Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

No visit to the Southeast parks would be complete with a stop at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it consistently ranks as the most visited designated National Park in the country. Interestingly, you won’t find any historic lodges, in-park dining, or even much in the way of development inside the park. Still, there is a wide variety of things to see and do at Great Smoky Mountains NP.

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There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails at Great Smoky Mountains NP/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

The one thing that everyone should plan to do at Great Smoky Mountains is several scenic drives. But, if you really want to explore the park, you’ll want to get out of the car and onto some of the hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Whether you are in the car or on your feet, you’ll enjoy scenic mountain views, cascading rivers, an abundance of wildlife and even a number of historic settlements and structures.

No visit is complete without driving the main park road, Newfound Gap Road, which connects Cherokee, NC, on the south side to Gatlinburg, TN, on the north side. Plan at least an hour to drive the 34 miles, but add extra time to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way. Of course, there are also plenty of hiking trails en route — the Appalachian Trail even crosses the road at Newfound Gap.

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Bonnie and Grant at the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

Perhaps one of the best views with just a short hike is at Clingmans Dome. Located near Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third-highest point east of the Mississippi River. The hike is a moderately strenuous half-mile walk along a paved path. While not an easy walk, the views at the top are worth the effort!

Check out our full article on hiking at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Where to Go
Our favorite area of the park, though, is Cades Cove. Located about an hour west of Gatlinburg, the drive to Cades Cove follows several rivers through the forest and is quite scenic. In Cades Cove, you’ll find a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. With a scenic drive, hiking trails, and historic structures, you can easily spend a full day just in this small area of the park. It is also one of the best places to view wildlife at Great Smoky Mountains.

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Cades Cove is easily our favorite area of the park/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

Other areas of the park are a little more difficult to get to, but can be reached by car or overnight backpacking. If you really want to escape the crowds, it’s much easier to do at Deep Creek, Cataloochee, or Big Creek. Each of these areas offer a primitive campground, a ranger station and some hiking trails but that’s about it.

Where to Stay
One thing that makes Great Smoky Mountains a great place to visit is that it appeals to a wide variety of people. Those who prefer the comforts of a nice hotel, plenty of restaurants, and other attractions will find them in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. If you want a small cabin or rustic hotel with a few local restaurants, we suggest staying in Townsend, TN, or Cherokee, NC. Of course, you can also do some car-camping or overnight backpacking inside the park.

Read our article on visiting Townsend, TN.

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A fall sunset at the Foothills Parkway near Townsend, TN/Photo by Bonnie and Grant Sinclair

There really are tons of options for exploring and enjoying Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’ve been three times now and have only just begun to scratch the surface. There are still many more trails and areas for us to explore! 

Get more information in our full article on visiting Great Smoky Mountains NP.

Header photo: courtesy of NPS

Grant and Bonnie Sinclair are the founders of the travel blog, Our Wander-Filled Life. Both Georgia natives, they’ve lived in the Southeast their entire lives, and currently reside in Woodstock, Georgia, where they both work as high school teachers. When school is out, they hit the road to explore and learn more about the country through its national parks.


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