Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Hikes, Activities, Lodging, and Fun Facts

The national park system is one of America’s best features, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park happens to be the most-visited park in America.

great smoky mountains guide

The Smokies may not have a singular natural feature to draw tourists, such as Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

But the Smokies remain popular because of their scenery, and their convenient location in Tennessee and North Carolina, within one day’s drive of most of the Midwest and east coast.

This Smoky Mountains travel guide includes all the info you’ll need to have a great visit. I’ll share some personal tips from my visits over the years, and suggestions for the best hiking trails, campgrounds, and attractions.

Read on to get started on your Great Smoky Mountain National Park adventure!

Smoky Mountains Location and National Park Map

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than a half-million acres surrounding the Tennessee and North Carolina border. It’s within short driving distance from Georgia and South Carolina, as well.

Here’s the official National Park Service map (PDF file) for Great Smoky Mountain NP. It highlights all the campgrounds, visitor centers, picnic areas, roads, and rivers within the park.

Below, check out a smaller version of the map showing the wider surrounding area.

great smoky mountains national park map

The Smokies are a popular family vacation destination. Parents and kids often visit to see the park and check out the nearby towns and attractions, such as Dollywood, the famous theme park operated by Dolly Parton in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Other popular things to do near the Smokies include Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, the Hollywood Star Cars Museum in Gatlinburg, and the Hollywood Wax Museum in Pigeon Forge.

Within the park itself, common activities include hiking, camping, fishing, ranger tours, viewing wildlife and flowers, and picnicking. It’s basically all about nature and the great outdoors in this park.

Basic Info: Visitor Centers, Parking and Fees

Good news: Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee.

However, in 2023, the park introduced a “parking tag” fee of $5 per day or $15 for a week. So driving through the park is free, but anyone who wants to park anywhere in the national park must pay for the tag.

Parking tags can be purchased online, or in person at visitor centers and various stores in the surrounding area.

camping smokies stream

Great Smoky Mountains NP has four visitor centers:

-The Sugarlands Visitor Center and park headquarters are located in the north central section of the park, in Gatlinburg. This is also the backcountry permit office.

-The less-traveled western side of the park has a center at Cades Cove. This is a smaller center but it does have bathrooms and a gift shop.

-The Ocunaluftee Visitor Center stands in the southern North Carolina part of the park, near Cherokee, NC. This center has small exhibits and a large gift and book store.

-Clingman’s Dome has a “Visitor Contact Center” and store at the highest point in the park at 6643 feet. This center is located at the hike trailhead and remains open during daylight hours from April through November.

These are good places to stop for maps and ranger advice when you enter the park.

The Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains: Weather Tips

travel guide smoky mountains
View of Great Smoky Mountain National Park in spring before the leaves have returned.

When’s the best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Though it’s crowded, summer is still generally considered the best time to come.

The weather is hottest during the summer months, and the hiking trails are all open.

Autumn is also a popular choice due to the changing colors of the leaves. Most people try to plan their vacations around those times of year.

In winter, temperatures in the lower parts of the park exceed 50 degrees F most days, but can drop to well below freezing if you go into the higher elevations. And many secondary park roads close during the winter.

Historic Cabins and Houses in the Park

If you’re into history, you’ll want to check out some of the park’s historic buildings. More than 90 log cabins, churches, schools, and old houses remain standing.

great smokies log cabin

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is one of the best places to see old cabins in the park, in addition to waterfalls and thick old growth forest.

Some are on the National Register of Historic Places. See a map of all the historic structures here.

The Best Hikes at Great Smoky Mountains NP

Here are a few of our recommended hikes in the park. For additional suggestions and detailed information, check out the book Top Trails: Great Smoky Mountains 50 Must-Do Hikes.

You can also check out the NPS trail map (PDF) for Smoky Mountain park.

Recommended Smoky Mountain Hikes:
• Easy: Porters Flat Trail (2 miles out & back, △400 feet elevation gain)
• Easy: Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail (1.3 miles out & back, △335 feet)
• Moderate: Grotto Falls Trail (2.6 miles out & back, △600 feet)
• Moderate to Strenuous: Chimney Tops Trail (4 miles out & back, △1400 feet)
• Strenuous: Rainbow Falls Trail (5.4 miles out & back, △1700 feet)

hike great smokies
Scrambling to the summit of Chimney Tops Trail.

The Chimney Tops hike was the trek I did several years ago during my first visit to the park. A lot of the hike is straight up, with 1400 feet elevation gain in two miles.

Once you reach the end, you’ll need to scramble up a steep rocky section to reach the summit and take in the wide-open views.

Meanwhile, Porters Flat is best for kids or other folks who can’t hike long distances. It’s one mile each way from the parking lot near Greenbrier Cove to the Porters Flat area, where a decades-old barn and cabin still stand.

And the Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower Trail is a must-see. The modest 1.3-mile roundtrip leads to a viewing tower overlooking the entire park.

You probably won’t need bear spray if you’re on a heavily-traveled path, but it never hurts to bring.

Campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains NP

smokemount campground

First, the campgrounds. The park has 10 developed campgrounds with bathrooms, but no showers or electrical outlets. Drinking water is available at each of these spots.

