Saturday, October 31, 2020

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide

great smoky mountain national park entrances

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 800 square miles on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. There are 150 official hiking trails in the park, ranging from just 1.2 miles up to Clingmans Dome up to the 71 mile Appalachian Trail. The Smoky Mountains have trails for all abilities and experience levels. The park is also free to enter, which is a huge bonus!

I visited the Smokies for the first time in October with my boyfriend. We packed a lot into two days to make the most of our fall experience at the park. On the first day, we hiked three different trails, starting at sunrise and stayed at the park until we could stargaze. In this post, you will find all the basic information you need to know before visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park and tips I learned during my trip.

smoky mountains clingmans dome view

Great Smoky Mountain National Park Entrances

Gatlinburg, TN is easily the most crowded town outside the park. This might be a hot take, but I would love to never set foot or drive through Gatlinburg again. The area is full of tourists and attractions like Ripley’s Believe it or Not. If that is your jam, more power to you but I was overwhelmed just passing through on a weekday evening.

Townsend, TN is the self-proclaimed “peaceful side” of the Smokies and the name fits. It is the closest entrance to Cades Cove, the incredibly popular scenic drive inside the National Park. The serene town has horseback riding and tubing adventures as well as some local shops and plenty of places to camp or stay in a cabin. Townsend also hosts some seasonal festivals.

Cherokee, NC would be ideal if you are visiting the Smoky Mountains from the south. You enter the park on the North Carolina side, which is actually where Clingmans Dome is located. On my trip, most of our destinations were on the Tennessee side of the park and we drove from Saint Louis so using this entrance would have added hours to our trip.

Visitors Centers

Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Alum Cave Bluffs

10.6 miles, 2,919 ft elevation gain
Over 10 miles sounds like an intimidating hike (because it is!). We hiked about half of the full trail. The first part of the trail follows a creek and some of the unique features include Fallen Rock, Inspiration Point and the bluffs. We ate lunch at Inspiration Point and walked an additional 15 minutes to the bluffs. The trail continues from there up to Mount LeConte, which is the highest point in the park. The parking lot was getting busy around 7am when we headed up to Clingmans Dome so you definitely want to start early to hike the entire trail.

Chimney Tops

4.5 miles, 1,358 ft elevation gain
We were stuck between Alum Cave Bluffs and Chimney Tops when deciding on which longer hike to do. In the end, we opted for Alum Cave Bluffs mainly because the very end of Chimney Tops is currently closed from fire damage. It is another one of the most popular trails in the park. This hike gets steeper as you go, with the final mile having almost 1000 feet of the elevation. From photos I’ve seen, the views are incredible when you do reach the top.

Clingmans Dome

1.2 miles, 331 ft elevation gain
Clingmans Dome is definitely a must-see when you visit the Smoky Mountains for the first time. We headed up there just during sunrise and the views were absolutely gorgeous. We were also lucky to have incredibly clear weather on our trip, but I imagine it would be beautiful anytime. We could see all the way to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. It was crowded but people were mostly respectful of social distancing and wore masks. Helpful signage points out features like the state line, Mount LeConte and other peaks.

Waterfall Hikes in the Smoky Mountains

Abrams Falls

4.9 miles, 629 ft elevation gain
This waterfall hike is located off the Cades Cove Scenic loop so I recommend starting early to avoid traffic. Unlike some of the other trails in the Smoky Mountains, this hike’s elevation goes up and down as you head to the waterfall, which means it is not necessarily a quick and easy trip back. That really adds to the workout of the hike! We took our time and ate lunch at the falls. It was definitely more crowded coming back, but that was partly due to the bear sighting near the parking lot. 

Grotto Falls

2.6 miles, 534 ft elevation gain
For a short and relatively easy waterfall hike, head to Grotto Falls. While the falls are just a little over a mile from the trailhead, it is almost exclusively uphill. This particular waterfall is special because you can walk behind the falls for a fun photo. We hiked this one late in the afternoon and it wasn’t too busy. Like most waterfall trails, the most congestion was at the actual falls. There are a few spots to park at the Grotto Falls trailhead but they can also be accessed via Trillium Gap.

