Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (2023)

GATLINBURG, Tennessee – I stopped my bike and stared. A black bear at the side of the road was drinking from a puddle, perhaps 30 feet from my wheels.

I tried to remember what the park ranger told me the day before: Don’t get closer than you have to; make yourself known as you give the bear space; don’t run.

I considered my options as I stood in wonder, unable even to reach for the cell phone in my pocket to document the encounter (so you’ll just have to take my word for it).

After a few moments, the bear ambled away and I continued my tour of Cades Cove.

It was a peak experience among many at America’s most popular national park.

Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed during my recent three-day tour of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses more than half a million acres in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I hadn’t been here since I was a kid, and everyone I talked to in advance of my trip warned me about the crowds. “You couldn’t pay me to go back,” said my sister-in-law.

Well, I would go definitely go back – maybe not in October, which is the most visited month in the park. But soon. And here’s why:

* It’s an easy, eight-hour drive from Cleveland, one of the most accessible national parks to Ohio (and much of the rest of the eastern United States, which is why it drew more than 14 million visitors in 2021, a new record).

* There’s a tremendous variety of activities here – lots of hiking trails, short and easy or long and strenuous, plus gorgeous scenic drives, places to bicycle, raft, horse-back ride and more.

* This is the most biologically diverse national park in the U.S. system, with more than 19,000 recorded species, including 100 types of trees, 200 kinds of birds and 30 different salamanders.

In addition to the black bear, I had a close encounter with a herd of elk near Cherokee, North Carolina, where a park ranger ordered me back inside my car out of a concern that the bull might get aggressive. So I sat in my car taking photos alongside dozens of other vehicles. Because yes, this place is crowded – but for good reason.

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (1)

(Video) Top 10 Sights at Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Plus tips for visiting | Know before you go!

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (2)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (3)

Exploring the park

The park, created in 1934, covers more than 522,000 acres – the 19th largest in the U.S. (11th, if you leave off Alaska). There was no way I was going to see it all.

Ranger Thomas Lynch told me that the best way to avoid crowds is to focus exploration in the southern and eastern areas of the park. But he told me this as I chatted with him inside the Sugarlands Visitors Center, at the park’s northern and busiest entrance in Gatlinburg.

I never made it to those less-crowded areas. Instead, over the next three days, I toured the park’s most popular attractions – Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Mount Le Conte and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

The park is trying to solve, or at least adapt to, some of the overcrowding issues. Starting next year, Great Smoky Mountains – among a handful of national parks that currently don’t charge admission -- will institute a parking fee for the first time, which is likely to deter some visitors. The fee goes into effect March 1 and is $5 for one day, $15 for a week and $40 for one year.

In addition, the park has experimented with parking reservations and blocked roadside parking at the popular Laurel Falls trailhead. And two years ago, the park closed off the Cades Cove area to vehicular traffic one day per week to give pedestrians and cyclists an opportunity to explore the area free of cars (alas, the last car-free Wednesday for 2022 is Sept. 28; the program will resume in May).

I chose my travel dates in September in an attempt to straddle the busy summer months and October when spectacular fall foliage is likely to attract more than a million visitors to the park. Even so, the park was busy – we had trouble finding parking at several popular hiking trails and got stuck behind some painfully slow-moving vehicles as we negotiated park roadways.

I had some gripes with Mother Nature, as well. Somehow, I didn’t quite realize how much rain this area gets – between 55 and 90 inches a year, depending on location. Indeed, some of the highest elevations in the park get enough precipitation to qualify as a temperate rainforest.

Even when it wasn’t raining, it was misting or humid, which made it impossible for our wet clothes to dry. And the rain comes unexpectedly – it’s sunny one moment, and dripping the next.

Indeed, we thought we picked a perfect time to go to Clingmans Dome – the highest point in the park – but by the time we drove the 23 miles from the park entrance to the peak, the mountaintop was encased in clouds.

(Video) 5 REASONS TO AVOID SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (4)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (5)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (6)

I didn’t mind too much. The clouds and the fog are, after all, what make the Smokies so magical.

A subrange of the Appalachian Mountains, the Smokies get their name from the smoke-like fog that often envelops the park. The fog is caused in part by vapor emitted by the trees, bushes and other plants. As the plant vapor scatters blue light from the sky, the fog often takes on a blue hue. The Cherokee called this “shaconage,” or “land of the blue smoke.”

We saw lots of blue smoke as we meandered through the park, at both low and high elevations.

My husband and I conquered one big hike, up Mount Le Conte, a 6,593-foot-high peak that is the third highest in the park. There are five trails that scale the mountain – I opted for the shortest, 5-mile Alum Cave Trail, a gorgeous, strenuous path that took us along a creek, through a cave and into a Fraser fir forest before delivering us to the top. I was lucky to score a last-minute reservation at the rustic mountaintop LeConte Lodge – the only overnight (noncamping) option inside the park. (Reservations for 2023 will be accepted starting Oct. 3; for details: lecontelodge.com.)

