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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 great place to camp, hike, and explore nature, especially for families. Given the central location
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 rare for National Parks – so it’s on our “must see” list for sure! If you’re planning a 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. 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.
Because the 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 other day – or whatever works for you.
You’ll notice many opportunities to stop and take photos along your journey, especially at overlooks.
Planning Your Visit
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. 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. 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.
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.
Because of the volume of visitors, it does make it difficult to find a good parking spot. 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 never reaches over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it dips to the 20s in the winter!
The Visitor’s Center
Stop by the Visitor’s Center upon arrival. The volunteers here are a wealth of information! Want to see the beautiful wildflowers? What about the most picturesque spots? They will help you with all of your planning.
Want to learn even more? There’s a film you can watch that dives into the history and information about the park, which can be educational for kids and adults alike.
Hiking & Trails
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. 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.
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!
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 18th 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, you may be lucky enough to see wild turkeys, elk, and deer.
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
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!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I’m Natasha!
I’m a lover of yoga, essential oils, and traveling. I’ve lived in Florida, Puerto Rico, Alaska, and now I live in the mountains of Colorado with my husband Dan and our two pups, Roxy & Rico.