Spanning the border between Tennessee and North Carolina lies Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the country’s most-visited National Park, you might expect to find grand lodges and a variety of infrastructure. Instead, you’ll find a mostly undeveloped, wild landscape that invites you back to nature.
A visit to Great Smoky Mountains NP will reward you with scenic mountain views, wildlife, historic buildings and a seemingly endless number of hiking trails. While you’ll find an abundance of tourist attractions in some of the gateway cities, visiting the park requires you to slow down and just enjoy your surroundings.
Like many mountain parks, getting around Great Smoky Mountains NP is not easy. Winding roads with low speed limits means you need at least an hour to drive the main park road, which is only 34 miles between Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. Of course, when you add in a few stops at just some of the many overlooks, you’ll likely want two or three hours. And that describes Great Smoky Mountains NP is a nutshell, plan for more time than you think you need if you really want to enjoy the park.
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Things to Know Before You Come
We have now visited Great Smoky Mountains NP three times together. One of those was only a quick drive through the park. The other two were nearly a week each. And we still feel like we haven’t fully explored the park. To be fair, much of that is because we just keep returning to our favorite places. Still, this is a big park with a lot to see, especially if you like to hike and explore remote areas.
As I mentioned above, driving around Great Smoky Mountains NP isn’t necessarily easy. Because of that, you’ll find several areas of the park that don’t connect to other parts of the park by road. That is just one thing that makes fully exploring this park difficult.
The main park road, Newfound Gap Road extends from Gatlinburg on the northwest side of the park to Cherokee on the southeast side of the park. Heading west from Gatlinburg, Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road take you over to Townsend, TN and Cades Cove, which is our favorite area of Great Smoky Mountains NP. Driving these roads is an absolute must for any visit.
There are other areas on the south and east sides of the park that can only be reached by driving outside the park and taking a short spur road to a trailhead or campground. These areas are best explored by those with additional time or those looking to do some primitive camping and hiking.
Where to Stay and Eat
If you want to stay inside Great Smoky Mountains NP, you’ll have to be up for some reasonably rustic camping. For those wanting to do some overnight backpacking, you’ll find a wide variety of backcountry campgrounds. If you prefer frontcounty camping (campgrounds that you can drive to), there are still a number of options, though only a couple are open year round. These campgrounds offer bathrooms with flush toilets and running water but there are no showers or water/electric hookups inside the park.
As you might guess, there are no restaurants inside the park. If you are planning a long day of driving and/or hiking, we suggest packing a picnic lunch. Stopping for a sandwich and a trail beer either during or after a long hike is never a bad idea! There are a number of picnic areas scattered around the park.
For those who want the comforts of a hotel or a campground with hook-ups, there are plenty of options outside the park, in several different gateway towns.
As the country’s most-visited National Park, it should come as no surprise that there are a good number of tourist attractions in the various gateway cities. This is great for families and those who want to combine a national park visit with a more traditional vacation including theme parks, dinner shows and plenty of options for shopping and dining.
What we love is that you’ll also find several quieter towns surrounding the park if you are looking for a more relaxed visit and don’t need the comfort or attractions of a large city. These towns are perfect for those who want to focus on visiting the park but don’t want to camp inside the park.
The best-known gateway town to Great Smoky Mountains NP is Gatlinburg, TN. This mountain resort town is located just minutes from the park entrance and is convenient to exploring the main areas of the park. While the town is relatively compact, you’ll find a large variety of hotels, dining and attractions.
Staying in Gatlinburg is certainly convenient to visiting the park. Honestly, it really is just too crowded to be worth it for us, though. If you are visiting during the most-popular seasons, expect a lot of traffic and long lines for attractions. Still, this is a good option for those who want a variety of options of things to do outside the park, yet still be able to easily drive into the park.
We have not actually stayed in Gatlinburg, so can’t recommend any specific hotel, campground or restaurant.