Plenty of hikers go up and down Mount Le Conte in a day, although I was grateful for a couple of good meals and a comfortable bed in between the climb and descent.

Read more: Overnighting at LeConte Lodge, the only inn inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park (but first, you have to get there)

Other, shorter hikes we enjoyed included the trail to Grotto Falls, one of more than 100 prominent waterfalls inside the park. The 25-foot-tall Grotto Falls is about 1.3 miles up the Trillium Gap Trail, which also winds its way up Mount Le Conte. Most hikers, however, myself included, turn around after walking behind the scenic waterfall (the trail actually runs behind the cataract.)

The highest point in the park is Clingmans Dome, elevation 6,643, accessible via a 7-mile scenic drive west off U.S. 441, which winds through the park. After you park your car, there’s a ½-mile paved uphill climb to a lookout tower that offers 360-degrees of the park. On a clear day, you can see as many as 100 miles in any direction.

It was clear when we started ascending, but the clouds gathered as we climbed. Still, the clouds broke just enough to give us a glimpse of what might have been.

(Video) 4 of the BEST Day Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! | Easy Hikes in the Smokies

The views were better at Newfound Gap, the mountain pass that forms the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Appalachian Trial, which runs nearly 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, intersects here.

And on this site on Sept. 2, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the park at the Rockefeller Memorial, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps to honor the Rockefeller family for its $5 million donation to help establish the park.

Unlike previous national parks, which were almost all created out of government-owned land in the West, the land that would become Great Smoky Mountains National Park was mostly privately owned, and had to be purchased. The park today is home to more than 90 historic structures, former homes, barns, churches, schools and gristmills that were inhabited a century ago.

Among the best places to see these structures: Along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a one-way, 5.5-mile scenic drive that starts and ends in Gatlinburg, meandering through dense forest along the gorgeous Roaring Fork. This is where we picked up the Grotto Falls Trail, and where we stopped to tour the log-cabin structures that are part of the historic homestead of Noah “Bud” Ogle, who settled in this area in the late 1800s.

The park’s Cades Cove area, in the northwest section of the park, is probably the best-known former mountain community. A population of as many as 700 lived here in the mid-19th century, farming the fertile valley land. There are dozens of preserved historic buildings here, including three churches and numerous log-cabin homes. An 11-mile, one-way loop road meanders through the valley, a gorgeous route with mountains on all sides.

This is an area of the park that can get extremely crowded, with cars clogging the roadway during morning rush.

My husband and I stopped by late in the afternoon on a Wednesday, one of the park’s last vehicle-free days of 2022. We rented bikes at the Cades Cove Campground Store and had the loop road almost all to ourselves. It was one of the most scenic bike rides I’ve experienced anywhere, marred only by – you guessed it – an unexpected rain shower.

Adding to the allure: The black bear by the side of the roadway as I pedaled away from the Primitive Baptist Church, built in 1887. I saw the bear out of the corner of my eye and pressed my handbrakes. For several minutes, I stood there mesmerized.

Then he went his way and I went mine, on the lookout for more magic.

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (7)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (8)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (9)

(Video) Great Smoky Mountains National Park | What to know, before you go!

If you go: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Where: The park encompasses more than 500,000 acres in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, about an eight-hour drive from Cleveland, primarily via I-75. The closest major airport is McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee.

When: The park is open year-round, though some roadways close in the winter. The busiest months are June, July and October.

Admission: The park is currently free; starting in March 2023, the park service will begin collecting a fee to park for more than 15 minutes -- $5 for one day, $15 for a week or $40 for the year.

More information: www.nps.gov/grsm

Read more: Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg: Where to stay near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (10)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (11)

Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular (12)

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FAQs

Why is Smoky Mountains most popular? ›

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an array of natural and man-made attractions. The park offers miles of wooded trails, stunning waterfalls, winding scenic drives, more than 90 historic structures and lots of educational exhibits.

Why is Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most visited in America? ›

The number one reason the Great Smoky Mountains are so popular is because it's one of the only national parks in the United States that doesn't charge an entrance fee.

What is the best month to visit Smoky Mountains? ›

According to when most visitors come to the Smoky Mountains, the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains national park is during the months of June, July, and October. The months with the lowest visitation tend to be in the winter and spring.

Do you have to worry about bears in the Smoky Mountains? ›

Do not approach bears or allow them to approach you. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. Bears inhabit all elevations of the park.

What is the main attraction in Smoky Mountain national park? ›

Clingmans Dome has long been one of the park's most-visited attractions, and with good reason — the panoramic views available from this outlook are indescribably beautiful. Reaching a peak height of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is one of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi.

