Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the distinction of being the most visited National Park in the United States. With it’s magnificent mountain ranges, more than 11 million visitors flock annually to this 522,427-acre mountainous park divided almost evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Appalachian trail (Continuous hiking trail from Maine to Georgia) passes through the center of the park. The tallest mountain in the park is 6,643 feet high. Sixteen mountains in the park exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the two main Gateway Towns in Tennessee. They are very commercialized and touristy towns and have any type of attraction you can think of in town. Townsend to the West is a much quieter town that borders the park. Cherokee, a part of the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina is the gateway town south of the park and is much quieter and calmer than Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Before we visited The Great Smoky Mountains I spoke to a ranger to get guidance of how to experience the park best while still leaving to for other attractions in the area. This is what we decided to visit based on her recommendations.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it is the highest elevation in all of Tennessee. Driving up to Clingmans Dome offers some of the most breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. I kept wanting to pull over to enjoy the views.
Clingmans Dome is a commercialized area of the park with a gift shop near the parking lot. It is one of the most popular areas to visit in the park and there aren’t always parking spots available. There is a .5 mile steep paved trail that leads to the observation tower at the summit. The temperatures at the dome are often 10-20 degrees cooler than the surrounding lowlands. When it is a clear day, it is possible to see 100 miles of panoramic views. When we visited the weather was very erratic. The view from the dome was mostly covered with clouds but every now and then the clouds parted to reveal magnificent views. Down by the parking lot we really enjoyed some amazing views.
Before we left the area we visited one morning for sunrise. It was an awesome experience!
We were advised to stop at Newfound Gap to enjoy the beautiful views. Newfound Gap is on the way up to Clingman’s Dome. There is a small sign marking the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee at an elevation of 5,046 feet.
Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center and Mountain Farm Museum:
We headed down the road toward Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. Behind the gift shop is the Mountain Farm Museum with exhibits of Mountain Life and a Farm Museum with log structures and farm animals. There is also a pathway alongside the babbling Oconaluftee River.
Oconaluftee is a popular spot to spot wild Elk especially early morning and evening time. When we visited in late afternoon we spotted elk in a field nearby. I was quite surprised to see that the elk didn’t have antlers at that time of year and didn’t look as I expected.
After Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center we continued out of the park to Mingo Falls in Cherokee.
Chimney’s Picnic Area:
The next afternoon we returned to Chimney’s Picnic Area near the entrance to the park (close to Gatlinburg). The Chimney’s Picnic has many picnic table all along the West Prong Little Pigeon River. It was a beautiful relaxing haven of nature and the perfect place for a picnic.
Posted: May 2, 2023
Information, prices and hours posted here are current as of the posted or updated date. It is advisable to call ahead or check online to confirm hours and prices.
Located in Tennessee and North Carolina
Open 24 hours a day
Parking fee in effect as of March, 2023:
Daily – $5
Weekly – $15
Annual – $40