Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sunset from the Cliff Tops on Mount Le Conte

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a United States National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an International Biosphere Reserve that straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Because of its substantial size, its location within a few hundred miles of several large cities, its year-round accessibility, and of course its general appeal to a wide variety of people, it consistently ranks the most-visited national park in the United States of America, with 9-10 million visits per year.

Understand

History

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established on June 15, 1934 after a long process of land purchases starting in with Congress' authorization in 1926. More than $11 million was required to make all of the purchases. The main benefactor, who came to rescue during the Great Depression, was the Rockefeller family which donated $5 million. This great deed was honored by the erection of a memorial at Newfound Gap. The park was officially dedicated on September 2, 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Flora and fauna

The park is almost 95% forested, with 25% of that being old-growth. Almost 100 different types of native trees can be found in the park in addition to over 1,400 flowering plant species and 4,000 non-flowering plants.

The wildlife is abundant as well, featuring hundreds of different bird species, 66 mammal types, 50 types of native fish, as well as numerous reptiles and amphibians.

Non-native species

Several non-native species, both plant and animal, now call the park home and often threaten the native species.

Climate

When planning a trip in the park, it is helpful to keep in mind that elevations in the park range from 800 feet to 6,643 feet and that the topography can drastically affect local weather. Temperatures can easily vary 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit from mountain base to top, and clear skies lower down do not guarantee equally pleasant weather at higher elevations. Rainfall averages 55 inches per year in the lowlands to 85 inches per year at Clingmans Dome.

Spring

March through May: Spring brings with it unpredictable weather. Changes occur rapidly - sunny skies can yield to snow flurries in a few hours. March is the month with the most radical changes; snow can fall at any time during the month, particularly in the higher elevations. Temperatures in the lower elevations have a mean high of 61°F. Low temperatures, which are often below freezing, have a mean of 42°F. By mid-April the weather is usually milder. Daytime temperatures often reach the 70s and occasionally the 80s. Below freezing temperatures at night are uncommon in the lower elevations but still occur higher up. April averages over four inches of rain, usually in the form of afternoon showers. May is warmer, with daytime highs in the 70s and 80s and lows in the 40s and 50s. May rainfall averages about 4.5 inches.

Summer

June through August: Summer in the Smokies means heat, haze, and humidity. Afternoon showers and thunderstorms are common. Temperatures increase through the period with July and August afternoon highs in the 90s in the lower elevations. Evening lows are usually comfortable with readings in the 60s and 70s. In the higher elevations, the weather is much more pleasant. On Mount Le Conte (6,593' elevation), no temperature above 80 degrees has ever been recorded.

Autumn

September through mid-November: Clear skies and cooler weather signal the onset of the fall color season. Warm days alternate with cool nights. Daytime highs are usually in the 70s and 80s during September, falling to the 50s and 60s in early November. The first frosts often occur in late September. By November, the lows are usually near freezing. This is the driest period of the year with only occasional rain showers. In the higher elevations, snow is a possibility by November.

Winter

Mid-November through February: Winter in the Smokies is generally moderate, but extremes in weather do occur, especially with an increase in elevation. It is not unusual to have warm temperatures in the low elevations and snow in the higher areas. About half the days in the winter have high temperatures of 50 degrees or more. Highs occasionally even reach the 70s. Most nights have lows at or below freezing. But lows of -20°F. are possible at high elevations. In the low elevations, snows of 1" or more occur 1-5 times a year. Snow falls more frequently in the higher mountains and up to two feet can fall during a storm. January and February are the months when one is most likely to find snow in the mountains.

Get in

Great Smoky Mountains area map

Note that access to the park is restricted to non-commercial vehicles.

By plane

Planes will get you to Asheville (60 miles East) or Knoxville (45 miles West).

By train

The closest train station is in Clemson, South Carolina, a two hour drive from the park entrance near Bryson City.

By car

Travelling by car is the best method to visit the park. The most popular entrance into the park is from the North through Gatlinburg, Tennessee. You can also enter from the South on the North Carolina side of the park, through Cherokee, Maggie Valley, or Bryson City.

By bus

There is no bus service to the park.

Fees / Permits

There are no entrance fees charged for visiting this park thanks to restrictions imposed when the park was established.

Get around

Take your car or backpack. Yes, you can walk through the park on the Appalachian Trail.

Road closures and restrictions

Motorists should be aware that some roads close for several months out of the year. Buses and large motorhomes are prohibited on some roads in the park. There are also temporary road closures due to weather and construction.

Refer to the park's website for all up to date conditions.

See

Jakes Creek above Elkmont. The creek is named for Jacob Hauser, who is thought to be the first Euro-American settler in the Elkmont area.

Visitor centers

The park has several visitor centers inside the park as well as some in the surrounding areas. These centers offer various ranger-led programs, facilities, services, and exhibits. Visitors can get information to help plan their visit to the park and get answers to their questions from park rangers. There are two main ones:

In addition, there are visitors centers outside the park in Gatlinburg and Townsend

Do

Buy

Shot John Oliver Cabin in Cades Cove.

The visitor centers offer books and souvenirs pertaining to the park. The Cable Mill store, in Cades Cove, offers the same, as well as grains ground in the on site, water powered, historic cable mill. The main focus of the park is nature, not commerce, so don't expect huge selections of goods.

Autotouring is a nice way to see the park; however, gas is not sold in the park. There are gas stations in the surrounding cities.

Eat

Camp stores are expensive and have limited selection. There might be a restaurant or two, but lines are long and prices high. Since the nearby tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Cherokee are very tourist oriented, they offer a variety of restaurants to suit any taste. Your best bet is to visit a grocery store and buy ready-to eat or picnic style food. Many places in the park offer great locations to pull off the road and have a meal in nature. There are also many designated picnic areas in the park, including Collins Creek and Chimney Tops along Highway 441 and Greenbrier and Cades Cove along Laurel Creek Road.

Drink

The consumption of alcoholic beverages, and the possession of opened containers, is banned in the park except in housing, lodging facilities, designated picnic areas, campgrounds, or as allowed by special permit.

Do not drink the water in streams without first boiling it; this water may contain diseases transmitted by the fecal material of animals.

Sleep

Lodging

Camping

If you insist on being within a short walk from your car, that'll set you back between $12 and $20 a night. There are 10 "car camping" campgrounds in the park. These campgrounds have restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. There are no showers or RV hookups in the park. Each campsite has a picnic table and "grill." No more than six people to a campsite with a maximum of two tents or one RV and one tent. You are limited to a seven day stay during the Summer and Fall, and fourteen days during Spring and Winter. Pets are allowed if they are properly restrained.

Keep in mind that bears and other wildlife frequent camp areas. Do not leave any food, or items associated with food, out unattended. Store it in a closed vehicle, not your tent.

Backcountry

Your best bet is to camp in the backcountry, but a permit (available at most ranger stations and visitor centers) is required. Campers must stay in a park shelter or a designated camp site. The shelters, as well as a number of tent areas, require reservations (865-436-1231).

Outside of the Park

The towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville offer lodging close to the park's northern border in Tennessee along highway 73. Cherokee and Bryson City offer ample accommodations on the North Carolina side of the park. Lodging can usually be found with more ease and for lower rates in the North Carolina towns, as there is less human traffic.

Stay safe

It is a good idea to have some first-aid knowledge if you wander far into the back country, especially off trail. Be sure to get a permit, so they'll know where to look for you if you do not show. And as always, beware of snowstorms.

Go next

North Carolina

Tennessee

Routes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Knoxville Gatlinburg  N  S  Cherokee Athens


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