Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a place of absolute wonder, featuring forests filled with vibrant wildflowers, old-growth forests, cascading waterfalls, winding trails, and vast 360 degree views of the misty mountains.
Because of the area’s immense beauty and easy access to outdoor adventure, it’s unsurprisingly a pretty popular place. In fact, the Smokies bring an estimated 10 million visitors each year—the most of any national park. While such heavy interest in our natural world is remarkable, seemingly inescapable mass crowds can be frustrating when trying to experience nature in its purest form.
But don’t be discouraged: Even in the Smokies, there are ways to escape the chaos and find solitude. Here’s what you should know.
Timing is Everything
It’s no secret that weekends and holidays are the worst, as with any national park. In comparison to Monday through Thursday, weekends are packed; and peak seasons—mid-summer (June-August) and the entire month of October—are much more congested than the rest of the year.
You should also take into account the time of day. Depending on when you set out for adventure, things can move slowly. If your plan is to go for a rigorous hike in the woods, your best chance to avoid leisurely-paced crowds is to wake up early and hit the trails before standard breakfast time. A lot of larger groups will start flooding in around 10 or 11 a.m.
Normally, the larger tourist groups—who are usually on vacation with small children, not looking to partake in strenuous outdoor activity—will only hike the beginning of any trail, witnessing the park’s beauty on a minimal level. If you’re there to venture deeper into the woods, you should have no issue escaping these mobs. High traffic will dissipate even just one mile past main trailheads, and you’ll almost always find isolation and serenity after a three-mile mark.
Road traffic is similarly dependent on timing. Peak traffic times regularly correlate with hotel check-in and checkout times, 3 p.m. and 10 a.m. This means you may want to consider planning a few hours ahead—not only to avoid traffic, but to kickstart your vacation as soon as possible! Optimize your time by arriving early and exploring before your accommodation check-in time.
Location is Also Everything
Congestion is similarly dependent on where you choose to go within the park. There are over 850 miles of hiking that span the 522,427-acre park; yet only select trails see dense traffic. Most tourists occupy the easy-to-access trails and overlooks with easy parking availability. In order to bypass large crowds, avoid these all-too-convenient pull-offs, and always opt for the “road less traveled.” After all, the lesser-known areas may surprise you!
A heavily trafficked, main entrance into the Smokies is through Gatlinburg, TN, which can be a major bottleneck in itself. In front of Gatlinburg is the equally overwhelming Pigeon Forge, with its countless shopping centers, carnival attractions, and sea of lodging options.
Thankfully, the nearby Townsend, TN is far less developed and normally has little to no traffic. That said, this area of the park provides the best entry for Cades Cove, one of the park’s most popular destinations.
The “low down” on Cades Cove: It’s a beautiful valley in the heart of the mountains rich with history of Native Americans and early European settlers. One of the best ways to sightsee Cades Cove, while avoiding heavy traffic, is by bike. Taking the area’s 11-mile one-way road is perfect for bikers, offering spectacular views of wildlife, while meandering by 19th century home sites. During summer and fall seasons, bicycles can be rented at the site’s campground; and from early May through late September the loop is closed to motor vehicle traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m. That said, cars start to pile up at the entrance by 8 a.m., so it’s important to wake up and go early!
Or…you can always just avoid Cades Cove altogether and venture into some of the park’s rather undiscovered gems.
Cosby and Mt. Cammerer: The Cosby Access Area takes you past wild mountain creeks, a number of trails, various picnic spots, and car camping sites. Starting at the Low Gap Trailhead in the Cosby Campground, you can start your journey towards Mt. Cammerer—a 4,928-foot summit, offering immaculate views of the endless mountains. Though extremely difficult, this plum hike is definitely worth the trip! Recommended only to experienced adventurers, the Low Gap Trail is a 10.3-mile out and back, with relentless inclines and consistent switchbacks to the peak. At the top, Mt. Cammerer sits on a rocky ledge, overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge. With arguably some of the best 360 views in the entire park, one can look in any direction to see deep blue and purple mountains stacked in rows against the horizon.
How to get there: Take 321 from Gatlinburg for 18.2 miles until the road dead-ends into Highway 32. Turn right towards Cosby and drive 1.2 miles to the park entrance. Turn right into the park and drive another 2.1 miles to the Cosby Campground entrance station. At the entrance there is a large parking area for the Low Gap Trailhead.
Big Creek and Mouse Creek Falls, Mt. Sterling: This particular segment of the Smokies is relatively unknown, focused on its wide mountain stream. Here, there are a number of trailheads, a superb horse campground, and a large picnic area. Camp at Big Creek—which is much quieter than mainstream options and allows convenient car camping—before beginning your hike the following morning. Starting at the Big Creek trailhead, you’ll follow an old railroad line that was used in the 1930s to haul lumber, before starting a gradual 2.1-mile incline across smooth surface. Passing boulder fields and diverse fauna, you’ll eventually meet the 45-foot gushing Mouse Creek Falls. Rising from the dense green forest, this waterfall rolls over tiers of moss-topped rock into the basin below. Pack a picnic, bring your camera, hang a hammock, and enjoy! At this point, you can turn around to complete a 4.2-mile out and back; or continue to Mt. Sterling for a much longer, fairly challenging 16.4-mile journey returning via Baxter Creek Trail. If you decide to visit Mt. Sterling’s 5,760-foot summit, you’ll be greeted with prime camping and incredible lookouts.
