I guess it is common sense to the average person, but important nonetheless. Take your time to smell the roses (or the mushrooms as my second photo shows), get in the park early and come back late to maximize the opportunities you have. Pack a lunch since there are extremely limited services in the park.
The wildlife and weather do not operate on fixed schedules, so take your time and be patient to see everything you want to see. Particularly in the peak season (summer and fall), expect traffic.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves a unique natural area with five different types of forests: Spruce-Fir Forests; Northern Hardwood Forests; Cove Hardwood Forests; Hemlock Forests and Pine and Oak Forests. Each type has its own plant and animal life indigenous to it. Which type of forest thrives in what area depends on several factors including elevation, how much rainfall there is and how the slope controls other exposure factors like wind and sunlight.
The smokies got their name because of the smoky looking haze that is almost constantly hanging over the mountains. Today, pollution adds to this appearance. If you get the chance, go up to Clingman's Dome for a look at North Carolina and Tennessee.
Another very interesting attraction in the park is Cades Cove, where you can get a glimpse into the lives of early settlers in the area.
Fondest memory: Cades Cove and the View From Clingman's Dome
When we go to the NC house, we often drive through the park to Gatlinburg. Going in the winter there is less traffic, but we need our winter clothes - we don't have need that many of those living in Florida as we do.
Fondest memory: Walking across into NC
The park is across two state borders. The North Carolina side is in the area of the state which originally belonged to the Cherokee and the other side is Tennessee.
The park is open year-round. Visitor centers at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, and Cades Cove are open all year, except Christmas Day. Hours of operation vary throughout the year.
Fondest memory: The park home page says
Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.
Celebrate the park's 75th Anniversary with us in 2009
We set off at a brisk pace on a path that rose steadily and were soon quite happy with it being mostly a forested walk. The shade helped keep us cool on an otherwise warm afternoon. We arrived at the Alum Cave in less than an hour despite it being posted as a two hour climb. We knew we were making great time but wondered whether going to the top of LeConte made sense with friends waiting on us. It was too early to turn back so we figured we’d walk until we got a better view and turn back once it got too late. En route we passed an elderly couple who claimed to have done the walk 80 times and exclaimed we’d have no problems with it. If there had been doubt that we’d finish it up until then it was pretty much put to rest with this passing. There would be no turning back until LeConte was ours.
With this knowledge we quickened our pace further and passed a few more groups. The trail was beautiful and even more so with a profusion of in roaring bloom enveloping big portions of it. The views were lovely if only intermittent and threatened by an ever darkening sky that forewarned of an encroaching thunderstorm that had us thinking of aborting once more. Trail maintenance personnel explained we were closer to the top than bottom and suggested getting up there to safety rather than turning back. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
The trail down was a bit slippery from the storm and our knees were not quite ready for the decent as we’d not done any hiking in over a year. You can get in the best shape ever and that does help for going up but once you have to come down there isn’t much you can do to prepare yourself for the inevitable pain that follows. We made it down quickly nonetheless and were happy to get back to the car about 4:30, pretty fast considering we were at the top for a good 45 minutes to an hour. Unfortunately I’d forgotten to call my friends before embarking on the return trip and now found myself in the valley with no signal once again.
We raced as best we could but these were winding roads that would slow us down no matter what our intensions were. It was a beautiful ride we’d have enjoyed if not under time constraints and even passed by a drive in restaurant right out of the 50s. We didn’t get a signal until we got to Blairsville, GA-the town our friends lived in. They’d call numerous times and assumed we didn’t have coverage since we never picked up or returned their messages. It was all ancient history soon enough as we settled in on their big porch and a refreshing beer. They knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t always on time and even better that I wouldn’t likely pass up a hike even if I was running late. Turn back? Not in my nature. Besides it all made for a good story and that’s what they were waiting for anyway. We’d have the next day to discover their little corner of the planet. We could see already that we’d have to come back again and when we did we’d make it the sole focus of our trip. Then we’d be on time or at least a lot closer.
