Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) was chartered in 1934 and runs along the ridges and mountains of the Smoky Mountains on the border on Tennessee and North Carolina.  The Park is the most visited park in the United States National Park System, receiving more than 14.1 million visitors in 2021.  This is more than twice the number of people who visit the Grand Canyon, makes it the most popular national park in the US.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes over 522,000 acres, making it one of the largest National Parks in the United States.  There are two main entrances, one in Cherokee, NC and another in Gatlinburg, TN.

Updated: 5/13/2022

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The GSMNP is the most visited park in the United States, and for good reason.  Millions of people visit each year to view the scenic vistas, see the parks historic buildings, hike her many miles of trails, and enjoy the sounds of the numerous streams and waterfalls, and also to fly fish.   Fall transforms the park into a mural of beautiful color, and attracts people from all around the world.

Fall Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: Tim Lumley

The majority of people access an enter the park via Gatlinburg Tennessee at the Sugarlands Visitor center, the second most popular access point is at the Oconoluftee Visitors center in Cherokee NC.  Both entrances are connected via Highway 441, the main road through the park, and one of the most scenic highways in the United States.

Fall on Newfound Gap Rd

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Map

Top 16 Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Looking for things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?  Don't miss this 16 things to do and see!  These are our personal top picks.

About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located along the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina in the United States.  The National Park is home to almost 20,000 different species of plants, fungi and wildlife. It is considered one of the most biodiverse locations in the world.  

The National park is a main destination for outdoor lovers due to its abundant wildlife, wildflowers, hiking trails, waterfalls, and scenic drives.

History of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The land that is now called The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the homeland to the Cherokee Indians.  European settlers began to arrive and settle in the area beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Unfortunately, and much to the shame of today's US citizens, Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 that removed the Indians from the area to Oklahoma.  Most of the Cherokee moved, but some remained, hidden in the lands now called The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Many of the decedents of those that remained now live in the Cherokee Nation, in Cherokee North Carolina.

As white settlers took over the land, logging became a far too popular industry due to the numerous amounts of trees in the area.  Logging, and the act of clear cutting, was destroying the the beauty of the area.  US Citizens stepped up and demanded that the government act to protect the lands.  

The National Park service was interested in established an eastern based National Park.  Congress approved the park in 1926, but lacked the funds to formally establish it.  John D Rockefeller donated 5 million dollars, the US Government added 2 million to that, and citizens in Tennessee and North Carolina pitched in to make up the rest that was needed.  The Park was officially established in 1934.

Palmer Chapel

Palmer Chapel, Cataloochee Valley

While the park is a wonderful place, many people gave a great deal of time and money to establish it.  A large number of people were also forced to give up their homes and land as well.  Descendants of the original European settlers were evicted and forced to move to other areas.  Many settled in areas around the park.

How dangerous is hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Reading news reports of hikers that are lost, injured, or that have died while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be scary.   But the reality is that hiking in the park is actually very very safe.

On average every year, there are only about 38 serious injuries due to walking or hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  With more than 14 million visitors per year, that is a .0003% chance of getting injured, and far less than that of getting killed.   Interestingly, 50 injuries occur each year (on average) due to vehicle accidents in the park.

How tall are the Great Smoky Mountains?

The peaks of the Great Smokies rise more than 5,000 feet for the course of 36 miles.   In general, elevations in the park range from 876 to 6,643 feet.  

The tallest mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are:

  • Clingmans Dome at an elevation of 6, 643 feet.
  • Mount Guyot at 6,621 feet
  • Mount LeConte at 6,593 feet  

When is the best time to visit Smoky Mountains?

The "best" time to visit the Smoky Mountains, or Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a bit subjective, but most would agree on either the Summer or Fall.  

Summer in the Smokies is very busy, but beautiful as the trees and the mountains are full of green, the water in the creeks is warmer, and the wildlife is abundant.   Fall is the most beautiful time to visit, as the trees and mountains are covered in beautiful colors, and just breathtaking.

Summer and Fall are the most busy times of the year though, with the most people and traffic.  If you "best" to you means less people, than winter is going to be your best time to visit the Smoky Mountains.

Where do the Great Smoky Mountains begin and end?

The Great Smoky Mountains are between the west of Knoxville TN and the East of Asheville NC.  The Smokies are a sub-range of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The largest portion of the Great Smoky Mountains are within the bounds of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Why is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most visited national park?

