Updated: May 26
Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the oldest mountain ranges on THE PLANET at 200-300 million years old! With over 10 million visitors annually, this is the most visited national park in the United States.
Table of Contents
What you should not miss at Great Smoky Mountain National Park
[10 Miles; 2,929 ft. Elevation Gain; Out & Back; Rating: hard]
This was our favorite hike we did in the Smoky Mountains. Although one of the longer hikes we did, the trail is packed with landmarks to look forward to every step of the way. 1.4 miles into the trail you will reach Arch Rock, where the trail leads you up a staircase through the rock structure.
Hike an additional mile (1125 ft elevation gain) and you will come across Alum Cave Bluffs, a breathtaking natural formation. If you are looking to shorten this hike, a lot of people hike the 4.6 mile round-trip to Alum Cave and back. There are plenty of wonderful views along the first 2.3 miles of this trail, making it a spectacular day-hike as well.
However, if you want to make it to the Mount LeConte summit, there are 2.7 additional miles of hiking to go! The elevation gain, as well as, overall difficulty does increase during the next 2.7 miles. There are some narrow passageways, steep drop-offs, and intense inclines, however, the path is very well maintained with guide ropes, stepping stones, and signage. If you are up for the trek, we highly recommend it for the epic views!
Tip: Once you get to the Mount LeConte Lodge, BE SURE to go the extra 0.2 miles to the Cliff Tops view.
A local at our campsite gave us this advice and it would be a shame to have hiked all 10 miles without seeing this view! While the view from Mount LeConte Lodge is very beautiful, Cliff Tops gives you an un-obstructed view of the beautiful mountain range. This is the most EPIC spot to make yourself a cup of coffee with your lightweight stove, or enjoy a snack.
[8.6 Miles; 1,981 ft. Elevation Gain; Out & Back; Rating: moderate]
This is a wonderful portion of the Appalachian Trail, that makes for a beautiful day-hike. The best part about this trail is that depending on your preference, you can really turn around at any point. The views on this trail are beautiful from start to finish, therefore, you do not have to hike all the way to Charlies Bunion if you are looking for shorter miles (although we highly recommend making it to the epic views).
This trail is accessible from the Newfoundland Gap parking lot. Be sure to get on the trail heading north (follow the sign to the "Boulevard Trail in 2.7 miles"), once at the Boulevard Trail junction, veer right to stay on the Appalachian Trail towards Charlies Bunion (an additional 1.3 miles from the junction). This summit is characterized by a large boulder protruding from the mountain, and is one of the only bare-rock summit's in the entire park.
Fact: This summit is characterized by a large boulder protruding from the mountain, and is one of the only bare-rock summit's in the entire park.
[1.2 Mile; 331 Ft Elevation Gain; Out & Back; Rated: moderate]
This is a short, paved, half-mile hike from the Clingmans Dome parking lot. The half-mile is straight uphill, however, the views are certainly worth it for the highest elevation in the park at 6,643 miles.
On a clear day, your views from the dome allow you to see for 100 miles. The road leading back to Clingmans Dome parking (closed in the winter months) also allows for breathtaking views as you wind through the mountains.
Fact: Clingmans Dome is the highest elevation in the park at 6,643 miles
[3.5 miles; 856 ft elevation gain; out & back; moderate difficulty]
This trail starts at the Clingmans Dome parking lot and leads you through the forest to the beautiful Andrews Bald at 5909 ft elevation. The first mile of the trail takes you down the mountain, where the trail has moderate difficulty due to the rocky terrain.
The last portion of the trail take you through the forest and out to one of the few "balds" in the Smokies (named due to having a grass clearing with no trees on a mountaintop). From this vantage point, it is easier to see wildlife. It is also a great spot to sit back and relax with a picnic lunch or mid-hike snack.
Tip: Andrews Bald is also a great spot to sit back and relax with a picnic lunch or mid-hike snack.
[4.5 miles; 1,358 ft. Elevation gain; out & back; hard difficulty]
This trail is labeled hard for a reason, it has a lot of elevation gain for the short distance to the summit. However, this is well worth it for the EPIC views at the top! The Chimney Top overlook is breathtakingly beautiful and you will forget how tired you are from the intense climb you just endured.
Tip: We recommend only doing this trail once the last quarter of a mile is re-open to the public. NPS will be forced to shut down the entire trail if people do not abide by the signage.
6. Grotto Falls
[2.6 Miles; 534 ft. Elevation Gain; Out & Back; Rated: Easy]
Grotto Falls trailhead begins on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg. This is a trail with relatively easy terrain, short mileage, and is the only waterfall in the park that you can walk behind as the water come rushing down overhead. We found this trail to be gorgeous, especially in fall with the changing leaves.