Why Smoky Mountain national park is famous? ›

Called the Smokies due to the ever-present morning fog, this mountain range is world renowned for the diversity of its plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and its history of southern Appalachian mountain culture.

Why do people vacation in the Smoky Mountains? ›

There are ample things to do—scenic drives, hiking, visiting historical sites and more. Nearby towns offer theme parks, family attractions, restaurants, shopping and lodging. These jewels, coupled with free and easy access, have crowned the Smokies as America's most visited national park.

What is the most visited park in the United States? ›

Coming in at the top spot with a whopping 12.1 million visits, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country's most-visited national park. Crossing North Carolina and Tennessee, this park is known for its wildlife, waterfalls, and fog-covered mountains.

Is the Great Smoky Mountains the most visited? ›

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is consistently the most visited national park in the country. It is situated within a day's drive of one-half the population of the United States and was visited more than 14.1 million times in 2021.

How do you spend 3 days in the Great Smoky Mountains? ›

A 3-day itinerary in the Smoky Mountains can be as adventurous as hiking the Appalachian Trail and climbing Mount LeConte or as family-friendly as picnicking by the river and playing at amusement parks in nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

What should people look out for in the Great Smoky Mountains? ›

Two species of venomous snakes live in the Smokies, the northern copperhead and timber rattlesnake. Although very few snake bites occur here, visitors should be cautious where they place their hands and feet, especially around old buildings and stone fences.

What is the rainiest month in the Smoky Mountains? ›

Upslope, heat-driven airflow into the Great Smokies often generates summer rain and thunderstorms. Indeed, July's the wettest month in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountain region in general. Fall, by contrast, is typically the driest time of year in Gatlinburg.

How long should I stay in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? ›

If you are a first time visitor to the park and want to experience the best of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we suggest 3 to 4 full days of sightseeing plus a day or two for doing some of the longer hikes, river tubing, or horseback riding and still have time to explore Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge.

How many days are enough for Smoky Mountains? ›

How many days should you spend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? This park is full of scenic drives and hikes, and I recommend spending at least four full days in the park if you want to see the can't-miss sights.

What to do if black bear follows you? ›

If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do NOT run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.

What to do if a black bear approaches you? ›

Back away when possible. If attacked, immediately fight back. DON'T feed bears. A word about bear spray: Bear spray (pepper spray specifically made as a bear deterrent) can be an effective tool if you encounter an aggressive bear.

What time do black bears come out? ›

Bears are usually active from dawn to dusk, but they may be seen any time of day or night. Bears in many places of high human use have become nocturnal in order to avoid people.

What are 3 interesting facts about the Great Smoky Mountains? ›

10 Fun Facts About the Smoky Mountains That Might Surprise You
  • Home to a Large Diversity of Plants and Animals. ...
  • No Entrance Fee to the National Park. ...
  • Most Visited National Park in the United States. ...
  • Salamander Capital of the World. ...
  • Some of the Oldest Mountains in the World. ...
  • More than 800 Miles of Hiking Trails.
2 Oct 2018

What is beautiful about Smoky Mountains? ›

For nature lovers, the Smokies are a true paradise filled with lush green forests, cool mountain streams, and quiet meadows where butterflies flit above the wildflowers. You'll find whitetail deer napping in the dappled sunlight, and trout splashing about in shallow pools.

What is unique about the Smoky Mountains? ›

It's home to nearly 20,000 species of plants, fungi and wildlife. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world, home to nearly 20,000 species of plants, fungi and wildlife, according to the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Why is it called Smoky Mountains? ›

Fog lingers among the forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Water and hydrocarbons exuded by trees produce the filmy "smoke" that gives the mountains their name.

Is Smoky Mountain worth visiting? ›

Many people love the national park for its namesake – the Smoky Mountains! The natural scenes of the park are amazing no matter when you visit. However, you'll definitely want to see the Smokies at their best: during spring or fall! You can also see what the Smokies have to offer when you take a scenic drive.

Is it hard to breathe in the Smoky Mountains? ›

The air becomes thinner at high altitudes, making it more difficult to breathe.

Are the Smoky Mountains fun? ›

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a mecca for outdoor lovers. Along with its abundant wildflowers and wildlife, the park offers stunning waterfalls along wooded trails (Grotto Falls), strenuous climbs (Clingmans Dome or Chimney Tops) and scenic drives (the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail).

What is the #1 park in the US? ›

1. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The nation's first national park, established in 1872, has so many iconic features it's almost impossible to list them all.

What is the least visited park in the US? ›

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska is the least-visited US national park.

What is the most visited park in the world? ›

Worldwide
RankAmusement park2019
1Magic Kingdom Theme Park at Walt Disney World Resort20,963,000
2Shanghai Disneyland11,210,000
3Universal Studios Japan14,500,000
4Chimelong Ocean Kingdom11,736,000
16 more rows

Where is the largest national park in the US? ›

The uncontested heavyweight champion of the National Park System is Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. At 13.2 million acres, it's larger than Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined.