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) receive more than 14 million visitors in 2021, making it the most visited national park in the United States.   The park contains incredible bio-diversity for both plants and wildlife, offerings hundreds of miles of hiking trails, numerous stunning waterfalls scenic drives, historical locations and structures, and some of the most incredible scenic views you'll find anywhere in the world.

But, is that enough to justify it being the most visited park?   While it's certainly part of it, it's not the only reason.  Here are a few more:

  • Area population - The GSMNP is very close to 2/3s of the United States population
  • It's huge.  The park is more than 500,000 acres.  This allows people to visit, see tons of variety in scenery, plant and wildlife, and get away and be remote.
  • Their "smoky" appearance - The Smoky mountains get their name from the unique fog that often sits over the mountains.  This fog comes from vegetation and moisture in the park. 
  • Open all 4-seasons - The park is open year-round.   Primary roads are open 24-hours a day, seven days a week (with the exception of temporary weather related closures).   While some sections are closed during the winter, for safety reasons, the majority of the park is always open.
  • No Admission Fee - the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entrance fee, like many other national parks.

There are numerous other reasons, but these combined with the beauty of the park, make for a nearly perfect outdoor experience.  This results in the park being very popular with people around the world, an the most visited park in the US.

Park Entry Points

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a number of entry points, but the two main ones at Sugarlands near Gatlinburg TN and Oconaluftee Valley, near Cherokee NC.

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Sugarlands, TN

Sugarlands Visitor Center Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: RNRobert

One of the two main entry points to the park, the Sugarlands Visitor Center, is not only a visitors center but also the headquarters for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the most used entry point to the park.

The Sugarlands Visitor Center is just outside Gatlinburg, TN, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.  Sugarlands and the visitor center offers not only access to the park, but park information, maps, campsite reservations, a wildlife museum, a video about the creation of the park, and of course access to Park Rangers.

Original visitors to the park came to the people of Sugarlands for goods, guidance and access to the park, just as people do today.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Cherokee, NC

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Photo by: RNRobert

The Cherokee Indians were the original inhabitants of the land that is now The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and what better place to provide an entrance to these lands than through the Cherokee Nation, Cherokee NC.

Oconaluftee is the name of a river valley in the national park, and the former location of a Cherokee village.  Today, the Oconaluftee Valley, just outside of Cherokee NC houses the second most popular visitor center in the park, The Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center provides maps, guides, restrooms, and access to park rangers.  The visitor center also hosts a number of various programs and exhibits throughout the Spring, Summer, and Fall.

See our Oconaluftee Visitor Center Guide for more information.

Just up the road, past the visitor center is the famous Mingus Mill, a historic and operating Corn and Flour mill you can visit.  A definite "must visit" location in the park.

Townsend, Tennessee

Townsend TN Park Entrance Sign

Townsend TN Park Entrance

The entrance to the park at Townsend TN is accessible via Highway 73.  The entrance provides access to the Little River area.   Three park roads are accessible just past the park entrance:  Little River Road, Laurel Creek Road, and Tremont Road.

There is no visitors center at this entrance.  The town of Townsend provides lodging, food and other amenities.

Cosby, Tennessee

Townsend TN Park Entrance

Photo by: SmokyDan

Cosby is a small town located just off of I-40.   Cosby has a park entrance that leads to Cosby Campground.   Cosby is "off the beaten path", and provides a more remote but peaceful camping retreat.  

The Cosby area of the park is often under utilized due to it not being close to many of the more popular park destinations.   But there is still plenty to do in the area, including hiking and fishing around the campground.  Hen Wallow Falls trail, a great family day like is located in this area.

Cosby also provides direct access to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge a little further down Highway 321.

Cataloochee, North Carolina

Cataloochee Valley Great Smoky Mountain National Park

The park entrance at Cataloochee  is the access point to Cataloochee Valley, one of the most remote destination points in the park.  Located just 10 miles from I-40, the drive in will take you longer due to the entry road, which is gravel, windy and often narrow.   Definitely worth it, as the Cataloochee area of the park offers wonderful hiking trails, creeks, fishing, historic buildings, beautiful scenery and access to the Cataloochee Valley Elk.

