Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Top choice national park in Southern USA

Image by Bill Swindaman Getty Images

The 816-sq-mile park is the country's most visited and, while the main arteries and attractions can get crowded, 95% of visitors never venture further than 100yd from their cars, so it's easy to leave the masses behind. There are scores of memorable hikes along the park's 800 miles of trails, with thundering waterfalls and clifftop views among the highlights. Unlike most national parks, Great Smoky charges no admission fee.

Stop by a visitor center to pick up a park map and the free Smokies Guide. The remains of the 19th-century settlement at Cades Cove are one of the park's most popular sights, as evidenced by the teeth-grinding summer traffic jams on the 11-mile loop road (it closes to vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday morning, making it perfect for a bike ride). Mt LeConte offers terrific hiking, as well as the park's only non-camping accommodations, LeConte Lodge. Although the only way to get to the lodge's rustic, electricity-free cabins is via five uphill hiking trails varying in length from 5.5 miles (Alum Cave Trail) to 8.9 miles (Trillium Gap Trail), it's so popular you need to reserve up to a year in advance.

You can drive right up to the dizzying heights of Clingmans Dome, the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi, with its futuristic observation tower.

Other popular hikes include trails to Laurel Falls, Rainbow Falls and Gregorys Bald. For something less trafficked, check out the Lakeshore Trail in the southwest part of the park, Mt Sterling in the east, or Baskins Creek near Gatlinburg. There are also ample opportunities for multi-day backpacking adventures, with dozens of backcountry campsites (reserve online through the national park website). Some 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail also traverse the national park.

In 2016 a fire raged through 10,000 acres of the park near (and in) Gatlinburg. As of 2018 most trails in the affected forest had reopened and the forest was on its way toward regeneration.