Guide to Great Smoky Mountains

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Booming year after year, the Great Smoky Mountains form the most visited national park in America. Here, where Tennessee meets North Carolina, the dense forests, peaceful valleys and bubbling streams never seem to end. Add iconic wildlife and active gateway towns to that, and you’re in for a real treat.

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Great Smoky Mountains guide

This Great Smoky Mountains guide takes you to the depths of the Smokies. Start from the top, or jump straight to your favorite part.

Great Smoky Mountains at a glance

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited US national park. Positioned on the Tennessee and North Carolina border, it beats other giants within the national park system, such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

The Smokies, named after the natural fog that often covers the area’s tree tops, is in many ways the quintessential American national park.

Its expanding mountains offer sweeping overlooks. Clingmans Dome is not only the tallest mountain in the park but also in Tennessee.

Contrasting valleys present sheltered environments and fascinating human history. Cades Cove, where pioneers once ruled, is a timeless valley for every Smokies itinerary.

Wild streams, creating lovely waterfalls, infuse liveliness and make up great photo opportunities. Grotto Falls and Rainbow Falls are just two of many celebrated waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains.

Then it’s of course the wildlife. Oh yes, the wildlife.

In many parks big mammals are rarely sighted. That’s certainly not the case in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies is as much a paradise for wildlife as it is for its human visitors.

When it’s finally time to call nature a day, the gateway towns of the Smokies lure you in. Here you find top attractions, such as the theme park Dollywood, that certainly deserve their own attention.

Forest-framed Great Smoky Mountains valley dotted with grazing elk
Welcome to the Smokies.

Top 5 things to do in Great Smoky Mountains

This is our top 5 of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains. Are you ready for an epic trip to America’s favorite park?

1. Climb Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the tallest attraction in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The mountain’s summit, where you find a popular observation tower, is even the most elevated point in Tennessee.

In a bigger picture Clingmans Dome is the third tallest mountain east of Mississippi.

Located in the center of the park, there are no towns close to the towering spot. Still, its undisturbed vistas easily motivate an excursion to the Smokie’s heart.

2. Enter Cades Cove

Without Cades Cove something would be missing. Blessed with a timeless aura, it’s the most renowned valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Above all Cades Cove stands out for its many historic structures. Gems here include pioneer churches, homes, barns and even a gristmill.

But the fun certainly doesn’t stop there. Cades Cove among other things also features some of the best Great Smoky Mountains wildlife viewing.

3. Drive the Roaring Fork

Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail is a 6 miles (10 km) long drive that showcases a lot of what the Great Smoky Mountains is so famous for. Say hello to jaw-dropping overlooks, waterfall hikes and pioneer structures.

Already at the drive’s start the Noah Ogle Place grabs your attention. The historic spot, home to a cabin, barn and mill, offers a glimpse into the past of Great Smoky Mountains.

Then the actual Roaring Fork Motor Trail takes over the show. The one way road, following its namesake stream, meanders past one scenic spot after another on its way to Gatlinburg.

Tip: Don’t miss out on Grotto Falls as you explore Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail. It’s a Great Smoky Mountains National Park waterfall that you actually can walk behind.

4. Go wild off the park

You don’t get away from it. One of the best things with the Great Smoky Mountains is that the area, in particular Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, is full of fun for rainy days.

Just a few miles from the park border Gatlinburg invites you to Ripley’s Aquarium, Gatlinburg Space Needle and Hollywood Star Cars. This is a gateway town that offers the best of both worlds.

Slightly further away Pigeon Forge welcomes you to the biggest theme park in the Smokies, Dollywood.

5. Enjoy wildlife viewing

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just filled with wildlife. More than 60 mammal species call the Smokies their home.

Among them all there is in particular one that has become a Smokies symbol: America’s black bear.

Thanks to the park’s density of two bears per square mile the symbol is frequently encountered. Aren’t those furry creatures irresistible?