You can see lots of photos and get more information in our complete Cataloochee Valley Guide.  There is no visitors center in Cataloochee Valley, but Park Rangers are often driving around with exhibits to show people and they are really good about making themselves available to answer questions.  There is also a ranger station at the main gate.

Wears Valley, Tennessee

Just up the road a bit from Townsend, TN is Wears Valley, a peaceful small town that provides park access and various travel amenities such as lodging and food.

The Wears Valley Park entrance provides access to the Little River Gorge Area.  There is no visitor center at this location.

What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Top Scenic Drives

The most popular way the 11 million+ visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park enjoy the park, is by driving through it.  The park offers a number of beautiful scenic drives.  Some offer exceptional long range scenic views, and others offer a more intimate and up close experience.   Some drives are paved and mainstream, while others are gravel and far more remote.

Regardless of the type of scenic drive you're looking for, we're sure the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the perfect scenic drive for you.  Some of the drives include:

  • Newfound Gap Road - The most popular scenic drive in the park
  • Cades Cove Loop
  • Roaring Fork Nature Trail
  • and Clingman's Dome Road

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the most popular activities in the Great Smoky Mountains is hiking.  The Park offers more than 800 miles of hiking trails, including hiking on the famous Appalachian Trail.    Those 800 miles are divided across more than 150 different trails.

The most popular trails in the park include:

While these are the most popular, they are not necessarily the best the park has to offer.  For the best hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see our 12 Best Hikes guide.

Areas of the park and points of interest

Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of places to visit and activities, including site seeing, fishing, and hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, historic site seeing and wildlife viewing.  The park includes over a 800 miles of hiking trails, more than 10,000 species of plants and animals, and miles and miles of creeks and streams.  The park

is divided into various sections, and each of these sections contains their own unique points of interests, hiking trails and places to visit.

Notable wildlife includes more than 1500 Black Bear, the most dense population of Black Bear in the United States.  Also popular and doing very well are Elk, who were reintroduced into the park in 2001.

It would be impossible for us to even begin to to discuss all of places to visit in the park, but here are the most well known and popular areas of the park:

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: Chris Gafford

Newfound Gap is a popular stop and overlook due to it's location along Highway 441 through the park between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg NC.   Newfound Gap was also the the location where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the National Park on September 2, 1940.  At Newfound Gap, you can not only see the great scenic views, but also see the Rockefeller Memorial.   Newfound Gap also provides access to the Appalachian Trail (AT) which crosses through the area.

Many people walk up the AT from here, but don't remain on the trail long.  Usually turning back within the first mile.  The trail here is fairly steep, without much to see during the first mile.  Many just want to say they've walked along the trail.  A sign here indicates that from Newfound Gap, Maine is only 1,958 miles 😉

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome

One of the most popular and most visited areas of the park is Clingmans Dome.   "The Dome" is located 7 miles down Clingmans Dome Road, near Newfound Gap.   The Parking lot itself provides gorgeous views, and the steep by short 1 mile up and back hike to the observation tower provides 360 degree views of both Tennesee and North Carolina.

Cades Cove

John Oliver Cabin Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a historic area of the park, and home to a settlement where people lived, up until the park was created.  Cades Cove is also the most visited area of the park, and represents everything the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for.  Cades Cove has everything: historic buildings and cabins, scenic mountain views, abundant wildlife (including black bears), hiking trails, water falls, creeks and streams, and horseback riding.

The best way to see Cades Cove is via Cades Cove Loop Road, which is a one lane paved road that runs along the edge of the woods around the valley.  The road takes visitors on a tour of the historic area.

Cataloochee Valley

Another historic area, similar to Cades Cove, but a little more off the beaten path is Cataloochee Valley.  The area is known for its historic structures, peaceful valley's and creeks, hiking trails, horseback riding, wildlife and camping.

Cataloochee is mostly known for Elk, and people travel from all of the world into Cataloochee Valley to see the Elk, which were introduced into the valley in 2001.   Elk, native to the area, had gone extinct in the area due to to hunting. 25 Elk were reintroduced into the park and and are thriving.

Cataloochee Valley is a popular area for horse owners as well, due to the large number of horse trails in the area.

