Great Smoky Mountains Travel Guide | Camping & Hiking Tips

These mountains have an extensive history when it comes to human settlers dating back to the Paleo Indians to the 19th-century European settlers.

Today, over 10 million visitors come to this national park every year. It is among the few national parks for free in America where you can enjoy a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or scenic drives to Cades Cove.

There are also many outdoor activities to enjoy throughout the year such as fishing, biking, and hiking.

Bike the Cades Cove Loop on a Wednesday or Saturday morning when this road is closed off to traffic. Or pack a lunch for a stunning hike to Rainbow Falls or Abrams.

Where Are The Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains is situated in Eastern Tennessee and stretches into the western parts of North Carolina.

Fun Facts About The Smoky Mountains That Might Surprise You

Home To Many Animals And Plants

The Great Smoky Mountains is the home to many animals and plants. There are currently over 4,000 plants, 200 bird varieties, 140 tree species, around 65 mammal species, and over 80 amphibians and reptiles. Around 1,500 bears call the Smokies home.

On the zipline tours, there are many opportunities to enjoy the wildlife below and the natural surroundings.

Over 800 Miles Of Interesting Hiking Trails

The best way to get to know the Smoky Mountains (besides the zipline), is to go hiking. The hiking trails span over 800 miles in this fantastic and extremely diverse national park.

From stunning wildflowers in the month of spring to frozen waterfalls to be enjoyed in the months of winter, there are always amazing sights to take in when you hike in the Smoky Mountains.

A Few Of The Oldest Mountains On The Planet

The Smoky Mountains are said to be around 200 to 300 million years old. This makes this mountain range among the oldest on earth.

Over 90 Preserved Historic Structures

The Smoky Mountains are steeped in history, here are over 90 rehabilitated or preserved historic structures in this park. Some of these include grist mills, schools, churches, barns, and even houses.

These are the ideal areas to view these structures include Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Around 2,900 Miles Of Streams

The Smoky Mountains also has streams that stretch around 2,900 miles, and you can fish in all of them. This area also protects among the last of the wild trout areas in the eastern areas of the United States.

Many of the streams are close to or remain at carrying capacity for these fish, providing fantastic opportunities to fish any time of the year.

Great Smoky Mountains Weather

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with the areas that surround these mountains feature amazing elevations ranging from 800 feet to as high as 6,640 feet. These drastic altitude changes affect the weather unpredictably. The temperature in upper elevations is typically 10 to 20 degrees colder than when you are in the valley.

The average rainfall is around 55-inches every year, around the low-lands, and about 85-inches every year at Clingmans Dome. This is why it is recommended to prepare appropiately when camping or hiking in these areas, or when you are exposed to the higher altitudes.

Spring is an unpredictable month in these mountains, so you should wear layers when you go out and make sure you take winter clothing with.

The summer months are humid and hot, but a lot more pleasant when you reach the high elevations. It is important to avoid drinking from the streams in hot weather, regardless of how clear or fresh the water looks.

Fall brings cool nights and warm days. You can expect light snow during this time, so come prepared when you view the fantastic fall foliage.

The winters are somewhat mild in the Great Smoky Mountains, but as the elevations become higher so does the likelihood of snow increase. Even when it feels comfortable and warm at the lower elevations, it is important to come prepared for sudden and unexpected snowfall at higher elevations.

Best Time To Visit Great Smoky Mountains

The fall may be the best season to visit the Great Smoky Mountains (October usually experiences the highest number of visitors in the year due to the stunning fall foliage and the mild and pleasant weather). Yet there aren’t really bad times to visit this mountain range. The busiest times are from June through to October, while the slowest times include the months of January and February.

These areas experience milder winters, so planning your trip in December or even November is a fantastic time to enjoy the natural surroundings and the fantastic views. You can also take advantage of discounted accommodation during these months. Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and some of the surrounding areas have many attractions to enjoy in winter. Some of these include the Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas, the annual Winterfest Light Festival, and more.

