Stradling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects some of the most pristine forests, tallest waterfalls, and highest peaks in the Appalachians. Here you’ll find hundreds of miles of amazing hiking trails winding through scenic meadows and over granite balds, a regional term for treeless summits. About 72 miles of the long-distance Appalachian Trail passes through the park, offering opportunities for long-distance backpacking or shorter day hikes. Camping is another highlight, with ten developed campgrounds located throughout the 816-square-mile park, plus many opportunities for hike-in backcountry camping. Other popular activities include horseback riding, fishing, and wildlife viewing. The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are named for their characteristic smoky look, actually caused by fog that naturally emanates from the dense foliage.
Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in America, seeing record visitation of 14.1 million people in 2021. While some national parkways and recreation areas have comparable numbers, Great Smoky Mountains dwarfs the next closest national park units: Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain, which average about 4.5-5 million visitors in 2021. There are several reasons for Great Smoky Mountains’ notable popularity. It is the southern terminus for the overall most popular NPS unit, the Blue Ridge Parkway, which in 2021 saw 15.9 million visitors. Unlike most other national parks, Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina has no entry fee, plus it’s located within a few hours’ drive of many large metro regions.
Given the location on the Blue Ridge Parkway, plus the park’s 384 miles of maintained roadways, scenic driving tours are increasingly popular. Traffic congestion is common during peak summer months, roughly mid-June to mid-August, and during fall colors viewing in October. Fall colors in the Smoky Mountains is world-famous for stunning visuals as the forests come alive in yellows, oranges, and reds. But to avoid the crowds, consider coming during other months. No matter when you visit, try to arrive at trailheads early in the morning to find parking.
Best Hiking in Smoky Mountains NP
With over 850 miles of Smoky Mountains trails and dirt roads suitable for foot travel, selecting a hike can be challenging. Routes of all types can be found throughout the park, from short and easy walks to strenuous all-day hikes to challenging multi-day backpacking trips. One thing that may help is downloading the recently updated NPS trail map for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
One of the Smoky Mountains’ best hikes is the paved path to the park’s highest point at Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. Constructed in 1959, the 45-foot-tall observation tower is reached by a sweeping ramp atop Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet in elevation. The paved path to the tower is about 1.2 miles round-trip.
Another popular short hike is the Laurel Falls Trail, located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the north-central part of the park. This easy to moderate trail is about 2.5 miles round-trip, partially paved near the beginning, and leads to the tiered 80-foot Laurel Falls.
A short but strenuous hike is the Chimney Tops Trail in the center of the park. This hike is just 2 miles, one-way, but requires gaining 1,400 feet in elevation before returning as you came. The reward includes summiting the rocky pinnacles and enjoying stunning views of the parklands below.
Nearby, another strenuous day hike leads to Rainbow Falls. The trail begins along LeConte Creek and reaches the 80-foot Rainbow Falls after about 2.7 miles (one-way). From there you can return as you came or hike an additional 0.75 mile to the summit of Mt. LeConte at 6,593 feet. In total, the trail to the summit gains about 1,700 feet in elevation.
For those looking for a longer route up Mt. LeConte, consider the Alum Cave Trail. Starting from Newfound Gap Road, this hike is 11 miles round trip with about 1,200 feet of elevation gain. About 2.3 miles from the trailhead (one-way), you’ll reach the rugged Alum Cave Bluffs, a rock overhang that’s an alternative turn-around point.
For those curious about the Appalachian Trail, around 72 miles pass through the park roughly from the southwest to northeast. For those looking for a great day hike on the AT, consider the section to Charlies Bunion. Standing 5,528 feet tall, this bare summit is known for a picturesque rock outcrop that’s part of the metamorphic Anakeesta Formation. Most people start the hike from Newfound Gap, not far from the turnoff to Clingman’s Dome. The hike to Charles Bunion is 4 miles, one way, with about 1,600 feet of elevation gain involving an out-and-back return.
Smoky Mountains camping
There are 10 developed NPS campgrounds, mostly located along the periphery of the park, offering just under 950 total sites. While there are a few tent-only sites, most sites can accommodate tents, RVs, and campers of various sizes. Dump stations can be found in some campgrounds but note there are no electrical or water hookups in the park. Campgrounds typically have cold running water and flush toilets, but there are no showers. Restaurants and groceries are very limited, and there are no gas stations within the park, so plan accordingly.
A few campgrounds are open year-round while most are seasonal with open dates ranging from March to May and closing dates ranging from October to November. All campgrounds currently require reservations, with bookings available up to six months in advance on a daily rolling basis. Check the park’s front-country camping webpage for current information, fees, and links to reserve sites.
Visitors often try to camp near the activities that interest them. Most of the top hikes, described above, are located around the heart of the park along or near Newfound Gap Road. There are two campgrounds located along this road. Not far from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, on the southeastern side of the park, Smokemont Campground has about 142 sites. Not far from Sugarlands Visitor Center, on the northwestern side of the park, Elkmont Campground is the largest with 220 sites. If those aren’t available, consult the park map for alternate options.
There is one lodge inside the park, but it can only be reached by hikers. Five different trails access the unique LeConte Lodge, located near the summit of Mt. LeConte. Demand is high and a reservation lottery for the following year occurs each fall, typically closing in late September.
Because of the popularity of the park, many visitors choose to stay in private campgrounds located outside the park or they reserve lodgings in nearby communities. NPS maintains a webpage with links and contact information for the dozen communities surrounding the park.
We hope you’ve found these tips helpful in planning your trip to Great Smoky Mountains NP! Please share your experiences or leave a tip below!
Cover photo: Hiking to Mt. LeConte. Adobe/Alisha