Everyone “knows” the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s the most visited unit in the park system, with over 12 million visitors in 2020. The landscape is as iconic as anything you’ll find in the park system—endless ridgelines of blueish, green peaks towering over lush valleys. The park doesn’t have the highest mountains or deepest canyons in the system, but don’t mistake subtlety for boring. Great Smoky Mountains is the most biologically diverse forest in the United States, boasting a whopping 20,000 different species that range from black bear and elk to neon-colored salamanders. Scientists find new species inside this national park every year.
Meanwhile, there are 900 miles of trails, including a piece of the world-famous Appalachian Trail, 6,000-foot peaks to bag, and 2,900 miles of streams packed with waterfalls, swimming holes and trout. And situated within a day’s drive of more than 50% of the country’s population, GSMNP has something that many other national parks don’t have: accessibility. So yeah, everyone “knows” the Smokies, but the vast majority of those 12 million-plus annual visitors only see a fraction of what the park has to offer. Great Smoky Mountains has a reputation for being a “drive through” park, with a two-lane highway that cuts through the center of the property with a bevy of scenic pull-offs and short nature walks. But there are 500,000 acres to explore; if you stay in your car, you’ll only scratch the surface.
The Human History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Prehistoric Paleo Indians called these mountains home, living a hunter/gatherer existence in the area roughly 12,000 years ago. By the time the first European settlers saw what would become the park in the 1700s, the Cherokee had already spent 1,000 years establishing permanent towns, cultivating cropland and developing an extensive system of trails. Today, the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee, sits adjacent to the park.
The Scotch-Irish settled the area, hunting and farming in the valleys between the mountains. As the population grew, the U.S. government removed the Cherokee by force to Oklahoma in the 1830s, an event known as the “Trail of Tears.” In the early 1900s, timber companies moved into what is now the park, establishing company towns and making quick work of the timber throughout the mountains. Roughly 80% of the forest was logged in the first part of the 20th century. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, but not without another involuntary mass exodus; after relying on private donations to begin land acquisitions, the Tennessee and North Carolina state governments also used the power of eminent domain to seize control of smaller farms and properties, forcing 1,200 landowners from their homes, leaving behind their farms, mills, churches, schools and train tracks. Some of these structures have been protected, restored and can be seen in valleys throughout the park today. In fact, GSMNP has the largest collection of human artifacts of any national park.
Visiting the National Park
As noted, Great Smoky Mountains is the most heavily used national park. Blame the location (within a day’s drive of some of the biggest cities on the East Coast) and the user-friendliness (much of the park can be seen from your car). The park straddles two states, with Sugarlands Visitor Center in Tennessee, and Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina, serving as the main entrances. These facilities sit on either side of Newfound Gap Road, a 29-mile-long highway that bisects the park, acting as the main thoroughfare. You don’t need reservations to visit the park and there are no entrance fees required either. You’ll find crowds at the visitor centers, along Newfound Gap Road and at popular trailheads, like Chimney Tops and the Appalachian Trail. But if you’re willing to hike a few miles into the backcountry, you’ll leave the crowds behind and have the park all to yourself.
Though a relatively mild season in the Southern Appalachians, the Smokies lay claim to a string of 5,000- and 6,000-foot peaks that often boast brutally cold conditions. Mount LeConte (6,593’) is often covered in ice and snow during winter. You can even find cross-country skiing on the 7-mile road to Clingmans Dome, which sits above a mile in elevation and is not plowed during the winter. Some of the park’s campgrounds and facilities are shut down during the winter, and Newfound Gap Road can often be closed due to ice and snow. Or, it could be 55 degrees, sunny and you could have the park mostly to yourself. Be sure to check conditions before you arrive.
The Southern Appalachians are famous for their largely hardwood canopy which turns technicolor in the fall, sheds leaves in the winter, and comes back to life in the spring. The forest is a vibrant shade of baby green in the spring, while wildflowers punctuate the forest floor; there are more than 1,500 flowering plants inside the park, most of which are blooming between March and June. Meanwhile, elk are giving birth to calves, a miracle that can occasionally be witnessed in Cataloochee Valley, where many elk gather. The weather can be fickle, though, with lows in the 30s and highs in the 60s (often during the same day) and often rainy. More Info: nps.gov
Undoubtedly the most crowded time to visit the park, it’s also arguably the most vibrant. Wildlife is active, increasing your chance to see large species like black bear and elk, and tiny species like fireflies. Speaking of which, there are 19 different species of fireflies living inside the park, including one species of synchronous firefly that shine in unison during a three-week window in summer. The flame azaleas, which bloom white and pink, also kick into high gear in June. Expect highs in the 80s, afternoon rain showers, and crowds in the campgrounds.
You want to see the Southern Appalachians at their most colorful? Visit GSMNP in October as the hardwood canopy turns bright shades of red, yellow, orange…even pink. Crowds are still thick, but typically only on weekends; if you can arrange for a mid-week visit, you won’t have to elbow your way through a trailhead. Temperatures are mild and dry and most of the campgrounds stay open until November.