The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the United States. This incredible park spans the Tennessee and North Carolina border, and the Smokies are stunning and easily accessible year-round.
I live in East Tennessee, so I’ve been exploring the Smoky Mountains since I was old enough to walk. My family visits multiple times a year, and my uncle worked for Friends of The Smokies and has written five books about the national park.
The Smokies are near and dear to my heart, which is why I’ve created this ultimate guide to The Smoky Mountains National Park!
When To Go
There isn’t a bad time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. June, July, and August are the busiest months of the year. You’ll want to reserve tours, guides, cabins, hotels, and campgrounds up to a year in advance. Day temperatures are in the high 80s and low 90s, and evening temperatures are more comfortable in the 60s and 70s. The humidity is less in the mountains, but haze and afternoon thunderstorms are common.
During these months, you’ll want to start your day as early as possible when visiting the park’s most popular trails and scenic drives to beat some of the crowds.
September – November is the second most popular season because of the foliage change. You’ll still need to book accommodation and tours well in advance on weekends during these months. The foliage change usually starts mid to late-September, peaks in October, and then the leaves fall throughout November. Day temperatures will be in the 70s, and nights will be in the 50s. By November, temperatures can begin dropping to near freezing, and snow is possible in the higher elevations.
December – February has relatively moderate Winter temperatures with daytime highs in the 50s and below freezing at night. Lodging rates are at their lowest during this season (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s), but some attractions, tours, visitor centers, and campgrounds close during the winter. And some roads and trails can experience snow closures.
March – May is a beautiful time to visit the Smokies, though Spring Break weeks in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg can be jam-packed with people. The weather will still be chilly and unpredictable in March, but April and May bring warmer temperatures and amazing wildflower, redbud, and dogwood blooms. These months are some of the wettest for the park, so always have rain gear with you. This is the shoulder season, so accommodation prices will be lower, but weekend tours and lodging can still fill up, so book ahead of time.
What To Do
Hikes: Walker Sisters’ Cabin (easy), Spence Field (strenuous, but the views are worth it, and Rocky Top is only one mile further), Andrews Bald (moderate), Charlies Bunion (difficult), Alum Cave (moderate), Oconaluftee Trail (easy).
Waterfall Hikes: Spruce Flats Falls (easy-moderate), Rainbow Falls (moderate-difficult), Ramsay Cascade (difficult), Grotto Falls (moderate), Mingo Falls (easy), Cataract Falls (easy).
Scenic Drives: Newfound Gap Road (paved, suitable for all vehicles), Balsam Mountain Heintooga Ridge Road (one-way gravel road), The Road To Nowhere (paved, suitable for all vehicles), Cataloochee Valley (a narrow, gravel, mountain road), The Foothills Parkway (paved, suitable for all vehicles), Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (paved, suitable for all vehicles), Cades Cove Loop (one-way gravel road suitable for all vehicles).
Pro Tip #1 for Cades Cove: get here at sunrise (when the road opens) to beat the crowds. Most days of the year, this loop is bumper-to-bumper cars by mid-morning. Pro Tip #2 for Cades Cove: some of the best views are on the cut-through roads off the main loop road. So pull your car off to walk these roads, then keep driving back along the main loop road.
Stargazing in the Smokies is also a spectacular self-guided activity in Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley.
My Favorite Guide Books
Know Before You Go
Bring your best rain gear.
There’s no entry fee for the Smokies, so you don’t need to purchase a park pass specifically for visiting the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is only open from sunrise to sunset, and bicycle days and hours are usually restricted.
Bring bear spray and a walking stick, and educate yourself on what to do if you encounter a black bear.
About 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the Smokies, so make sure you hike at least a portion of this famous route!
The park has limited food and beverage services inside the park, so plan on packing out your lunch.
Where To Stay
On my most recent trip to The Smokies, I stayed at Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains. This luxury glamping site makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but you’re just a few minutes from Pigeon Forge and two of the park’s entrances.
I love staying at glamping sites like Under Canvas (which has sites at many national parks) that prioritize water conservation, reusable and recyclable materials, solar power, and minimal carbon emissions.
If glamping isn’t for you, then Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have every kind of hotel imaginable. Townsend has fantastic cabin rentals, and Cherokee and Bryson City have some small-town-charm bed and breakfasts. If you want to splurge on an accommodation inside (or right next to) the park, then Blackberry Farm or The Swag is for you.
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Is there anything you’d add to this guide for The Great Smoky Mountains National Park? If so, let me know in the comments!
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This post is not a sponsored post, and, as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this article about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are entirely my own. Some of these links are affiliate links, and, at no cost to you, I may earn a small commission.