Pigeon Forge, TN
For a larger town that is still convenient to the park, consider Pigeon Forge, which is just north of Gatlinburg. This is actually where we stayed during our most recent visit to Great Smoky Mountains NP. We camped at the Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort. Grant’s dad and stepmom joined us on that trip, staying at the Hilton Garden Inn, which was quite comfortable.
As a bigger town, you’ll find plenty of options for hotels, campgrounds, shopping and dining. Obviously, the drive into the park is a little farther than from Gatlinburg, but for us it was worth it. And, there is a nice bypass that goes around Gatlinburg so you can avoid the traffic there.
In Pigeon Forge, you have all the usual hotel chains, plus a few local options. There are tons of tourist attractions and dinner shows. You can even head over to Dollywood, a theme park partially owned by Dolly Parton, who grew up in the area.
While we still found a lot of traffic in Pigeon Forge, at least the attractions are a little more spread out. Basically, Pigeon Forge is not quite as condensed as Gatlinburg.
Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort
If you want to camp on the north side of Great Smoky Mountains NP, I highly recommend Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort. This campground just opened in April 2021; in fact, we stayed within the first week they were open. As a brand new campground, they were still putting the finishing touches on some of the sites and amenities but we still absolutely loved our stay.
The campsites are very spacious, all with full hookups and a picnic table, charcoal grill and fire pit. You can choose between back-in sites, many of which are right on the river or pull-thru sites. Some sights even have a view of Mount Le Conte, the highest peak fully contained in Tennessee.
If it is amenities you are looking for, there are a wide variety of them at Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort. You’ll find the typical amenities of bathrooms and showers, a laundry room, playground and pool. A little more unusual for a campground, the resort also has a hot tub and small fitness center.
With 150 sites, there is plenty of room to walk or ride bikes around the campground. You can even rent a golf cart if you prefer to move around with a little less effort. The resort will soon offer ticket sales for some of the local attractions and food trucks on the weekends. It is also walking distance to the Apple Barn and Cider House.
This is the only campground we’ve stayed at in Pigeon Forge. But, from what we saw driving around, this is the only one I’d want to stay at. Technically, the campground is in Sevierville because it’s on the north bank of the river but it’s difficult to distinguish Pigeon Forge from Sevierville. It took us about a 30 minute to drive to the park but is absolutely worth it!
We are grateful to the folks at Pigeon Forge Landing RV Resort for hosting us at their property. While this stay was sponsored, all opinions expressed remain our own. Please contact us if you have any questions regarding our stay.
Apple Barn and Cider House
Located just off the main road, the centerpiece of the Apple Barn and Cider House is the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. There is also a Cider Bar, General Store, Creamery and Winery. Each of these shops sells goods made from apples grown right behind the restaurant.
We headed to the restaurant for breakfast one morning and, wow! This was a fantastic breakfast with just the right balance of traditional breakfast foods and unique bites.
Every meal starts with a serving of apple fritters, homemade apple butter and and applewood julep (a mix of apple, orange, pineapple and lemon juices). At breakfast, you’ll also get apple cinnamon muffins (at lunch and dinner you’ll get a homemade soup). While this appetizer was delicious, make sure you save room for your meal!
We both ordered the Farmhouse Special Breakfast which includes two eggs, home fried potatoes, southern grits, cinnamon apples and a biscuit with sausage gravy. You can add on applewood smoked bacon, sugar cured ham, sausage patties or country fried steak.
Needless to say, this was a giant breakfast that really hit the spot before a day of exploring. Everything was tasty and service was great. Just about every time we drove by, there was a long line. If going for breakfast, earlier is better!
If you have additional time, you can wander around the shops and try some cider and/or wine. I’ve never had apple wine, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try some. I’ll admit, it was a little sweet for my taste but that is not surprising for a fruit wine. If you enjoy sweeter wines, you’re sure to find something you like.
I’m looking forward to trying the cider and ice cream if we ever return to the area!
Tennessee Shine Co.
