Our Visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park for good reasons. It’s close to population centers with easy auto access. There are many pullouts to view beautiful scenery, including the blue haze that gave the park its name. Leaving the car behind and venturing out on foot, the crowd starts to fade and the beauty of the forest takes center stage.
Join us on our three day visit at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Unlike many National Parks in the west, people lived in the Great Smoky National Park well before it became a National Park in 1934. There are many historical buildings, water wheels, churches and cemeteries that link you back to lives from not so long ago.
Climbing up the Newfound Gap road, the scenery got more dramatic and the namesake smoky fog more visible. This surreal scene reminded me of Shangri-La, a fictional heavenly mountain in southwest China described in pictures and books. Shangri-La is a peaceful place where monks contemplate the meaning of life. The Great Smoky Mountains, with its trademark blue haze, conjured up the same image and really beckoned one to reflect on life, but where is the needed solitude?
We reached the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the east side (North Carolina) after several hours of driving in the rain. This will be interesting, I thought, since the forecast was rain for the three days we planned to be here.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center greeted us and we did our park business (stamp, talk to ranger, get brochure). We fully intended to walk the 1.5 mile River Trail to stretch our legs.
The rain stopped as we passed by the Mountain Farm Museum just behind the visitor center. This is a collection of farm buildings found in the park but moved to the current location to depict life in the 1800s. They were well preserved and interesting to see.
As we went a bit further on the trail by the river, we saw a hushed crowd. This was a sure sign for wildlife and sure enough, there were a few elk by the trail and on the river. We watched the elk graze and bugle for some 20 minutes, and enjoyed every minute of it.
The elk were too close to the trail for us to pass, so we turned around and headed back to the visitor center. As we went by the Mountain Farm Museum, we heard the elk were bugling. Our planned walk did not happen, but we were very happy to see the elk up close. It more than made up for the interrupted plan. A great start to our visit!
The next stop was just up the road, at Mingus Mill. This is a “working” mill with water diverted from a stream to turn the wheel to grind corn. The resulting cornmeal can be purchased here.
Tallest Point in the Park
Our next stop was Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the park at 6,643 feet, and surpassed only by Mount Mitchel (6,684 feet) and Mount Craig (6,647 feet) as the tallest peaks east of the Mississippi. The day was rainy with low clouds and we were expecting the worst – and we got just that. As we turned off of Newfound Gap Road onto Clingmans Dome Road, we were in the clouds.
We had a great view of the — mist. Everything was white and Shangri-La like, but certainly NOT a great view of the mountains. We stopped by the ranger station, got a stamp. It was useless to go to the observation tower and we decided against it.
The paved trail to the observation tower is surprisingly difficult because of the steepness, rising 334 feet in a half mile. Fortunately, there are plenty of benches for rest. The view can be dramatic on a clear day, but as is often the case, you can see only white mists when the mountains are covered in fog.
Clingmans Dome is a “don’t miss” sight on a clear day.
Sugarlands is the main visitor center on the western side (Tennessee) of the park. The Nature Trail is a short, paved path to Cataract Falls and Fighting Creek. Cataract Falls is not particularly tall or strong, but the path is short and a great walk to stretch the legs.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Day 2 of our visit was mostly about auto touring and frustration. We started at the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which was a 5.5 mile one way loop near Gatlinburg. Trailhead for Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls were on this road.
The drive itself was fantastic! This was my favorite drive the last time we visited several years ago, when we drove it late in the afternoon and had very few people. It was beautiful, tranquil, and thickly wooded.
Not this time! We started the drive around 9:00 am and we were in a big traffic jam. It was very slow going. The actual drive time for this 5.5 mile loop was 2 hours (we spent 1.5 hours hiking to Grotto Falls, so the overall time spent was 3.5 hours). It was certainly not tranquil!
Well, at least it wasn’t raining, despite the forecast.
A 3 mile round trip hike from the trailhead on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Grotto Falls was one of the highlights of our trip. The area near the falls was like a grotto, with ferns growing out of the rocks. The waterfall is fairly tall and poured over a rock edge.
