Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Camping, Guide & Tips

Petr Novák

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is situated in the Appalachian Mountains in the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. Though it may not be one of the most recognized in the country, with 14.1 million visitors annually, it is the most frequented USA national park. Along with the celebrated Appalachian Trail, it is renowned for harboring one of the world’s oldest forests.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park | © Pixabay

Table of Contents
  1. Information About Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. What to See and Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  3. When to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  4. Entrance Fees for Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  5. How to Reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  6. Lodging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  7. Tips and Recommendations Before Traveling to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  8. Photos of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Information About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Congress designated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on June 15, 1934. The park, which holds the oldest forest on the U.S. East Coast, was primarily acquired from 18 timber companies, with the remainder bought from 1,200 individual proprietors. In 1983, the park was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Previously, the Great Smoky Mountains were inhabited by the Cherokee Indian tribe. The Cherokee maintained control over the territory until the first half of the 19th century when their destiny was sealed by President Andrew Jackson. He issued an order for the removal of all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River. Most Cherokees complied and relocated westward, with only a few groups surviving around the park.

Approximately 95% of the park is forested, with around one-third being native forest. Over 100 tree species flourish in the Great Smoky Mountains, including the yellow birch, big-leaf beech, and American linden. Unsurprisingly, after the Cherokees’ removal, logging became a significant industry throughout the broader region. Although it brought wealth and prosperity, much of the timber in the Great Smoky Mountains was felled.

Among mammals, you’re most likely to come across newts, of which 30 species exist within the park. Probably no other place globally boasts such a diverse array of these creatures. Other commonly spotted animals include baribal bears, raccoons, foxes, beavers, squirrels, river otters, red lynx, and chipmunks.

What to See and Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Appalachian Trail

Numerous hiking trails span the park, many of which were established during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The most renowned is the 2,175 mi-long Appalachian Trail, which extends through 14 states on the east coast of the USA. One end is at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the other at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Road Trip on Scenic Routes

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 815 mi2, making it perfect for a road trip. Several scenic roads lead to picturesque viewpoints.

  • Newfound Gap
    The scenic road lies 5,046 ft above sea level, and it is the lowest drivable pass in the national park. The Rockefeller Monument, commemorating the American industrialist who donated $5 million to help establish the park, is a worthwhile stop. Map of the route / More information.
  • Cades Cove
    This 11.18 mi circuit is one of the most popular, offering superb opportunities for wildlife spotting. Sightings may include white-tailed deer, American black bears, coyotes, and woodchucks. There are several places to stop along the route for hikes. Route map / More information.
  • Cataloochee
    The Cataloochee Valley showcases typical local architecture from the late 19th century, with two historic churches, a school, and several houses. All these structures are nestled amidst mountain peaks that rise to 5,997 ft. Route map / More information.
  • Clingmans Dome
    Clingmans Dome, at 6,644 ft, is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The scenic route offers breathtaking mountain views and forests of fir and spruce trees. Don’t miss the chance to stop at Rainbow Falls. Route map / More information.
  • Roaring Fork
    The Roaring Fork Nature Trail, named after a mountain stream that originates in the area, can be explored from spring to fall. The trail stretches 5.53 mi and offers an immersive nature experience. Route map / More information.

Hiking

For those with limited time or a preference for shorter hikes, try the Chimney Tops. This 4,790 ft-high mountain in Tennessee is accessible via the Chimney Tops Trail.

For a comprehensive list of hiking trails, see the Park Service’s detailed map.

When to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open year-round. The peak season is autumn when the leaves burst into vibrant colors. This spectacle usually happens from mid-September to mid-October, but the exact timing varies each year.

The most comfortable temperatures in the park are from June to September, ranging from 63°F to 86°F. From the end of November to early March, the park becomes chilly, with temperatures fluctuating between 32°F and 46°F.

Rainy days in the Great Smoky Mountains are evenly distributed throughout the year, averaging about 9-11 per month.

Average Temperatures and Visitor Numbers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Average temperatures in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are presented below, alongside visitor counts which are based on averages from 2017 to 2021. The data source is the National Park Service.

Max Temp Min Temp Precipitation Days Visitors Popularity
January 46°F 28°F 9.0 421 060 🟩
February 52°F 32°F 8.7 426 968 🟩
March 59°F 39°F 10.4 775 085 🟨🟨
April 68°F 46°F 10.2 943 236 🟨🟨
May 75°F 54°F 12.1 1074 051 🟨🟨
June 81°F 61°F 13.4 1415 939 🟧🟧🟧
July 84°F 64°F 14.4 1553 871 🟧🟧🟧
August 82°F 64°F 11.6 1284 744 🟧🟧🟧
September 79°F 57°F 8.2 1289 166 🟧🟧🟧
October 68°F 46°F 7.5 1421 636 🟧🟧🟧
November 59°F 37°F 8.3 900 378 🟨🟨
December 50°F 32°F 9.3 650 302 🟨🟨

Entrance Fees for Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the few national parks in the USA that is free to enter. There is only a fee charged for overnight camping or for renting picnic sites.

