The Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the best natural resources of the Southeast and beyond. Known for its spectacular scenery, wildlife and history, the park can be enjoyed on many levels. While visiting the Historic Gatlinburg Inn, be sure to travel beyond the lights and sounds of Gatlinburg to enjoy the serenity of America’s most visited National Park.
Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year with every season offering its own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy.
Download a copy of the park’s trail map or purchase one from the Great Smoky Mountains Association which also sells a wide variety of hiking books, maps, and guides to help choose a hiking route and plan your backcountry trip. Visit the Association’s online bookstore or phone (888) 898-9102. The Great Smoky Mountains Association is a nonprofit organization that supports educational and scientific programs in the park. In addition, a GeoPDF map of the park can be downloaded from the Discover Life in America website.
You may also call the Backcountry Information Office at (865) 436-1297 for information to plan your hiking or backpacking trip. The office is open daily from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). In addition to answering your backpacking questions, the experienced backpackers in the Backcountry Information Office can provide you with tips to make your trip safe and enjoyable.
Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, raccoon, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals. The narrow, winding road of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bear and other wildlife. During winter wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves.
Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds one of the best collections of log buildings in the eastern United States. Over 90 historic structures—houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills—have been preserved or rehabilitated in the park. The best places to see them are at Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Oconaluftee, and along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Self-guiding auto tour booklets are available at each place to enhance your visit.
The park usually experiences an autumn leaf season of several weeks as fall colors travel down the mountain sides from high elevation to low. However, the timing of fall color change depends upon so many variables that the exact dates of “peak” season are impossible to predict in advance.
Elevation profoundly affects when fall colors change in the park. At higher elevations, where the climate is similar to New England’s, color displays start as early as mid-September with the turning of yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry.
From early to mid-October, fall colors develop above 4,000 feet. To enjoy them, drive the Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Foothills Parkway.
The fall color display usually reaches peak at mid and lower elevations between mid-October and early November. This is the park’s most spectacular display as it includes such colorful trees as sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum, red maple, and the hickories.
Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Rides on scenic park trails are offered lasting from 45 minutes to several hours. All rides proceed at a walking pace. Rates are from $30 per hour. Weight limits and age restrictions may apply. Please call the stable you are interested in for additional information.
- Cades Cove, near Townsend, TN (865) 448-9009
(also offers hayrides and carriage rides) Visit the website for
- Smokemont, near Cherokee, NC (828) 497-2373
(also offers wagon rides) Visit the website for
- Smoky Mountain, near Gatlinburg, TN (865) 436-5634. Visit the website for additional information.
- Sugarlands, near Gatlinburg, TN (865) 436-3535.
Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks. Download a park map to view the location of picnic areas in the park.
The picnic areas at Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms remain open year-round. The remaining picnic areas are closed during the winter. See schedule below.
Picnic pavilions are available at Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek,
Greenbrier, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks, Pavilions can be reserved for groups one year in advance by calling (877) 444-6777, or online at at the Recreation.org website.
All pavilions except Twin Creeks and Greenbrier cost $20 per use. The fee for the pavilion at Twin Creeks ranges from $35-75 depending on the usage. Greenbrier costs $10 per use. Payment can be made by credit card or personal check at the time the reservation is made.
Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto Falls, Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls, Rainbow Falls, Ramsey Cascades and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.
The Great Smoky Mountains abound with the two ingredients essential for waterfalls-ample rainfall and an elevation gradient. In the Smokies high country, over 85″ of rain falls on average each year. During wet years, peaks like Mt. Le Conte and Clingmans Dome receive over eight feet of rain. This abundant rainfall trickles and rushes down the mountain sides, from high elevation to low, sometimes dropping more than a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills at the park’s boundary.