Big Creek

Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Located on the North Carolina side of the park, Big Creek offers ample hiking and camping.   At the Big Creek Parking lot is a large campground and picnic area right next to Big Creek, one of the largest and most beautiful creeks in the park.    Visitors can also hike up Big Creek trail which follows along side Big Creek.  The trail provides access to Mouse Creek falls, and also to one of the most popular swimming holes in the area, Midnight Hole.

Big Creek trail is an old logging and railroad grade that is incredibly scenic and fairly easy.   Horses are allowed on the trail, so watch your step!

Deep Creek

Fall at Deep Creek, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of our favorite areas of the park is Deep Creek.   Deep Creek provides camping, picnic areas, hiking, and three very beautiful waterfalls.  

Deep Creek is most well known for tubing , where visitors can rent tubes from one of the nearby rental companies, then hike up Deep Creek, then tube down.  The water is cold, but incredibly refreshing during the summer.

Deep Creek also offers a number of hiking trails.  One of our favorites is Deep Creek Loop trail, which takes you through the Deep Creek area and to three different waterfalls.  One of the most beautiful falls in the park, is Tom Branch Falls, located just a short hike from the main parking lot.

Deep Creek is located just outside of Bryson City, NC.


Greenbrier

Porters Creek Trail

Greenbrier is a simply gorgeous part of the park along Middle Fork, a large creek.   Greenbrier was a once a mountain community, split up between Big Greenbrier and Little Greenbrier.  By the early 1900s, Greenbrier had a population of about 500 people.  Today, Greenbrier is the home of ranger station, a picnic and recreation area and home to a number of popular hiking trails and waterfalls.

Greenbrier has several historical home sites, along with an old wrecked steam engine you can visit.  Greenbrier is also the location of Porter's Creek Trail, one of our family favorites.

Tremont

Tremont Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: Gary Millar

Like Greenbrier, the Tremont area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was once a logging town and mountain community.  Tremont is located just south of Townsend TN and located along the Middle Prong of Little River.  Tremont is about 7 miles east of the popular Cades Cove, along Little River Road.

The town of Tremont grew as a result of the logging operations in the area.  The town of tremont is now a parking lot for Middle Prong Trail.  The area was also the location of the Little River Railroad, which served logging operations in the area.  Today the railroad tracks have been replaced with trails and roads.   The devastation caused by the logging has recovered.  Hikers in the area can still find remnants of the old homes and railroad while hiking along the trails.

Tremont is home to beautiful creeks, hiking trails, and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont

Mount LeConte

Top of Mount LeConte

While not the tallest or most famous mountain peak in the National Park, Mount LeConte is still very well known and is the third tallest peak in the park, at 6, 593 feet.  Mount LeConte is namely famous for LeConte Lodge, the highest Inn in the Eastern United States.  LeConte is also very visible from a number of locations outside the park as well.

Mt. LeConte is also the end point for a number of very popular trails located in the National Park, namely:

  • Alum Cave Trail
  • Rainbow Falls Trail
  • Trillium Gap Trail
  • The Boulevard Trail
  • Bullhead Trail

Trillium Gap Trail is used by Llamas that carry supplies to and from LeConte Lodge.  Often called the "Llama Train",

As a result of these trails and their popularity, Mount LeConte is the most travelled mountain in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Oconaluftee Valley

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Oconaluftee Valley is home to he Oconaluftee visitors center, and also the entrance to the Cherokee Nation.

Oconaluftee is a river valley, that was a Cherokee village and later an appalachian settlement.  Today, the valley serves as the main entrance on the North Carolina side of the park.

Today, Oconaluftee Valley houses a large visitors center, campground (Smokemont), Mingus Mill, the mountain farm museum, and the Oconaluftee Indian village.   You can also access the southern ending (and entrance) to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Elkmont

Elkmont Daisy Town

Elkmont is located in the Little River valley area of the national park.   Elkmont was the base for the Little River Lumber company and as a result, a logging town.  Elkmont was also a popular resort.  In the early 1900s, the Wonderland Park Hotel was built and later the Wonderland Club was established.   Elkmont and the Wonderland Club became an elite vacation area for the wealthy.

Today Elkmont is a popular camping and fishing location.  A few trails begin in the area as well, including the popular Laurel Falls trail.  One of the larger campgrounds in the park is located here, Elkmont Campground.  A number of the historic cabins still stand, closely to the campground and make for an interesting and historic adventure.

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