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.
Our recommended hotel, The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, has started rebuilding from the November 2016 Gatlinburg fire, and is now taking limited reservations. Other properties to consider in Gatlinburg:
- Located within walking distance of Gatlinburg and a few minutes drive of the National Park entrance, this Airbnb cabin has outstanding reviews.
- For all you bed-and-breakfast fans, The Foxtrot has spectacular views of the mountains.
- If your planning to visit with a group, Elk Springs Resort offers 121 private cabins to fit groups large or small, and still located within a short driving distance of the Park.
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.
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.
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.
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 at Etsy. For everything from vintage posters to original art, tea towels to jewelry, check out our curated list of National Park mementos. If you're looking for a specific park, many of the products are available for different National Parks, just click on the shop name to explore their offerings.
Curated by Tara Anbudaiyan on Etsy
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.
Compass & Key Curated List of Trails
1. Hen Wallow Falls, a quiet but rugged 1/2-day hike
2. Cades Cove Tour, a popular drive exploring life of an early settler
3. Spruce Flats Falls, one of the best-kept secret hikes (until now)
4. Clingmans Dome, with spectacular views of the entire park
5. Kephart Prong, a historic hike following the steps of the CCC
Visitor Centers are marked in gold with a star
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
SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) - Weeks after the deadly Sevier County wildfire, nearly 900 families have received help from Dolly Parton's "My People Fund." The newly established fund will provide $1,000 each month to families in Sevier County whose homes were damage or destroyed by the massive wildfire.
After suffering from devastating wildfires that forced 14,000 evacuations, took 14 lives, and damaged about 2,500 buildings, eastern Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park and neighboring resort town of Gatlinburg reopened to the public on Friday, ABC News reported. The fires first began on November 28.
As two wildfires that nearly destroyed this tourist town continue to smolder in the surrounding mountains, officials vowed to reopen for business Friday. "I want to let everyone know that Gatlinburg is still here," Mayor Mike Werner said. "The shopping district is intact. People need to know that the beloved pancake houses are still standing.