Visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

We love the Smoky Mountains, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the crown jewels of the range, along with places like Shenandoah.

The Smokies are “softer” and more accessible in many ways that the Rocky Mountains. Comparing the Smokies to a place like Glacier National Park, it feels like you can explore every inch of the terrain, whereas the western parks are way more rugged.  Plus, fall colors can be off the charts in the Smokies.

We have explored the area around Gatlinburg and the Tennessee / North Carolina border, and here are some of our recommendations.

Planning Your Visit

Best Time to Visit

The park is open and beautiful in all seasons, but spring and fall are the probably the best times to visit in our opinion. In spring, the park is alive with wildflowers and blooming trees, while fall brings stunning displays of autumn foliage. Summer is the busiest time, with warm weather and long days perfect for hiking and camping. Winter is a quieter time in the park, with fewer visitors and the opportunity to see the sometime-snow-capped mountains. Winters are not harsh in this part of the country, so some years you can access almost everything.Smoky National Park

Entrance Fees and Passes

There is no entrance fee to visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park, making it one of the few national parks in the United States that is free to enter. However, there are fees for camping, fishing, and other activities within the park. Annual passes are available for those who plan to visit multiple times in a year. The America the Beautiful Pass, which provides access to all national parks and federal recreational lands, is also available.

Park Rules and Regulations

To ensure a safe and enjoyable visit, it is important to follow the park’s rules and regulations. Some of the most important rules include staying on designated trails, not feeding wildlife, and properly disposing of trash. Visitors are also advised to carry plenty of water and to be aware of weather conditions, which can change quickly in the mountains. Firearms are allowed in the park, but visitors must comply with state and federal laws and regulations.

Getting There

The good news is that getting to the Smoky Mountain National Park area is not that difficult, compared to many Western parks. Here’s what you need to know about getting to Gatlinburg via the nearest airports and driving routes.

By Driving

Gatlinburg is located on the Tennessee side of the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, making it an easy road trip destination for many travelers. The town is within a day’s drive of a major chunk of the U.S. population, and there are several scenic routes to choose from.

We often get to the park from the East, routing through North Carolina. Once you get within about two hours of the park near Hickory on I-40, things get scenic and it is a very fun drive, with the cool town of Asheville not far away.

If you’re driving from the north, coming through horse country in Kentucky and then the fun college town of Knoxville can be a great way to approach.

If you’re driving from the south, routing through Chattanooga can make for a scenic drive alongside the foothills east of the Smokies.

Finally, if you want a truly scenic, but slow drive, you might want to approach on the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects Shenandoah National Park to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s not a fast drive but it is very scenic. Consider weaving the nearby Cherokee National Forest while you are at it, it will give you an even broader glimpse of this great area.

Nearby Airports

For those who prefer to fly, there are several airports within a couple of hours’ drive of Gatlinburg and GSMNP.

The closest commercial airport to Gatlinburg is McGhee Tyson Airport, also considered Knoxville’s airport. This smaller, friendly, and easy-to-navigate airport is roughly 40 miles from downtown Gatlinburg. McGhee Tyson Airport is currently served by five airlines: Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, and United Airlines. They are typically small flights.

Another option is Asheville Regional Airport, about 90 miles and less than two hours away.  Most major carriers service Asheville. owl smoky

If you are willing to drive a bit and prefer larger airports with direct flights, several lie within a four-hour drive of Gatlinburg. Charlotte Douglas International Airport is about 190 miles away, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is about 200 miles away, and Nashville International Airport is about 215 miles away.

As you can see, getting to the Smoky Mountain National Park is easier than you might expect.

Where to Stay

Camping in the Park

For those who want to immerse themselves in nature, camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great option. The park has several campgrounds with different amenities and locations.

Deep Creek Campground on the park’s southeast side offers access to beautiful streams and waterfalls, as well as two of the park’s few mountain biking trails. Smokemont Campground on the park’s south side is a popular base on the North Carolina side, with great access to the Oconaluftee River and Bradley Fork, a number of great hiking trails, and the Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Cades Cove Campground on the park’s west side is the most developed of the campgrounds and is situated right at the 11-mile, one-way loop road that offers spectacular views, historic buildings, and wildlife-viewing opportunities. Cataloochee Campground on the quieter east side is close to some of the best rainbow and brook trout fishing and offers more solitude than the more popular and larger campgrounds of Cades Cove and Elkmont. Elkmont Campground on the park’s north side is the park’s largest campground, with riverside campsites that are extremely popular.

Hotels in Gatlinburg

We get it, you might want a real bed to sleep on at night. Gatlinburg offers a wide variety of hotels and lodges. From budget-friendly options to luxury resorts, there is something for everyone. The Glenstone Lodge is a greatsmokies park option for families, with an indoor and outdoor pool, hot tub, and game room. The Park Vista – a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel offers stunning views of the Smoky Mountains and is located just minutes from downtown Gatlinburg. For a more upscale experience, The Lodge at Buckberry Creek offers luxurious accommodations and a fine dining restaurant.

Larger Cities: Asheville or Knoxville

If you don’t mind a bit of a drive to the park each day, Asheville and Knoxville are both within a reasonable driving distance from the park and offer way more hotel options. Asheville offers a vibrant arts and culture scene, lots of breweries, as well as a variety of dining and shopping options. The Omni Grove Park Inn is a historic hotel with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Knoxville offers a variety of attractions, including the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Knoxville Zoo. The Hilton Knoxville is a great option for those looking for a comfortable stay in the heart of downtown.

