Attracting more than 9 million visitors each year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the national park system, beating out the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. Its abundance of wildlife, variety of trees and wildflowers, historic buildings, and more than 800 miles of trails make it a popular destination for tourists and locals who want to experience the outdoors. Its fairly central location makes it an easy weekend trip for many people across the United States.
- Generates over $718 million a year for the local tourist communities
- Elevations in the park range from 875 feet (Abrams Creek) to 6,643 feet (Clingmans Dome)
- Designated an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site
- About 250 permanent and 100+ seasonal employees, with more than 3,500 volunteers
One of the most peaceful ways to enjoy the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by picnicking. Visitors can pack a lunch or bring food to cook out at one of the 11 picnic areas in the park. With 1,000+ sites, there are plenty of spaces for grilling, snacking, and resting. Many are situated next to serene mountain streams, providing soothing sounds and fabulous views of the great outdoors. Picnic areas throughout the park include:
- Big Creek – 10 sites
- Cades Cove – 81 sites
- Chimneys – 68 sites
- Collins Creek – 182 sites, pavilion seats 70
- Cosby – 35 sites, pavilion seats 55
- Deep Creek – 58 sites, pavilion seats 70
- Greenbrier – 12 sites, pavilion seats 70
- Heintooga – 41 sites
- Look Rock – 51 sites
- Metcalf Bottoms – 122 sites, seats 70
- Twin Creeks – pavilion only, seats 150
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to over 100 backcountry campsites, as well as frontcountry campsites, group campgrounds, and horse camps. There are more than 77,000 overnight camping visits to the park each year! Backcountry camping provides extra seclusion, but campers must hike several miles into the park with their gear. Frontcountry camping is ideal for those who want to experience camping, but would like to have restrooms, picnic tables, and running water nearby. Each campsite has specific rules and regulations, so check online before traveling.
Hiking & Biking Trails
Each year, more than 400,000 hikers take advantage of the 800+ miles of trails within the park. About 70 of those miles are part of the Appalachian Trail. Trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lead to waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and historic sites. Varying difficulties, from easy and flat to extreme and steep, offer hikes for all ages and skill levels. The Hike the Smokies and Hike the Smokies for Families challenges even reward hikers for getting outside and moving with mileage pins.
Many of the roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are also bike friendly. The Greenbrier and Tremont areas have several roads suitable for riding, and Cades Cove Loop Road is open to bicyclists on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m. from May through September.
Protecting one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts about 2,115 miles of streams. Fishing is allowed year-round from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. The only stream where fishing is prohibited is Tennessee and its tributary Lynn Camp Prong, upstream from where it meets Thunderhead Prong. Go online for size limits, license requirements, and other regulations.
For years, scenic drives have been a popular way for visitors to tour the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of the outdoors from the comfort of their cars. There are 348 miles of roads in and around the park, with 238 paved and 146 unpaved. Along these drives are expansive mountain views, historic buildings and sites, and flowing streams and waterfalls. Driving the park is ideal for those who want to explore in comfort, or for those who cannot walk or bike the trails. Here are some of the park’s most scenic drives:
- Upper Tremont Road
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Cataloochee Valley
- Cades Cove Loop Road
- Newfound Gap Road
With 342 structures maintained in the park, including 90 historic structures in 5 historic districts, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is rich in history and culture. The houses, barns, churches, schools, grist mills, and outbuildings have been preserved or renewed for historic integrity and the enjoyment of visitors. Some of the most popular places to view these are at Cades Cove, in Cataloochee, and along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Flora & Fauna
More than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants grow in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a greater variety than in any other national park in North America. Autumn provides one of the greatest showcases for the park, with rich hues of red, orange, and yellow in the changing leaves. Year-round, wildflowers and trees paint the park with vivid colors, offering some of the most fantastic sights in the country.
Spring – Trillium (10 different species), lady slipper orchids, crested dwarf iris, fire pink, columbine, showy orchis, bleeding heart, phacelia, jack-in-the-pulpit, violets, and little brown jugs bloom now. Wildflower walks are a great opportunity for viewing the many species of flowers.
Summer – Pink turtleheads, Turk’s cap lily, small purple-fringed orchids, red cardinal flowers, bee-balm, butterfly-weed, black-eyed susans, and jewel weed add to the incredible flower display when summer arrives.
Fall – In late summer and fall, goldenrod, wide-leaved sunflowers, tall ironweed, monk’s hood, coneflowers, mountain gentian, and varieties of asters show, along with soaring purple umbels and sweet Joe-Pye-weed. Sourwood trees, famous for the honey produced by bees visiting their bell-shaped white flowers, bloom from late summer to fall.
Year-round – All year long, various trees and shrubs bloom, providing beautiful scenery, even outside of the typical wildflower season.
Looking to the Future
On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service turns 100 years old! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park will celebrate with A Call to Action, a national effort to promote the contributions that national parks have made to job creation, economic stability, and the environment. In 2013, the plan for A Call to Action was officially released. It outlines the vision and goals of the National Park Service for the coming years. It is a plan for actively advancing the National Park Service through:
- People to park connections
- Preservation of “America’s Special Places”
- The enhancement of “professional and organizational excellence”
The National Park Service has accomplished a great deal already, shown in the many success stories across the country. A Call to Action is their promise to continue working to make great strides for the benefit of present and future generations.
Throughout the year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts special events to showcase the history and scenery of the area. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is a week-long festival featuring guided walks and hikes, while the Music of the Mountains celebrates the musical traditions of the Southern Appalachians. Quilting, blacksmithing, crafting, and folk arts are demonstrated at Cosby in the Park, and Women’s Work Festival at the Mountain Farm Museum features demonstrations of open hearth cooking, spinning, sewing, and corn shuck doll making. Other park events include:
Mountain Life Festival at the Mountain Farm Museum
A fall harvest celebration featuring soap making, music, apple cider, molasses, and more
Festival of Christmas Past
A mountain Christmas celebration with music, storytelling, weaving, quilting, toy making, and activities for kids
An old-fashioned Christmas celebration with traditional Christmas music