The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in America with well over 10 million annual visitors. Situated in the mountains and spanning over two states, the Smoky Mountains make for the ideal getaway. But with over 500,000 acres to explore, planning a first time visit can be overwhelming. Trust me, I know. I just recently visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time and I am here to help.
I have put together the ultimate first timers guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the top 10 things that I think you need to see and do. This guide is perfect for a weekend getaway to the Smokies that includes a drive along Cades Cove for wildlife spotting to hiking a waterfall or two just to name a few.
Where is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park located?
The Great Smoky Mountains are located in the Southeastern part of the United States and spans along the Tennessee and North Carolina state border. Both of these states are connected by US 441 which drives through the national park with stunning view points along the way.
Best time to visit?
Like most national parks, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park's most popular and best time to visit is during the summer months. The summer months bring warm temperatures but also the crowds. But the Smokies can truly be enjoyed every month of the year. The crisp cool autumn months bring the fall foliage which draws the crowds during the weekends. If you are looking to avoid the crowds, a visit to the Smokies during winter and early spring is preferable. The winter months are colder with temperatures ranging from 30-50 degrees Fahrenheit. A down fall to winter is that there are some road closure due to snow at higher elevations. If visiting in early spring you will experience moderate temperatures, fewer crowds and lower lodging rates.
We visited the Smokies at the end of April. The weather was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky with temperatures in the 70s. At the end of April, expect to see crowds at the popular hiking trailheads, waterfalls and scenic loops.
Is the national park open year round?
The answer to this question is simple: Yes! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open daily year-round, 24 hours a day. With that being said, please keep in mind that some visitor centers, campgrounds and attractions are closed during the winter months.
Is there an entrance fee?
Most national parks have an entrance fee but did you know that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free to enter? You read that right. This national park is free to enter due to Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road being the primary roads in the park connecting Tennessee and North Carolina.
Where to stay when visiting the Smokies?
As mentioned above, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans across two different states which means you can choose to stay on the Tennessee or North Carolina side. Unfortunately I can only give you recommendations for staying in Tennessee.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance is located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg has an assortment of hotels due to its close proximity to the park. But Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are both great locations to stay in.
If you would like to wake up in the heart of the Smokies, I would recommend camping, glamping or renting a cabin. During our time in the Smokies we rented a cabin in Seveirville and did a night of glamping in Pigeon Forge. There are plenty of cabins for rent in the area and would suggest searching on Airbnb. If you are looking for an outdoor glamping resort I would highly recommend staying at Under Canvas Smoky Mountains. To see what it is like to glamp in the Smokies, read my blog post here.
Top 10 things to do in the Smokies
Now that we have all of the technical stuff out of the way, let's talk about the top 10 things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
1. Drive Cades Cove
One of the most popular scenic drives that you can do is Cades Cove. Cades Cove is an 11 mile one-way paved road and is undoubtedly the most visited area of the Smoky Mountains. Open year round from sunrise to sunset, this scenic drive can take two to four hours depending on the traffic.
Why does an 11 mile one-way loop take so long to drive? This scenic drive provides picturesque mountain peak views and rolling green valleys which causes tourists to stop along the way to take in the views. But the main reason for the traffic jams? All of the wildlife that is native to the Smoky Mountains. During your drive along Cades Cove, keep an eye out for whitetail deer, coyotes, elk, fox, and even black bears! Black bears are often spotted in the late afternoon/early evenings during the late summer or fall.
During our drive along Cades Cove, we spotted deer, foxes and four black bears. The easiest way to know there is wildlife in the area is the pile of cars gawking. You won't miss it!
2. Abrams Falls
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to over 100 waterfalls. One of the most iconic waterfalls and at the top of most visitors list is Abrams Falls. Abrams Falls is one of the most voluminous waterfalls in the park. Standing at 20 feet tall the rushing water makes it extremely dangerous to swim in due to the strong currents.