Is Smoky Mountain national park crowded? ›

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is consistently the most visited national park in the US with about 12 million visitors annually. Easy access, beautiful fall foliage, and the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge make Great Smoky Mountains a popular family travel destination.

What should you not miss in the Smoky Mountains? ›

Look at these top 5 can't-miss hikes in the Smoky Mountains:
  • Laurel Falls. The most popular waterfall trail is Laurel Falls. ...
  • Alum Cave. Alum Cave Trail is a moderate hike in the Smoky Mountains because of all of the natural features you see along the way. ...
  • Grotto Falls. ...
  • Abrams Falls. ...
  • Gatlinburg Trail.
30 Jun 2020

Is Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge Better to stay? ›

All in all, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are both incredible spots to visit. If you're looking to experience the true tourist experience of the Smoky Mountains, you'll want to visit Gatlinburg. If you're looking for an equally thrilling experience, but a little away from the crowds, Pigeon Forge is your answer.

What town has the best view of the Smoky Mountains? ›

Explore the Towns in the Smoky Mountains

Gatlinburg is the place to go when you want gorgeous mountain views and a mountain town feel, whereas Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are perfect for families looking for non-stop action.

How do you avoid crowds at Smoky Mountain national park? ›

How do you avoid crowds in the Smoky Mountain National Park?
  1. Travel in the off-season.
  2. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon.
  3. Stick to lesser-known sights.
31 May 2022

Are there lots of bears in the Smoky Mountains? ›

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, biologists estimate there are about 1,500 black bears. At this number, this creates a population density of two bears per square mile. They can live at any elevation in the park, so you could see them near cabins in the woods or as you hike to the summit of Mt. LeConte!

Do people still live in the Smoky Mountains? ›

Last Cades Cove Resident Lived There Until 1999

Many people lived in Cades Cove, and the last person who lived there was named Kermit Caughron. He lived in this area until his death in 1999. The last residents of the national park lived in what is known as the Elkmont Ghost Town, and they stayed until 2001.

How do you avoid crowding in Gatlinburg? ›

5 Ways to Avoid Crowds in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
  1. Visit During Non-Peak Months. ...
  2. Visit Early Mornings / Evenings. ...
  3. Avoid Popular Trails / Areas. ...
  4. Explore Hidden Gems. ...
  5. Stay in a Smoky Mountain Cabin.
13 Oct 2020

How do I stop crowds in Pigeon Forge? ›

1. Find Less Visited Areas of the National Park
  1. The Cades Cove Loop Road.
  2. Newfound Gap Road.
  3. The Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
  4. Alum Cave Trail.
  5. Abrams Falls Trail.
  6. Grotto Falls Trail.
  7. Laurel Falls Trail.
23 Aug 2017

How can tourist traps be avoided in Gatlinburg? ›

Avoid Low Quality Activities in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville

Sevierville is full of outlet malls and has a mini golf range. Keep in mind that the towns built these activities specifically to attract tourists. For a more authentic experience, spend at least half your visit hiking and picnicking in the mountains.

Is Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge safer? ›

Notably, Gatlinburg is safer than Pigeon Forge. Most incidents are either a burglary, robbery, theft or auto theft. I was relatively surprised to learn that the crime rates are a little higher, but I suppose it is a tourist town. The rates drop a little as you venture into more rural areas.

Is the Smoky Mountains national park America's most visited national park? ›

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee. Coming in at the top spot with a whopping 12.1 million visits, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country's most-visited national park.

Is Pigeon Forge a tourist trap? ›

The many Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg restaurants, accommodations, and entertainment venues, which are by definition tourist trap establishments, have all helped to attract people to this unique part of the country and meet their needs while they are here.

What is the rainiest month in Pigeon Forge? ›

On average, the Pigeon Forge area gets about 48 inches of rain each year, 21 percent more than the United States average which is 38 inches. July is the rainiest month in Pigeon Forge with an average of five inches of rain.

Is Gatlinburg less crowded during the week? ›

Fewer People in Town

Less traffic in Gatlinburg also means the crowds are thinner when you decide to stay in one of our cabins in Gatlinburg TN during the week.

What is considered a tourist trap? ›

A tourist trap is an establishment (or group of establishments) that has been created or re-purposed with the aim of attracting tourists and their money. Tourist traps will typically provide overpriced services, entertainment, food, souvenirs and other products for tourists to purchase.

Is Gatlinburg always crowded? ›

Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) are really popular tourist destinations which means that summer and fall are the two busiest seasons, but you can expect crowds just about any time schools are out since lots of families use those vacation breaks to travel.

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