The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited parks in the country, and it’s easy to see why! It’s a beautiful place to camp, hike, and explore nature, especially for families. The relatively mild climate in the Smokys makes it a perfect national park to visit, even for the most novice outdoor adventurers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans across two states: Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s a beautiful drive, and the park is free to visit – which is a rare find for National Parks – so it’s on our “must-see” list for sure! If you’re planning an East Coast road trip (no matter the time of year), consider this scenic drive and create wonderful memories.
When heading into the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s important to plan enough time to visit so you aren’t rushing through it. The drive isn’t difficult, though it’s probably not one I’d take in the dead of winter. The mountain roads are twisty and turny, with inclines and declines, so plan enough time to get through them safely while enjoying the experience.
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Because the Great Smoky National Park is so large (#19 in size out of all of the National Parks), it’s best to divide and conquer. Choose which side of the park you’ll be visiting first, then do one side one day and the other side the next day – or whatever works for you. There are so many hiking trails and things to see, you could easily spend multiple days on either side.
You’ll notice many opportunities to stop and take photos along your journey, especially at overlooks. Plan extra time in your days for slow drives with several breaks along the way.
Planning Your Visit To Great Smoky Mountain National Park
We like to pack a cooler in our vehicle for sandwiches and snacks, like fresh fruit. We also make sure we have lots of cold water at all times, both in the car and in our backpacks. Because this is a long trip, it’s a good idea to prepare in a similar way.
There are more than 1,000 black bears living in the Great Smoky Mountains and many have unfortunately become habituated to humans and tourists. Store your food and trash properly if you want to avoid a bear encounter.
You may not have phone service while in the park, so be sure to plan for that – and any possible emergencies that can come up – as well. Don’t rely on your phone for navigation, always carry a physical map with you if you’re exploring hiking trails and keep an atlas or road map in your car, just in case.
This is the most popular National Park! That means it’s going to have lots of visitors when you go. I like to make sure little ones (or kiddos with sensory issues) are prepared for this ahead of time, especially if large crowds or over-crowded parking lots tend to stress them out. We also try to avoid peak seasons, like summer vacation or spring break, and holiday weekends.
Because of the volume of visitors, it does make it difficult to find a good parking spot. Bring a daypack and expect to walk quite a bit, both from the parking lot and while you’re exploring the park!
The best time to visit the park is from April to October. The temperature rarely reaches over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it dips to the 20s in the winter!
The Great Smoky National Park Visitor’s Center
Stop by the Visitor’s Center upon arrival. The staff and volunteers here are a wealth of information! Want to know the best place to find wildflowers? What about the most picturesque spots? Or how to find the lesser-known trails and picnic spots? They will help you with all of your planning.
Want to learn even more? There’s a film there you can watch that dives into the history and information about the park, which can be educational for kids and adults alike.
Best Hiking & Trails In The Smokies
The best thing to do is decide what you want to see while hiking, and ask at the Visitor’s Center so they can help you choose the right path for your group. They can tell you the difficulty of the trail, what you can expect to see, and even how long it takes (on average) to complete the hike. Be sure to ask about any road and trail closures or if there have been any areas with aggressive bears you want to avoid.
Off the main park, you’ll drive another seven miles to reach Clingman’s Dome. It’s the highest point in the Smokies, at over 6,600 feet. While this hike is steep, it’s only about a mile round trip and it’s paved, so it’s rated as kid-friendly. The panoramic views, along with the wildlife and wildflowers, are second to none – and worth every steep step!
It gets foggy in the Smokies, so planning a visit on a clear day is ideal. You won’t get the best views if it’s rainy and/or foggy. Sometimes, the misty views are unavoidable: this park gets 80 inches of rainfall each year! But you just might spot an Appalachian Trial thru hiker instead 😉
Up for more of a challenge, or maybe you brought your bicycle? Cades Cove is a 11-mile one way loop that takes several hours to complete on foot, or 2-ish hours by bike.
On your visit, you’ll see a variety of historic buildings, including a working corn mill, barns, churches, and log houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Grab the self-guided tour booklet at the entrance to the loop road to learn more about the history of Cades Cove. If you go early enough in the day, you may be lucky enough to see wild turkeys, elk, and deer.
Kid-Friendly hikes in the Smokies
There’s something for everyone here! Other kid-friendly hikes include:
- Kephart Prong Trail (4 miles round trip, great for older kids)
- Porter’s Creek (2 miles round trip, moderate difficulty)
Hiking trails with waterfalls
If you’re anything like me and you love waterfalls, you’ll enjoy these trails:
- Abrams Falls: 20 foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Hen Wallow Falls: 90 foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Rainbow Falls: 80 foot waterfall, 3-5 hours for the round trip hike
What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
There is so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains area, you could spend weeks here and never experience it all! Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are right outside of the National Park, so plan a few extra days for your trip if you can.
When to visit the Smokies
Each season offers its own bounty in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you want to see the flowering trees and wildflowers, Spring is your best bet. Summertime brings mountain streams and stunning forests. Fall is a wonderful time to hike and enjoy the Autumn colors, and winter brings different views because of the leaves no longer being on the trees.
Making a trip to the National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure trove of wonders. What are you waiting for? Pack up your bags and head on down to Tennessee today! If you’ve already been, let us know what you’re favorite part of the trip was in the comments below.