Let’s Visit: The Great Smokies
There’s a lot about our country that people often celebrate, but our amazing national parks don’t often wind up on the list. It’s a massive shame, too. They deserve far more recognition, especially parks such as the Great Smoky Mountains. Heard of the name but don’t know too much about it?
The Great Smoky Mountains are an incredible range, spanning thousands upon thousands of acres, bathing the skyline with its famous haze and serving as an incomparable backdrop for the colorful, blooming wildflower meadows in spring, the deep greenery of summer, and just generally nature at its very best. It also happens to be one of the few free parks dotted around the US as well as one of the most diverse open natural areas. Together, these make it ideal for anyone who wants to enjoy every bit of the park experience thoroughly but isn’t quite sure where to get the most bang for their (in this case) figurative buck.
However, that doesn’t mean you can head there without a plan and expect to have an excellent time. There are a few basics you should know to ensure your visit goes off without a hitch. Thankfully, we can help you out there. Read along for the ultimate travel guide to exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. From brief directions to campground info to suggestions for must-try activities and more, we’ve got all the info you need to guarantee this trip is your favorite one yet.
Location & Direction
Before getting into all the fun stuff, it’s kind of important to know just where the Great Smoky Mountains are. This popular attraction and well-known national park runs along both North Carolina and Tennessee with Asheville and Knoxville, respectively, about only an hour from the park each. In other words, if you’re in either of those major cities or happen to live near, the Great Smoky Mountains are just a hop, skip, and a jump away.
No matter where you’re coming from, though, the park isn’t particularly hard to find nor navigate. The vast majority of visitors happen to drive from the direction of Gatlinburg, entering on the mountains’ north side. You’ll find this traveling along US 441 but can also access an alternative northern entrance to the south of Townsend on TN 73. Meanwhile, southern entrances are located at Cherokee, NC, lying to the west of Waynesville on 441. Need to take a break somewhere around here? The opportunities for food, shopping, and lodging aren’t quite as diverse as those around Gatlinburg but traveling just west to Bryson City will give you plenty of options as you rest up.
There’s little worse than intending to stay someplace on a trip only to discover accommodations are lacking. However, you won’t have this problem when it comes to the Great Smoky Mountains national park. This place has not just a couple of areas for you to lay your head or kick your feet up, but ten. These designated campgrounds offer everything you need and nothing you don’t, basic amenities, water, and restrooms included, and all for as low as $17 a night.
There is something you should keep in mind, though. This North Carolina and Tennessee-based park is nowhere close to a small, local attraction. It’s huge and pulls in the numbers to prove that, averaging upwards of 10 million visitors every year among its over 522-thousand-acre bounds. That’s a lot of people, and they all have to stay somewhere. Translation: finding space at the campground of your choice isn’t always a given.
The most central grounds like Elkmont, Cades, and Smokemont are known for being particularly busy due to their convenient location and even more convenient electrical hookup options, so you’d be smart to make reservations rather than rely on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s easy to do and an absolute non-negotiable for these areas if you don’t want to potentially be in for an unpleasant surprise. Simply go to Recreation.gov, and you can book a spot anywhere from up to six months or a year in advance.
Are you not wanting to plan a trip that far out or need more flexibility? Avoid reservations by opting for one of the other Great Smoky Mountain campgrounds. Balsam Mountain campground is a good choice at only $17.50 a night and is known for its incredible views, seclusion, and not-uncommon elk visitors. Balsam’s also at the highest elevation of any of the campgrounds, which keeps temps down even in the most oppressive summers, something that may interest those who can’t necessarily take the heat but don’t want to get out of the kitchen.
Activities For Days
The Great Smoky Mountains is a sweet spot in the national park system, balancing stunning views and plenty of fun things to keep you entertained and engaged. Want some more info? Here are three of the top activities we’d recommend for those entering the park, whether it’s your first time or you’ve been visiting for years.
It wouldn’t be a well-rounded park visit without some fishing, and the Smokies don’t disappoint. Over 2900 miles of streams are ready for your lines to be cast, 20 percent of those large enough for trout. Won’t like simply fishing on the sidelines? You can charter a boat for as little as 25 bucks, allowing you to catch Rainbow Trout to your heart’s content on Hazel Creek.
In a national park so large, it isn’t much of a shock that there are several trails to suit. However, the amount is still rather impressive nonetheless. Eight hundred miles worth is packed into the park, ranging everywhere from those ideal for an afternoon stroll to those challenging enough that even experts may find themselves struggling along. A 71-mile piece of the Appalachian Trail is even present here, running straight through Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap. Check out our guide that covers 82 hikes in the area here.
Everyone knows that the Great Smoky Mountains give gorgeous views, but most people can only hope to see it through pictures on a screen. So, make smart use of your time at the park and ensure you thoroughly take it in in-person. There are countless sightseeing opportunities here, and many of them are available without the extensive hikes you’re probably still sore from.
For example, there are tons of options by vehicle like the Smoky Mountain Guided Scenic Van Tour or Roaring Fork Mountain Nature Trail, allowing you all the sights with none of the walking. Need something more memorable? Head on over to one of the stables at Cades Cove, the Sugarlands, or Smokemont, and you can look at the Smokies’ beauty from the back of a trusty steed. Scenic views while driving are everywhere!
Tips & Tricks
The basics are critical to avoid any major issues as you’re enjoying your trip to the Smokies, but there are some lesser-discussed points that might come in handy as you’re going about your business. Below are some of our top tips and tricks for a more successful visit. Stick to them, and you’ll likely be much happier whenever your vacation draws to a close, and you’re forced to go back home.
Expect Plenty of Poor Weather Conditions
The rain of the area is wonderful for keeping it nice and green year-round. Still, it can also be a serious inconvenience for you, obscuring views, shutting down routes, or causing other problematic closures. And with 55 inches of annual rain even in the valleys, you’ll be hard-pressed to get around this totally. Our suggestion, then? Expect it. Check conditions as you go, have several backup plans, and dress appropriately. Going with the flow will keep you safer and in much better spirits overall.
Don’t Be Stingy On the Planning
Speaking of planning, one of the biggest tips we could give is not to be stingy about said planning. While the free nature of the park lends itself well to spontaneous trips, complete spontaneity can put you into some pretty not-fun positions or, at minimum, leave you wholly bored and unsure of what to do. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to spend good time on preparation.
Make sure to do plenty of research on what you want to do, where you want to go, and when the best time to do it is. Also, be sure to pack smart! Bring along good layers, a knife, compass, first aid kit, food, water, basic emergency survival gear, and (obviously) all the maps and guides you could need. Don’t have the latter on hand? Head on over to our shop, and we can hook you up! With guides and maps on all major areas, lakes, scenery, and more, you’ll be well covered for the days ahead.
Watch the Fog at Least Once
We know – nobody barring maybe those few proper early morning risers want to get up right as the sun peaks over the horizon. But you should do it at least once when spending time in the Great Smoky Mountains because the view of the range’s namesake smoky fog is something not to be missed.