Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most popular national park. It sees well over 10 million visitors every year! That’s almost twice as much as the second-most-visited national park (Grand Canyon National Park sees 5 ½ million visitors a year). Naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
With all the traveling I’ve done around the United States, I actually haven’t seen much of the eastern part of the country. That’s what pushed me to head out on a little road trip around Tennessee and North Carolina earlier this year. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was an important item on my must-see list, and it was the first stop on my trip.
The Great Smoky Mountains has a few things going for it that make it the most popular national park. A big factor in its popularity is location. The park straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border in the southern U.S. Everything is much closer together on the eastern side of the country, so the park is within easy driving distance of a lot of major cities. Compare that to national parks in the western U.S., where everything is so spread out that visiting can be more difficult.
Of course, what really makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park so beloved by visitors is the stunning scenery. The temperate climate of the park, the beautiful blue mountains, and the lush green forests is the reason people return over and over again. Of course, many people visit in autumn to see the bold foliage along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is considered one of America’s most scenic drives.
I visited the park in late April, and was met with days of low-lying clouds and pouring rain. It certainly changed the park’s scenery, giving it a much moodier vibe—I felt like I was back in the Pacific Northwest! The greens became deeper and darker, and the rivers and waterfalls became fuller and faster.
Even though the extensive views I expected were blocked by the clouds, I quite liked the park as I saw it. While Great Smoky Mountains National Park is usually very crowded, I found that visiting during the rainy spring season left my friend and I plenty of space to see the park without chaos. There weren’t too many other people around, which is always a plus in my book.
I spent about 3 days exploring different areas of the park, although the rain did stop me from hiking. Most of my time was spent driving the scenic roads and stopping off at the major sites.
What to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here you’ll find an observation tower with a cool spiral ramp up to the top. This will give you great views over the mountains. Since I was there on a cloudy day, the view was obstructed. But it was still a fun site to visit.
The Newfound Gap is the lowest pass in the mountains. It’s located on the Newfound Gap road, which runs across the park from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. At the high point, pull off the road and get another great view. You can also stand on the Tennessee/North Carolina border here.
Elkmont is the Great Smoky Mountains’ ghost town. This little resort town was built up in the early 20th century. City dwellers had cottages here so they could retreat to the mountains in the summer. The land was bought up so it could be turned into a national park, residents left, and the buildings were ordered to be demolished to return the land to its natural state. A handful of buildings remain and it’s pretty eerie walking around this little camp.
Roaring Fork is a scenic one-way loop near Gatlinburg. It’s a pretty short loop, but there are so many places to stop off. You’ll find a few waterfalls and lots of historic buildings.
Cades Cove is another scenic drive within the park. Expect to see plenty of wildlife around here, plus even more historic cabins and mills.
The famous thru-hiking trail runs all the way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re not interested in doing the full trail (which runs from Georgia to Maine), you can hike part of it within the park.
Mountain Farm Museum
If you’re interested in the history of the area’s early settlers, check out the Mountain Farm Museum. You can do a quick self-guided tour, which takes you around some historic log cabins, and tells you a bit about farm life in the 1800s.
Of course there’s plenty more to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you enjoy the outdoors, there are so many opportunities to hike and camp. You can check out some of the trails here.
Pin image to save & share!