Guide to visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Black bears, flashing fireflies, and fog rolling over the blue crests of the Appalachians. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, renowned for its beauty, wildlife, and history. The park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, it is expansive and two days or more would be great to cover all of the sights.

Where to stay?

+Nearby major cities include Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN.

+Closer gateway towns include Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on the TN side, also Cherokee and Maggie Valley in NC.

Good to know:

+Admission is free

+Bring your own essentials such as food, water, gas, and proper attire

+Be bear aware. There are approximately 1,500 in the park, two per square mile – it is very likely you will see one.

+If you are interested in viewing the synchronous fireflies in May-June be sure to apply in advance, there is a lottery.

Where to hike:

+Clingmans Dome

The highest point in the park and in the state of Tennessee at 6,643’, this is a must stop destination during your visit. Getting there is easy enough, the trail is one mile RT, out and back on a paved path. A tower winds above the tree line providing sensational views in every direction.

If you decide to walk on any trails in the park – this comes highly recommended. To my own surprise, I ran into a black bear cub right along side this extremely popular trail.

Excuse my fuzzy pictures, I was very excited. Even if you can’t make the walk up the path, the view from this parking lot is exceptional as well. Don’t miss the tales of on how this marvelous land came to be.

+Alum Cave Trail

This 5 mile RT out and back trail that gains 1,200’ is very popular and eclectic. It begins through the woods crisscrossing creeks.

After 1.4 miles you pass through an interesting geological formation called Arch Rock, a narrow tunnel dark and damp.

Then begin climbing in earnest. Mountain laurel and rhododendron pop in spring, and as you get high enough the views open up.

The final push is steep, but when you reach Alum Cave Bluffs there is a sense of accomplishment.

You won’t be standing under an actual cave, but a concave cliff – 80’ tall. The trail continues on to the summit of Mount Le Conte, but it’s a long way up. I would have loved to try it if there wasn’t so much more on my agenda for the day.

+Laurel Falls

A popular waterfall is located won a paved path, with blacktop crumbling a bit and steep edges, 2.5 miles RT out and back with an elevation of 300’. It’s the longest paved path in the park. The woods are peaceful with the songs and activity of birds.

When you reach the 70’ falls prepare to be wowed at this stunning sight.

Parking is limited so get there early for a quieter viewing, this path packs up fast.

Auto touring:

+Cades Cove

Drive the 11-mile loop road around a breathtaking valley, stop off for a hike, explore historic buildings, and spy some wildlife along the way.

We saw a bear take off into the woods as we were driving, to quick to grab a picture. Abrams Falls is a prime spot to stretch your legs. The trail is 5 miles RT out and back gaining almost 700’ elevation. It’s a gorgeous trail filled with cascades,


wildflowers, log bridges,

and at last the falls. They are only 20’ high, but the power of water is incredible.

It’s also a fun place to take a dip and cool down. Weekends on the loop are busy, traffic can intensify. Welcome a leisurely place or get there early. Also – be aware there are certain times when only walkers and cyclists are welcome on the road.

+Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you’re looking for a quieter alternative, this is it. A narrow 5.5 mile one way loop road of old growth forest and mountain streams. Stop by historic buildings or for a hike. Grotto Falls was our pick of the day, and someone told us we just missed a black bear. The trail is 3 miles RT out and back gaining almost 600’ elevation.

It’s very lush after a good rain in the spring.

When you get to the end of the road, the trail takes you behind the falls.

Be prepared to get wet!

+ Cataloochee Valley

Elk were reintroduced to the area in 2001 – this area is your best bet to see them.

Driving by in the evening we saw quite a few, but none were extremely photogenic.

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4 Responses to Guide to visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  1. julieovaltrades says:

    Thanks, it truly is a wild place! Next time I’ll have to steel my nerves though and get a clear shot.

  2. julieovaltrades says:

    That’s great! There were some manmade attractions I wanted to visit as well, Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum + the Titanic Museum…but I couldn’t pull myself away from the trails! Looks like there will be a next time for the both of us 🙂 .

  3. Debbie L says:

    We spent a week in a cabin in Sieversville-with our daughter and son in law. So in addition to all these great hikes and road tour, we visited manmade attractions. What a great vacation it was. But we missed Cataloochee Valley. Guess we’ll have to go back!

  4. This place looks really beautiful. What fantastic wildlife! I would have been excited to see the bear too 🙂

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