Intro to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Our original introduction to the Smokies was written in 2012! We’ve visited the park twice since then, so it was time to update our list of tips and recommendations. Enjoy!
The Smokies Are Big and Rugged – We were surprised how different the Smoky Mountains are from the Blue Ridge in Virginia. The mountains are so much taller and steeper. Mountaintops soar to over 6,000 ft. instead of the 3,000-4,000 we’re more used to in the Shenandoahs. The trees are bigger, there are more firs and pines, and everything is greener, mossier, and wetter. Water flows freely and abundantly throughout the park. The waterfalls and rapids are very impressive.
Entering The Smokies Is Free – Most of the national parks we’ve been to make visitors enter through a fee station and charge $10-$20 for a week’s visit. The Smokies have no fee stations, but there are plenty of donation boxes throughout the park. We always put $20 in one of the boxes each week we visit. National Parks are something we both treasure and twenty dollars is a small gift to help support a resource we love.
Best Hiking Book – We had purchased Falcon Guide Hiking Great Smoky National Park by Kevin Adams. While the descriptions of the trails were decent, the author seemed a little bit negative about the park. His descriptions made us feel that we were going to be constantly overwhelmed by crowds and never have a moment of solitude. While we were there, we picked up two books that we recommend over the Falcon Guide. Day Hikes of the Smokies by Carson Brewer and Friends gave us some great ideas and was broken down by easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes. Also available is Hiking Trails of the Smokies. This book was recommended to us by a park ranger as ‘their Bible’ for the trails in the Smokies. Both can be purchased online through the Great Smoky Mountains Association. The one drawback of the books is that they embellish the features of hikes. Sometimes we found ourselves disappointed when features didn’t live up to the rhapsodizing descriptions in the guide. We also love the website Hiking in the Smokys. Their descriptions of hikes are very accurate and their indexing system for locations and hike difficulty makes it really easy to find the right hike for you.
Food Is Scarce In The Park – Besides a few vending machines at visitors centers, food is nowhere to be found in the park. The park does not have restaurants or gas stations. You should definitely plan on packing snacks or a lunch if you plan on spending the day in the park. The only exceptions we found were the Cades Cove campground and the LeConte Lodge. The snack bar at Cades Cove had burgers, hotdogs, BBQ sandwiches, ice cream, chips and sodas. LeConte offers drinks, baked goods and bag lunches, but you have to hike anywhere from 5-12 miles to get to the lodge. Sit down dining is only available for reserved overnight guests.
The Smokies Are Crowded – Millions of people visit GSMNP each year – it’s the most-visited national park in the country. The busiest times are June 15-August 15 and October (especially weekends). While we did see lots of people in late May, I think a good rule of thumb is to get an early start. We typically woke up before 7:00 most mornings, grabbed some breakfast, and headed to the park. We were able to hit most trails before 8:30 a.m. and typically had the views or waterfalls all to ourselves for at least a few minutes before anyone else came along. When we were done with our hikes, the parking lots were always more crowded. If you arrive 10:00 a.m. or later, expect to share vistas and waterfalls with lots of other people. Cades Cove is by far the most crowded place in the park. If you want to drive the loop, plan at least half a day, maybe all day. Here is a great online guide to driving the loop. Traffic is very heavy and slow moving. If you’re trying to get to a trailhead on the loop, bring your patience with you and enjoy the scenery along the way!
The Smokies Are Hazy – The views are amazing, but there was usually a thick haze over everything. Due to research the NPS has done, the haze is a result of air pollution and acid rain. Occasionally you get a day that is strikingly clear, but fog, mist and haze are the norm.
Best Place To See Wildlife – Cades Cove had the best wildlife viewing. The first year, we saw seven bears on our way into or around the Cades Cove loop. In 2014, we saw a bear within 15-20 feet while hiking the Rich Mountain Loop (trailhead in Cades Cove). While black bears can be seen throughout the park, the heaviest concentration and the better likelihood of spotting them is in this area. You will also see tons of deer and wild turkeys in the fields. If you want to see elk, the largest population is in the Cataloochee Valley area. But there is also a small herd near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. We were lucky enough to get a private ranger-led walk out to spot the Oconaluftee elk in 2012.
