Ancient ageless mountains, underground caves, quiet groves of forestland, diverse plant and animal life – this is the most visited National Park in the United States: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Surround yourself in a peaceful escape of unspoiled beauty with a landscape that encompasses 800+ square miles of seemingly endless forests, wildlife & plant life to view & explore. Here, deer frolic & black bears roam, the land is unspoiled and the air is so fresh that we breathe in just a little deeper with each breath, cherishing that crisp fresh mountain air.
There are so many ways to visit the Appalachian wilderness of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from hiking and biking to spelunking and white-water rafting & even simply driving along the scenic roadway from Tennessee to North Carolina, there truly is something for everyone in The Smokies which makes this popular National Park the perfect destination for your next family vacation so pack your rain gear, lace up your hiking boots & get ready to travel along as we share our guide to all the Great Smoky Mountain National Park things:
“There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt
A Nature Lovers Paradise:
If you’re looking to go off the grid, and we mean truly off the grid – we promise, iPhones, iPads, or iWhatevers won’t get reception, then Great Smoky Mountains National Park is for you! Spend your days lost in a tree-covered mountain paradise, taking in the beauty of this seemingly endless ancient mountainscape of The Appalachians.
Here you will find both peace & quiet – yes it’s been a while and you may remember it from your youth, but in this neck of the woods you will find that unfamiliar sound of days past before all the noise (however you define it) that has taken over all our lives.
- The Great Smoky Mountains were given their name “Smoky” from the natural fog that can often be seen hanging overtop the endless mountain range. It was determined that water and hydrocarbons emitted by the forest’s millions of trees, bushes & other plant life produced a filmy vapor creating that signature “smoky” look.
- There is no admission fee to visit this National Park. That’s right – Great Smoky Mountains National Park is completely free and filled with endless adventure!
- According to CNN Travel, over 12 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2022.
- The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of only two locations in the world where you can witness the synchronous fireflies phenomenon.
- The Park may be known better for its black bear population, but it’s also considered the “Salamander Capital of the World.” The Park is home to 14 species of lung-less salamanders.
- There are 800+ miles of hiking trails featuring spectacular mountain vistas, scenic waterfalls & streams, and forestland.
Sugarlands Visitor Center
Open every day of the year, except for Christmas Day, this is the perfect starting point for your Smoky Mountain National Park adventures where you can get the lay of the land, purchase souvenirs, and chat with park personnel about trail conditions & closures as well as what wildlife to look out for. Just a short drive from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Sugarlands Visitor Center offer a free 20+ minute film about the Park, knowledgeable rangers, restrooms, a gift shop, and educational exhibits.
During our visit, we of course picked up a few souvenirs, and we chatted with the park rangers & nature experts at Sugarlands who shared with us that the Moose would be bugling during our visit and we might even be able to hear them on our hikes.
Observe from The Clouds at Clingmans Dome
Enjoy views from the clouds with a hike up the steep half-mile paved trail to Clingmans Dome Observation Tower, the highest point in Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet elevation where visitors can take in 360 degree panoramic views of the Smokies & beyond from heights towering high above the treetops. On the clearest of days, visitors can see 100+ miles, and for this reason it has become one of the most popular trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Sadly, although the weather was beautiful throughout our entire seven mile drive along Clingmans Dome Road toward the trailhead, once we arrived at the parking area, the “smoke” set in & we could hardly see anything through the famous “smoke” of the smoky mountains. Some may have viewed this as a disappointment, but for us it was an unforgettable experience & we love that we got to experience firsthand how the Smoky Mountains got their name.
Although we’d consider this the easiest of our hikes, it was a tough uphill battle. The pros of this trail are that it is a very nicely maintained, paved, & wide trail with hand rails & benches. However, the very steep half-mile hike is definitely a moderate hike due to it being entirely uphill. Even though we prepped for our hike, the combination of September’s humidity, the altitude and consistent hike above a 5% grade (a 330+ foot elevation gain) made it feel as if we weren’t getting enough oxygen at times which could make this an extremely difficult hike for some. This is a very popular trail, but even with the crowds, it’s important to remember to walk at your own pace, and take breaks with the benches provided every few hundred feet.
Restrooms are available in the parking area, and there is a very small gift shop at the trail head. Like most Smoky Mountain Trails, pets and wheelchairs are not permitted.
Hike Charlies Bunion
The hike to Charlies Bunion is a strenuous 8 mile roundtrip hike eastbound through the Smokies with an absolutely stunning views of the Smokies. Grab your hiking boots, surround yourself with a fragrant spruce-fir forest, and take in one of the most incredible hiking trails in the States.