We reached the LeConte Lodge in well under three hours and grabbed a spot under a shelter that was perfect for our lunch break. The rain started to pour down and we were happy to be under cover. We enjoyed our food despite the lack of what would have been beautiful views normally and were pleasantly surprised by a young deer who wandered by us gingerly; another sure anomaly in better weather at that hour. I checked my cell phone coverage and was surprised I had a signal since I hadn’t had one since entering the park but Doreen warned me that with the lightning it wasn’t a good idea to make a call.
After the rain slowed down we walked over to the lodge proper. It was an assortment of cabins, each with its own separate porch with rockers to enjoy what is normally a fantastic view. There is a meeting room of sorts where meals must be served with a huge wood burning stove, lots of things to read, and photos on the walls showing the storied history of the lodge. We set and enjoyed a brief rest and waited for the rain to wane before making the tough decision to head back down. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
This is an easy park to visit by car and you can get into the forest or find great views without even leaving it. But to truly enjoy the splendor of the Smokies by all means get onto one of the many trails. They are well marked, maintained and there is one for every level of fitness. Enjoy!
Fondest memory: Pulling out of Asheville, I wondered if I’d made the right decision. My wife was pretty certain. She’d gotten me out of a great pub that had very good beer and I was likely to over imbibe if left to my own devices. So, we found ourselves on the road in the early evening with plenty of light for the short drive. We arrived in Kodiak, Tennessee just as the sun went down and saved a bundle on the room by doing so. It was surely a much nicer room than we’d have managed in Asheville; it even had free wireless access. We got a great night’s rest and I awoke early to scope out our breakfast possibilities. I filled the tank while out and decided to treat Doreen to Cracker Barrel rather than the quicker McDonald’s we had discussed the night before to ensure getting down to a trail head as early as possible.
After a hearty breakfast of grits and eggs we made our way down into The Great Smoky National Park. I’d been before but Doreen was surprised at the crass commercialism of the entry town of Gatlinburg. But once in the park, it was easy to see why it is so popular with great old growth forest and winding roads exploring the gently rolling hills of America’s most popular National Park. We soon found ourselves at the trail head though much later than planned. It was nearly 11 by the time we hit the trail and I’d told my friends in Georgia we’d get to their place around 4:00; pretty much impossible if we did the whole hike we’d planned. The estimated time according to the sign at the beginning of the trek said between 6-8 hours so we hoped to do it in five and at least be able to call and explain we’d be late once back at the car. (continued below in Fondest Memory)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for several things, one of which is the heavy traffic that converges on the park, creating traffic jams that can be astounding. One good way to avoid the crowds is to get an early start to the day. If you're staying in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, it can take over an hour to even get into the park. But, in the very early hours of the morning, traffic is virtually non existent.
There are many good reasons for starting your day early, and avoiding Gatlinburg's tourist attractions is only an incidental benefit. In the early hours, traffic in the park is minimal and your chances of seeing wildlife also increase. Mornings can be hazy, as can afternoons, evenings, weekends and holidays (that's why they call 'em the Smokies, after all), but they can also be a bit cooler and pleasant. There's something to be said for driving on a practically isolated park road in the early hours, even in the haze. After all, the haze is one of the reasons for visiting this park.
Most people come to these mountains to see wildlife. Bears are the most sought out animal in the park. I have been many times and either see a lot of bears or none at all. One trip, back in Nov of 2000 we saw almost 10 bears.
Deers are the most abundant. Cades Cove at dusk or dawn is the best time to see them. They are so tame they walk up to the cars sometimes. BUT PLEASE, dont feed the animals!!!!!! That is stressed the most. It endangers people and the animals.
This national park is truly one place where I have witnessed the power of nature. On top of Clingman's Dome, the weather changed quickly from partly cloudy to the sound of thunder. In short time, heavy rain hit the area. This was followed by a hailstorm. During the rest of the afternoon and evening, rain and thunder hit periodically throughout the Smokies and all of the way to Asheville, North Carolina.
