When is the Best Season to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Pros and cons to visiting this mountainous park in every season.
Full of expansive views, gorgeous trees and flowers, great hiking, plentiful history and abundant wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must to add to your East Coast bucket list. But when is the best season to visit? While every month of the year has both pros and cons, we have two favorite times to visit the park: spring and fall.
Here’s our guide to the pros and cons of visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park in every season.
Spring (March through May)
Spring in the park is one of the best times of year to visit. The landscape is beautiful, with flowers blooming, waterfalls gushing and the hillsides starting to turn green. The weather is cooler and less humid than the summer months, making it a great time to hit low-elevation trails. Spring is also a great time to spot wildlife, especially newborn babies like bear cubs and elk calves. The Cataloochee and Cades Cove areas of the park are ideal if you’re hoping to spot some serious cuteness. Crowds are usually minimal, especially in early spring, making it a good time to check out some of the more popular parts of the park.
While spring can be beautiful in the park, the weather can also be unpredictable. While you might experience balmy and cloudless 70-degree days, you might also encounter rain or even snow flurries at higher elevations. These months in the park see some of the highest amounts of precipitation, meaning trails are often muddy. Come prepared, with hiking boots with good tread and a rain jacket.
Summer (June through August)
Like most national parks, summer is the most popular time of year to visit Great Smoky Mountains. July is historically the park’s most crowded month, with June not too far behind. There are perks to visiting in the warmer months, but if you can avoid the crowds and heat of the summer months, we’d suggest it.
Afternoon highs at lower elevations can often be above 90-degrees in the summer and humidity can make it feel much more uncomfortable. Haze is common, reducing the sweeping vistas the park is known for. Bugs come out when the weather warms up including mosquitos and ticks. Bring bug spray and wear long pants and sleeves to avoid a run-in with a blood sucker. Rain and afternoon thunderstorms are common, so keep an eye on the weather and plan to get your hiking done early in the day. If you do visit during the summer, stick to higher elevations where highs range in the 60s and 70s.
While not our favorite season to visit the park, there is a reason people flock here in summer. Wildflowers like rhododendrons are in bloom and in late May and early June, the Elkmont area sees an incredible natural display when the synchronous fireflies appear after dark. Nights are mild, making it a great time of year to tent-camp or backpack.
Fall (September through mid-November)
There’s nothing quite like fall in the Smoky Mountains. The hillsides are alight in reds, yellows and oranges and it feels like you’ve stumbled into a fairytale at every turn. Temperatures are much milder than the summer months, with highs cooling from the 80s to the 50s as the season progresses. It’s also the park’s driest time of year, with little precipitation and humidity decreasing.
In Cataloochee, you might hear the sounds of elk bugling or see bulls tussling during the annual elk mating ritual known as “the rut.” Harvest festivals abound in the nearby towns, and orchards around the park are awash in apples and pumpkins.
The main drawback of visiting in autumn is the crowds. October, when the foliage is at its peak, is usually the second highest visitation month of the year. If peak color isn’t as important to you, visit in September or November to get the same benefits with fewer crowds.
Winter (mid-November through February)
While the park can be magical in the winter, unless you’re a cold-weather warrior this isn’t the best time to explore the Smokies. Because elevations range greatly in the park, from just 840 feet above sea level to Clingmans Dome, towering at 6,643 feet, weather can vary wildly, especially in the winter.
While lower park elevations often see winter daytime temperatures in the 50s, it can get much colder and snowier at higher elevations. Nightly temperatures often get below freezing, even at lower elevations, which means any moisture on the roads will freeze, leading to often-hazardous driving conditions in the park. Many popular park roads also close in the winter, including the road to Clingmans Dome and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
If you’re willing to brave the cold, volatile weather and road closures though, you’ll find uncrowded trails and a magical wonderland when the snow falls. Click into your cross-country skis and take in the breathtaking views from the top of Clingmans Dome. Or, for a more moderate winter adventure, hike to Laurel Falls.
Wondering if the trails you want to hike are currently covered in snow? Download GAIA GPS to see real-time data: www.gaiagps.com.