Don’t Just Stay In One Place – We stayed in Bryson City, NC for the first half of the week and ended our trip with a couple of days in Gatlinburg, TN. In 2012, we spent one night in the middle of the week at the LeConte Lodge that sits atop the Smokies’ third tallest peak. Bryson City is a quaint, peaceful town with a Mayberry-esque feel. The people were friendly and there were some good restaurants in town. On the southern end of the park, more people probably stay in Cherokee, NC, which is about ten miles from Bryson City. It’s located in the middle of the Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation for the Eastern band of Cherokee Native Americans. The town of Cherokee is definitely more commercial. There is a large Harrah’s casino and lots of souvenir shops. Without a doubt, Gatlinburg, TN is the most popular park town. It reminded us of a town you would find at a touristy beach. The downtown area had tons of shops selling kitsch (airbrush shirts, old-time photos, plastic trinkets and T-shirts emblazed with neon letters proclaiming ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’ and ‘YOLO’). There are also tons of mini golf courses, Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions, and four moonshine distilleries. The food in Gatlinburg was great and I’m sure we’ll mention some of our meals in our upcoming posts. We prefer the quiet areas, so we were glad to spend the bulk of our time in Bryson City. The largest benefit we experienced was by staying in different spots, we were able to get to different areas of the park quicker.
Must-See Things That Don’t Involve Hiking
- Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC. The exhibits were interesting and give you a good overview of Cherokee history and culture.
- Across the street is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which serves as a co-op and gallery showcasing the traditional work of over 250 Cherokee artists. The items you’ll find here are quality, hand-made arts and crafts, so expect to pay a higher price than you would for the replicas and knock-offs seen in other shops. The baskets, carvings, pottery and jewelery are all very beautiful.
- Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center located southwest of Bryson City. There are several places to eat, an amazing/knowledgeable outdoor outfitter, and a bridge that carries the Appalachian Trail over the river. They have an even larger outdoor outfitter shop in Gatlinburg. It was nicer than any REI we’ve been to, so if you like hiking, camping, kayaking or backpacking – don’t miss the NOC! One of our favorite things to do at the NOC, is to get a beer at Big Wesser Brew & BBQ, sit at a riverside umbrella table and watch kayakers run the river.
- Drive through Cades Cove. As mentioned above, it is a great place to see wildlife, but there are some interesting homesteads, churches and farms from a bygone era. Traffic is very slow, so if you’re not the ambling, sightseer type – you’ll need a lot of patience to visit this part of the park. If you want a more laid-back experience in Cades Cove, try biking it on one of the mornings it’s closed to car traffic. It’s still crowded, but you can go at your own pace without getting stuck in traffic jams.
- Drive to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome. There are gorgeous views from some of the highest areas of the park here!
- Visit the park’s many spectacular waterfalls and streams. The Smokies are a rainforest fed by numerous streams and rivers. They’re so beautiful!
- Taste some moonshine – Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, Sugarlands and Davy Crockett (all in Gatlinburg) are fun (and offer free samples)!
- Visit Nantahala Brewing (Bryson City) and sample their fantastic craft beer.
A Restaurant Recap – We had lots of good food on our visit!
- In Bryson City, we ate at Pasqualino’s (huge portions, cute atmosphere, the best calzone Adam has ever had), River’s End Restaurant at the NOC (good chili, salads, yummy onion rings with a tasty dipping sauce, pizza, burgers), Soda Pop’s for ice cream, Bar-B-Que Wagon had delicious, classic Carolina-style barbecue, for pizza – Anthony’s (located right next to Nantahala Brewing) has really good food, and for a quick breakfast and great coffee, Mountain Perks! In 2015, we finally got to try The Cork and Bean. It was worth the hype and the crepes were amazing.
- In Gatlinburg, we ate at the Smoky Mountain Brewery (house-brewed beer, amazing burgers – Christine thought the Brewery ‘Ale’ Steak was the best steak she had ever eaten). We also ate at Mellow Mushroom which is a chain, but definitely a good one! They had delicious pizza, good beer selection, and a fun environment. Hungry Bear had excellent barbecue with all the trimmings. For a quick on-the-go breakfast, you must go to the Donut Friar. They have the best donuts we’ve ever eaten – lightly crisp exterior with a soft, airy interior. If you have time for a more leisurely breakfast, don’t miss the Pancake Pantry. They have Gatlinburg’s best pancakes and they make them a million different ways. We both got crepes and they were phenomenal! And lastly, for ice cream and candy – Kilwin’s. They had lots of creative flavors of ice cream and the candy selection was out of this world.
- We recommend packing lunches for your day in the park. The Smokies are big and it’s time-consuming to drive to one of the gateway towns for lunch. We packed a lot of energy bars, candy, trail mix and Lunchables so we wouldn’t have to drive out of the park to get something to eat mid-day.
Trails We Covered in (or Near) the Smokies
- Cucumber Gap Loop
- Silers Bald
- Alum Cave Bluffs Trail to Mount LeConte
- Kephart Prong
- Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop