A WALKING WONDERLAND
Stretched across 500,000+ acres in North Carolina and Tennessee you will find Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with over 150 trails calling you to find peace within it's ancient trees and connect with it's early settlers. Do not shy away just because it's the nation's busiest national park. Adventure is within easy reach; all you have to do is leave the car.
Our curated guide brings you a breadth of experiences throughout the park, from hidden waterfalls to mountain streams, from the highest viewpoint to historical ruins.
Established June 15th, 1934
800 miles of hiking trails
Among the oldest mountains on Earth
70+ preserved homesteads from early settlers
Year-round. Winters are generally moderate and summers can be hot, but manageable, especially if you head to higher elevations. Weather changes can occur rapidly so plan your attire accordingly. Compass & Key visited over the July 4th holiday weekend and enjoyed spectacular weather.
A visit in late May/early June provides the only place in America to see the "synchronous fireflies" (aka lightning bugs) that light up the night in a spectacular display. But best to plan several months ahead as this is a popular event.
Compass & Key recommends the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a charming Adirondack-style lodge only two miles from the Park with an excellent onsite restaurant ($, buckberrylodge.com). By staying in one of the 14 suites, you're also supporting the lodge as they rebuild part of the hotel that was lost in the November 2016 Gatlinburg fire.
Anticipate that the rebuilt Buckberry Lodge will have an outstanding restaurant, as it did before the fire. In nearby Gatlinburg, we tasted local craft beers (try the Black Bear Ale) and traditional bar fare at Smoky Mountain Brewery and found fresh trout and friendly locals at Crystelle Creek restaurant. We packed our own lunches to enjoy during our hikes, including sandwiches, fruit and snacks from Gatlinburg grocery store Food City.
Most visitors drive to the Smokies. If you're coming from the North, you will drive through Pigeon Forge into Gatlinburg and then on to the park. If you're coming from the South, you will drive through Cherokee.
A note on Pigeon Forge: traffic can be heavy as the main highway is a strip of neon lights highlighting over-the-top mini-golf, souvenir shops, pancake houses (we counted 12), budget motels and the main attraction, Dollywood. Unfortunately this is the only way to reach Gatlinburg and the park. Be ready for delays depending on the time of day of your travel. And while we wanted to drive through it as fast as possible, make a stop if you're up for some amusement!
For those flying into the area, the closest airport is Knoxville's McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), which is serviced by all the major car rental companies. Expect 1-1.5 hour drive to the Lodge at Buckberry Creek. Check out our Local Expert Guide to Knoxville and add a day or two in the city before or after your visit to the Smokies.
Actually there is no entry fee. When the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road to the federal government, at a time when it was a major thoroughfare for the area, it stipulated that no fees or taxes would be imposed. If you would like to support the park, you can make a cash donation on site, shop at the Great Smoky Mountains Association store at the visitors centers or support the nonprofit Friends of the Smokies.
CHECK FLIGHT TIMES TO KNOXVILLE (McGhee Tyson Airport)
WHERE TO GO
Compass & Key has curated a list of five diverse, interesting hikes for wandering the Smokies. Select a hike for trail notes and photos, and view our interactive map to plot your course. To save these hikes, visit our AllTrails hike list for Great Smoky Mountains, and download the AllTrails app to reference your saved hikes on the go. You can also peruse other hikes in the park based on difficulty, distance, and community reviews.
Our favorite day hiking guide and map is published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association and the NPS, with trails organized by interest: loop hikes, waterfalls, old-growth forests, views and strolls. It also has helpful safety and planning information.
The cost is only $1 and can be purchased online here or at one of the Visitors Centers.
In addition, the Falcon guidebook for the Smokies was invaluable during the planning stages and our actual visit. To purchase through Amazon, click on the image below or visit your local bookstore.
The National Park visitor centers have lovely souvenirs, but we are also fond of the unique creations by the artist community. For everything from vintage posters to original art, tea towels to jewelry, check out our curated list of National Park mementos on Kit. If you're looking for a specific location other than the one featured, many of the products are available for different National Parks, just search within the individual shops.
Explore some of our favorite places in Great Smoky Mountain National Park through our interactive map. This is only a small sampling of the trails, historic sites and natural wonders to discover. For complete maps, visit the National Park Service map page.
OR, take the Compass & Key map of the Smoky Mountains with you by downloading the Mapstr app and following us @compassandkey.
Compass & Key Curated List of Trails
More About Our Trip
Here are the specifics of our actual itinerary for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our visit coincided with the July 4th Independence Day holiday, and despite the crowds, we were able to enjoy almost all of our hikes/tours with limited crowds just by timing it right. We arrived at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek in the evening and began our 3-days in the Smokies the following day.
Day 1: Hen Wallow Falls morning/mid-day, relaxed at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek in the afternoon/evening
Day 2: Cades Cove loop morning/mid-day, Spruce Flats Falls in the afternoon
Day 3: Clingmans Dome EARLY morning, Kephart Prong late morning/mid-day
CURATED STORIES FROM AROUND THE WEB
Lonely Planet Pathfinder, Nick Alvarez of Be Real Travel, recently returned from a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park - one of our best value destinations for 2019. Armed with his camera and tripod, he embarked on a journey to capture the park's numerous waterfalls in full flow.
The Longest Pedestrian Suspension Bridge in the U.S. Has Drop-dead Gorgeous Views of the Smoky Mountains (Video)
There's now one more reason to head to Tennessee this summer. On Friday, May 17, the SkyBridge, located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, opens for public use. And sure, it may just look like any other bridge at first glance, but look closer, as it's actually the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States, according to the bridge's developers.
Eighty-five years after its founding, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will get its first female chief ranger this April. National Park Service veteran Lisa Hendy will take over the post, the agency announced last week.