The challenging 11 mile hike to Mount LeConte offers stunning panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains and plenty to see along the way.
Known for the hazy patches of fog that give the park its name, an abundant black bear population, and lush green pine forests, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a hiker’s heaven. With a plethora of incredible hikes and lovely campsites inside the park, the Smoky Mountains make for a perfect getaway for outdoor lovers. This guide will provide tips for camping and help you find the best hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.
About the Smoky Mountains National Park
Since its establishment in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has become known for its rolling blue mountain ranges, great hiking trails, diversity of plant and animal life, and stunning waterfalls. In fact, there are over 17,000 different animal species found in the park, 150 hiking trails covering nearly 800 miles, over 100 waterfalls and 2000 miles of rivers and streams in the park. With so much natural beauty, its no wonder the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States!
Where are the Smoky Mountains?
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, making it easily accessible from many cities in the southern United States. The small resort town of Gatlinburg sits at the north-central entrance to the park in Tennessee, just across the North Carolina border, making it a good home base for exploring the Smokies.
What makes the Smoky Mountains so “smoky”?
The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the layer of “smoke” that often appears hovering just above the mountains. The “smoke” is actually caused by the abundant plant population, in particular pine trees, in the park. In addition to oxygen, plants emit volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) which have a high vapor pressure, meaning they can turn to vapor at normal temperatures. These VOC’s are also responsible for the blue tint of the mountain, sometimes known as “blue smoke.”
Hiking in the Smoky Mountains
There is no shortage of incredible hikes in the Smoky Mountains. Here are a few great options, ranging in difficulty from easy to challenging:
- Clingman’s Dome: 1.2 mile moderate hike to an observation tower offering 360 degree views at the highest peak in the national park.
- Alum Creek and Cave: 2.7 mile easy hike along a rambling creek leading to Alum Cave.
- Charlies Bunion: 8.6 mile moderately hard hike to a rock formation with sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains.
- Mount Leconte: 11 mile hard hike to a stunning viewpoint, via the Alum Creek Trail to Alum Cave.
- Mount Cammerer: 11.9 mile steep, challenging hike featuring panoramic views of the Smokies.
- Ramsey Cascades: a tough 8 miles roundtrip hike that winds through a beautiful old growth forest to the tallest waterfall in the park.
Other Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains
Looking to take a break from hiking? There are plenty of others fun things to do in the Smoky Mountains and surrounding area:
- Winery hopping: There are several wineries conveniently located in the heart Gatlinburg, great for unwinding after a long hike.
- Horseback Riding: In the national park, there are several stables that offer guided trail rides. I’d be amiss not to warn that I do not recommend riding at Sugarland Stables (I can’t speak for the other two stables, Caves Cove and Smoky Mountain Stables). We visited on a hot summer day, and the horses were clearly overworked and exhausted from carrying people up and down the mountains all day with no break between rides. Further, the trails were muddy with ruts so treacherous that the horses are lucky not to break a leg. Please don’t give your money to a place that condones such poor treatment of animals.
- Camping: There are 10 frontcountry campgrounds in the Smoky Mountains – pitch a tent, build a fire, grab a beer, sit back and relax. Just be sure to clean up after yourself to avoid an unwelcome visit from a black bear!
- Walk across SkyBridge: The longest suspension footbridge in North America, with awesome views over the Smokies.
- Fishing: The park has over 700 miles of streams for fishing, where you can expect to catch brook, brown, or rainbow trout.
Situated just outside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg is a small but busy city with a main street packed with restaurants, bars and wineries. Gatlinburg is a resort town, and it does feel more commercialized than we were expecting. If this isn’t your scene, opt to cook over the campfire (like we did!) instead of venturing into town for dinner.
To unwind after a long day of hiking, visit one (or a few) of Gatlinburg’s wineries. Fair warning: wine in Gatlinburg tends to be sweet, featuring Muscadines and fruity flavors like strawberry, blueberry, peach, and apple. The wine is delicious, but tastes more like cider and has you asking for a sharp headache in the morning. We recommend Sugarland Cellars. They had our favorite wines, the least sweet of the wines we tried in Gatlinburg, and offer free tastings!
Planning Your Trip
How to Get to the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountain National Park is located just outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It is doable as a weekend trip from many places in the southeast.
- 7 hour drive from Washington D.C.
