The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is truly a gem of the National Park System. Located within less than a full day’s drive of much of the population, it’s no surprise it is the most visited national park in the country. More than 11.4 million visitors came to the Smokies in 2018 alone!
While a visit to the national park sounds relaxing, during peak visiting season navigation can be difficult. Check out our tips for visiting the busiest national park in the country to help you enjoy your trip!
CONSIDER AN OFF SEASON VISIT
The Smokies’ least busy month is January. Everyone has just taken time off during the holidays, the weather is cooler, and sometimes snow, sleet, and ice can shut down roads. It’s not everyone’s ideal time for a visit. However, visiting the Smoky Mountains in the winter months is never a bad idea!
You can hike many of the 800+ miles of trail year round here. Not only does hiking or driving through the park in the winter mean less crowding, it also means you’ll get better mountain views! No leaves on the trees means pretty views in plenty of directions.
Planning an off-season visit isn’t always possible when you have school and work schedules to consider. If you are visiting the Smoky Mountains during peak season, consider a weekday visit. You’ll find fewer visitors during the week, meaning more solitude on the trails and roadways.
KNOW THE RULES AND REGULATIONS
Before you begin planning a trip, knowing the rules, regulations, and hours of a park will help you plan out the details.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a free park without any gates or hours, meaning you can visit nearly all roads in the park any time without a fee. Of course, a park without fees also means there is reduced manpower to help you in an emergency. It also means there are fewer facilities, no restaurants, and no stores along the way to your destination.
The Smokies are also not pet-friendly. Due to the reduced staff, inconsiderate past visitors, and the abundance of natural wildlife, dogs are only allowed in paved, developed areas. They can walk on a leash on two trails in the park as well. Other than that, dogs on trail, and especially off-leash dogs, are subject to fines and banishment from the park. Be prepared to leave Fido home.
Heading in to fish for some incredible rainbow trout? You’ll need a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license. Luckily, there are many locations to pick one up. Make sure you bring the proper equipment and lures. Single hook, artificial flies, and lures are allowed. No bait fishing is acceptable in the national park.
MAKE A GAME PLAN
After reviewing the rules, it’s time to plan your trip. Do you like to hike to views or waterfalls? Would you prefer to see the park by car? How about bring your road bike for a few dozen miles on remote mountain roads? The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has so much to do no matter what you prefer!
When making a game plan for your visit, make a list of your favorite things and base the day around them. Check out the national park maps to see how close your favorite activities are. This way, you can plan a route to and from each location, and maybe even alternatives. Speaking of alternatives…
MAKE A BACK UP GAME PLAN
Secondary game plans are super important – especially in a busy, primitive national park. There has been an uptick in severe weather events in the Smokies in the last 15 years. Heavy rains, high winds, and even drought can affect areas of the park at any time. These events can force closures of areas.
By having a secondary back up plan, you’ll still have plenty of amazing activities lined up in the national park just in case your first choice isn’t feasible.
Also, many popular day hikes like Laurel Falls, Alum Cave, and Clingman’s Dome don’t offer a lot of parking. You may have to bypass these areas and come back later in the day or early the next morning.
Don’t be disappointed! Make sure to have a secondary game plan.
Getting prepared for a trip to the Smokies means so much more than just prepping for a walk in the woods!
When you’re getting your game plan in order, pay attention to parking. Small parking areas during peak season means you’ll need to get ready early or later in the day. Bringing along a flashlight or headlamp to hit the trail early in the morning or late in the day is never a bad idea.
You’ll also want to know if the road you’re using closes overnight. Cades Cove is a popular driving and hiking destination for many visitors. However, the road has locked gates from sundown to sunrise every single day (and later on Wednesdays and Saturdays during certain times of year). Don’t risk getting locked in Cades Cove overnight!
Also, as mentioned above, a primitive park means limited services. You’ll want to fill up with gas, bring extra snacks and water, and keep emergency items in your vehicle. Other than a few visitor centers, there are no front country services in the park, and bathrooms may be primitive (no running water) or completely absent from your destinations.
HIT THE VISITOR CENTER
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has two main visitor centers – Sugarlands and Oconaluftee. Both centers are staffed by volunteers who can answer any questions you may have.
Our Sugarlands Visitor Center also includes an incredible museum and theater. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center has an outdoor farm museum with beautiful buildings to get a taste of mountain settler life.
Cades Cove and Clingman’s Dome also operate smaller seasonal visitor centers.
Other than Cades Cove Loop Road, the roads in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park remain open 24 hours a day (weather permitting). Because there is no gated entrance, you can travel inside the park any time you choose.
Getting up early to venture into the Smokies is a great idea! Because many animals are corpuscular (meaning active at dawn and dusk) you have your best chance to spot wildlife during the early morning hours. Always make sure to pull off the main roadway and keep your distance when viewing wildlife.
An early start means you’ll avoid the throngs of afternoon sightseers at popular locations like Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap. Imagine catching the sunrise from the state line. Or seeing a waterfall in the early morning sunshine. Earlier starts mean more solitude.
KEEP THE PERSPECTIVE
While you’re traveling in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it can become easy to get flustered or frustrated if there are crowds. It’s always important to keep perspective on why you visit in the first place.
People from all of the world come to visit the Smokies every year. Visitors love our pristine streams, 100-mile views, and wildlife. You come to see these things and so does everyone else.
Keep the perspective and focus on why you’re visiting this gorgeous part of the country.
After an exciting day of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s time to head back to your cozy cabin and relax in the hot tub under the stars. At American Patriot Getaways, we have a rental cabin near the national park for every size group and every budget. Check our all of our great cabins for your next getaway!