Jagged mountain peaks, verdant forests and cascading waterfalls set the stage for big adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of America’s best-loved national parks. Spread across 500,000 acres in the Southern Appalachian range, the park is a four-season wonderland, famous for both its colorful spring wildflowers and the fiery blazes of autumn. The Smokies are also home to an astonishing variety of plant and animal life – from lumbering black bears to dazzling displays of synchronous fireflies.
The glorious sunrises in the Smokies start the day off right © KenCanning / Getty Images
The lay of the land
There are many ways to access the USA’s most-visited national park, which spreads across the states of Tennessee and North Carolina in the Southern USA. The main gateways to the potato-shaped national park are the Sugarlands Visitor Center, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. Between the two is the scenic Newfound Gap Road, which winds for 29 miles, neatly bisecting the park on the only pavement traversing the Smokies. Trailheads for some of the most popular hikes and some of the park's key historic sights are found along this two-lane road. Other popular access points are the Cataloochee Valley on the east side of the park, and Cades Cove in the west.
With more than 800 miles of trails, the Smokies offer hike options for all levels © Jumping Rocks/UIG / Getty Imagesbbeauti
What to see and do in the Great Smoky Mountains
One of the great draws of the Smokies is its extensive trail system crisscrossing forested valleys and misty mountain slopes. There are over 800 miles of paths, ranging from easy rambles along scenic boulder-filled streams to challenging all-day hikes – like the 10-mile round-trip ascent up wind-whipped Thunderhead Mountain, gaining 3600ft in elevation along the way. Over 70 miles of the great Appalachian Trail runs through the national park, and with around 100 backcountry campsites and shelters, the park offers exceptional possibilities for multi-day treks.
Hiking aside, there are many ways to experience the Great Smoky Mountains. When you need a break from walking, you can let a trusty steed do the work. Horseback riding stables are located in Cades Cove, Sugarlands and Smokemont. The park also has some matchless scenic drives, including ridgeline roads where you can gaze out at the seemingly endless expanse of undulating peaks. You can visit the well-preserved log cabins, grist mills and one-room school houses built by early settlers to the area. And there’s exceptional wildlife watching – the Cataloochee Valley is a prime spot to see elk, reintroduced to the Smokies back in 2001.
The Cataloochee Valley is full of opportunities to spot wildlife, including elk © Bill Swindaman / Getty Images
How much will a trip to the Smokies cost?
For an inexpensive vacation, the Smokies are hard to beat. Aside from car rental, expenses are minimal. Camping, one of the best ways to experience the national park, runs less than $30 a night (just $17.50 at some sites), and all of the attractions within the park are free (including the Mountain Farm Museum, Cades Cove historic buildings and the panoramic overlook at Clingmans Dome), not to mention all of the hiking trails. And unlike the Grand Canyon and most other national parks, this one won’t cost you a penny to enter: the Smokies are entirely admission-free. Add to that the many free ranger-led programs run by the park – night hikes, storytelling by the campfire, morning porch talks (free coffee provided), Appalachian culture fairs – and you have the makings of one of America’s most remarkable budget-friendly getaways.
It's free to walk the path to the scenic overlook at Clingmans Dome © Ali Majdfar / Getty Images
Where to sleep in the Smokies
The allure of the Great Smoky Mountains is certainly no secret, and the park gets quite crowded during the busy summer months (Jun–Aug) and in the autumn when the leaves change color (Sep–Oct). It’s wise to plan well ahead so you can get your first choice when it comes to accommodation. All but one of the park’s nine frontcountry campgrounds can be reserved online. For backcountry sites (accessed on overnight backpacking trips), you can make reservations via the park’s backcountry permit office either in person or online. If you prefer not to sleep in a tent, the only option inside park boundaries is the LeConte Lodge, a delightfully old-fashioned collection of wooden cottages near the top of Mount LeConte (elevation 6594ft). The lodge is not accessible by road, so to get there you’ll have to hoof it uphill on a hike ranging from 5.5 miles to 9 miles in length depending on which trail you use. (Note that lodge supplies are brought up by llamas; you might see them if you take the Trillium Gap Trail.)
There are plenty of accommodation options outside the park. Gatlinburg, something of a resort village, is packed with hotels and guesthouses, and there are cabin rentals around the city and throughout the surrounding area – particularly near Cherokee, Bryson City and Pigeon Forge.
Yellow trillium are among the many rare and beautiful wildflowers that grow in the Great Smoky Mountains © Bill Swindaman / Getty Images
Being prepared (and staying safe) in the Smokies
Hiking trails are well-marked in the national park, though it’s wise to pick up a good map (available in the visitors centers) before setting out. Make sure you have sturdy walking shoes (preferably waterproof hiking boots), ample water and snacks, warm clothing (it gets chilly at higher elevations, even in the summer) and gear for rain (precipitation is a year-round possibility). A walking stick also comes in handy. Be sure to let a non-hiking partner know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Watch out for slippery rocks, and don’t swim or wade in park waters (falls and drowning are among the leading causes of injury).
As this is bear country, you’ll need to store all food items in your vehicle. Speaking of bears, they’re generally quite shy and avoid human contact, though if you do come across one, keep your distance and don’t disturb (or feed!) the bear. In the unlikely event the bear approaches you, stand your ground, make yourself tall and make a lot of noise – which usually deters the bear.
If you’re flying in, the closest airport to the park is Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport (about a 70-minute drive to the one of the park’s main gateways near Gatlinburg). Other nearby airports include Asheville, NC (an 80-minute drive) and Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (a 3-hour drive). Wherever you’re coming from, you’ll want a car, as there’s no scheduled bus service to the park nor any public transit available inside of it once you get there.
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