Crowning the crest of the Southern Appalachian Range are the Great Smoky Mountains, or "Smokies" to the locals. Here, the dramatic topography produces amazing vistas, thick forests, brilliant fall colors, stunning waterfalls, and an abundance of wildlife. This spine of ridgeline that runs the border of Tennessee and North Carolina also houses some of the Eastern United States' highest summits. The highest in the park is Clingman's Dome (6,643 feet), which is the third tallest mountain anywhere east of the Mississippi, surpassed only barely by Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mount Craig (6,647 feet) in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountain front range.
The Smokies offer far more than highpoints as their claim to fame, however, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands out in the national park system for several reasons. Unlike others, this national park has no entry fee, and among its numerous entry points there is not even one entrance station. The reason dates back to charter of the park in the 1930s, when state-funded roads were transferred to the federal government and private property was ceded by imminent domain to establish the park. The stipulation was that no fee could ever be charged to travel the roads or visit heritage lands. Many relics of human habitation exist here, dating back to the Cherokee Indians and more recent European settlers, whose the cabins and farms can still be seen in many parts of the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the most visited national park in the country, by far. With over 11 million recreational visitors in 2016, it nearly doubled the visitation of the second place park, Grand Canyon in Arizona. Despite the huge numbers, crowds are rarely an issue in many parts of the park. Though certain roads and trails certainly get congested during summer and fall, the huge expanse of trails, roads, and scenery keep people fairly well spread out, and there are plenty of off-the-beaten path destinations to discover. The park boasts more than 150 trails totaling nearly 1,000 miles, and 71 of these belong to the Appalachian Trail, the famous thru-hike route that runs the length of the Appalachians from Georgia to Maine.
The Smokies claim many ecological superlatives as well. The temperate, wet climate with stark elevation gradients produces dense forests of higher diversity than anywhere else in North America. Rugged topography has hindered human interference for a long time, so the park now contains the largest stands of old-growth forest anywhere in the Eastern U.S. The higher elevations harbor the southernmost pockets of spruce-fir forest, a cold-adapted ecosystem that is normally found much further north. The density of trees and cool, humid air is in fact what gives these mountains their name. The "smoke" so often seen rising from the slopes and valleys is a natural fog created from moisture and organic compounds released by the trees.
Wildlife thrives in these habitats. The Smokies are famous for their dense population of black bears, which are more common here than anywhere else in the East. The park is also known as the "salamander capital of the world" for having the highest concentration of unique species (30 have been identified) of any similarly sized geographic region in the world. High-elevation ecosystems also allow animals not normally found in the Southeast to live here including raven, elk, northern flying squirrels, and the famous synchronous fireflies that only occur in a few other places on the planet.
Despite their diversity, the Great Smoky Mountains are far from unspoiled, however. Many animals that once thrived here have been extirpated, like bison, wolves, mountain lions, peregrine falcons, and many kinds of fish. Elk, otters, peregrines,and some fish have only been re-established through the efforts of the National Park Service, and red wolves are the subjects of an as-yet unsuccessful reintroduction program. Introduced rainbow and brown trout are harming populations of the native brook trout, which can now only be found in the very upper reaches of streams.
Along with the animals, much of the forest is suffering from unintentional human impacts. Air quality has suffered immensely from pollution that blows in on prevailing winds from the Tennessee Valley and the Midwest Rust Belt. This, along with historic pressure from logging, has left the trees stressed and vulnerable to pest infestations. Pines, Fraser firs, hemlocks, ash, and oaks have all been hit especially hard by parasitic insects and fungi in past decades. As you drive and hike through the Smokies, be mindful of the damage that has been done to these forests, and try to imagine how different a healthy, unspoiled mountainside would look.
Though some members of the ecological community are struggling, the Smokies' verdant hills and lush valleys remain an incredible place to experience nature. You can hike for miles in the quiet woods, challenge yourself on steep slopes, see for miles from a mountaintop, find abundant wildlife, splash in cold streams, stand in awe of a waterfall, and sleep under a canopy of fiery fall leaves. Use this guide to find the best of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and plan your next trip.
Note: The tragic wildfires of 2016 have left some trails closed. Please check the park's Temporary Closures and Alerts page prior to your trip for updated information.
There are 10 developed campgrounds within the national park and endless opportunities for backcountry camping with a permit. Here are a few of the best frontcountry sites suitable for small or large groups.
Climate in the Smokies is characterized as temperate, but the extremes in elevation can lead to extremes in weather. Midsummer is generally hot and humid (highs in the 90s) at the lower elevations and more pleasant higher up, with comfortably cool but still very humid nights. Showers and thunderstorms are common in afternoons and sometimes at night. Summer is the worst time for visibility. This is when haze is thickest.
The best time to visit, in most people's opinion, is fall when the leaves change. This is when the weather cools and dries, and nighttime temperatures can dip below freezing. The colors begin to turn in late September and really go off in mid October.
Winters are generally mild at the lower elevations, with daytime temperatures only occasionally below freezing. Nights and high elevations are cold, however, and snow is not uncommon. Cold spells and warm spells usually alternate throughout the winter, so be prepared for anything when coming to hike or camp.
Spring brings the most volatile weather, especially the month of March, when anything can happen from ice storms to thunderstorms. Nonetheless, the average spring day is sunny and warm, but spring showers are common through May and into June.
Within the national park, dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas, and along road as long as they are leashed and under control. The Gatlinburg Trail and Oconaluftee River Trail are the only two multi-use paths where dogs (and bicycles) are allowed, but they are prohibited on all other park trails. These rules are the same as in most other national parks, but they are especially important to follow in the Smokies because the abundance of wildlife here, which includes black bears, means that conflict with dogs is more likely.