When it comes to adult beverages, the Smoky Mountain region is best known for moonshine. Moonshine is most commonly associated with the Prohibition era but has been around far longer than that. While “moonshine” typically refers to illegally-produced liquor, many legitimate distillers offer products advertised as moonshine.
So what exactly is moonshine? Basically, it is unaged whiskey. Because it is not aged, the spirit is clear and is generally quite potent with a hefty “bite.” As we learned, that is not always the case, though.
We always enjoy visiting the local breweries and distilleries so, of course, we had to check out one of the many moonshine distilleries in the area. You’ll find distilleries all over Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the surrounding area. We chose to visit the Sevierville location of Tennessee Shine Co.
Not only can you sample 5 different flavors for free, you can also take a tour on the History of Moonshine for a small fee. We opted to just do a tasting but the tour did look interesting. Ultimately, it just wasn’t good timing for us to do that.
Your tasting starts with “moonshine flavored moonshine,” which is basically just the traditional non-flavored spirit. While it had more bite than an aged whiskey or bourbon, it really was much smoother than I expected. After that, our bartender selected a couple of flavors for us to try and we got to pick a couple.
While some flavors were a little sweet for me, everything tasted exactly like how was supposed to. Most impressive was the S’mores Whiskey. Yes, you could taste every element of a s’mores – graham cracker, marshmallow and chocolate! Other flavors include Root Beer Float, Salted Caramel, Keylime Cream and Cotton Candy, just to name a few.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll find a flavor you like!
Located a little farther west, Townsend bills itself as the “peaceful side of the Smokies.” Compared to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, that is absolutely accurate! We stayed at a cabin in Townsend as a quick getaway before Thanksgiving back in 2018 and absolutely loved it.
Since we visited in November, most of the local attractions were closed. That was fine with us, as our primary goal on this particular visit was to spend a few days relaxing in the cabin and enjoying the hot tub. Still, in the summer you will find river tubing, Tuckaleechee Caverns and a few local museums.
Townsend is also convenient to exploring the northwest side of the park. In fact, it is the closest place to stay outside the park to explore the Cades Cove area of the park, which is our favorite park of Great Smoky Mountains NP. The downside is that it’s a bit farther of a drive to the main park road.
If you are looking for a quiet place to stay, we recommend Townsend.
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro
If you are looking for quality ingredients in a casual yet upscale environment, check out Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. With a unique menu and an extensive bar, your palette will be rewarded with a dinner here.
While the specific dishes we had are no longer on the menu, I will say that everything we ate was fantastic. Personally, we tend to like a rotating menu, with the chef preparing dishes based on the ingredients available.
The food was great and the atmosphere was perfect. If you are staying in Townsend, we highly recommend Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro for dinner.
On the south side of the park, Cherokee is the main gateway town. Cherokee is the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. This area is a traditional home of the Cherokee people and that is evident around town.
Cherokee is not a large town but is big enough to offer a good variety of hotels and a few local attractions. The most notable attraction is the Harrah’s Casino, offering a wide variety of live table games and video gaming.
We tent-camped in Cherokee many years ago but, honestly, I don’t remember where we stayed. I’ve also visited the casino on a girl’s getaway but we stayed at a cabin a little farther north. While we don’t have any specific recommendations on where to stay in Cherokee, it does make a good base for exploring the south/east side of the park.
Native Brews Tap and Grill
We headed over to Native Brews Tap and Grill in Cherokee after hiking the Waterfalls Loop at Deep Creek (near Bryson City). We always love checking out local breweries and Native Brews did not disappoint.
In terms of food, the Colossal Pretzel lived up to it’s name and was served with a tasty beer cheese. This truly was the perfect appetizer after a nice hike. For our meal, Grant and I both ordered burgers, which were quite large and cooked perfectly.
We tried several different beers, including the Flaming Arrow IPA and Native Girl Pale Ale. Both were well-balanced and refreshing on a warm afternoon. Native Brews also offered a few handcrafted spirits. I particularly enjoyed the Rez-ito, a mixed drink with their whiskey, mint leaves and freshly muddled blackberries!