There is very limited parking for this trail, therefore, we recommend getting here early to avoid having to park an additional half-mile away from the trailhead. Post hike, be sure to take your time through the remainder of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, as there are many stopping points to view serene rivers and historic settlements.
Tip: This is a light/family-friendly hike
7. Laurel Falls
[2.4 Miles; 396 ft. Elevation Gain; Out & Back; Rated: Easy]
Laurel Falls is a scenic and paved beginner hike that leads to a rushing waterfall. Our personal favorite part of the hike was viewing the changing leaves on our way up to the falls. We saw the most fall foliage on this hike compared to any other hike we did within the park early October.
With over 100 species of trees found in this park, it is an amazing place to hike through the fall foliage. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park due to its accessibility for all skill levels.
Tip: This is a light/family-friendly hike
8. Cades Cove
This is a 11-mile, one-way road loop around a valley that was previously home to many 18th and 19th century settlements prior to joining the Great Smoky National Park. There are 18 landmarks within the cove including barns, log houses, a working grist mill, and churches.
Cades Cove has many wildlife sightings in the open fields, such as black bears, coyotes, turkeys, and deer. Be sure to never approach wildlife and to keep a respectful distance whenever encountering. It took us roughly 2 hours to complete the driving loop, however, if you have more time and would like to bike or hike the loop, these options are also available.
Tip: This is a great place to see wildlife!
Noms - Asheville
Top 6 Restaurants of Asheville NC?
Almost every local we came across on our journey through the Smoky Mountains recommended White Duck Taco. This was the first place we stopped for food once we arrived and we have to say, it did not disappoint! From their funky décor to their exotic tacos, it is evident how this became such a crowd favorite.
J&L Favorites: Jerk Chicken, Spicy Buffalo Chicken, Korean Beef Bulgogi, and the Duck w/Mole.
2. Chai Pani
This is an phenomenal Indian food restaurant that will leave you feeling full, satisfied, and ready to recommend to all of your friends! Even if you are not typically a fan of Indian food, this will satisfy your taste buds and potentially change your mind. With reasonable prices, large portions and fast/friendly service, you cannot go wrong at Chai Pani.
J&L Favorites: Butter Chicken and Orka Fries.
3. Moose Café
Looking for a good deal and some local southern comfort food? Look no further, Moose Café is a true gem! Their daily $9.99 all-you-can-eat breakfast is the perfect way to recoup after all of those 10-mile hikes. The deal includes eggs, bacon, hashbrown casserole, grits, biscuits and gravy.
With exceptional and fast service in this quaint diner-style café, we highly recommend to all travelers. Their location in Asheville is right alongside the Western NC Farmers Market where the fresh ingredients are pulled from daily.
J&L Recommended: All farm-to-table with local North Carolina ingredients
4. Biscuit Head
As they advertise, "put some south in your mount" with a Biscuit Head sandwich! These sandwiches are huge and delicious, loaded up with meats, cheeses, gravies, jellies, and sides. If you are looking for a delicious local brunch place, be sure to stop here and try the Filthy Animal or Biscuit donuts.
J&L Favorites: Filthy Animal or Biscuit Donuts
An "out of this world" pizza place with a fun atmosphere and delicious food. They specialize in stone-baked pizza served to a fun and eclectic art-crowd. Founded in the 70s, they hold onto their hippie roots by helping their customers mellow out with their delicious pizza and amazing customer service. Although Mellow Mushroom did not originate in Asheville, each individual location is locally owned and operated.
Visit Asheville's landmark coffee bus and grab a Lavender Honey Latte or Hot Brownie with Ice Cream from this signature double-decker coffee shop. While the inside is closed for dining during COVID, the convenient location of Double D's is an easy coffee or sweets stop.
Tip: Be sure to bring cash as they are currently cash-only!
Also Read: Top 8 Things To Do in Asheville NC
The best craft beers surrounding the Smoky Mountains
1. Last Days of Autumn Brewing [Knoxville, TN]
Recommended Brew: Mexican Stout [Stout: 7.1% ABV; 30 IBU]
Located in Knoxville, Last Days of Autumn Brewing specialized in small batch, unique ales. This allows them to constantly change their menu, come up with new and innovative brews, and keeps you coming back to taste their new creations.
A favorite Last Days of Autumn brew is their Mexican Stout (say whaaat?). You heard correctly, this American stout is made with vanilla, coffee, cinnamon, cocoa nubs, and peach habanero peppers. A brew you have to taste for yourself to believe.
J&L Recommended: Unique Brews
2. Alliance Brewery [Knoxville, TN]
Recommended Brew: Cubano Coffee Brown [Brown Ale: 6.7% ABV; 28 IBU]
Alliance Brewery is located in Knoxville and has a focus on community. NOt only do they create great brews for the people of Tennessee, but they give back through trail building and stream cleanups. When traveling through Knoxville, come support this microbrewery and try their Cubano Coffee Brown, a brown ale that is brewed with cold brew coffee from Three Bears Coffee Company in Knoxville.
