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 9 million visitors each year for the past 5 years. This is more than twice the number of people who visit the Grand Canyon, the second most popular national park. The GSMNP 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.
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.
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.
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 these “renegades” 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.
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.
The GSMNP has a number of entry points, but the two main ones at Sugarlands near Gatlinburg TN and Oconaluftee Valley, near Cherokee NC.
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.
The Cherokiee Indians were the original inhabitants of the lands that are 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.
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 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.
The park entrance at Cataloochee is the access point to Cataloochee Valley, one of the most popular destination points in the park and also one of the most remote. 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. Defiitely worth it, as the Cataloochee area of the park offers wonderful hiking trails, creeks, fishing, historic buildings, beautiful scenary 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, but Park Rangers are often driving around with exhibits to show people and they are really good about making themselves available to answer questions.
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.
Probably the most popular activity in the park are the numerous scenic drives.
Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg, TN. This is by far the most popular scenic drive in the park, and is full of various overlooks and pull overs. The highpoint in the drive is Newfound Gap, where 441 crosses over the ridge line of the Smokies at 5,046 feet. Located at Newfound gap is a parking area, restrooms, scenic overlook, and visitors can walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Also here is the the Rockefeller Memorial, in honor of the Rockefeller families contributions to the park. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also gave a speech here when the park was dedicated on September 2, 1940.
Clingman’s Dome Road – This 7 mile drive, which begins near Newfound Gap takes you out to Clingman’s Dome, one of the most famous peaks in the national park. The views along the road and at the parking lot are breathtaking. We’ve travelled this road often, and it’s a great location to see Black Bears, both along the road and on the trail up to Clingman’s Dome.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – If you want to drive on one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world, and feel as if you have almost gone back in time, than this 6-mile paved loop road is for you. Highlights along the drive include gorgeous forest scenery, wildlife (including Black Bear), streams, creeks and small waterfalls. The drive also contains a number of historic structures as well. Roaring Fork Motor Trail is also the trailhead for Rainbow Falls Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in the park.
Cades Cove Loop Road – Another famous and popular drive. This 11 mile loop takes you through the most popular area of the park, Cades Cove. While driving the loop, you’ll see gorgeous scenary, historic structures, and lots of wildlife. This road will take you back in time, and allow you to experience what life in the rural Blue Ridge Mountains was like before the park was created, and before the area became a popular tourist attraction. The loop road is also the access point for the popular hiking trail to Abrams Falls.
Cove Creek Road – If you’re looking for a little adventure, head down Cove Creek Road to Cataloochee Valley. This 11 mile long gravel road, twists and winds it’s way through the mountains to Cataloochee Valley. The road is very narrow, often high up, and very few guard rails. But don’t let that deter you, because the destination is and drive is worth it. Just go slow and take your time. Can you imagine that this road was once on the main highways to Tennessee from North Carolina? Along the way you’ll see plenty of beautiful scenary, and most likely see some wildlife, including Elk.
Little River Road – This 22 mile long road winds it’s way through the park, between Gatlinburg, TN and Townsend, TN. The road is the primary access point for Cades Cove, Elkmont Campground, Greenbrier School, and Tremont.
While not officially part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway is accessible just down from the Oconaluftee Visitor’s center. The Parkway is one of the most scenic roads in the world, and goes from the Park to the Virginia Blue Ridge where it connects up with Virginia’s Skyline Drive.
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 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 😉
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.
See our guide to Clingmans Dome for more information and photos.
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. Keep your eyes open, especially in the morning and evenings for wildlife, including turkey, coyote, deer, elk, bobcats, and the famous black bear.
The park has reserved that May through September on Wednesdays and Saturdays the loop is for hikers and bicyclist only, from sunrise to 10am. Auto traffic on those days is permitted on the loop road only after 10am.
Another historic area, similar to Cades Cove, but a little more off the beaten path is Cataloochee Valley. Like Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley as the site of two fairly large settlements: Big Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee. The area is known for it’s 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 is accessed via Cove Creek Road, located near I-40. Cove Creek Road is the reason Cataloochee Valley isn’t as popular as it could be. The road is very curvy and narrow, and while well maintained, often a big rough. The road is only wide enough for one car in some areas, with fairly steep drop-offs. Use caution when traveling the road and take your time. People driving carelessly or too fast, are far more dangerous than the road itself.
Cataloochee Valley is a popular area for horse owners as well, due to the large number of horse trails in the area.
See more photos and get more information in our Cataloochee Valley Guide.
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!
Read more about Big Creek and Midnight Hole on our website.
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 famous 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’s Branch Falls, located just a short hike from the main parking lot.
Deep Creek is a very popular area for families during the summer, so come expecting large crowds and lots of kids. Mountain biking is also allowed on Deep Creek Trail, so keep an eye out.
Deep Creek is located just outside of Bryson City, NC.
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.
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
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:
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 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.
Roaring Fork is a stream, now located inside the park. The stream was home to a small appalachian community that was made part of the park in the 1930s. Today, Roaring Fork is home to the very popular Roaring Fork Motor Trail. The motor trail is a one way loop road takes visitors to two overlooks, by a number of historic buildings, beautiful mountain creeks and streams, and through a beautiful old forest.
Roaring Fork is also the location of two popular trailheads, Trillium Gap and Rainbow Falls trails.
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.
Photo credits: Cover and Lead Photo – Vaibhav Bhosale, Mount LeConte/Newfound Gap View/Lynn Camp Prong Tremont – John Britt, Sugarlands Visitor Center – Joe Shlabotnik, Townsend TN entrance – Doug Bradley Photography, Cosby TN Entrance – Smoky Dan, Newfound Gap Road Thumbnail – Timothy Wildley, Clingmans Dome Road – Andrew Mace, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – pfly, Cades Cove Loop Road/Sparks Lane – Brian Koprowski, Little River Road – Frank Kehren, Oconaluftee Valley – JR P, Fall Roaring Fork – Joey Lax-Salinas, Elkmont Ghost Town – Wayne Hsieh, LeConte Sunset – Michael Wifall, Cataloochee Valley (with Elk) – Wes Bolton