What to Do at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains NP is mostly undeveloped but it still offers plenty of things to do. For those looking to be fairly active, you’ll find hundreds of miles of hiking trails. If you are looking for a more relaxed visit, you can enjoy scenic drives and explore several historic structures.
We always recommend starting any national park visit at the Visitor Center. The two main visitor centers are Sugarlands, near Gatlinburg, and Oconaluftee, near Cherokee. At both, you’ll find a few exhibits and a bookstore selling souvenirs.
Be sure to pick up a park map and the park newspaper to help you plan your visit. We also suggest talking to a ranger to get updated information regarding current conditions or suggestions for hiking trails or other things to do.
There is also a small Visitor Center/Bookstore at Cades Cove (west side, near Townsend) and an even smaller one at Clingmans Dome (off the main road near the center of the park).
While we always encourage visitors to get out of their car, a drive through Great Smoky Mountains NP is still a great way to see this park. Of course, you’ll find a number of pullouts along the main roads. Be sure to stop at a few of these to enjoy the views, whether that is mountains or rivers.
At a minimum, you should drive Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road. Newfound Gap Road will take you near the highest point in the park, Clingmans Dome. There are many pullouts offering scenic mountain views. Little River Road is a more wooded drive, following several different rivers.
If you can, I suggest trading off drivers if you are backtracking. That way each of you can sit back and enjoy the view while the other drives.
Here are a few other scenic drives that we recommend:
By far, our favorite area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove, located near Townsend on the northwest side of the park. Cades Cove is a gorgeous mountain valley, surrounded by mountains. It is also one of the best places to view wildlife in the park.
As far back as the 1830s and 1840s, Cades Cove was a farming community of European-American settlers. Along the 11-mile one-way loop, you’ll find historic houses, churches, barns and other farm structures. Many of these buildings are in their original location but some have been moved from other historic settlement areas in the park.
If you are short on time or have limited mobility, a drive around the loop will reward you with scenic views of valleys, mountains, woods and streams. For those with more time, you can explore the various historic structures or get out on some of the hiking trails along the loop.
A visitor center (and the loop’s only bathroom) is located at about the half-way point of the loop. This is also where you’ll find the Cable Mill area, which includes a grist mill, blacksmith shop, barn, cable mill, smokehouse and more.
Along the drive, keep your eyes peeled for turkey, deer, bear and other wildlife. Also watch out for bicyclists and hikers along the narrow road.
If you are visiting in the summer, it is worth noting that the park closes the loop road to automobiles every Wednesday from early May to early September. Check the park website for exact dates.
The serenity and beauty of Cades Cove makes this our favorite area of Great Smoky Mountains NP.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Just east of Gatlinburg lies another short scenic drive, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Named for the mountain stream that runs through the area, this 5.5-mile scenic loop winds through the forest, passing several historic structures and hiking trails along the way.
Start the drive by turning east at traffic light #8 in Gatlinburg. Be sure to stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle farmstead. Here, you can walk the short nature to tour the cabin, barn and surrounding forest. Note that the walk down from the parking area is a bit rocky and uneven.
From here, continue past the trailhead for Rainbow Falls (or stop for the 5.4-mile roundtrip hike) and begin the Motor Nature Trail. The narrow road takes you through the old-growth forest. Because this area is much more wooded than Cades Cove, you don’t get the same scenic views, but it is a nice, quiet drive.
Near the end of the loop is Place of a Thousand Drips – a waterfall formed purely by rainfall.
Like a few other roads in Great Smoky Mountains NP, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed in the winter. Check the park website for open and closing dates.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles, connecting Great Smoky Mountains NP and Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia. Since the road runs through the mountains, don’t expect it to be a quick drive. In fact, the speed limit is 45 miles per hour, unless otherwise noted.