The most fun part of Grotto Falls was walking behind the waterfall. I stood under the rock ledge and watched the waterfall from the other side. It was loud and yet tranquil.
Parking is limited at the trailhead, so get there early. We did not due to the traffic jam. We were very lucky to be there when a car was pulling out.
Grotto Falls is a must-do at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
After lunch, we headed to Cades Cove, one of the best known sights in the park. It was started in the 1820s and by 1850, 685 people lived here.
Cades Cove offered the widest variety of historic buildings in this park. There were churches, a grist mill, barns, log houses, and many 18th and 19th century buildings. The 11 mile loop at the end of Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road crossed meadows and an old town.
Opportunities abound for wildlife viewing. If wildlife is spotted, the traffic comes to a complete standstill. We saw black bears in the distance playing. Traffic was stopped for a good 20 minutes.
John Oliver’s Cabin was a very nice stop on Cades Cove Road with one of the oldest structures in the park. John Oliver was one of the first Euro-Americans to settle in Cades Cove, arriving in 1818.
At the end of Cades Cove Road was a visitor center and several historical buildings. By the time we got there, we really needed to stretch our legs. The people in front of us on the drive went very, very slowly and won’t let us pass! We walked around the grounds for a closer look at the various buildings and a grist mill.
The full loop is 11 miles with a short cut in the middle, but you have to do the full 11 miles loop to reach the visitor center, the grist mill, and many of the historical buildings. Driving the full length of the road to reach Cades Cove, and doing the 11 mile Cades Cove road takes a good half day, so plan accordingly.
The National Park Service is experimenting with vehicle free days on Wednesdays during the summer when only bicycles and pedestrians are allowed. I think that is a fantastic idea. Doing the 11 mile loop on bicycle is a great way to experience the valley and get closer to it.
Weather on day 2 was good, but sitting in traffic most of the day was not fun.
Laurel Falls – The Best Attraction
Without a doubt, Laurel Falls is a must-do hike. It’s a short (2.6 mile RT) and sweet hike to reach a very nice two tiered waterfall.
Having learned our lesson from day 2, we started day 3 early because we wanted to do the Laurel Falls hike and we had to leave by noon for our next destination.
The forecast was for rain in the morning and as we drove towards the park, we had steady rain. We were steeling ourselves to get soaked during our hike, but was hoping for better.
We arrived at the trailhead around 8 am and it was already 2/3 full. As we pulled into our spot, the rain stopped! Just in time!
The trail climbed up a bit before leveling out in the woods. As we got into the hike, we actually saw blue sky through the trees!
There was a small crowd at the bridge, but most of them left after a few minutes and we had a relatively uncrowded time at the falls. The waterfall was very picturesque.
We saw many more people coming up as we made our return trip. I was glad we went early. By the time we got back to the parking lot, about 9 am, it was completely full with cars parked on the side of the road extending in both directions.
Because Laurel Falls is so popular, the National Park Service is experimenting with a reservation system for Laurel Falls parking during the summer, so plan ahead.
We made a brief stop at The Sinks after Laurel Falls. It was not too far away. No hiking was needed to see this energetic waterfall, which was right next to the road. While the waterfall was not very big, it felt powerful and well worth the quick stop.
Arch Rock on Alum Cave Trail
For our last stop, we headed to the Alum Cave trail on Newfound Gap Road. The trail ran along the pristine Alum Cave Creek in a beautiful forest. The sound alternated between the rushing water and the quiet of the woods. It was one of the most serene and picturesque hikes.
The trail goes to Alum Cave, Mount Le Conte at 6,575 feet (and about 3,000 feet elevation change from the start of the trail), and then onto Rainbow Falls. There are numerous bluffs and view points along the way. This is one of the most popular trails in the park.
We did not have a lot of time, so we got as far as Arch Rock, where the trail went through a big rock after crossing the creek. The portion of the trail we hiked was short but absolutely beautiful. I highly recommend it.
