. You can drive a rental car, or there is also the option of renting an RV and kicking the adventure up a notch.

Smoky Mountain National Park Information

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Map

Currently, the park does not charge a fee for entry - unlike most United States national parks. However - starting next year fees for the Smokies will enact, prices listed below.
Effective March 1, 2023 Valid parking tags will be required for any vehicles parking in the park. Display of physical parking tags in each vehicle will be required.
Three tag durations will be available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

Daily $5 USD
Up to 7 Days $15 USD
Annual $40 USD

Each tag will be valid for a single vehicle.
Parking tags will be available for purchase both online and onsite.
not required for motorists who pass through the area or who park for less than 15 minutes.
Parking tags will not be location-specific. A parking rag will be required to park in any designated parking spot anywhere within park boundaries.

Image: Her Life Adventures

Pet Policy for Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The only two trails in the park that allow pets are the Gatlinburg Trail near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Oconaluftee River Trail near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Learn more about pet restrictions in the park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitor Centers

Where to Stay in Great Smoking Mountains National Park

Glenstone Lodge

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Hotel
Located in Gatlinburg, Glenstone Lodge is in the city center near theme several parks. The area's natural beauty can be seen in minutes at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Popular nearby attractions include Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and Dollywood.

Wonder Meadows at Cove Mountain

Beautiful Secluded Rental Home Close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Visitor Center
Located in Sevierville, Wonder Meadows at Cove Mountain is in a rural area up in the mountains. Dollywood and Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies are local attractions and those in the mood for shopping can visit Island at Pigeon Forge and Pigeon River Crossing. Goats on the Roof and Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster are also worth visiting. Explore all the area has to offer with rock climbing, cave exploring, and hiking/biking trails.

Treehouse Near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Cool & Unique Treehouse in the Mountains
If you watch the DIY channel, you've probably heard of "The Treehouse Guys". Well, this is their first true treehouse, and it's located in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area, just outside of the Smoky Mountains National Park. The treehouse is perfect for a quiet retreat, honeymooners, or a romantic getaway.
See the beauty of vivid fall leaves cresting the Great Smoky Mountains on this 5-hour tour from Pigeon forge.

Rent an RV and stay inside the park campground to make the most of your trip!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park maintains 10 developed front-country campgrounds in the park. Click on the campground titles below for more information about a specific campground.

Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Take a Small-Group Jeep Tour of the Smoky Mountains Foothills Parkway

Your knowledgeable guide will drive you through the lower regions Parkway, often described as "the prettiest drive in America," while you are free to zero in on the views ahead! Lower regions Parkway brings breathtaking scenes of the Smoky Mountains' most elevated points! This is one jeep tour you don't want to miss!

Wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals.

Many people come to the Smokies hoping to see a black bear as there are anywhere between 1,200 to 1,800 bears that call the park home. Most bears roam the deep forests, feeding on grasses, berries, acorns, insects, and carrion. We hiked in several different areas of the park and did not come across any bears.

Help keep bears wild: store and dispose of food and garbage properly.
It's extremely important that if you see a bear you DO NOT FEED THEM, and give them plenty of space. Bears habituated to human food live only HALF as long as wild bears, who live 12-15 years. Panhandler bears are often hit by cars or killed by poachers, and some die slow, agonizing deaths from eating food packaging.

What Do I Do if I See a Bear?

If you see a bear, do not approach it! Keep your eyes on the bear while you slowly walk away. If the bear follows you, change direction or stand your ground and talk loudly, shout and make yourself look as big as possible. Do not turn away and do not run. As always, never feed the bear, and always bear-proof your food and garbage.

Credit: Her Life Adventures

Drive through Cades Cove

Cades Cove is an expansive 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the lush green valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies because of its wildlife. Allow 2-4 hours to tour Cades Cove and longer if you walk some of the area's trails. This is where we saw a group of bears grazing! It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bears, coyotes, groundhogs, turkeys, and other animals are also probable. Cades Cove was once home to over 600 people. Some of their homes, churches, and farm buildings still stand.

Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday, from May 4 through September 28, 2022. On these days, the 11-mile loop can be enjoyed on foot or by bicycle.

The loop offers motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. While driving the loop road, please be courteous to other visitors and use pullouts when stopping to enjoy the scenery or view wildlife.

Credit: National Park Service (NPS)

The Historic Town of Cataloochee

Cataloochee has a variety of historic buildings that have been preserved in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. Once the largest settlement in the Smokies with a population of 1,200 people (1910) the land is now a quiet valley surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks. The isolated valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Over 200 buildings dotted this now-quiet valley. Many of which can be seen today.

Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome

The top of the Smokies. The views here are among the most famous in the East. Planning on hiking Clingmans Dome? Go on a guided hike with a guide to discuss the plants and animals of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. While at the same time hiking through dense forests to the highest section of the Appalachian Trail. At the end of the trail, (2,025 m) 6,643 feet up - you climb Clingmans Dome observation tower to get 360-degree views of the beautiful smokies.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park Hiking Trails

The park includes over 800 miles of trails, ranging from easy half-mile loops to a 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Ask at one of the visitor centers for information about trails that match your interests and ability. I personally love doing waterfall hikes with lots of wildflowers along the way. The visitor center had brochures specific to all the best waterfall hikes, the best wildflower hikes, and tons of others. There are also guided hikes to the Old Growth Forest Cascade, Appalachian Trail, Clear Creek Falls, and overnight backpacking trips.

Smoky Mountain National Park Waterfall Hiking Trails

  • Abrams Creek - Moderate, 5.5 mi, est 2.14 hours
  • Grotto Falls Trail - Moderate, 2.6 mi, est 1.19 hours
  • Deep Circle Waterfalls Loop - Moderate, 2.4 mi, est 1 hour
  • Laurel Falls - Easy, 2.5 mi, est 1.06 hours
  • Mouse Creek Falls Trail - Moderate, 4 mi, est 1.42 hours
  • Mingo Falls Trail - Moderate, 0.3 mi, est 15 min
  • Rainbow Falls - Moderate, 5.1 miles, est 3.10 hours
  • Cataract Falls - Easy, 1.1 miles, est 21 min
  • Ramsey Cascades - Strenuous, 8.1 miles, est 4.4 hours
  • Tom Branch Falls - Easy, 0.5 miles, est 20 min

Smoky Mountain National Park Wildflower Hiking Trails

  • Deep Creek Trail - Moderate, 2.4 mi, 1.08 hours
  • Kanati Fork Trail- Strenuous, 5.4 mi, est 3.45 hours
  • Little River Trail -Strenuous, 5.5 mi, 3.45 hour
  • Cove Hardwood Nature Trail - Easy, .08 mi, est 26 min
  • Porters Creek Trail - Strenuous, 7 miles, est 3.36 hours
  • Chestnut Top Trail - Strenuous, 8.5 miles, 4.1 hours

White Water Rafting in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Upper Pigeon Rafting Adventure

Explore the Smokies from the river on a whitewater rafting expedition. Rafting down the Pigeon River is a great way to cool down in the warm summer months of late May to early September. Enjoy a scenic ride down the river surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains. The rapids range from class III to IV keeping things exciting with stops at refreshing swimming holes along the way.

Tubing in Smoky Mountains National Park

Tubing in the Smoky Mountains is my favorite way to escape the crowds and summer heat in the park. There are several operators in the area (listed below), and generally trips cost around $10 USD. This will buy you an afternoon of fun with no skills required (except swimming). The operators below generally offer river tubing from Memorial Day to Labor Day so don't miss your opportunity to get out on the river this summer!

5 of the Best Places to Go Tubing in the Smoky Mountains

  • Deep Creek*
  • Cowboy Tubin'
  • River Romp Tubing
  • River Rat Tubing
  • Tube River Rage

*Deep Creek tubing starts at the trailhead of Deep Creek right in the Deep Creek campground. You carry your tube up the trail and jump into the river where ever you like. You can also jump out and climb back up to enjoy the river longer. For winter visitors there is also snow tubing available at Ober Gatlinburg Snow Tubing.

Synchronous Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Synchronous fireflies are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that call the Great Smoky Mountains National Park home. Plus, they are one of only a couple species in North America that individually synchronize their flashing light patterns. I had the pleasure of visiting one of the nesting sites in the forest where I could see the lights flash 360 degrees around me, all in unison. It was one of the most magical experiences I've ever had. I tried photographing them for the first time and it wasn't easy! I was able to get a few good pictures like the ones above, but I wasn't able to capture the forest the way I wanted. No worries, it was still an incredible opportunity to practice my skills.

Firefly flash patterns are part of their mating display. Each species has a light pattern that helps male and female fireflies recognize and find each other. The most common species produce a greenish-yellow light, while others have blue or white light. Males normally flash while they are flying, and stationary females will flash in response. The mating season lasts for approximately 2-3 weeks each year from late May to late June.

I hope you enjoyed my guide to Smoky Mountains National Park!

Cataloochee United States Accommodation Hiking Mountains Tennessee Campground National Parks North America Safety Things to do Great Smoky Mountains National Park North Carolina Trails

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Written by herlifeadventures
Chelsea is an adventure travel blogger based in Michigan, United States, she manages and photographs for HerLifeAdventures.com, which provides weekend guides and national park adventures with a sprinkle of sustainability tips, and mental health.

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