Centrally located along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and boasting incredible mountain views, old-growth forests, and family-friendly activities, the most popular park in America is a gorgeous bargain.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park (nps.gov/grsm) is America’s most visited national park (with more than 11 million visitors in 2017), in part because of its proximity to large populations of people, but mostly for its sweeping views, great hiking trails, and opportunities to get up close and personal with the most biodiverse park in America. Must-see highlights include hiking to the top of Clingman’s Dome Observatory and the drive through Cades Cove.
In late 2016, some of the most trafficked trails of the park, along with the neighboring town of Gatlinburg, were burned when a wildfire met a windstorm. Both the park and the town have rebounded, offering a fascinating opportunity to see how the natural world rebounds after a wildfire
Straddling the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most centrally located national parks and a manageable road trip from many major urban areas in the East, Midwest, and South. The closest regional airports are Mcghee-Tyson in Knoxville Tennessee or the Asheville regional airport in North Carolina. Both airports have rental car options. And remember when renting a vehicle that you do not need a 4WD vehicle to experience this park.
ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK
There is no entrance fee for Great Smoky Mountain National Park, because the state of Tennessee would only transfer the land to the National Park Service if they guaranteed no fee would ever be charged to access the mountains. Please consider donating $20 to the Friends of the Smokies instead (friendsofthesmokies.org); this is the admission fee for most of the national parks across the country, and funds go directly to protecting the park’s facilities and wildlife.
CAMPING IS A BARGAIN
Tent camping is the cheapest way to experience the Smokies .
For $20/night, there are 10 different campgrounds in the Smokies. Some of them require reservations and are only open during the high season. You can check the pricing and reservation requirements online (nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm).
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee are considered the “gateway to the Smokies” and both have lived up to this moniker by providing ample affordable lodging and a huge variety of activities for families. This area is what I like to call “hillbilly chic” for the way it leans into its heritage. Physical activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding abound, but you can also experience museums of the strange and curious – from the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the Titanic museum. And you’ll definitely notice a certain affinity for one Dolly Parton. This part of Tennessee is where the singer/songwriter grew up, and Parton has reinvested in the community by opening up several dinner theaters and her own theme park. Dollywood has several of the best roller coasters in the South and provides a great time. Should you decide to do any of these attractions, be sure to do a search for discounted tickets online before you pay full price at the box office.
For the cheapest hotel options, you should consider staying in Cherokee, North Carolina (on the other side of the park from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge). This area is the Cherokee indian reservation, and has many hotels that get you more for the price. Cherokee is not as kitschy as Gatlinburg, and you’ll have fewer crowds to deal with.
EATING OPTIONS ABOUND
There are a plethora of restaurants on the Tennessee side of the park. You can find everything from cheap fast food to mountain pancakes to steak dinners.
HIKING & MUST-SEE SIGHTS
The Chimneys. The Chimneys is a classic hike in the smokies, a steep climb up to one of the best views in the park. This hike is a bit over four miles round trip, and you should plan on a workout. Bring plenty of water and a walking stick. This trail was part of the burn area in the 2015 wildfires, so it can be muddy in places where the brush was burned away. Because of the fire, you can no longer go the final .25 mile to the summit of the chimneys, but the end of the trail still provides a wonderful view.
Alum Cave Bluff Trail. This is a moderate 6.5 mile trail that offers some amazing views and a variety of terrain, concluding at a natural cave in the mountain rock. This hike is really fun and is not as physically taxing as some of the other hikes in the park. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so be sure to get there early!
Clingman’s Dome Observatory. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park, and has an observatory on the top that provides some incredibly views. The hike to the observatory is less than a mile, with minimal elevation gain. The trail is paved, making this an ideal outing for families with children and those who are disabled. Be sure to bring a jacket as this higher elevation is often cold and windy, even in summer.
Appalachian Trail. The appalachian trail is a 2,000 mile adventure that goes right through GSMNP. Those with an adventurous spirit can meet up with the Appalachian Trail at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot and hike as much or as little of it as they wish. Keep in mind that all overnight backcountry stays in this park require a permit.
IF YOU’RE VISITING WITH KIDS…
Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most fun parks to visit with children. Here, two options that’ll keep little ones enchanted, and make them want to return again and again:
Creek Stomping. There are several places in the park that are great for kids to play in nature. At the trailhead for the Chimneys trail is a rocky section of the creek that offers a good opportunity for kids to climb and splash in the water.
Scenic Drive and Picnic. Cades Cove is in a valley surrounded by mountains and makes for a lovely scenic drive. This is the best spot in the park for picnicking, as well as providing plenty of great photos and opportunities to see wildlife. Cades Cove used to be a small mountain community, and the old structures from the 19th century have been preserved for the public to get a glimpse of life. Bears are not an uncommon sighting in Cades Cove, but don’t be afraid – black bears prefer a lazy lifestyle as long as you don’t get too close! Plan on spending at least an hour driving the Cades Cove loop – which can get crowded on beautiful days and weekends.