Being Active in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Hiking Trails

Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers over 800 miles of hiking trails for visitors to explore. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a leisurely stroll, there’s a trail for everyone. One popular hike is the Chimney Tops Trail, which offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. For a more challenging hike, try the Alum Cave Trail, which leads to the summit of Mount LeConte. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water and snacks, and be sure to wear appropriate hiking footwear, which can vary depending on the time of year.

My 3 go-to hikes within GSMNP are:

Alum Cave Trail

  • Length: Approximately 5.5 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • What makes it special: Alum Cave Trail is a quintessential Smoky Mountain experience, boasting lots of different things in a pretty small area. The trail winds its way through verdant forests, alongside bubbling streams,
    Appalachian Trail
    “The AT” in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. (credit: gsmnp.com)

    and ultimately leads to the awe-inspiring Alum Cave Bluffs. There are panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, with opportunities to spot wildlife along the way. The highlight of the trek is undoubtedly reaching the iconic Alum Cave, a massive concave bluff that offers shelter and a perfect vantage point for soaking in the Smokies.

Charlies Bunion (via Appalachian Trail)

  • Length: Approximately 8 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Moderate to Strenuous
  • What makes it special: For those craving a challenge and unparalleled vistas, Charlies Bunion by way of the Appalachian Trail delivers in spades. It covers a segment of the legendary Appalachian Trail, leading hikers through dense forests and rocky outcrops to the iconic Charlies Bunion rock formation. Perched on the edge of a sheer cliff, Charlies Bunion offers sweeping views of the rugged landscape below, including panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains and glimpses of distant peaks. It’s a rugged adventure that rewards intrepid hikers with unforgettable scenery and a sense of accomplishment.

Rainbow Falls Trail

  • Length: Approximately 5.4 miles round trip
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • What makes it special: As its name suggests, Rainbow Falls Trail is a true gem of the Smokies, offering hikers a picturesque journey culminating in the spectacular Rainbow Falls. The trail meanders through lush rhododendron groves and moss-covered boulders, following the course of LeConte Creek. Along the way, hikers are treated to glimpses of cascading waterfalls and vibrant wildflowers, making for a sensory feast. The pièce de résistance awaits at Rainbow Falls, where the crystal-clear waters plunge over a towering cliff, creating a mesmerizing spectacle.

If you are an Appalachian Trail junkie like I am (I wrote a book on it!) then know that the AT travels for 72 miles through GSMNP. It is a gorgeous, well-trodden trail and typically one that you can do a stretch of it from a few roadside access points. The area around Clingman’s Dome is spectacular, but you will want to allow some time to do it.  This stretch, from Southern Virginia all the way to Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, just might be my favorite of it all.

Historic Sites

In addition to its natural beauty, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is also home to several historic sites given how old the area is, and how important it was in the Civil War era. The Cades Cove Historic District features aSmoky Church variety of preserved buildings, including a grist mill and a church. Visitors can also explore the Elkmont Historic District, which was once a thriving logging community.  They can all be great rainy day options. Be sure to check the park’s website for guided tours and special events.


For those looking for a bit of adventure, rafting is a popular activity in the area. The Pigeon River offers a variety of rapids for rafters of all skill levels and kayaking as well. Closer to Asheville, the French Broad River offers several places for a good raft ride. I like the Nantahala Outdoor Center as a good home base on that river. Several other local outfitters offer guided trips, which provide all necessary equipment and instruction.

Wildlife Viewing

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is home to a diverse array of wildlife, including black bears, elk, and white-tailed deer. Visitors can increase their chances of spotting wildlife by visiting at dawn or dusk, when many animals are most active. The park also offers several ranger-led programs and guided tours, which provide insight into the park’s unique ecosystem. Remember to keep a safe distance from all wildlife and never feed or approach them.

GSMNP also has some good birding, with over 240 species of birds and some good Eastern birdwatching. Summer is probably the best time to catch a glimpse of the most variety of birds.

Visitor Resources

Park Maps and Guides

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a variety of maps and guides to help visitors plan their trip. These resources can be found online or at any of the park’s visitor centers. The park map provides an overview of the park’s trails, campgrounds, and other amenities. Additionally, visitors can find trail maps and guides for specific areas of the park, such as Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome. These resources can help visitors plan their hikes and ensure they stay on the right path.

Educational Programs

The park offers a range of educational programs for visitors of all ages. These programs include ranger-led hikes, wildlife talks, and historical demonstrations. Visitors can learn about the park’s history, geology, and ecology through these programs. Many of the programs are free and do not require registration, but some may have limited availability or require a fee. Visitors should check with the park’s visitor centers for a schedule of upcoming programs.

Visitor Centers

There are several visitor centers located throughout the park. These centers provide information on the park’s history, wildlife, and recreational opportunities. Visitors can also obtain maps, guides, and permits at these centers. The Sugarlands Visitor Center, located near Gatlinburg, is the largest and most popular visitor center in the park. It features a museum, bookstore, and theater, as well as exhibits on the park’s flora and fauna. Other visitor centers include the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC and the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center, located at the highest point in the park.

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