The venerable and popular park spanning Tennessee and North Carolina offers the quintessential wilderness experience, with ample campgrounds and Appalachian mountain vistas enveloped by forest. Throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you'll find historic remnants of the small communities that once thrived here.
Facts and figures
- The "smoke" in the hills is the fog produced when gases from the trees react with the air
- The park received more than 11 million visits in 2017
- It spans 522,427 acres––more than 800 square miles
- As the nation's most biodiverse park, it's home to more than 19,000 species
- The area is almost 95 percent forested
Some of the region's earliest settlers were the Cherokee Indians, who arrived more than 1,000 years ago. In 1926, Great Smoky Mountains was established as a national park, following years of effort by advocates such as David Chapman, a Tennessee businessman , and Ann Davis, a Tennessean who promoted the idea after visits to other parks.
Buying the land meant persuading small farmers, along with timber and paper companies, to accept compensation from the government and give up their tracts.
Things to do and see
The park has four visitor centers: Sugarland in the north, Oconaluftee to the south, Cades Cove to the west and Clingmans Dome in the center. From Sugarland, take a drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which takes you past historic log cabins and grist mills. Trailheads for the pretty Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls lie nearby.
At Cades Cove, one of the park's most popular places, keep an eye out for black bears, coyotes and turkeys as you explore on the 11-mile loop road or trails such as the five-mile path to Abram Falls. You can also take a guided horseback ride in Cades Cove or at one of three other concession stables in the park.
The park is also filled with historic cemeteries, churches, homes and other structures. In Oconaluftee, check out the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of preserved farm buildings from various parts of the park, and Mingus Mill, a functioning mill with staff who demonstrate grinding corn and talk about the site's history. From the museum you can also take a family-friendly hike along the Oconaluftee River Trail.
For sweeping views, you won't want to miss Clingmans Dome, a 6,643-foot point with an observation tower. In the easternmost section of the park, Cataloochee Valley has more historic buildings, several hiking trails and a creek where you can fish for trout.
Great Smoky Mountains has 10 developed campgrounds, all with restrooms. Some sites require reservations, so check before you go.
Best time to go
The park is open year-round, and each season has its own appeal. Each year, thousands flock here to witness the breathtaking canvas of fall foliage, but springtime can be just as beautiful—and less crowded—to behold.
More than 1,500 types of flowering plants begin to appear as early as February and peak in April, giving the Great Smoky Mountains its nickname, “Wildflower National Park.”