It was noon time and time to say goodbye to the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite the weather and the traffic jam, we did some great hikes.
Deep Creek Area
On a previous visit, we went to the Deep Creek area on the southeastern side of the park in North Carolina near Bryson City.
The Deep Creek Waterfall Loop was an easy 2.4 mile loop with three beautiful waterfalls. They were Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls. It didn’t take a lot of work to see the three falls, well worth the effort.
Also on a previous visit, we went to Mingo Falls on the Cherokee Indian reservation just to the east of the park, about 6.5 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
At 120 feet, it was one of the tallest waterfalls in the area. The best part was that it was only 0.4 miles from the parking lot.
The short hike along Mingo Creek was a bit steep, with many steps, but it was short. There was a bridge that crosses the creek at the water fall that provides an excellent view.
The streams at Great Smoky Mountains were all very pretty, and there were lots of them, some by the side of the road, some by the side of the trail.
I loved these streams. They were mesmerizing to look at, with soothing sounds of the water flowing. These were almost iconic of this park. On a hot summer day, dipping your feet in the water would be very refreshing.
The streams, waterfalls, along with the famous blue haze, gave the Great Smoky Mountains the extraordinary beauty.
Impressions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers pristine mountains streams, gorgeous waterfalls, great hiking for all abilities, historical structures and great mountain views. It’s a big enough park so you can find some peace and quiet once you hike into the woods a bit, but with only two main roads, auto-touring can be congested.
This park is by far the most visited National Park in the United States with almost three times the visitors of the next most visited park (Zion). It offers something for everyone and it is located near major population centers in eastern US. No wonder it attracts lots of visitors.
Have you visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Leave a comment below on your experience.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
Top Attractions at Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
- Laurel Falls
- Grotto Falls
- Alum Cave Trail
- Clingmans Dome
- Cades Cove
- Oconaluftee area
- Toms Branch Falls
- Mingo Falls (outside of the park but close)
- The Sinks
One Day Visit Plan:
- Three days would allow more relaxed pace and more hikes, but if you only have a day…..
- Start from Cherokee and stop by the Oconaluftee visitor center to get oriented.
- Make a quick stop at Mingus Mill.
- Drive the Newfound Gap Road and stop by the overlooks along the way.
- Turn onto Clingmans Dome drive and visit the observation tower at Clingmans Dome.
- Hike the Alum Cave trail to Arch Rock or Alum Cave, depending on time.
- Hike the Laurel Falls trail. Hopefully, you can find a parking spot as people leave.
- Stop by the Sinks.
Practical Info for visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Weather at the Great Smoky Mountains is generally mild. It can get hot and humid in the summer time. Visit in the spring or fall if possible.
- Dress in layers when visiting Clingmans Dome. The temperature at the observation tower can be 20 degrees F cooler. The road to Clingmans Dome is closed in the winter so be sure to check the park website for current status.
- The gateway cities of Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and Cherokee on the North Carolina side have plenty of accommodations. However, they are both touristy. Gatlinburg is bigger, more crowded and more touristy than Cherokee.
- Cherokee has casinos and buffets, if you are into that kind of thing.
- As commercialized as Gatlinburg is, it is still much better than the larger Pigeon Forge where it feels like a typical suburb of a large city with tacky attractions.
- No entrance fee for this park due to historical reasons.
- Do the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail if you have time, but it’s not a big deal if you skip it.
- Be sure to get to Laurel Falls, Grotto Falls, and Rainbow Falls trailheads early (before 9am, even earlier during summer peak season) to get a parking spot.
- Fall foliage season is mid-late October with fantastic fall colors, but be prepared for the crowd.
Great Smoky Mountains Facts:
- Size: 521,490 acres, ranked 19th
- Visitors: 14,161,548 in 2021, ranked 1st. 2021 was a record year.
- Peak month in 2021: July with 1,730,987 although October is very close at 1,633,547
- Low month in 2021: February with 502,459
- No entrance fee
Date Visited: October 5-7, 2021; July 15, 2016;