Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide

September 17, 2021

varying shades of mountain and sky at sunset in the smoky mountains with a text overlay that says Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide

Great Smoky Mountians National Park offers a diverse region with an abundance of wildlife, wildflowers, and  hiking trails. Known for its towering waterfalls, and breathtaking vistas, it is a place with historical significance that should be explored at least once in a lifetime.  

Whether you go to experience hiking, sightseeing, fishing, or festivals, Great Smoky NP has something for everyone. We’ve collected all the info you need to plan your trip - how to get there, where to stay, and what to see. 

// this article is a companion to the National Park Bucket Journal //

Get to Know Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Region: Southeast

State: Tennessee, North Carolina

URL: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm 

Webcams: View Clingmans Dome at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/air/webcams.htm?site=grcd and get access to view other sites. 

Established: June 15, 1934

President: Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By the numbers

  • 12 million+ visitors per year (2019)
  • 522,000+ acres
  • Lat. 33.82962, Long -80.82341
  • 6 park entrances
  • 6 visitor centers
  • Highest elevation 6,643 ft.
  • Lowest elevation 5,046 ft.

    Entrances 

    There are seven park entrances. 

    1. Gatlinburg Entrance - Located on Cherokee Orchard Road about 1 mile south of Hwy 441.
    2. Cherokee North Carolina Entrance - Located on Hwy 441 about 2 miles north of Cherokee. 
    3. Townsend Tennessee Entrance - Located on Townsend Entrance Road, about 2 miles southeast of the Townsend Visitor Center.
    4. Crosby Tennessee Entrance - Located on Crosby Hwy (US 321) about 1.5 miles south of Crosby.
    5. Cataloochee Tennessee Entrance - Interstate 40, exit 20, south to state route 276, North on Cove Creek Road (1395)
    6. Balsam Mountain Road Entrance -  just south of Black Camp Gap 
    7. Wears Valley Tennessee Entrance - State Routh 321 to Line Spring Road, becomes Wear Cove Gap Rd once you enter the park. 

      Visitor Centers

      Great Smoky Mountains NP has four visitor centers spread throughout the park and two centers outside of the park. 

      1. Cades Cove Visitor Center - Inside the park near the mid-point of the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road. Open every day except Christmas, from 9 am to 5 pm, with extended hours in the summer and fall. You’ll find exhibits, historical structures nearby, and a bookstore/gift shop.  
      2. Clingmans Dome Visitor Center - At the Clingmans Dome trailhead, 7 miles off US-441 on the Clingmans Dome Road. Access to restrooms, bookstore, and gift shop. Open 10 am to 6 pm,  April -  November. Closed December through March.   
      3. Oconaluftee Visitor Center - Inside the park, 2 miles north of Cherokee, NC, on US-441. Museum exhibits and historical buildings. Access to restrooms, bookstore, and gift shop. Open every day except Christmas Day, 9 am to 5 pm, with shortened hours in December. 
      4. Sugarlands Visitor Center - Inside the park, 2 miles south of Gatlinburg on US-441. Open every day except Christmas, 9 am to 5 pm, with shortened hours in December. This visitor center has a 20-minute park film and seasonal ranger-led programs. Access to restrooms, backcountry information, bookstore, and gift shop.  
      5. Gatlinburg Welcome Center - 1011 Banner Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Ph 865-436-4178 
      6. Waterrock Knob Visitor Center - Blue Ridge Parkway. Road to, Rd to Waterrock Knob, Sylva, NC 28779

        Entrance Fees: 

        Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free. The park is one of the few national parks where no entrance fees are charged. There are fees charged for activities like camping and picnic pavilion rentals. 

         

          journal your national park experiences in the national parks bucket journal

          Journal about Your Unique Experiences in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a National Parks Bucket Journal

          Memories are best made with adventure! All 63 US National Parks are full of unique experiences, dramatic views and natural wonders you simply have to see to believe. 