Rainbow Falls

5.5. Miles, 1,653 ft elevation gain
Rainbow Falls is a very popular trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was high on our list before we narrowed down the trails we could actually fit into the trip. We chose Abrams Falls over Rainbow Falls mostly because Abrams Falls are on the Cades Cove Scenic Loop and that was part of our plan already. The parking lot fills up quickly so get there early. It’s common to see wildlife along this trail too. 

tips for cades cove in the smokies

Cades Cove Scenic Loop

One of the most popular activities in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Cades Cove Scenic Loop. The one-way road is packed with views of the mountains and historic buildings. Give yourself a couple hours to complete the drive (more if you also plan to hike) as it can get especially crowded in the afternoons. We started the drive around 9am on a Wednesday morning. Keep in mind that the road is closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays from June 17-September 30 and plan accordingly. If you are planning to walk or bike the 11 mile road, take advantage of those times without cars! Cades Cove is also a popular spot to see white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes and turkeys. 

where to see black bears in the smokies

Bear Safety in the Smoky Mountains

  • Stay 50 yards (150 feet) away from black bears at all times. Bring binoculars or a telephoto lens if you want to see them better. My photo may look close but that is thanks to zoom AND cropping.
  • Use the bear proof trash cans located all over the park. Garbage is one of the biggest killers of wild bears because it teaches them that humans are a source of food. 
  • If a bear changes its activity in your presence, then you are too close. You can safely view a bear if they continue to feed but be wary if they change direction or watch you.
  • If necessary, back away from black bears slowly. Keep your eyes on the bear.
  • If a bear seems interested in your food, separate yourself from the food. It is better to sacrifice your lunch than your own safety.

Stargazing at Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Another really cool activity I just couldn’t leave off this blog post is stargazing! Because of the vastness and lack of light throughout the park, the Smoky Mountains are an ideal location to stargaze. There are also very few large cities nearby to contribute to light pollution. After sunset, we headed up to the Newfound Gap Trailhead parking lot and set out a blanket. As our eyes adjusted, we could pick out a few constellations and see the Milky Way. We also saw Mars and a shooting star! I used the free version of the Skyview app to identify stars and constellations. 

best time to visit great smoky mountain national park

Where to Stay at Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There are quite a few options for accommodation when you are visiting the Smoky Mountains. There is only one lodge inside the National Park: LeConte Lodge. This lodge is at the top of Mount LeConte, one of the highest points in the park and is only accessible by foot. The park does offer a vast array of camping options, including campgrounds (front country camping) or backpacking (backcountry camping) with a permit. 

Campgrounds

  • Abrams Creek Campground
  • Balsam Mountain Campground
  • Big Creek Campground
  • Cades Cove Campground
  • Cataloochee Campground
  • Cosby Campground
  • Deep Creek Campground
  • Elkmont Campground
  • Look Rock Campground
  • Smokemont Campground

Nearby Towns

  • Gatlinburg
  • Pigeon Forge
  • Townsend
  • Knoxville - we stayed in Knoxville!
  • Asheville
Have you visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park before? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments!

xo,

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6 comments :

  1. What a lovely area and your post certainly shows that! Thanks for the tips and beautiful photos!

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    1. I loved visiting the Smokies in the fall! I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

      Caiti | Champagne & Postcards

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  2. Amazing post! I love the photos and the waterfall is so pretty. Thank you for sharing this!

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    1. There's so many hiking trails with waterfalls in the Smokies! Glad you liked it!

      Caiti | Champagne & Postcards

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  3. Oooh! Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers so many miles!! Always cool to see nature still being preserved like this. The view from the top looks amazing!! People don't mess around with those lengthy hikes. The Clingmans Dome sounds more like my vibe lol! Bear encounters really changes your perspective in life. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Nancy ✨ mdrnminimalists.com

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    1. I loved that there were hikes for any type of hiker in the Smokies! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Caiti | Champagne & Postcards

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