With an elevation change of 1,600+ feet and hovering at elevations around 6,000 feet, this is where visitors to the National Park get up close and personal with the beauty of the land by hiking 4 miles of narrow ridgeways out on the world-famous Appalachian Trail with a photo-worthy finish at a very popular rock outcropping known as Charlies Bunion where visitors enjoy breathtaking panoramic mountain views.
“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” – John Muir
Budget at least 4 hours for your hike & arrive early! We recommend no later than 6:45 a.m. regardless of the season. With a starting elevation of 5,000 feet, a hike to Charlies Bunion begins with a bang – unparalleled views of the southern Smoky Mountains. The first two miles of this hike are a steady climb making the relentless uphill effort relatively difficult, but don’t be scared. Just say yes, and get your hike on!
Bike Cades Cove Loop
Cades Cove Loop is an 11 mile scenic loop roadway through the Smokies. Arrive at 6:00 a.m. for a ride at sunrise -this is the absolute best way to see the Park, in our opinion! The one-lane roadway closes to cars on Wednesdays from May through September. Don’t have a bike, no problem! Visitors can rent bikes upon arrival (the rental office closes at 5:00 pm but final round of rentals goes out at 3:00 pm), but we prefer to bring our own.
The loop itself is hilly with the backside being the steepest, saving the best for last! If you’re an avid biker, budget at least one hour to make the loop or if you’re riding with family & looking to explore some of the sites along the loop like the John Oliver Cabin, the Cable Mill or Primitive Baptist Church, plan for 3-4 hours. Keep an eye out for wildlife like black bears, turkey & deer. If that’s not enough time, consider an overnight stay by camping at Cades Cove Campground. Don’t forget to wear layers & pack some snacks because biking is hard work!
This is the spot where The Great Smoky Mountains straddle the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, and it’s also a very popular trailhead for the world-famous Appalachian Trail which crosses through “The Gap.” At almost one mile high, a little over 5,000 feet in elevation, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Here you will find the Appalachian Trail crossing, the state line for North Carolina & Tennessee, restrooms, and a massive parking lot where visitors can enjoy scenic views of the surrounding landscape.
Gatlinburg is the Gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park so many visitors use this charming town as the starting point for their adventures, but Gatlinburg is also home to some of the best shopping, dining & attractions in Tennessee! (Jared – What it’s really known for is moonshine tasting!) We made it a point to stop in this gem of a town after each of our visits to the Smokies where we quickly settled in and felt like locals thanks to a warm welcome of southern hospitality – these folks are easily the nicest people you will ever meet.
We grabbed a meal at some of the best restaurants like Jimmy Buffett’s Landshark Bar & Grill, a delicious casual option – the perfect place to stop in post-Smoky Mountain hike, enjoy fine dining riverside at Chesapeakes or the standout for us was dinner mountaintop at The Greenbrier.
Drive through the Smokies
Maybe you’re not ready to camp, hike, or bike your way through The Smokies, and that’s okay. Sometimes the best way to experience a new destination is with a driving tour from the climate controlled comforts of your automobile. Take the scenic drive through Newfound Gap Road also known as US-441! Driving 30+ miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee, North Carolina, we climbed through over 3,000 feet of mountainous forestland. This is the only fully paved road in The Smokies.
“A national park is not a playground. it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.” – Michael Frome
Along the way, we stopped at various scenic overlooks and took in the sights and smells of pine-oaks, evergreens, and hardwoods. As you enjoy the view, don’t forget to be on the lookout for wildlife, but always be sure to keep a safe distance.
Where to Stay:
For us, Margaritaville Island Hotel was the perfect combination of mountain life & island vibes. While Jared loves the mountains & Janine prefers the Islands, this spot was the perfect compromise of both our favorite things.
Margaritaville Island Hotel’s prime location offers access to all areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but here are just a few highlights that we visited during our stay:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center – 22 minute drive
- Twin Creeks Trailhead entrance – 20 minute drive
- Newfound Gap (Appalachian Trail to Indian Gap) – 45 minute drive
- Clingmans Dome Trailhead entrance – 1 hour & 8 minute drive
- Charlie’s Bunion Trailhead entrance – 38 minute drive
- Cades Cove – 1 hour 5 minute drive
We spent mornings at Smoky Mountain National Park hiking, biking & taking in the sites and afternoons at Margaritaville Island Hotel’s rooftop pool & bar enjoying the Island life with live music, a margarita & a private cabana.
We hope this guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be helpful on your first or next visit because after all, this isn’t just a national park – but also a national treasure! We want to hear all about your past or future visits, your trip planning, and any questions you may have in order to help you plan the best possible visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir
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