Visiting the Most Visited National Park in America

Rebecca GuldinLong Weekend
Sun hitting the plains and mountain range at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - iStock / GreenStock

Known for whimsical wildflowers, beautiful autumn leaves, alluring waterfalls, and abundant wildlife, it is easy to literally see why Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in America. Nestled in the crook of North Carolina and spilling into Tennessee, this park covers 522,427 acres and boasts 10 campsites, 11 picnic areas, more than 730 miles of fish-bearing streams, and 16 mountain peaks.

Honeysuckle vine clings to the fence along the lane 
Their fragrance makes the summer wind so sweet 
And on a distant hilltop, an eagle spreads it's wings 
An' a songbird on a fence post sings a melody 

– Dolly Parton’s "My Tennessee Mountain Home"

How to Get There 

Road leading past trees towards mountains

Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS / Victoria Stauffenberg

Visitors who are traveling by car can enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park through three main entrances. Within the park, your GPS may provide inaccurate information and send you to a dead end, so plan ahead. Pick up a free road map available in all park visitor centers and while you’re there, inquire about road closures. 

If you’re traveling by motorcycle, be aware of animals entering the road, drivers of oncoming vehicles straying over the center line while looking at scenery, unexpected snow at high altitudes, and debris on the road after changes in weather. 

Where to Stay 

Aerial view of orange foliage at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

iStock / KenCanning

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a camper’s paradise. There are many types of campsites from which visitors can choose, some of which accommodate horses, larger groups, or backcountry hikers. The only way to rent a room in the park is at LeConte Lodge, which is accessible by foot. Within the park, there are no other rental cabins, hotels, or motels, though visitors will find many options outside the park limits. Choosing to camp in the park can help visitors beat the crowds during peak tourist times. 

Day One 

Visitors outside a building - Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS Photo

When you enter the park (for free, might we add), stop by one of the visitor centers. There is a lot to see and do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and you can make the most of your time by asking a ranger or volunteer about weather conditions, road closures, and any other factors that might affect your time in the park. 

There are many ways to learn about and explore a park, but our favorite is with a ranger. Check out the park's Junior Ranger program if you're traveling with kids; and if you'd like to participate too, become a Not-So-Junior Ranger by attending a ranger-led program, asking the ranger to sign the activity card, and returning it to a visitor center in exchange for a free patch.

See a 20-minute film at Sugarlands Visitor Center. Attend a ranger-guided program or milling demonstration at Cable Mill or Mingus Mill. Plan a stop at a picnic area before settling into your campsite for the evening – tomorrow will be a busy day!

Please note that approximately 1,500 black bears inhabit all parts of the park. Before you go, learn what to do if you encounter a bear and carry bear spray. 

Day Two 

Two hikers navigate a narrow wooden footbridge in the woods at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Hiking in Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS Photo / Victoria Stauffenberg

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers 800 miles of trails to accommodate hikers of all levels. The Chimney Tops Trail twists up Sugarland Mountain by gushing streams and beautiful outlooks. This steep 4-miler gains 1,400 feet in just two miles. It's one of the most popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so hit the trail early to miss the crowds.

Take time to visit Cataloochee Valley, where numerous historic buildings have been preserved. Tour seasonal exhibits in the Palmer House, which was restored in 2017 by Friends of the Smokies and the National Park Foundation. Peruse a school, barn, several churches, and homes with assistance from the self-guided auto tour. Peep herds of deer and elk. You can also hike several trails, including the Boogerman Trail, which takes hikers on a seven-mile path through an old-growth forest.

No matter which trail you choose, wear sturdy shoes and wet your whistle at a bottle filling station, made possible by The North Face, before starting your hike.

Day Three 

Water falls over a rocky creek, sprinkled with fall leaves - Little Pigeon River

Little Pigeon River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS Photo

Spend a quiet morning fishing. The park features many different types of fishing environments and will satisfy beginners to advanced fishermen.  

Soak up your last few hours in the park with a bike ride. If you choose to visit in the autumn, a ride or drive is the perfect way to view the beautiful fall colors the park has to offer.  

On your way home from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, get another stamp in your national park passport by visiting nearby national park service areas, one of which is as close as 40 miles away. 


A wooden aqueduct leads to a small wooden mill building, surrounded by trees

Mingus Mill, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS Photo / Robert Crootof

Many areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are accessible for visitors with disabilities. Many trails are difficult to navigate with a traditional wheelchair, though some are accessible. The Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail and its interpretive exhibits are accessible. A large print brochure is available. Other hard-packed gravel trails include Cades Cove, trails by Mingus Mill, and trails by the Mountain Farm Museum.

Reservations can be made for a wheelchair-accessible camping unit can be made at sites in Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont, and feature paved paths, suitable tables, and fire grills. The amphitheater at Caves Cove and Big Creek Horse Camp are also wheelchair-accessible. 

When to Go 

Mountains covered in green vegetation

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

NPS Photo / Victoria Stauffenberg

Peak season is June 15 to August 15 and the whole month of October. Most people tour the park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., so visitors should expect delays and traffic during those peak times. Cades Cove Loop Road and Newfound Gap Road are the most traveled areas and are busy year-round. 

Take the roads less traveled to avoid the crowds. According to the park, Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Cosby, Fontana Lake, Greenbrier Cove, Heintooga Ridge Road, and Foothills Parkway east and west will have less traffic.  

No matter the season, no matter the activity, you’ll #FindYourPark / #EncuentraTuParque among the hundreds of miles and countless activities America’s most-visited park has to offer. 

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We are looking so forward to our trip to Gatlinburg and a day at the national Park! With kids ages nine, seven, and four we are trying to be practical about what we can accomplish during our day. We would like to start her day Clingmans Dome, take part in the junior ranger program, and hike on a trail our kids can handle. Other than what I’ve read through on your site, is there a recommended itinerary to make the day work?

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