Drifter's Loom

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Make the Most of Your Great Smoky Mountains Trip

Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains! This gem straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is not just any national park; it’s the most visited one in the United States. With its lush forests, diverse wildlife, and mist-covered peaks, it’s a paradise for nature lovers. Whether you’re a hiking enthusiast, a history buff, or just looking to relax, the Smokies have something for everyone. Let’s dive into how you can make the most of your trip to this beautiful national park.

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Getting Started: Plan Ahead

Before you pack your bags, let’s get the nitty-gritty out of the way. Good planning is the cornerstone of a great trip. Here’s what you need to know before hitting the road.

When to Visit

The Smokies are beautiful year-round, but each season offers a unique experience. Spring brings wildflowers, summer is perfect for hiking, fall offers stunning foliage, and winter is serene and snowy.

SpringWildflowers, waterfalls at their peakUnpredictable weather
SummerFull foliage, warm weather, numerous activitiesCrowds, higher accommodation prices
FallSpectacular fall colors, cooler temperaturesCrowds during peak foliage
WinterPeaceful, fewer visitors, snowy landscapesSome facilities may be closed, cold temperatures

Where to Stay

Choosing the right accommodation can make or break your trip. Whether you prefer camping under the stars or enjoying the comforts of a cozy cabin, the Smokies have you covered.

  1. Camping: For the adventurous, there are numerous campgrounds both inside and outside the park. Sites like Cades Cove and Elkmont are popular. Just remember to book in advance, especially in the summer and fall.
  2. Cabins and Lodges: For a more comfortable stay, consider renting a cabin. Areas like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer a range of options from rustic to luxurious.
  3. Hotels and B&Bs: If you prefer traditional accommodations, there are plenty of hotels and charming B&Bs in nearby towns.

Exploring the Park: Must-See Spots

With over 800 square miles of natural beauty, narrowing down the must-see spots can be tough. Here are some top picks that should be on your list.

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park. The observation tower offers 360-degree views of the Smokies. On a clear day, you can see for over 100 miles! The half-mile hike to the top is steep, but the view is worth every step. Just remember, it can be quite chilly up there even in summer, so bring a jacket.

Cades Cove

If you want a blend of natural beauty and history, Cades Cove is the place to be. This broad valley is home to an 11-mile loop road that offers stunning mountain views and wildlife sightings. You’ll also find historic buildings, including churches, a working grist mill, and log cabins from the 19th century. Biking the loop is a popular option too – just be ready for a workout!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

This one-way loop road takes you through lush forests, past waterfalls, and by historic cabins. The name says it all – you’ll hear the roar of the streams as you drive by. This area is less crowded than Cades Cove but just as beautiful.

Newfound Gap Road

This scenic drive takes you right through the heart of the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee. You’ll cross the state line at Newfound Gap, where you can stand with one foot in Tennessee and one in North Carolina. There are plenty of overlooks along the way to stop and take in the views.

Get Your Hike On

Hiking in the Smokies is like stepping into another world. With over 800 miles of trails, there’s something for everyone, from easy strolls to challenging backcountry treks. Here are a few favorites:

Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte

This is one of the park’s most popular hikes, and for good reason. The 11-mile round trip to the summit of Mount LeConte offers stunning views, interesting geological formations, and a sense of accomplishment. The trail starts at Alum Cave Bluff, which is a great turnaround point if you want a shorter hike.

Charlies Bunion

If you’re looking for jaw-dropping views without the crowds, Charlies Bunion is a great choice. This 8-mile round trip hike along the Appalachian Trail offers panoramic views of the Smokies and the chance to stand on a rocky outcrop that seems to hang in mid-air.

Laurel Falls

For an easier hike that’s great for families, check out Laurel Falls. This 2.6-mile round trip trail leads to a beautiful 80-foot waterfall. The path is paved, making it accessible for strollers and wheelchairs.

Andrews Bald

If you want a hike that combines panoramic views and wildflower meadows, Andrews Bald is perfect. This 3.6-mile round trip trail starts at the Clingmans Dome parking area and takes you through a spruce-fir forest to a grassy bald with stunning views.

Wildlife Watching: Keep Your Eyes Peeled

The Smokies are teeming with wildlife, and spotting animals is often a highlight for visitors. Here are some tips to increase your chances of seeing the park’s furry and feathered residents.

Black Bears

The Great Smoky Mountains are home to around 1,500 black bears. While seeing a bear is a thrill, remember to keep your distance. Use binoculars or a zoom lens for photos, and never approach or feed them. Cades Cove and Roaring Fork are good spots for bear sightings.


Elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and can often be seen in the Cataloochee Valley. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to spot them. Hearing a bull elk bugle during mating season is an experience you won’t forget!


With over 200 species of birds, the Smokies are a birdwatcher’s paradise. Look for the vibrant colors of the scarlet tanager, or listen for the distinctive call of the pileated woodpecker. The spring and fall migrations are particularly good times for birdwatching.

Other Critters

Keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and the occasional bobcat. The park’s streams are also home to a variety of fish, including the native brook trout.

Activities for Everyone

Hiking and wildlife watching are just the tip of the iceberg. The Smokies offer a range of activities to suit all interests and ages.


The park boasts over 2,100 miles of streams, making it a paradise for anglers. Brook, brown, and rainbow trout are the main catches. A fishing license is required, and be sure to check the park’s regulations before casting your line.

Horseback Riding

Seeing the Smokies from horseback offers a unique perspective. There are several stables in and around the park offering guided trail rides. It’s a relaxing way to explore the park’s trails and see wildlife.


Pack a lunch and enjoy a meal surrounded by nature. The park has several designated picnic areas, including Chimneys, Cades Cove, and Deep Creek. Just remember to pack out all your trash and keep the park clean.

Ranger Programs

The park offers a variety of ranger-led programs, from guided hikes to campfire talks. These programs are a great way to learn more about the park’s history, wildlife, and natural features. Check the visitor centers for schedules.

Practical Tips: Stay Safe and Have Fun

A few practical tips can help ensure your trip is enjoyable and safe.


The weather in the Smokies can change quickly, especially at higher elevations. Dress in layers, carry rain gear, and be prepared for cooler temperatures on the peaks.

Hydration and Snacks

Whether you’re hiking, biking, or just exploring, always carry water and snacks. Staying hydrated is key, especially on hot summer days.

Leave No Trace

Help keep the Smokies beautiful by following Leave No Trace principles. Pack out all trash, stay on designated trails, and respect wildlife.

Bear Safety

If you encounter a bear, remain calm and don’t run. Back away slowly, speak in a calm voice, and make yourself look larger by raising your arms. Bears generally avoid humans, but it’s important to know what to do just in case.

Visitor Centers

Stop by the park’s visitor centers for maps, information, and the latest updates on trail conditions and wildlife activity. The Sugarlands Visitor Center and Oconaluftee Visitor Center are both great resources.

Also Read: The Social Side of Hammock Camping: How to Plan a Group Hang – Drifter’s Loom (driftersloom.com)

Wrapping Up: The Smokies Are Calling

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure trove of natural beauty and adventure. Whether you’re exploring its misty peaks, delving into its rich history, or simply enjoying a picnic by a babbling brook, you’re sure to create memories that will last a lifetime. So pack your bags, lace up your hiking boots, and get ready for an unforgettable trip. The Smokies are calling – and you must go!

Remember, as John Muir wisely said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Happy trails!

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