North Park Entrances from Tennessee
The majority of visitors enter through the Sugarlands entrance on the park’s north side (top star on map) by driving through Gatlinburg, Tenn. This entrance is an hour’s drive southeast of Knoxville on US 441. Gatlinburg is the busiest, most touristy gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was impacted by the 2016 fires, but the downtown was spared. Full of souvenir shops, craft stores, restaurants and kitschy attractions (think Ripley’s Believe it or Not!), the bustling town can be a sensory overload or a rollicking good time, depending on your perspective. You’ll find plenty of lodging options, a grocery store and gear shops.
An alternate entrance on the north side is just south of Townsend on TN 73, about 25 miles west of Gatlinburg. This entrance is quieter than Sugarlands and is most convenient for travelers heading to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont or Cades Cove. Townsend offers lodging, dining and supplies, plus serves as a home base for several outdoor outfitters. Townsend is closer to the popular Cades Cove, known for its preserved pioneer community and plentiful wildlife, than the Gatlinburg entrance (7 vs. 27 miles).
Visitors can also enter the park via several smaller entrances that may feature ranger stations, but no visitor centers. They include Abrams Creek to the northwest, Big Creek and Cosby to the northeast, and Greenbrier to the north.
South Park Entrances from North Carolina
The Oconaluftee entrance on the park’s south side at Cherokee, North Carolina (bottom star on map) is about 40 minutes west of Waynesville on US 441. In North Carolina, Cherokee anchors the southern side of the park. Located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, it features the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Native American crafts, a casino and more limited shopping, lodging and dining than Gatlinburg.
Just west is Bryson City, a charming town south of the Deep Creek area and home to outdoor outfitters, laid-back dining options, a microbrewery and cozy coffee shops. You can access the park through Bryson City, but the road dead ends and does not link up with the rest of the park. There is tubing in this area of the park.
Visitors can also enter the park via several smaller entrances that may feature ranger stations, but no visitor centers. They include Deep Creek to the south, and Balsam Mountain and Cataloochee to the southeast. Catalooche is open seasonally and is more remote. It does not connect to Cades Cove unless you travel north on 276 to Big Creek and follow 32 to 321 west to Gatlinburg, Tenn.