If you have the time, a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a great addition to a visit to Great Smoky Mountains NP. While we have driven portions of the Parkway, its been several years. We are planning another visit over Memorial Day 2021, though. Stay tuned for our upcoming coverage!
Explore Historic Buildings
As mentioned above, there are opportunities to tour historic homes, churches and farm buildings along the drive through Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. These are not the only opportunities to tour historic buildings, though.
At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center you can also tour the Mountain Farm Museum. This outdoor museum is a collection of farm buildings that rangers moved here from around the park. Structures include a log farmhouse, apple house, barn, blacksmith shop and several other buildings.
There are also a number of other historic buildings scattered around the park. We attempted to visit the Little Greenbrier School and Walker Sisters Cabin on our most recent visit but ran out of time. There are also a variety of historic buildings in the Cataloochee area on the east side of the park, which we’ve never visited.
As you can see, anyone with an interest in log cabins and other historic buildings can stay busy at Great Smoky Mountains NP!
Great Smoky Mountains NP is home to a large variety of wildlife, both large and small. Due to the dense forest, viewing wildlife can be difficult, though. The two animals that we always hope to see in the park are bears and elk.
As one of the largest protected areas in the eastern US, the park is home to roughly 1,500 black bears. Since this is a healthy population of bears, you do run a decent chance of seeing bears just about anywhere in the park. For this reason, you’ll see a good amount of signage about bears around the park. Additionally, all trash cans are bear-proof and campers are required to store food in bear boxes.
If you are not used to hiking in bear country, be sure to read up on bear safety tips. You can also talk to a ranger at the visitor centers, or anywhere you see a ranger, to ask about any known bear activity in the park. First and foremost, never approach any wild animals because you just don’t know how they will react, regardless of how calm they seem.
Elk once roamed the eastern United States in large numbers. Over-hunting and loss of habitat lead to their demise in the region by the mid 1800s. In fact, by 1900 conservation organizations were concerned that the species could be headed for extinction. In 2001, the National Park Service began reintroducing elk to Great Smoky Mountains NP as part of their efforts to preserve the native species of the region.
Over the years, the elk population has grown. You can now find elk in several regions on the south and east sides of the park. The best places to spot elk are in the Cataloochee and Oconaluftee areas. Indeed, we ran across an elk herd hanging out along the road just west of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on our most recent visit.
By far, the best way to really explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to get out on the trail. You have to be able to handle some fairly strenuous terrain, though. While there are a few short and flat nature trails, most of the hiking trails in the park contain steep inclines and/or rocky, uneven terrain.
If you are looking for overnight hikes, you’ll find plenty! You can even hike along a section of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine.
The park has a few resources for hiking trails on its website but you’ll probably want a hiking guide if you are really looking for a good number of long or not-as-popular hikes. If you are planning on hiking any of the more popular trails, plan to arrive early in the day, especially if visiting during the busy season. Parking is extremely limited at even the most popular trailheads. A late arrival will only add more distance to your hike.
Over our visits, we have done several moderately strenuous day hikes throughout the park. We’ve hiked at Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome and Deep Creek. Stay tuned for Grant’s upcoming article with more details on hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Final Thoughts on Great Smoky Mountains National Park
As the country’s most-visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains NP can be crowded, especially in the busy summer months and during school holidays. If you are willing to drive or hike a little, though, there are plenty of places to escape the crowds and find a quiet place to just enjoy the mountains, rivers and trees.
While there are no geysers, canyons or other “stand out features” like you’ll find at some national parks, there is an understated beauty that you’ll find if you just slow down and look. And, with several different gateway towns, each with its own character, getting to Great Smoky Mountains NP isn’t all that difficult.
There aren’t a lot of designated National Parks east of the Mississippi. But Great Smoky Mountains NP does its part to make up for that. The landscape is very characteristic of the greater region and the history it preserves is interesting. Those who are able can hike, camp and explore on foot. Others can enjoy scenic drives or relaxing by a number of different rivers. Having the opportunity to spot bears, elk and other wildlife is just icing on the cake.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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