More things to do: Make sure to check our full guide with the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains for more inspiration.

Black bear sleeping in tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Black bear relaxing in Smokies tree.

Where to stay in Great Smoky Mountains

There are Great Smoky Mountains hotels both on the Tennessee and North Carolina side. However, the experience you get varies strongly depending on which gateway town you stay in.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the most frequented Great Smoky Mountain towns. Here you find not only big selections of restaurants and shops but also amusements for days off the park.

This is where in Great Smoky Mountains it happens.

Among an array of attractions, Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood stands out as one of the best theme parks in America. For where to stay when visiting Dollywood, consider the delightful DreamMore Resort.

Still you might feel that you rather stay off the beaten track. If so there are plenty of other options for your Great Smoky Mountains visit.

Townsend, at the park’s western end, provides convenient Cades Cove accommodations. In the so called quiet region of the Smokies, it’s all about nature.

Margaritaville Resort – Mix nature and luxury

Margaritaville sits at the base of your Great Smoky Mountains adventure. Located in Gatlinburg, steps from restaurants and shops, the luxury resort is in the first row for exploring America’s favorite national park.

Dollywood Resort – For the Dollywood fan

The Great Smoky Mountains is a place where you combine the best of both worlds. At Dollywood Resort, which really embraces that, you stay right at the legendary Dollywood theme park.

Blue Mountain Mist – Unwind on the countryside

At Blue Mountain Mist, positioned outside Pigeon Forge, you’re surrounded by peacefulness. It’s a place of blooming meadows and old-time appeal. Are you ready to enter a different world?

Historic wooden cabin in Elkmont within Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains cabin.

When to visit Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains, majestically rising up towards the sky, is one of the most beautiful places in America. But when is the best time to visit this natural gem filled with scenic overlooks and black bears?

Although there’s no wrong time to visit Great Smoky Mountains, each season has its unique pros.

See wildflowers in spring

Your trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also a journey to Wildflower National Park. For its many flowering plants, there are more than 1,500 of them, the Smokies has earned its pretty nickname.

When the Smokies’ meadows burst into colorful bloom in spring, it’s hard not to like what you see.

Just pay attention to that March weather often is unpredictable in the mountains. Due to snow and freezing temperatures secondary park roads generally don’t open up for the season until early April.

Hike in shorts in summer

Summer is peak season in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Expect steeper lodging rates, busier park roads and more fellow hikers.

But encompassing over 500,000 acres, you find peace even during summer in America’s most popular national park. You just need to get slightly further from the main roads and trailheads to find that solitude.

At lower elevations temperatures often climb to the 90s in summer, which is perfect if you prefer hiking in shorts.

Take in fall folliage

Do you have a leaf peeper in you? If so, fall might be the very best time for a trip to Great Smoky Mountains.

By mid-September the trees in the Smokies start to change color. This process begins at higher elevations and works its way towards the lower parts of the park, including Cades Cove.

The fall colors in Great Smoky Mountains National Park peak in October. Although days get cooler now, lower elevations tend to offer comfy days in the high 60s or low 70s.

Enjoy winter’s quietness

As temperatures retreat towards freezing, the Great Smoky Mountains visitor count hits its bottom. With the exception of during holidays, winter is the best time to beat the Smokies crowds.

This also is the time of the year when snow falls in the park. Although snow falls more frequently higher up in the mountains, lower park elevations gets a few inches each winter too.

A Smokies winter wonderland is an unforgettable experience.

Just make sure that the park sights you want to get to are available. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is always open, but its so called secondary park roads are closed from late November to early April.

Tip: It’s wise to check the Great Smoky Mountains seasonal road schedule if you plan a visit during the colder months of the year.

Trail leading through trees in a Great Smoky Mountains dusted with snow
Great Smoky Mountains winter.

Related: Also check our comprehensive list of the best things to do in the USA. Do you think the Smokies is there?

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