- 3 hour drive from Nashville, TN
- 2 hour drive from Chattanooga, TN
- 45 minute drive from Asheville, NC
- 1 hour 45 minute drive from Greenville, SC
- 2 hour 45 minute drive from Charlotte, NC
If you are flying, the easiest option is to fly into either Charlotte or Nashville.
For a perfect long weekend, combine a visit to the Smoky Mountains with a few days in Asheville, a quirky town in North Carolina that is conveniently located close to great hiking, including Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. Asheville is under 2 hours from Gatlinburg and just over an hour from the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Where to Stay near the Smoky Mountain National Park
The park offers both frontcountry and backcountry camping options. Backcountry camping requires a permit and advanced reservations. For frontcountry camping, reservations are not required but are recommended to guarantee a spot, as the campsites tend to fill up.
There are 10 frontcountry campgrounds (meaning car camping, with amenities like restrooms and running water) in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park:
- Abrams Creek Campground
- Balsam Mountain Campground
- Big Creek Campground
- Cades Cove Campground
- Cataloochee Campground
- Cosby Campground
- Deep Creek Campground
- Elkmont Campground
- Look Rock Campground
- Smokemont Campground
The reservation fee varies by location, ranging from $17 to $25 per night per campsite. The campgrounds are equipped with basic amenities, including restrooms, bear resistant dumpsters, and running water for rinsing dishes. At most campgrounds, each individual campsite has a private picnic bench and fire grate. Check-in time is at 1:00PM, and check-out time is at noon.
During our visit to the Smoky Mountains, we stayed at Cosby Campground. While it was beautiful, quiet, and clean, getting to the national park’s main entrance required driving through the center of Gatlinburg, which could add 20-30 minutes of sitting in traffic to a drive that was already 40 minutes without traffic. Therefore, we would recommend picking a campground that doesn’t require you to drive through the main street of Gatlinburg, such as Abrams Creek, Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Elkmont, or Smokemont, particularly during peak season and holiday weeks (note: we were in the Smoky Mountains for Labor Day weekend).
For the quickest drive to the trailheads for Charlies Bunion, Mount LeConte and Alum Cave, Smokemont and Elkmont are the best options, located between 20 and 30 minutes away. If you plan to hike Mount Cammerer, the trailhead is conveniently located inside Cosby Campground.
If you prefer backpacking over frontcountry camping, you have plenty of options as well. Reservations may be made at recreation.gov up to 30 days in advance of the start of your trip, for a fee of $4 per person per night (with a maximum cost of $20 per person). You may find more information on backcountry camping in the Smoky Mountains here.
Tips for camping in the Smoky Mountains:
- To prevent the introduction of invasive species, you cannot bring firewood into the park. You may purchase certified firewood at a select few campsites or numerous local convenience stores – find a complete list here.
- The campgrounds do not have showers. Some shower facilities are available in the communities around the park for a small fee. We opted for bathing in the creek near Cosby Campground.
- Book campsite well in advance. While there are many campground options in the Smoky Mountains, they are very popular and fill up fast, particularly at the most convenient campsites like Smokemont and Elkmont. We waited until only a few weeks in advance and had trouble finding a campsite.
If you aren’t interested in camping, you can stay in a hotel or Airbnb in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, located only a few minutes from the main entrance to the national park. If possible look for a place on the southwest side of the city, as there is only one main street through Gatlinburg to the national park from the northeast side, which can get very backed up and lead to long traffic delays.
Another option is to stay on the North Carolina side of the park in Bryson City, a small town known for its Smoky Mountain Train Museum and a perfect gateway to your adventures in the Smokies. You can even go “clamping” in a converted red caboose, like the one below!
Best Time to Visit
The best weather for hiking the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is during the summer, late spring and early fall from April through October. During the winter, early spring and late fall, snowfall can cause trail and road closures. For incredible fall foliage, we recommend visiting in the fall, ideally late October or early November.
Other Useful Resources
Planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? You don’t want to miss these awesome hikes:
Charlies Bunion is an 8.5 mile moderate hike in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park that leads to a large rock formation with sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains
If you love the outdoors and are looking for a weekend getaway, the Smoky Mountains are a great option. With beautiful mountain scenery, abundant wildlife and hundreds of miles of trails, the Smoky Mountains are a hiker’s dream.
Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountains? What was your favorite hike? Let us know in the comments below.