Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina with a collection of rounded mountain peaks, lively rivers and preserved pioneer communities, Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s namesake is the natural blue fog ascending from its dense forests. With expansive views, Southern Appalachian mountain culture and two black bears per square mile, it’s no wonder that Great Smoky is America’s most visited national park. But before you head to the park, here are a few basic Great Smoky Mountains essentials you need to know.
There’s no entrance fee.
Unlike most national parks, Great Smoky Mountains does not charge entrance fees. It’s free to drive through the park or briefly stop (15 minutes or less) in parking areas and pull-offs. New in 2023, visitors who plan to park inside Great Smoky Mountains must have a daily, weekly or annual parking pass. These can be bought in advance online, or in person at the park. Learn more at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fees.htm.
At more than 800 square miles, Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretches across two states: North Carolina and Tennessee. The park has two main entrances and many smaller entrances, so it’s important to decide in advance what you want to see so that you can choose the campground or gateway town that’s most convenient to stay in.
Park elevations range from 875 feet above sea level to 6,643 feet. This means weather can vary greatly as you move around. Plan ahead and always carry layers. It’s a good idea to have a warm jacket and hat, and a wind and waterproof layer with you when hiking. Just because it’s a hot and sunny day in Gatlinburg doesn’t mean it will be the same at Clingmans Dome.
Leave the flip-flops for the pool. Closed-toed shoes with good tread like hiking boots or tennis shoes will protect your feet. You’ll be encountering lots of dirt trails.
Drinking plenty of water is key to staying hydrated and warding off the effects of hiking at high elevation. Bring at least two liters of water per person with you when you hit the trails.
Stay on the trail.
Keep it beautiful.
With 12.9 million visitors in 2022, every piece of trash adds up. Skip the plastic water bottle and refill your reusable at the park’s filtered filling stations. Pack out everything you pack in when you hit the trails. Yes, that means everything, including TP.
Know your Fido 411.
Dogs are only allowed on paved trails and on leash in campgrounds and parking lots. While the short Gatlinburg and Oconaluftee River trails give some opportunity to go on walks with your furry friend, it’s better to leave them at home if you want to explore more of the park. Never leave your pet in the car as temperatures can become dangerous, even on a mild day.
Be bear aware.
Great Smoky Mountains is home to nearly 2,000 black bears so it’s important to properly store your food to make sure you don’t have an unwanted visitor. Store food and other scented items in a locked car or RV with the windows rolled up. Never feed bears or other wildlife, and don’t approach them. It’s illegal to get closer than 150 feet to a bear.
While most park roads are either paved or well-maintained gravel, mountain driving can still be challenging. Stick to posted speed limits, which are usually 35 mph or less. Unexpected curves and frequent wildlife can make speeding dangerous. In some spots, like Cades Cove, traffic can crawl much slower. Trailers and RVs aren’t allowed on some secondary park roads like Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and may have difficulties navigating the roads to the Elkmont and Cataloochee Valley areas of the park.
Where to stay?
LeConte Lodge is the only lodging located inside the park and it’s only accessible by foot. Most park visitors choose to stay in the nearby towns of Gatlinburg, Townsend, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Tennessee or Cherokee, Maggie Valley, Waynesville or Bryson City, North Carolina.
There are also 10 designated campgrounds within the park. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance at Recreation.gov. Camping is only allowed in designated campgrounds, or in the backcountry with a permit.