If your USA road trip includes visits to other national parks, you’ll likely need to get an America the Beautiful pass. Essentially, this is an annual pass priced at $80 that allows you to visit all of the country’s national parks without any additional charges.

How to Reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The sheer size of the park and the scenic roads suggest that a rental car will be necessary to explore the Great Smoky Mountains. Most of the park’s 384 mi of trails are paved roads, easily traversable with a standard vehicle. Just be sure to abide by the 35mph speed limit, which is naturally enforced by the narrow winding roads.

Starting from 2023, there will be charges for parking within the national park. Make sure to display your parking card with the license plate number on it outside the window. Available options include a one-day pass for $5.00, a weekly pass for $15.00, and an annual pass for $40.

Some roads may be closed during winter months. When driving after dark, exercise caution to avoid wildlife. You won’t find any gas stations inside the park, so plan to fill up in Cherokee, Gatlinburg, or Townsend.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has six entrance gates. Here are the routes to them from surrounding towns:

From Distance Driving Time Route
Atlanta 165 mi 3 hours View Route
Charlotte 165 mi 2 hours 50 minutes View Route
Chattanooga 108 mi 2 hours View Route
Knoxville 32 mi 50 minutes View Route

Lodging in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

🏨 Hotels

A wide range of accommodations can be found in and around the park. The towns of Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Townsend provide the most options.

The most affordable options are the budget-friendly hostels, known as lodges, where the price is approximately $45 per room per night. It is advisable to filter on Booking.com for accommodations with a rating of 7.0/10 or higher and at least 100 reviews. A good value for your money is the Super 8 in Sevierville.

⛺ Campgrounds

There are 10 campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that are accessible by car. You can reserve a spot in advance at Recreation.gov.

  • Abrams Creek is a small campground with 16 sites. It is open from late April to late October, and the fee for a tent site and one night’s camping is $30.
  • Balsam Mountain is the park’s highest campsite, located at an elevation of 5,308 ft. It has 43 sites and charges $30 per night.
  • Big Creek is the smallest campground with only 12 sites. It is for tents only, and the nightly fee is $30.
  • Cades Cove is open year-round, has 159 tent sites, and charges $30 per night.
  • Cataloochee is one of the smaller campgrounds with 27 sites. The nightly rate is $30.
  • Cosby is open from mid-April to the end of October. The fee for one of the 157 sites is $30.
  • Deep Creek houses 92 tent sites, and the cost for one night is $30.
  • Elkmont is the largest campground in the park with 220 sites. The fee for a campsite is $30.
  • Look Rock has 68 sites, and the cost per night is $36.
  • Smokemont is the second of the year-round campgrounds. Its capacity is 142 sites, and the cost per night is $30.

Tips and Recommendations Before Traveling to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

ℹ️ Visitor Center

The national park operates three visitor centers where you can consult with rangers and participate in organized programs during the peak season.

  • Cades Cove Visitor Center
    The visitor center is located roughly midway along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Open year-round, it features exhibits focusing on life in the mountains. Of interest is the Cable Mill, which is open from spring through fall.
  • Oconaluftee Visitor Center
    This uniquely named center can be found 1.24 mi north of Cherokee. Open year-round, you can explore a museum dedicated to the history of mountain settlement and a diverse collection of rural buildings.
  • Sugarlands Visitor Center
    This small visitor center is located 1.99 mi south of the town of Gatlinburg and is accessible year-round.

👍 Good to Know

The “Great Smoky Mountains” received their name from the Native Americans. The name originates from the blue mist that rises from the vegetation and lingers at low elevations.

Grocery stores in the park are relatively few, so it is recommended to purchase supplies in town in advance. At visitor centers, you’ll typically only find drink vending machines.

For your trip planning to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is recommended to download a PDF map of the park, hiking trails, and campgrounds to your phone.

Photos of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains | © Pixabay
Great Smoky Mountains | © Pixabay
Great Smoky Mountains | © Pixabay
Great Smoky Mountains | © Pixabay
Great Smoky Mountains | © Unsplash.com / Chris Ried
Great Smoky Mountains | © Pixabay

US National Parks

  1. List of US National Parks
  2. America the Beautiful Annual Pass
  3. Timed-Entry Reservation for US National Parks

Travel Guides to USA National Parks

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