Also Read: Asheville Brew Tour
3. Green Man Brewery [Asheville, NC]
Recommended Brew: Tart Berry (Berliner Weisse Sour- 4.2%)
Downtown Asheville's oldest brewery and tasting room that developed the first sour program in the area. This brewery veteran started in 1997 and has been pioneering the way since the beginning. Tart Berry is a fruity and satisfying delight to the taste buds. Make sure to stop by!
4. Wicked Weed Brewing [Asheville, NC]
Recommended Brew: Pernicious (American IPA- 7.3% ABV)
Wicked Weed Brewing quickly expanded to a macrobrewry with four locations (3 taprooms and a fine dining restaurant) . If you love sour beers Wicked Weed has the south's first sour beer-dedicated taproom called the Funkatorium. Their flagship IPA Pernicious has plenty of hops to satisfy all with its juicy, tropical West Coast flavor.
J&L Tip: When at the restaurant, ask to do a brewery tour. Not only will you get a free brewery tour and souvenir glass, but you will be able to skip the line and get seated right after the tour ends! This will save you a lot of time on your Asheville brew tour as it is usually a 1-2 hour wait to be seated at Wicked Weed.
Planning Your Trip
Is Smoky Mountain National Park Free?
Yes! Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the few American National Parks that is completely free to enter and explore! No entrance fee is charged for visitors.
Park Admission: Free!
Where should I stay in the Smoky Mountains?
Hotels near Smoky Mountain National Park:
If you are not a camper, we recommend staying at a cabin in Gatlinburg. When staying in Asheville, we recommend Sweet Pea's Hostel for their prime location to all the local noms/brews, affordable price, clean facilities, and friendly staff. For great deals on hotels, visits Booking.com
J&L Recommended Hotels: Sweet Pea's Hostel
Camping in the Smoky Mountains:
There are two major campgrounds within the park that will get you closest to most of the major hikes: Smokemont in North Carolina and Elkmont in Tennessee. We stayed at both campgrounds and had beautiful camp sites at each. Both campgrounds have no service, no electricity, and no showers. However, they do have running water, bathrooms, and available campsites along a tranquil river (Little River at Elkmont, Oconaluftee River at Smokemont).
Elkmont is a much larger campground and is closer to many of the shorter family-hikes, as well as, Gatlinburg. Smokemont is a smaller campground, however, we found it to be more secluded, quieter, and off the beaten path.
Depending on what you are looking for, both Elkmont and Smokemont are excellent campgrounds. However, we preferred Smokemont for its relaxing atmosphere, serene river, and proximity to our desired hikes. If you would prefer to backcountry camp instead of frontcountry, be sure to review these backcountry camping guidelines ahead of time.
J&L Recommended Camping: Smokemont
Smoky Mountain National Park Camping Tips:
Read up on Bear Safety ahead of your trip - over 1,500 black bears live in the Smoky Mountains. Although black bears are less of a threat than grizzly bears, bear spray is still a good precaution. This is an informative video demonstrating how and when to use your bear spray.
Opposed to grizzly bears, if a black bear approaches you be sure to FIGHT BACK.
Before entering the park, buy bear mace from a store in Knoxville, Gatlinburg, or Asheville - We used Frontiersmen and although we never needed to use it, felt it was a reliable choice.
Bring a separate set of clothes to only wear in the tent to avoid the scent of food that could be on your clothes throughout the day
Bring waterproof jackets/pants
Also Read: Camping Hacks
Are there shuttles in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
The best way to get around Smoky Mountain National Park is by car. There is a trolley service offered in Gatlinburg that will take you to the Laurel Falls parking area, Elkmont Campground, and Sugarlands Visitor Center from June till October for $2 round trip. The below itinerary was completed with a car.
Also Read: Finding Budget Flights
How long does it take to drive through Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
If you are just planning to drive through the Smoky Mountains National Park, plan for two-four hours depending on how frequently you stop at vistas. However, the park has much to see and we recommend spending more than just one day:
Smoky Mountain National Park: 3-4 days to complete our itinerary
Asheville: 1-2 Days
What is the best time to visit Smoky Mountains?
June through August draws the most crowds to the Smoky Mountains, however, if you prefer to avoid the crowds you may consider May or September. October draws a second set of crowds in search of the beautiful fall foliage. Below outlines the average temperatures by month in the Smoky Mountains:
Tip: Average Low/High °F
Is there cell service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
NO SERVICE within Smoky Mountain National Park. SAFETY TIP: learn how to download interactive maps to your phone that can give you driving, walking, & biking directions even without cellular service! Visit our Exclusive Content to learn more.