Be aware that a few of the roads and mountains can close from November through to March. Make sure you are informed about these closures by visiting the official website for the national park before you plan your trip.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Situated in Bryson City, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers scenic rail expeditions through the remote areas of North Carolina. This railroad travels across lakes and rivers, through tunnels, mountain valleys traveling into a river gorge.

Some excursions include a newly-restored steam engine (#1702) or a diesel engine. When the steam train runs you can enjoy watching the people-powered engine-turntable in operation.

This railroad also operates the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, situated in Bryson City, North Carolina, opposite the historic Bryson City depot (where the GSMR excursions depart).

This museum is home to more than 7,000 Lionel model cars, engines and accessories, a kids activity center, a big model-train layout, and a popular gift shop.

Things To Do In Great Smoky Mountains

Take A Ride On The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel

If you enjoy high heights and the scenic views that the Smoky Mountains have to offer, you will really enjoy the unusual sights from the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel from the Island Pigeon Forge.

You are not only offered a crystal clear view across the diverse Smoky Mountain activities on offer in Pigeon Forge, but you can also see the magnificent mountains. Regardless of where you are looking, you are offered unparalleled picturesque views.

The Wheel is a modern-day, 200-foot Ferris wheel. Each of the gondolas is all-glass, climate-controlled units that hold 2 to 4 people, depending on what ride experience you have chosen.

Visit The Pigeon Forge Car Show

You don’t need to be a car fanatic in order to enjoy the classic and iconic beauties that are displayed at the Pigeon Forge car shows. From hot rods to trucks to American classics, there are car shows dedicated to all sorts of automobile interests.

Walk The Gatlinburg Strip

There are so many discoveries on offer when you decide to walk the Gatlinburg strip, that it is hard to include everything in a single description. This area offers moonshine distilleries, restaurants, an aquarium, extensive shopping opportunities, an art and crafts school, many attractions, along with lots more.

With a host of fun experiences, we really think visiting this spot deserves one of the top positions on this list of popular Smoky Mountain activities, particularly since all visitors have to do is park their cars and then walk this area to take it all in.

Take A Bike Ride Along Cades Cove Loop Road

With more than 2 million visitors every year, Cades Cove is perhaps the most frequented and popular Smoky Mountains excursions.

This area not only offers a drive or bike ride along the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, but you can also choose to walk this roadway since the National Park Service closes this roadway to cars so that pedestrians are allowed to explore without having to worry about the cars that rush by.

Cades Cove Loop Road closes to automobile traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings up until 10 am, from the early part of May into late September.

View The Smoky Mountains From The Gatlinburg Space Needle

From 400-feet, the Gatlinburg Space Needle offers an outstanding space to take in the breathtaking views across the Smoky Mountains from outside the park. From here you can get a 360-view across the mountains, along with everything that is going on in downtown Gatlinburg.

Experience The Synchronized Fireflies

Each year from early May to June, the Elkmont area of this National Park comes alive with an abundance of fireflies during their mating rituals. This is an awe-inspiring sight that you and your family will remember for years to come.

Watch The Stunning Smoky Mountain Sunrise

Similar to how it looks from the highest elevations of this mountain range, you will experience a calming and serene effect as soon as you start noticing the sunrise starting to peak over this mountain range.

Regardless of whether you watch the sunrise from a cabin rental or a private patio, or from one of the scenic overlooks, not much else compares to a Smoky Mountain sunrise.

Whitewater Rafting

If you enjoy an adrenaline rush, you will really enjoy taking on the rapids on one of the whitewater rafting adventures that the Smoky Mountains has on offer.

There are group and family tours where experienced guides give you the chance to take in the Great Smoky Mountains from a new angle, from an inflatable and comfortable raft.

Take A Ride On A Hot Air Ballon At Wonderworks

If a scenic view from the Great Smoking Mountain Wheel is not enough, then a hot-air balloon at WonderWorks In Pigeon Forge is sure to satisfy.

The Wonders of Flight ride will take you high up, offering unobstructed views, including a clear view over Pigeon Forge and the Smoky Mountains.

Enjoy A Roller Coaster Ride At Dollywood

Think about the sunshine and wind rushing through your hair, surrounded by friends or your loved ones while bending and twisting around a daring adventure on the roller coaster at Dollywood.

Regardless of your age, these are the types of rides that offer long-lasting memories of your vacation or trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Best Trails To Hike In The Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smokies has an abundance of top-notch hiking, so it is difficult to whittling down the best trails to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. However, we will give it a try here!

Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte

Like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Alum Cave Trail offers some of the most stirring scenery and intriguing geology, and the trail reaches this mountain from the other side of the mighty summit.

It is an all-day sort of trail. It incorporates 2,700 feet of elevation gain, and it is about 11 miles round-trip. However, there are several natural rests stops and the type of sights will keep your hiking muscles firing on the way.

Rainbow Falls Trail

Rainbow Falls Trail accesses the tallest single-drop waterfall in the national park. It is a 5.4-mile trail off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Rainbow Falls is 80 feet and covers some 1,500 feet of elevation gain, so it is quite the payoff for a fairly demanding hike and many people require three to four hours in total. The name Rainbow Falls comes from the rainbows that commonly appear in the afternoon in its shimmering mist, especially during summer months.

Laurel Falls Trail

One of the most well-known attractions is the 80-foot Laurel Falls. And the trail, which reaches it, is the longest fully paved path in this park. The trail is 2.6 miles.

You will hike along the Laurel Branch, gaining about 314 feet on the not extremely difficult there-and-back hike. It takes around two hours to complete, but it can take more if you decide to enjoy the beauty of the falls.

Clingmans Dome Hike

The 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome is the pinnacle of the Great Smokies, and it is the third-highest mountain in the eastern U.S.

There are far-reaching views in its parking area, and even more stunning panorama awaits you at the observation tower at the summit, but you must slog up the steep paved path. The sightlines from Clingmans Dome’s top extend 100 miles when the conditions are right.

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls, a stunning 120-foot horsetail drop, is one of the tallest waterfalls in the whole of Southern Appalachians.

It requires only a ¾-mile walk to reach Mingo Falls, and the walk starts with around 160 stairs to get your heart rate going. Mingo Falls is located right outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Qualla Boundary lands of the Cherokee people.

Trillium Gap Trail to Mount LeConte

Several different paths access the third-highest peak in the Great Smokies. The Trillium Gap Trail is one of the all-around best.

This route passes behind the outstanding liquid curtain of Grotto Falls, which is 25-foot, spreads out the 3,401 feet of elevation gain for a gentler ascent, and it is close to 14 miles round-trip.

Chimney Tops Trail

The Chimney Tops’ raw slate spires serve up some of the most stunning scenery in the Great Smokies, and also create some of the most dramatic topography. So, it is not surprising that one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the 3.8-mile Chimney Tops Trail.

However, it is not one of the easiest trails because of the 1,500 feet of elevation gain, but the stairs in places help ease the hard grade’s.

Great Smoky Mountains Camping

Nine developed campgrounds are operated by the park. There are restrooms with flush toilets and cold running water in each campground. There are a picnic table and a fire grate in each individual campsite.

The park does not have a shower or electrical or water hookups. There are shower facilities in the communities that surround the national park.

When you check-in at the campground, ask about the nearest facilities. RVs? You will find them at the Sugarlands Visitor Center because there is an additional dump there.

Balsam Mountain Campground

This 46-sit campground is at 5,310 feet just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is open from late May to mid-October. The maximum length of an RV is 30 feet.

Abrams Creek Campground

This 16-site campground is in the woods along Abrams Creek, and its location is just west of Cade Cove. The maximum length of an RV is 12 feet. And it is open from later May to mid-October.