          With a National Parks Bucket Journal, you will never forget the trips you take, the adventures you have, and the people you share it with. A bucket journal makes recording your trip's highlights, and planning your next adventure that much easier!  

           

          great smoky mountains vinyl decal

           

          Park Hours and Access: 

          Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open daily, 24 hours a day, year-round, although activities and services are limited at night and at certain times of the year. Check the NPS website for details about the season you will be visiting. 

          Open all year? Yes, with some road closures, dependent on weather.

          Closest Airports:

          If you are not close enough to drive to Great Smoky Mountains NP try flying into one of several airports and then driving to the park. These are the airports within 3 hours driving time.  

          • McGhee Tyson Airport [TYS] 49 miles, 1 hr. 20 mins
          • Asheville Regional Airport [AVL] 86 miles, 2 hrs.
          • Tri-Cities Airport [TRI] 110 miles, 2 hrs. 5 mins
          • Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport [GSP] 146 miles, 2 hrs. 54 mins
          • Chattanooga Airport [CHA] 154 miles, 2 hrs. 47 mins   

            clingmans dome in great smoky mountains national park

            Things To Do In Great Smoky Mountains NP 

            There are so many outdoor activities inside the park, be sure to take time and appreciate the animal life around you. There are opportunities for birding, wildlife viewing, and of course enjoy the fall colors and photographing the beauty around you.

            Kids will like the junior ranger program, which gets them involved in hands-on activities. plus there are many areas where swimming is available. especially around campsites. Be sure to stop for a picnic in one of the scenic areas.

            Enjoy getting around the park with one of the guided tours or venture out on your own by hiking, biking, horseback riding, backcountry exploration, fishing, or taking an auto tour. 

            Great Smoky Mountains has eleven waterfalls to view! Be sure to take in at least one. 

            How Much Time Do You Need to Explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

            Most people recommend a minimum of three days to get acquainted with all GSM has to offer. If you have two days in the summer this itinerary from Frommer’s suggests starting at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and taking in sites sound there. 

            If you have 3 days get ideas from this itinerary from Visit Smokies.org  

            If you have 5 days to spend in GSM, Mrs. Weber's Neighborhood recommends this itinerary. 

            My Bucket Journals Recommends These GSM  Attractions:

            • Take an auto tour on Cades Cove Loop
            • Visit a historic cemetery
            • Hike to Alum Cave
            • Visit Newfound Gap
            • Snap a picture of Clingmans Dome
            • Hike Abrams Fall Trail
            • Grotto Falls Trail waterfall
            • Climb Chimney Tops for terrific views

            Hike the Trails 

            You can find a hike for every level of experience, from boardwalks to back-country adventures. One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven't hiked much recently, be conservative.  

            When choosing your route, check the Backcountry section of the Temporary Road and Facilities Closures page to determine if the trail you are considering is open and that there are no warnings or special notices posted for it. 

            These are the most common areas to explore: 

            • Charlies Bunion - breathtaking mountain views along the world-famous Appalachian Trail
            • Alum Cave Bluffs - The trail begins by crossing Walker Camp Prong and Alum Cave Creek on log bridges, leading hikers through an old-growth hardwood forest. Hiking through the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock is a highlight of the hike. 
            • Andrews Bald - The trail begins from the Clingmans Dome parking lot and drops elevation to get to Andrews Bald. After a large descent, it levels on a broad ridge, soon diverting to the right at mile 1.1.
            • Rainbow Falls - The first mile of this popular but strenuous trail follows LeConte Creek. A log foot bridge crosses the creek about 2 miles from the trailhead, and the trail then crosses a tributary of LeConte Creek without the help of a bridge. After another two bridges, the falls appear, named for the rainbows seen in the mist that are caused by the afternoon sun.  
            • Chimney Tops - This is one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of its length and spectacular views. The trail gains 1,400 feet in 2 miles which makes for a steep climb, so be sure to wear sturdy shoes and bring plenty of water. To reach the summit, there is a steep rock scramble that can be slippery when wet or covered in ice.