The most popular campgrounds in the park are:
-Elkmont Campground (211 sites)
-Cades Cove Campground (161 sites)
-Cosby Campground (157 sites)
-Smokemount Campground (142 sites)
-Deep Creek Campground (92 sites)

Most campgrounds currently cost $30 per night and they can be reserved in advance. Backcountry camping is allowed with advance permits and reservations.

Lodging: Hotels Near the Smoky Mountains

The best places to stay in the Smoky Mountains range from cabin rentals to fancy hotels. It just depends on your personal style of travel.

downtown gatlinburg
Driving through Gatlinburg, a town just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Within the park, LeConte Lodge is located in the middle of the wilderness at 6400 feet elevation. You must hike 5 miles to reach the lodge. Adventurous visitors may want to consider staying here.

As for hotels, the nearby towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Asheville all have options, though some of their vacation packages are expensive and they can fill up during the busy season.

Here are a few suggested hotels near Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with links to check their pricing and availability.

Gatlinburg, TN: River Edge Inn. Very close to the park and in walking distance to Gatlinburg’s attractions.

Pigeon Forge, TN: Creekstone Inn. Attractive inn with a pool, located right next to the river.

Cherokee, NC: Great Smokies Inn. Quiet inn very close to the park’s southern entrance.

Fun Facts: 8 Things You Didn’t Know About Great Smoky Mountains NP

1 It’s the most-visited national park in America.

National park junkies surely already know this, but the average person might not be aware that the Smokies attract more than 13 million visitors each year – more than Yellowstone, more than the Grand Canyon!

How is that possible? Well, for one thing, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is big. To be precise, its size is 522,427 acres, which ranks it as the 19th largest national park in the USA.

view smokies

Because it covers so much territory, people in Tennessee and North Carolina frequently drive through the park on their way to somewhere else.

It’s on the eastern side of the country, where most people live. And the fact that it’s free to visit doesn’t hurt, either!

2 It’s considered the salamander capital of the world.

A majority of the vertebrates inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park on any given day are not humans, but salamanders. The slimy amphibians can be found throughout the park.

Among the 30 species of salamanders are 24 varieties of “lungless” salamanders. These wacky creatures breathe by soaking in air through their skin and the linings of their mouths.

3 The Smokies have more than 850 miles of hiking trails.

The Smokies are more than 95% forested land, so naturally, hiking and camping are big here. The park boasts more than 850 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

The National Park Service estimates that the average hiker travels at 1.5 miles per hour in the park, so pick the hiking route that most appeals to you and start walking!

4 Elk have been reintroduced to the Smokies.

Elk were once widespread in this area, but hunting and loss of habitat caused them to disappear in the mid 1800s.

In 2001-02, more than 50 elk were brought back to the Smokies. At last count, around 140 elk were living in western North Carolina.

elk herd close

The best place to see them is in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern part of the park, and they are most visible in morning and early evening hours.

River otters and barn owls were also successfully reintroduced into the Smokies. One species, the red wolf, was reintroduced but failed, due to low rates of reproduction.

5 A memorial marks the spot where President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.

On September 2, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park as an official national park. The ceremony took place on Newfound Gap Road along the state line.

That spot has been commemorated with the Rockefeller Memorial, created in honor of the Rockefeller Foundation, which in the 1930s coughed up the $5 million necessary to buy the land.

Both Tennessee and North Carolina legislatures agreed to contribute $10,000 to the construction of the memorial.

6 The Smokies are home to 66 types of mammals.

That includes about 1500 black bears, roughly two per square mile. Bears are the biggest predators in the park, but there are also coyotes and bobcats, which are far more rare.

Pests like raccoons and skunks abound, and look up to see bats and flying squirrels at night.

My favorite smaller mammal in the park is the pygmy shrew, which is just 2 inches long and weigh only 3 grams. Their tiny hearts race at 1,000 beats per minute.

These fellas must eat constantly (usually worms and insects) to stay alive – they will not survive if they go more than an hour without food. That sounds like a stressful existence!

7 The park is full of historic log cabins.

As noted earlier, the NPS says nearly 100 historic log buildings have been preserved or restored throughout the park. This includes houses, barns, churches and schools.

Among the best spots to find them is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a six-mile, one-way loop. In addition to the log structures, the loop takes visitors past waterfalls, thick forest, and wildflowers.

smoky mountains stream

8 Fewer than a third of the species living in the park have been documented.

According to the NPS, more than 17,000(!) species of plants and animals have been identified in the park.

But scientists say there are at least 30,000 more (perhaps as many as 80,000) that haven’t yet been documented. That’s a whole lot of foliage and wildlife!

The reason for the diversity is the wide range of environments in the park. The elevations go from 875 feet in the lowlands to 6643 feet up in the mountains, so lots of different types of plants and animals can find a home somewhere in the Smokies.

Check Out My Other National Park Guides:
• Great Basin (Nevada)
• Isle Royale (Michigan)
• Voyageurs (Minnesota)
• Mount Rainier (Washington)
• Hawaii Volcanoes (Hawaii)
• Mammoth Cave (Kentucky)