Cades Cove Campground

This 159-site campground is the most popular and one of the largest in the park. It fits motor homes up to 40 feet and trailers up to 35 feet. They accept reservations, and it is open year-round.

Big Creek Campground

This quiet 12-site campground open to tents only. Its location is in the remote northeastern corner of the park, and it is along the creek. It is open from early April to late October.

Cosby Campground

The location of this 157-site campground is in the northeast part of the park. This is a lesser-visited place. The maximum length of an RV is 25 feet. They accept reservations, and it is open from early April to later October.

Cataloochee Campground

This 27-site campground requires reservations, and it is in the Cataloochee Valley. Be careful because the access road is winding and steep, even though it fits RV up to 31 feet.

There are some steep drops offs with no guard rails in the winding, gravel road entering Cataloochee Valley. You can encounter horse trailer traffic on the road. And you may have to back up or stop to allow other vehicles to pass because the road is narrow.

Deep Creek Campground

The location of this 92-site campground is just outside Bryson City along lush Deep Creek. The maximum length of an RV is up to 26 feet, and it is open from early April to later October.

Elkmont Campground

This 220-site campground is the largest in the park. It is well-known for its synchronous fireflies that blink in unison on June nights.

It fits motor homes up to 35 feet and trailers up to 32 feet. They accept reservations, and it is open from mid-March to later November.

Smokemont Campground

The location of this 142-site campground is on the Bradley Fork River, and it is near the Oconaluftee entrance. It fits motor homes up to 40 feet and trailers up to 35 feet. They accept reservations. It is open year-around.

Backcountry Permits

You can access the spectacular backcountry of the Smokies using more than 800 miles of trail. All backpackers can visit or stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in person to get permits and reservations up to 30 days before the start of their trips.

You can check the availability of the campsite and shelter and print your permit on the website.

Great Smoky Mountains Cabins

A cabin is perfect for anyone, visiting the Smoky Mountains, searching for an authentic travel experience. Cabins are much better than a hotel. They provide a much cozier feel, and they allow guests to get the true mountain experience. The guests can cook, entertain, and hang out by the fireplace.

Staying in Gatlinburg

The most popular town, which borders the national park, is Gatlinburg. There are several family-friendly activities in this town. Some of the activities include; breathtaking views, restaurants with delicious food, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Gatlinburg is considered the gateway to the Smoky Mountains National Park, and it is about 40 miles southeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. There are compact and very walkable trails close to this town.

There is also a publicly-funded public transit system called Gatlinburg Trolley. It caters to tourists and visitors. Visit Gatlinburg during the holidays because it is a magical place to visit.

For the annual Winterfest Celebration, they decorate the entire town with lights from November to February.

A home base in Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge is the most family-friendly and commercialized area of the Smokies. There are several attractions for every family member, such as mini-golf, dinner theaters, Dollywood amusement park, and many more.

It is a great idea to book a cabin in this tourist hot spot. Why? Because of its close driving distance to almost anything you can think of. And the cabins feel secluded and nice because there are several mountains.

Remember to familiarize yourself with the mains roads as you are searching for cabins. This is because the directions in this place are given on stoplights.

Visit Sevierville

It is hard to tell where Pigeon Forge begins and Sevierville ends because they are similar. There are shopping outlets, breweries, a Mino League Baseball park, incredible putt-putt courses, etc. in Sevierville.

In short, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville have the same vibe, so there are secluded cabins and several attractions on the main parkway in Sevierville.

You must note that Sevierville is closer to Knoxville, so the actual national park is a little further way from Sevierville. However, it is not by much.

Check Out Townsend

Townsend identifies itself as “the peaceful side of the Smokies.” You will feel you are living the tranquil mountain life because it offers a no-frills experience.

The nice, relaxing cabins in the mountains offer breathtaking views and wildlife surrounds them, even though there are no mini-golf courses or fancy Ferris wheels in Townsend.


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