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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide (2024)

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 between Tennessee and North Carolina.

The Park is the most visited park in the United States National Park System, receiving more than 13.3 million visitors in 2023. This is more than twice the number of people who visit the Grand Canyon, making 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: 3/14/2024

New - 2023/2024 Park it Forward Program

New for 2023, Visitors parking for more than 15 minutes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will require a Parking Pass.  Learn more below.

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 park's historic buildings, hike her many miles of trails, enjoy the sounds of the many streams and waterfalls, and also to fly fish

Fall transforms the park into a mural of beautiful fall color and attracts people from all around the world.

Fall Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Photo by: Tim Lumley

Most people access and 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.

Park It Forward - New for 2023

Park it Forward Program Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Beginning March 1, 2023, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will begin the "Park It Forward" program. This program requires that vehicles parking for over 15 minutes have a parking tag. Parking tags can be purchased online or at one of the Visitor Centers.    

Pricing for Great Smoky Mountain National Park parking tags is:

  • Daily - $5
  • Weekly - $15
  • Annual - $40 - Visitors can purchase annual tags now and have them shipped to their home or pick them up at the visitor center.   

Annual parking tags must be displayed in the front, lower passenger side windshield. Daily and weekly parking tags must be placed face-up on the front, lower passenger side dashboard.

For more information and to purchase a pass, visit the website go.nps.gov/GRSMfees

This announcement has been high controversial, but after seeing the negative impact that the 14.1 million visitors a year during 2021 had on this beautiful park, paying $40 a year is small price to pay to help the park service maintain and protect it.

We fully support this decision, and will gladly pay $40 a year, and continue to donate as well. Let's all come together to keep this park beautiful for many generations!

About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is between the border 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 one of the most biodiverse locations in the world.  

The National park is a major destination for outdoor lovers because of 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 of 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 because of the abundance of trees in the area. Logging, and the act of clear cutting, were destroying 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 establishing 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. They officially established the Park 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.

Many people had to relinquish their homes and land as well. The government evicted and forced the descendants of the original European settlers 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 getting lost, injured, or dying while hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be scary.

But hiking in the park is actually very safe.

On average every year, there are only about 38 serious injuries because of walking or hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With over 14 million visitors per year, that is a .0003% chance of getting injured, and far less than getting killed.

Interestingly, 50 injuries occur each year (on average) because of vehicle accidents in the park.

How tall are the Great Smoky Mountains?

The peaks of the Great Smokies rise over 5,000 feet for the course of 36 miles. 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 the Smoky Mountains?

The "best" time to visit the Smoky Mountains, or Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is 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 because the trees and mountains display beautiful fall colors that are simply breathtaking.

Summer and fall are the most busy times of the year though, with the most people and traffic.

If "best" to you means fewer people, then 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) received over 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, many 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 over 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 (except for temporary weather related closures). While some sections are closed during the winter, for safety reasons, most of the park is always open.
  • No Admission Fee - the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entrance fee, like many other national parks.  Please be aware of "Park it forward", where a parking pass is required if parking for over 15 minutes.

There are many 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, and the most visited park in the US.

Park Entry Points

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has several 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 visitor's center but also the headquarters for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the most used entry point in 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 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.

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 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 several 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 isn't a visitor's center locate 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 underutilized 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 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 isn't a visitor's center in Cataloochee Valley, but Park Rangers are often driving around with exhibits to show people and they are great 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 more than 11 million visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park enjoy the park is by driving through it. The park offers several beautiful scenic drives.

Some offer exceptional long range scenic views, and others offer a more intimate and up close experience.   Some drives have paved and mainstream routes, while others have gravel roads and are 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:

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. The park divides those 800 miles 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 offers.  

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, over 10,000 species of plants and animals, and miles and miles of creeks and streams.

The park divides into different sections, and each of these sections features its own unique points of interest, hiking trails, and places to visit.

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

It would be impossible for us to even discuss all the 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 because of its location along Highway 441 through the park between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg NC.  

Newfound Gap was also 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, with little to see during the first mile.

Many just want to say they've walked along the trail.  A sign here shows 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 offers beautiful views, and the short 1-mile hike to the observation tower provides 360-degree views of both Tennessee 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, 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, waterfalls, 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 valleys and creeks, hiking trails, horseback riding, wildlife, and camping.

Cataloochee is also well known for Elk, and people travel from all over 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 because of hunting. The park reintroduced 25 Elk and they are thriving.

Cataloochee Valley is a popular area for horse owners as well, because of the large number of horse trails in the area and horse camp.

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 alongside 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 exquisite 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 several 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 several 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.

The original home where Dolly Parton was raised as a young child is very close to Greenbrier.

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 along the Middle Prong of Little River. Tremont is about 7 miles east of the popular Cades Cove, along Little River Road.

The growth of the town of Tremont can be attributed to the logging operations in the area. Now a parking lot for Middle Prong Trail, the town of Tremont, has completely transformed.

The area was also the location of the Little River Railroad, which served logging operations in the area. Today, trails and roads have replaced the railroad tracks.   

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

Although it is not the tallest or most famous mountain peak in the National Park, Mount LeConte is still widely recognized and stands as the park's third tallest peak, reaching a height of 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 several locations outside the park as well, including Gatlinburg, T

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

Llamas that carry supplies use trillium Gap Trail up to LeConte Lodge. Often called the "Llama Train".

Because 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 the 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, they built the Wonderland Park Hotel and later established the Wonderland Club. 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, close to the campground and make for an interesting and historic adventure.

About the author

Larry Deane is co-owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Life. He has spent more than 20 years exploring the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and has a deep passion for nature, history, storytelling, and adventure. Along with his wife Jenn, they combined these passions to create Blue Ridge Mountain Life, a travel guide to these stunning mountains they are fortunate to call home.

Larry has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and journalist, and has established himself as a leading voice and expert for Blue Ridge Mountains. He is also an avid hiker, photographer, and videographer. He loves sharing his mountain adventures and knowledge with more than 500,000 people per month on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.

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