If you are considering visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but aren’t quite sure if you should- stop! You absolutely should take the time to visit this incredible national park. The Smokies are within a very doable drive of most of the United States. It is the most visited national park in the country, and for good reason! There were over 11.4 million visitors to the park in 2018. If you want to be one of these visitors, the first thing you need to do is plan your trip.
There are so many different things to see and do in the Smokies, and it can be overwhelming to see just how many options you have. There are a lot of different components when it comes to planning your vacation to the Smokies, and sifting through all of that information on your own can be a stressful prospect. We’ve assembled a short guide to help you navigate planning your vacation to the Smokies.
When should you visit?
As much as a visit to the Smokies during the summer may sound appealing, the summer is the busiest time in this national park. Kids are off school, parents take time off, and the weather is warm, which creates a perfect storm for crowds. If you want to avoid the crowds, and have a more relaxing visit, an off season visit might be a good option to consider. The least busy month in the park is January. While the weather will be colder, you will also have the opportunity to see the Great Smoky Mountains when the snow is thick on the peaks. This is a gorgeous sight, and one well worth seeing. The views of the mountains are unbeatable during the winter months. Don’t worry about a lack of hiking opportunities- many of the trails are open year round.
Of course, not everyone can make an off season visit work. If you are going during the peak season, we recommend a weekday visit to avoid crowds.
Educate yourself on the rules
Before you even step foot in the park, we recommend doing some research on the rules and regulations of the park. This will help you create a smooth, seamless trip that is safe for you, other visitors, and the wildlife of the park. This is a free park, and it does not observe any hours, so you can make it into the park without paying a fee (unlike some of the other national parks). Be aware that the lack of fees results in fewer facilities, and no restaurants and stores within the bounds of the park.
Please, do not bring your pets to the park! The Smokies are not pet friendly. Dogs are sometimes allowed, in paved, developed areas, and there are two trails where leashed dogs are allowed. If dogs are found in other areas of the park, you will be subject to fines and being banished from the park. Dogs can be disruptive to other visitors and to the wildlife of the Smokies. It is better to leave your dog at home.
Many avid fishermen make their way to the Smokies during the year. If you are planning on fishing, you will need a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license. You are of course responsible for bringing your own equipment. Please keep in mind that bait fishing is not allowed in the park
Plan your time in the park!
Now, for the fun part- you get to decide how to spend your time within the Great Smokies! There are a number of questions that you’ll need to answer. What do you want to see in the park? Is there a specific hike or sight that you just can’t leave the park without visiting? Will you be driving, biking, or going by horseback?
We recommend making a list of the things you most want to do, and plan around those, going down the list! Make sure you know where all of the activities you want to do are- the last thing you want to do is find out that you’ve planned activities on different sides of the park on the same day!
Think of alternatives!
Now, remember, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most popular national park in the country. If you are visiting during peak season especially, chances are you will run into some significant crowds. There can be long lines or large crowds at the activities you plan, or there may be forced closures due to weather events. This can be disappointing, but it is important to plan for these inconveniences so you can still make the most of your time.
We highly recommend creating a backup plan for the activities you want to do. If there is an activity you want to do, look up some others in the area in case it is too crowded, or it is closed.
Make sure to plan for parking as well! Some areas don’t have a lot of parking available, and can get very crowded during the day.
There are a lot of little thing to take into account when visiting the Smokies that you may not think of during your big picture planning! You definitely need to be aware of parking, especially when you visit during peak season. We recommend getting to your destination earlier or later during the day, where chances of parking being available are higher. If you are planning on going early or late, a headlamp is a good thing to pack during your preparation. You also need to be aware of road closures- for example, Cades Cove locks its gates from sundown to sunrise.
This is a primitive park, so there are fewer services that you may be used to in other national parks. Bring food and water, fill up your gas tank, and bring emergency items, as none of these things will be available in the park.
Go to the visitor center!
There are two visitor centers in the Great Smoky National Park. One is Sugarlands and the other is Oconaluftee. Sugarlands has a museum and a theater for you to visit, and Oconaluftee has an outdoor farm museum, where you can experience the life of a settler. The visitor centers are great to visit before you set out on your national parks adventure. The staff at these centers are very knowledgeable about the park, and can answer any questions about the attractions, wildlife, or history of the Smokies.
There are two smaller visitor centers at Cades Cove and Clingman’s Dome, but these are only operated seasonally.
Get an early start!
We’ve mentioned this before in this guide, but getting an early start is highly recommended to make the most of your time in the park. The Smokies are open 24 hours a day, so there is no limit on the hour that you can start your day in the park. There are many advantages to getting an early start. You have a higher chance of seeing some of the incredible wildlife of the park, as many animals are active at dawn. Be sure to observe proper safety precautions when viewing wildlife. You also get the advantage of avoiding the crowds that get started later in the afternoon, especially at the more popular locations in the park. Seeing the sunrise at these locations is an incredible experience, and one that is well worth an early rise.
As mentioned before, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in the country. Because of this, you can definitely expect to run into some crowds. While in an ideal world, you could enjoy the natural splendor all by yourself, you have to expect to see others, especially during peak season. It is easy to get frustrated if you have to wait to see the attractions, or if the trails are crowded. We’ve all gotten stuck behind a slower hiker in our time, right? No shame, everyone goes at their own pace! It is important to remain patient during your visit. Everyone is here for the same reason you are. Why let a little frustration or a little setback ruin your time in the Smokies?
Hopefully, this guide can give you some insight into planning your trip to the Smokies. Now go out and enjoy your adventure!