Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Great Smoky Mountains is world renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles of Tennessee and North Carolina and is the most visited national park in the United States logging over 11.3 million visitors in 2017.
- 1 Things to Do
- 2 Places to Go
Things to Do
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has four visitor centers. At the northern end of the Newfound Gap Road (US 441) is the Sugarlands Visitor Center which offers a 20-minute film about the park and extensive natural history exhibits. Oconaluftee Visitor Center sits at the southern border of the park on Newfound Gap Road and offers free indoor and outdoor museums that depict the life of mountain families from the Cherokee Native Americans to time of the creation of the national park. Cades Cove Visitor Center is near the mid-point of the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road and offers indoor and outdoor exhibits of southern mountain life and culture including Cable Mill, a grist mill which operates spring through fall, the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. All three of these visitor centers are open year round (except Christmas day) with hours varying depending on the month with times available on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Website. There is also a Visitor Center at Clingmans Dome that is open April through November.
Camping (Front Country)
For those who want to camp inside the park, the National Park Service maintains developed campgrounds at 10 locations:
• Abrams Creek – 12 sites; max 12′ Trailers; elevation 1,125 feet; open late April
• Balsam Mountain – 42 sites; max 30′ RV’s; elevation 5,310 feet; opens mid May
• Big Creek – 12 sites; tents only; elevation 1,700 feet; opens end of March
• Cades Cove – 159 sites; max 40′ RV’s; elevation 1,807 feet; open year round
• Cataloochee – 27 sites; max 31′ RV’s; elevation 2,610 feet; opens late March
• Cosby – 157 sites; max 25′ RV’s; elevation 2,459 feet; opens late March
• Deep Creek – 92 sites; max 26′ RV’s; elevation 1,800 feet; opens late March
• Elkmont – 220 sites; max 35′ RV’s; elevation 2,150 feet; opens early-mid March
• Look Rock – Closed (2018)
• Smokemont – 142 sites; max 40′ RV’s; elevation 2,198 feet; open year round
Fees range from $17.50 to $27 depending on campground and site. Each campground has restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park. Shower facilities are available in the communities surrounding the national park. You can inquire about the nearest facilities when you check-in at the campground. (15 amp electric hookups are available at a few sites in Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont for use only by those with medical needs. Check www.recreation.gov for more information.)
Campsites at Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Elkmont, and Smokemont may be reserved online or by phone at (877) 444-6777. Advance reservations are required at Cataloochee Campground. All remaining park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Additional information about camping reservations, including reservation time frames. Each campground includes length restrictions which should be looked at closely by those with longer RV’s. The longest sites are at Smokemont and Cades Cove which are listed as accommodating RV’s with a maximum of 40 feet in length.
There are also numerous private campgrounds in the surrounding communities. We opted to stay at the River Plantation RV Resort in Sevierville, Tennessee as we have a 45′ RV and are too long to stay inside the park.
One of the best ways to explore the park is on foot. We spent several weeks hiking numerous trails throughout the park which we have written about in in two posts. Great Smoky Mountains Hiking Part 1 covers Cucumber Gap Loop, Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap, Abrams Falls from Cades Cove, Alum Cave Bluff and Laurel Falls Trails. Great Smoky Mountains Hiking Part 2 includes Clingmans Dome Trail, Andrews Bald, Goldmine Loop, Grapeyard Ridge, and Ramsey Cascades Trails. There are many other trails we have not hiked. We used Johnny Molloy’s “Top Trails Great Smoky Mountains National Parks: 50 Must-Do Hikes for Everyone” to guide our trail selection. There are also excellent options for backpacking trips within the park. Reservations and permits are required for all overnight stays in the backcountry. To make reservations, you can visit the backcountry reservation website. A list of backcountry rules and regulations is found on the national park website.
For those who like to tour from the comfort of an automobile, Newfound Gap Road (US 441) runs north and south through the center of the park and reaches over 5,000 feet at Newfound Gap, which offers access to the Appalachian Trail. Just south of Newfound Gap is Clingmans Dome Road, which delivers you to the highest trailhead in the park and only 1/2 mile from the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain (6,643 feet) in the Great Smoky Mountains and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. From the southern end of Newfound Gap Road (beyond the Oconaluftee Visitor Center) you can access the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway which leaves the park and continues north to Virginia.
From the Sugarlands Visitor Center you can head west to the Elkmont Townsite and then on to Cades Cove, where you can drive the 11 mile loop. All of the roads inside the park offer outstanding scenery. There are a number of smaller roads that provide access around the perimeter of the park.
For sports car enthusiasts and motorcyclists, the famous “Tail of the Dragon” highway sits at the southeast corner of the park near the Twentymile area. Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap boasts 318 curves in 11 miles has been touted America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road. Designated US 129, the road is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest with no intersecting roads or driveways to hamper your travel.
Bicycles can travel on most roads within the park. However, due to steep terrain, narrow road surfaces, and heavy automobile traffic, many park roads are not well suited for safe and enjoyable bicycle riding. Cades Cove Loop Road is an exception. The 11-mile one way road is a popular bicycling area. It provides bicyclists with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and touring 19th century homesites. During summer and fall, bicycles may be rented at the campground store (located near Cades Cove Campground). For information call (865) 448-9034. From early May until late September each year, the loop road is closed to motor vehicle traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10:00 a.m. to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to enjoy the cove.
Other areas suitable for bicyclists include the roads in the Greenbrier and Tremont areas in Tennessee, and the Cataloochee Valley and Lakeview Drive in North Carolina. The State of Tennessee requires that children age 16 and under wear a helmet.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park can offer excellent wildlife viewing, but can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, raccoon, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals. The narrow, winding road of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bear and other wildlife. During winter wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves.
Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during early morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
We saw turkeys almost daily throughout the lower elevations, especially during our early morning drives to get to hiking trailheads. We spotted deer from the Caves Cove Loop Road and at the trailhead for the Cucumber Gap Loop Hike. I also spotted a fox from a distance along the Cades Cove Loop Road. We saw numerous other birds on all of our hikes and drives including: dark eyed juncos, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, ravens, hawks, cardinals, and wrens. Along hiking trails we commonly encountered red squirrels, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. On prior trips to the Smokies I have observed black bears and deer from the Cades Cove Loop Road.
Fishing is permitted year-round in the park and a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license is required. Either state license is valid throughout the park and no trout stamp is required. Fishing with bait is prohibited in the park. A special permit is required for the Cherokee Reservation and Gatlinburg. Licenses are available in nearby towns. A free fishing map with a complete list of all park fishing regulations is available at visitor centers.
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,180+ mile long public footpath that traverses the scenic, wooded, pastoral, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. Conceived in 1921, built by private citizens, and completed in 1937, today the trail is managed by the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies and thousands of volunteers.
The Appalachian Trail crosses over Newfound Gap Road and straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee for most of its length through the park. Visitors can enjoy a short stroll to stretch their legs or a multi-day backpacking excursion on the AT as it runs through the park. The Appalachian Trail crosses Clingmans Dome, marking the highest point along its journey from Georgia to Maine. The trail can also be accessed via road at Newfound Gap and in the Fontana region in the park.
Places to Go
Wildlife viewing, historic homes and churches, and beautiful mountain scenery make Cades Cove the most popular destination in the park. The 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road offers ample opportunity to see wildlife such as turkeys, deer, black bear, and more. At the midpoint is the Cades Cove Visitor Center which offers indoor and outdoor exhibits of southern mountain life and culture including Cable Mill, a grist mill which operates spring through fall, the Becky Cable house, and other historic structures. There are several historic cabin areas to stop at along the route. Stop at the National Park tent at the beginning of the route for a guide. Wide open meadows with mountain backdrops make Cades Cove a favorite area for picnics, artists, photographers, and sightseers.
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mount Craig (6,647), both located in Mount Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days views expand over a 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles. The road is open from April 1 through November 30 though it can be closed for bad weather, with snow quite possible in May and October.
The Cataloochee Valley’s highlights include historic buildings, wildlife viewing (including elk), and a peaceful mountain valley. A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. This is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some 1,200 people lived in this lovely mountain valley in 1910. Most made their living by farming, including commercial apple growing, but an early tourism industry developed in Cataloochee with some families boarding fishermen and other tourists who wished to vacation in the mountains.
The Elkmont area was once a logging boomtown and a bustling enclave of summer homes. The National Park Service has restored the Appalachian Clubhouse, Spence Cabin, and four other historic buildings that offer a glimpse into the summer resort era. While the remaining cabins are closed to the public until preservation work can be completed, visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot. The area has several hiking trails and anglers fish for trout in the Little River. Hiking the Jakes Creek and Little River trails will lead the visitor past the stone walls and chimneys that mark the former locations of the other resort cabins that once stood in Elkmont.
At 480 ft., Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains. The dam impounds the Little Tennessee River forming Fontana Lake and produces hydroelectric power. Reservoir size is approximately 11,700 acres. There is a shoreline of about 240 miles. You will enjoy beautiful scenery in the area. Fontana Dam is located near Fontana Village, North Carolina. There is access to the Appalachian Trail in the Fontana region.
A visitor center operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is open from early May until late October. Fontana Lake offers boating and fishing and access to remote, historic areas of the park like Hazel Creek and Eagle Creek.
In southern Appalachian vernacular, a gap is a low point in a mountain ridge. New Englanders call such places “notches” while westerners refer to them as mountain “passes.” At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A trip over the Newfound Gap Road has often been compared to a drive from Georgia to Maine in terms of the variety of forest ecosystems one experiences. Starting from either Cherokee, North Carolina or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, travelers climb approximately 3,000 feet, ascending through cove hardwood, pine-oak, and northern hardwood forest to attain the evergreen spruce-fir forest at Newfound Gap (5,046′). At nearly a mile high, Newfound Gap is significantly cooler than the surrounding lowlands and receives much more snow. Temperatures at the gap may be 10°F or more cooler than in the lowlands and precipitation falling as rain in Gatlinburg or Cherokee may be snow at Newfound Gap. On average, 69 inches of snow falls at the gap.
Oconaluftee offers both a visitor center and the Mountain Farm Museum, a unique collection of farm buildings assembled from locations throughout the park. Visitors can explore a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse, and a working blacksmith shop to get a sense of how families may have lived 100 years ago. Most of the structures were built in the late 19th century and were moved here in the 1950s. The Davis House offers a rare chance to view a log house built from chestnut wood before the chestnut blight decimated the American Chestnut in our forests during the 1930s and early 1940s. The site also demonstrates historic gardening and agricultural practices, including livestock.
An exuberant mountain stream gave this area its unusual name. Roaring Fork is one of the larger and faster flowing mountain streams in the park. Drive this road after a hard rain and the inspiration behind the name will be apparent. The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area. The 5.5-mile-long, one-way, loop road is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. Please note that the road is closed in winter.
Before entering the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail offers a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead and surrounding hardwood forest. Highlights include a streamside tubmill and the Ogle’s handcrafted wooden flume plumbing system.