The trail to Abrams Falls is located off the Cades Cove loop. Signs for Abrams Falls is visible along the loop so you can not miss it. There is a good amount of parking available at the trail head but if you are planning to visit during peak seasons, arrive early to find parking as this is a very popular and busy trail.
The Abrams Falls trail is a 5.2 miles out-and-back trail with about 629 feet of total elevation gain. Due to the elevation gain and terrain this hike is consider moderate in difficulty. This hike will take approximately 3-4 hours.
Along the trail you will follow the river to the waterfall. You will also navigate your way through a beautifully forested mountain ridge and cross several creeks. Once you make it to the waterfall, take a seat and enjoy the scenery. Bonus if you pack a lunch!
3. Laurel Falls
Abrams Falls is not the only waterfall that you need to put on your list of things to see and do in the Smoky Mountains. If you are heading to the Smoky Mountains, you should also plan on hiking to Laurel Falls. Laurel Falls is an 80 foot waterfall and consists of a lower and upper section of falls.
Laurel Falls is located off Little River Road. The trailhead is just 3.5 miles from the Sugarlands Visitors Center. There are two small parking lots near the trailhead but arrive early if you plan on visiting Laurel Falls during peak season.
The trail to Laurel Falls is a 2.4 mile out-and-back trail with 396 feet of elevation gain. Laurel Falls is a much easier hiking trail compared to Abrams Falls.
4. Elkmont Ghost Town
The Smoky Mountains National Park is large and there are many stops within the park that many tourists do not talk about. If you are someone who likes to explore the lesser known areas, this next thing to do in the Smoky Mountains is for you.
Elkmont Ghost Town is an abandoned resort located in the national park. Back in the 19th century, the Elkmont area was primarily a logging community that transitioned into a vacation resort to escape the city during the summer months.
Today, 19 abandoned buildings still stands and are under going restoration. Free and open to the public, you are able to walk around the grounds and inside the abandoned resort cottages.
5. Elkmont Troll Bridge
Located right near Elkmont Ghost Town is another hidden gem within the park and one that you are guaranteed to have by yourself. The Elkmont Troll Bridge is located off the Little River Trail. About 100 feet to the right of the trail is a trail that will lead you to this whimsical moss covered stone bridge.
6. Newfound Gap Scenic Drive
Newfound Gap road is a beautiful drive through the Smoky Mountains that will take you from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. If you plan on driving Newfound Gap road, there are many scenic viewpoints along the way. I suggest pulling off at Morton Overlook for a beautiful view of the Smokies.
7. Clingmans Dome
One of the most popular stops along Newfound Gap road is Clingmans Dome. Clingmans Dome sits at 6,643 feet above sea level and is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For spectacular 360° views of the Smokies, you can climb a steep half mile walk up to the observation tower.
If you are planning on visiting Clingmans Dome during the off season please be aware that the road leading to the tower is closed seasonally. Typically the road closes from early December through late March. Road closures are dependent on the weather conditions.
8. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 mile long one way loop road that will take you through a lush green forest. This narrow and winding loop offers mountain streams and a number of well preserved cabins.
You can access the Roaring Fork from downtown Gatlinburg. Turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg, TN at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park.
9. The House of the Fairies
If you are planning on driving the Roaring Fork, on your way I would recommend making a stop at the House of the Fairies. The House of the Fairies is another secret hidden gem located in the Smokies. This old moss covered springhouse was originally part of the Voorheis Estate.
10. Explore Downtown Gatlinburg
If you are visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you will be driving through Gatlinburg at least once and I highly recommend you taking some time to explore.
Downtown Gatlinburg offers many hotels, restaurants and fun attractions for the whole family. From the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park to Moonshine tasting, there is something for everyone. In fact you can spend a whole day just exploring downtown.
There are so many reasons as to why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. As overwhelming as it can be to plan your first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I hope you found this guide to the Smoky Mountains for first timers to be helpful in planning your trip. Hope you have a great time in The Smokies and you spot a bear or two!
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