I must warn that it could rain a lot during your visit. This lush area receives a lot of rainfall in order for it to be so green. Weather here can be very hard to predict, so there is no way to gaurantee that you will see blue skies during your visit. Sometimes, the rain and fog can provide a dreamlike setting in the forested slopes. This may be a good time to put on rain gear and explore some of the many waterfalls in the park. If it is a light rain, there is still a reasonable chance to see wildlife.
I would advise to be prepared for rain no matter what time of year you may be visiting. Snow is also a good possibility during winter, expecially in the higher elevations.
Weather can vary widely in the Smokies, not only according to the season, but also the altitude, which ranges from 800 to 6,643 feet above sea level. These mountains create their own weather, so forecasts for nearby towns often don't hold true for the Park. I have often seen it raining or snowing "on top of old Smoky," when the sun was shining everywhere but on the peaks.
Any time you visit the Smokies be prepared for rain, or in winter, snow. This is one of the wettest places in the continental United States, with an average of 88 inches of rain per year on the peaks and 65 inches in the lower elevations. Snow accumulations on top of Mt. Leconte totaled more than 14 feet in 2003. Most years accumulations are less, but the highest elevations can get snow from October through May.
Summers are very hot and humid in the lower elevations, but pleasant higher in the mountains. Afternoon thunderstorms are almost a daily occurance. Spring weather can be very unsettled, however, it never stops the April wildflowers from putting on a spectacular display. Fall usually has mild days and cool nights and is the driest time of the year.
Every time we enter the Smokies from either of the two most popular entrances (Gatlingburg, TN, or Cherokee, NC) we are startled by the abrupt change. One minute you are in loud, glaring, crowded touristville, and the next you are engulfed in a quite, majestic, verdant forest. Sure, during the busy seasons US Hwy. 441 which bisects the park may be crowded. But stop anywhere, hike five minutes up virtually any trail, and you leave civilization behind.
Fondest memory: Many times I have hiked all day long in the Smokies without seeing more than half a dozen other people, and a few times I have seen no one else at all - yet you're within a one day's drive of half the population of the United States.
For years Great Smoky Mountains Park Rangers have frustrated over the fact that a large percentage of visitors simply drive through, viewing the Park from their car windows. What a shame to be so near the greatest wilderness area in Eastern America, and yet be seperated from it by a climate controlled capsule of glass and steel.
Get out! Stretch your legs! Breathe deeply of the fresh mountain air! To encourage more people to experience the forest, and especaily for those who are intimidated by the longer more difficult trails, the park service has created a series of Quiet Walkways - circuit paths of a few hundred yards each. Although we often hike the longer trails, we've also taken a few of these and have always found them enjoyable. It's amazing how short a distance from the road one has to go to totally close out the sights and sounds of civilization and become engulfed in the quite beauty of nature.
The Quite Walkways may be found periodically along any of the main roads of the Park, particularly Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road.
The Great Smoky Mountains is the only major National Park in the United States that has no entrance fee. This is due to a agreement reached with the people of both North Carolina and Tennessee, back in the 1920's, when the Federal Government was buying up land to create the Park. Much of the land was paid for by individual gifts of local people, including school children who collected pennies to contribute. (Their gifts were matched by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation) Also, there was a concern that the highway which passes through the park, U.S. 441, could become a toll road. The highway is still a steep, winding two lane road and commercial traffic (like big trucks) is banned.
To help provide for the needs of the Park, the "Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park," a private organization, was founded in 1993. They now boast 2,000 members, including 80 volunteer park workers, and have raised more than $8 million from individual, corporate, and foundation gifts. They have placed donation boxes, such as the one pictured, at strategic locations within the park for your contribution. Why not drop in a dollar or two when you pass by? The experience of visiting such a wonderful park is indeed priceless.
Get an instant answer from local experts and frequent travelers