Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide

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Why Go To Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans both Tennessee and North Carolina, with the border running through the center of the 522,427-acre tract. The mountains have a long history of human settlers from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to 19th-century European settlers. Today, more than 10 million people visit the park each year – it's one of the few free national parks in America – to enjoy scenic drives to Cades Cove or along the Roaring Fork Motor Trail and outdoor activities like hiking, biking and fishing. Pack a picnic for stunning hikes to Abrams or Rainbow Falls, or bike the Cades Cove Loop on Wednesday and Saturday mornings when the road is closed to traffic. Learn the history of the park at the Cades Cove Visitor Center and explore the historic gristmill and Cable Mill or stop by Sugarlands Visitor Center to see wildlife exhibits, view a film on the park and pick up unique souvenirs at the gift shop.

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Best of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Tips

Best Months to Visit

The best times to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the summer (June, July and August) and the fall. July is the busiest month of the summer season while October weekends draw those in search of autumn foliage. Since the park has a diverse topography with elevations ranging from 875 feet to more than 6,000 feet, temperatures can vary by up to 20 degrees from the base to the mountaintop so pack layers and a rain jacket no matter what time of year you visit. Summer is hot with temperatures in the 80s, while winters see temperatures into the mid-30s, as well as road closures due to snow. Fall foliage displays usually begin in mid-September, when the summer crowds are gone and the lodging rates are low, making it a great time to visit. However, you'll see higher rates for crisp fall October weekends. Most of the annual snowfall occurs from January to March. Early spring (March to May) also sees fewer crowds and lower lodging rates. Although the park is open daily year-round, some visitor centers, campgrounds and historic attractions close during the winter months.

Weather in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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See details for When to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Data sourced from the National Climatic Data Center

What You Need to Know

  • Check for road and trail closures Roads and trails often close for inclement weather or bear sightings, so check the National Park Service website for updates.
  • Do not approach or feed bears Always carry bear spray while hiking and if camping, follow the rules for keeping food and waste in bear-proof containers.
  • The early bird gets the worm Many of the parking lots at the most popular trailheads fill up quickly, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., so try to go early in the morning or at off-peak times.
  • Be prepared for limited facilities The visitor centers feature snack and beverage vending machines and the only accommodations in the park (aside from campgrounds) is a hike-in lodge atop Mount LeConte. The LeConte Lodge is open from mid-March through mid-November and advance reservations are required. 

How to Save Money in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • Visit in the offseason Accommodation rates are highest in summer and on fall weekends. To save some coin, visit in spring or on weekdays.
  • Pack a picnic Pack a lunch to enjoy on one of the scenic hiking trails, some of which offer picnic facilities.
  • Bring your own groceries Groceries, firewood, batteries and other supplies for camping are more expensive at the park's camp stores, so plan ahead and bring as many items as you can from home or visit a grocery store in a nearby town.

What to Eat

There are no restaurants in the park itself, although the Cades Cove Campground & Store has a snack bar that serves some breakfast items, hot and cold sandwiches soup and chili, pizza, soft serve ice cream and fountain drinks. The store also sells grocery and camping items. Vending machines are located at the Elkmont Campground, the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee visitor centers and at both riding stables. 

On the Tennessee side of the park, shops, restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores are located in the nearby communities of Gatlinburg and Townsend, while on the North Carolina side of the park, visitors can find those services in Cherokee.

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Getting Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The best way to get around Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by car. The park does not offer any guided tours and there is no public transportation to the park from the major cities in the area, although if you enter from Tennessee side, the city of Gatlinburg does offer trolley service to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Laurel Falls parking area and the Elkmont Campground from June through October. Bicycles are prohibited on all park trails, except the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail and the lower Deep Creek Trail. 

On the Tennessee side, the nearest airport – less than 25 miles west of the park – is McGhee Tyson (TYS) just south of Knoxville. In North Carolina, the closest airport is the Asheville Regional Airport (AVL), about 60 miles east of the Cherokee entrance. Both airports offer car rentals. There are three entrances to the park, two in Tennessee (Gatlinburg and Townsend) and one in North Carolina (Cherokee).

Photos

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Abrams Falls hike is not for novices, but experienced trekkers love packing a picnic lunch to enjoy at the base of the falls.

JimVallee/Getty Images

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