            Kid friendly hikes 

            • The Kephart Prong Trail offers your children a chance to explore Smokies' history from the logging era through the days of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
            • Porters Creek Trail is one of the many family-friendly hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Porters Flat is located in the Greenbrier Cove, 6 miles east of Gatlinburg. The 1 mile moderate walk from the parking lot to Porters Flat provides the opportunity to introduce kids to the natural communities within the cove hardwood forest.
            newfound gap in great smoky mountains national park

            Scenic Drives 

            There are 384 miles of roads inside of the Smokies. The scenery is unbelievable, so be sure to plan at least one scenic drive while you are there. 

            • Cades Cove Loop Road - An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the cove, offering motorists the opportunity to sightsee at a leisurely pace. Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area's trails. 
            • Cataloochee Valley - 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.
            • Newfound Gap Road - At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail crosses over Newfound Gap Road and straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee for most of its length through the park. Visitors can enjoy a short stroll to stretch their legs or a multi-day backpacking excursion on the AT as it runs through the park.
            • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail - Its name derived from a “roaring” mountain stream, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail twists and turns for six miles, forming a one-way looping scenic drive through the Great Smoky Mountains. The narrow roadway only allows cars—trucks, trailers. Unfortunately, RVs cannot fit on this road. 
            • Upper Tremont Road - Getting there is easy: Just drive through Townsend into the Park, turn right toward Cades Cove, then, a few hundred yards later, turn left at the sign for Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. 

            Tours:  

            There are many ways to enrich your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park] by participating in a ranger program, becoming a junior ranger, exploring as a young scientist, or going on a guided tour. 

            • Friends of the Smokies
            • Great Smoky Mountains Association
            • Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
            • Smoky Mountain Field School

            Learn more at the National Park Website 

            In addition, there are many private guided tours to be found in the surrounding areas. These range from a fall color tour, to a tour about North Carolina streams and their history.  An online search for “guided tours great smoky mountains national park” will turn up dozens of choices. 

            pioneer cabin in great smoky mountains

            Lodging in the Park: 

            LeConte Lodge is the only lodging in the park and is accessible only by foot. The lodge sits atop Mount Le Conte, the park's third highest peak, at an elevation of 6,593 feet. Hiking routes to the lodge vary in length from 5 to 8 miles. The lodge is generally open from mid-March through mid-November. Advance reservations are required to stay at the lodge. 

            There are many communities that provide hotels, cabins, bed and breakfast, and campgrounds outside of the park.  

            In North Carolina, try searching in Bryson City, Cherokee, Fontana, Maggie Valley, Waynesville. 

            In Tennessee, try searching in Cosby, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Townsend. 

              Campgrounds: 

              There are 12 campgrounds inside of Great Smoky Mountains NP, each offering an exploration of the different areas of the park. These range from backcountry sites for backpackers, to group campgrounds and even horse camps. Use the map below to find locations and links to their individual websites.   

              Backcountry Camping 

              Backcountry Camping is available in many aread and requires a permit and advance reservations for all backcountry camping in the park. Call the Backcountry Information Office at 865-436-1297 to get information and tips to make your trip safe and memorable.   

              Frontcountry Camping 

              There are 10 different campgrounds inside the park. Each has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Cades Cove and Smokemont are open year-round. All others are seasonal.  Reservations for the Frontcountry, group, and horse campgrounds can be made by calling 877-444-6777 or visiting www.recreation.gov. Making reservations prior to your arrival is recommended to guarantee a campsite.

              Abrams Creek Campground - elevation 1,125 feet (342 m) - is located in a relatively remote area of the park and had access to hiking, fishing, and a creek. Tent and hammock camping only.
              Address: Abrams Creek Campground Rd, Tallassee, TN 37878 Ph 865-561-2453

              Balsam Mountain Campground - elevation 5,310 feet (1618 m) - offers a secluded setting for recreation activities without crowds. Tent and hammock camping only.
              Address: Located on Balsam Mtn. Road off of Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherokee, NC 28719. Ph 865-436-1200

              Big Creek Campground - elevation 1,700 fet (518 m) - This secluded place, running parallel to  Big Creek is surrounded by mountains and offers 12, tent only campsites.
              Address: Big Creek Entrance Rd, Newport, NC 37821 Ph 865-436-1261

              Cades Cove Campground - elevation 1,725 feet (526 m) - puts you right in the middle of the action with popular activities like hiking, biking, touring the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, and observing wildlife right outside your tent. Camp store, bike rentals, interpretive programs. Address: 10042 Campground Dr, Townsend, TN 37882 Ph 865-448-2472

              Cataloochee Campground - elevation 2,600 feet (792 m) - offers a traditional outdoor camping experience with the added convenience of flush toilets and drinking water. There are no hookups or showers at the campground.
              Address: Cataloochee Entrance Rd, Waynesville, NC 28785 Ph 828--497-9270

              Cosby Campground - elevation 2,500 feet (762  m) - is a peaceful and secluded campsite that also accommodates RV’s and has ADA sites.
              Address: 127 Cosby Entrance Rd, Cosby, TN 37722 Ph 423-487-2683

              Deep Creek Campground - elevation 1,785 feet (544 m) - is located next to one of the most popular creeds in the park. It offers 92 sites with grills, tables, and campfire rings. Hookups and showers are not provided, but flush toilets and drinking water are available.
              Address: Deep Creek Campground Loop, Bryson City, NC 28713 

              Elkmont Campground - elevation 2,150 feet (655 m) - located 8 miles from Gatlinburg, is the largest and busiest campground in Great Smoky Mt. NP. It offers 200 tent / RV campsites with paved driveways, gravel tent pads, fire rings, and picnic tables. 20 Walk-in campsites and 9 ADA sites are also available.
              Address: Elkmont Cg Kiosk, Elkmont Campground Rd A, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

              Look Rock Campground - is listed on the NSP website but an online search shows this campground may be permanently closed. Call ahead before planning to stay there.
              Address: Look Rock Campground Loop B, Tallassee, TN 37878 

              Smokemont Campground - elevation 2,200 feet (670 m) - is situated along the Oconaluftee River and is the starting point for several trailheads in the area. There are campsites for tents as well as RVs available, and tent pads, grills and fire rings are provided. There is also a flat, grassy area that is perfect for group activities like football, volleyball, or simply soaking up the sun.
              Address: Smokemont Campground Rd A, Cherokee, NC 28719 Ph 828-497-9270

              There are also numerous group campgrounds and places for horsecamping. View our interactive map below for those locations. 

              abrams falls in great smoky mountains national park

              Get Connected

              The National Park Service App (NPS App) features downloadable information for all the national park sites in the country, including [park name].  This includes an interactive map, self-guided audio tours, and information to make your trip smoother and more interesting. It does not yet include live updates to lodging, campground, or road status.    

              Visitor TIP  

              Cellular service within the park can be limited. In order to make use of the app while in Yosemite, follow these simple steps before you arrive: 

              • Download the app.
              • In the app, select the "Settings" option.
              • Tap the choice "Download Offline Content."  

              This gives you access to most of the app content (except alerts, calendar updates, and real-time updates, although accessing those items before leaving service will keep that information available in the app) Even without cellular service, the app will be able to share your location on the map and bring up all site content.

              Online Map of the Park

              Use our interactive map to plan your trip and view details about visitor centers, campgrounds, lodging, walking tours, and attractions.  

              How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. You can click the checkmarks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.  

              If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

               

              PIN IT FOR LATER >>>
              varying shades of mountain and sky at sunset in the smoky mountains with a text overlay that says Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide





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