How to get there: From I-40, near the Tennessee and North Carolina border, you’ll take the Waterville Road exit. Turn left after cross Pigeon River and proceed to a 4-way intersection, about 2.1 miles down the road. Continue onto a narrow gravel road, past the ranger station to a large parking area.
Greenbrier and Ramsey Cascades: The Little Pigeon River rushes into this valley, off of US 321, near Pittman Center and Gatlinburg. A small gravel road climbs above the river, taking you to Greenbrier, offering several viewpoints along the way. Once you’ve arrived, there is a small picnic area, as well as a trailhead to Ramsey Cascades , the Smokies’ highest waterfall. This 100-foot waterfall rushes over rock outcroppings, collecting in a small swimming hole, where camouflaged salamanders reside. This 4-mile path rises over 2,000 feet in elevation, making the 8-mile round-trip fairly difficult. The final 2 miles pass through hardwood forests, with diverse trees and fauna.
How to get there: At the junction of 441 and 321 in Gatlinburg (Light 3), turn to travel eastbound on 321. Drive 6 miles and turn right into Greenbrier (look for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign on the right). This road turns into a gravel road after a short distance. From Route 321 drive 3.1 miles to a fork in the road. Turn left here and cross the bridge, and then drive another 1.5 miles to reach the Ramsey Cascades Trailhead.
Twentymile Ranger Station and Gregory Bald: Many hikers access Gregory Bald through Cades Cove, taking a 13-mile loop on the Gregory Ridge Trail. Although a bit out of the way, the hike to Gregory Bald from Twentymile Ranger Station, is certainly worth the trip. This fairly difficult, much longer, 30-mile loop guarantees solitude, all the way to its 4,949-foot summit. Gregory Bald offers stunning year-round views of nearby areas and is perhaps most famous for its flame azalea flowers, which are in full bloom each June. These multi-colored flowers sprawl out along the 10-acre grassy meadow, one of only two balds maintained by the park. On a clear day, you can see impeccable views of Cades Cove, Rich Mountain, Thunderhead Mountain, Clingman’s Dome, and Fontana Lake.
How to get there: Though the Twentymile station is further away, it also avoids traffic. Located just off North Carolina’s Route 28, on the north shore of Lake Cheoah, this ranger station is a great reward for those seeking seclusion.
AT and Fontana Lake: Using segments of the Appalachian Trail (AT), hiking to Fontana Dam is superb. In fact, when many AT hikers cross the Fontana Dam, they’ll take time to enjoy the area’s hot showers, shelter, and serene beauty. Hiking along the Lakeshore Trail to Eagle Creek, you can spend the night at a number of backcountry sites. Once you’ve reached Fontana—the highest dam east of the Rocky Mountains—you’ll enjoy paddling, fishing, and swimming on the lake. Another popular option is renting a pontoon boat with friends and family, or horseback riding on nearby horse-friendly paths. Then head to camp site 86 at Hazel Creek for an amazing overnight stay.
Patience and Ingenuity on the Road is Helpful
While there are alternative options for hiking trails and nearby towns, half the battle in any national park is car traffic. Appropriately navigating your way by car is essential.
Most visitors take Newfound Gap Road—a road located between Gatlinburg and Cherokee that provides breathtaking views, as well as access to wild streams and thick forests. However, there are equally beautiful roads that aren’t so flooded with tourists or bogged down with intense traffic.
When driving through the park, consider taking backcountry routes. There are numerous roads located in and around Pigeon Forge aside from the infamous main lanes. These roads are among the locals’ best-kept secrets, they will help immensely in avoiding Parkway traffic. If you take Wears Valley Road towards Townsend, you’ll be on the road for a longer amount of time, but you can enjoy its beautiful scenic course largely to yourself.
All in all, the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina offer an infinite expanse of wild, natural beauty. Deserving of its recognition and fame, parts of the Smokies can become overwhelmingly touristy. However, prioritizing timeliness, researching alternative driving routes, and wandering the lesser-known trails, guarantees that you’ll still have an incredible time in the national park.
Featured image provided by Jake Wheeler
Rock/Creek’s official rules to prevent “up a creek” syndrome:
- When hiking in summer, the temperature at the top of the Smokies is usually 15 degrees cooler than down in the valleys. Make sure to bring a light jacket, synthetic or merino layers, gloves, and a hat. No cotton! You should always bring a rain jacket regardless of the weather because it can also be used as a wind breaker.
- Wool socks are the standard selection for hiking footwear. Cotton is not acceptable!
- Extendable poles are critical for navigating icy terrain.
- You deserve a good meal! Treat yourself to something tasty and take a small stove and pot to make something warm for lunch. This will ensure that you take a second to really sit and enjoy the scenery.
- If you are going to be hiking past water sources, there is no need to carry a gallon of water. Instead, carry a water filter and refill. Never drink unfiltered/untreated water!
- Invest in a reliable headlamp that never leaves your pack. Make sure the batteries are charged! You’ll eventually be glad you did.
- Pack a first aid kit capable of dressing a wide variety of wounds. Make sure you are able to treat blisters.
- Leave a note telling where you are going, which trails you will be hiking, which trail head you have parked at, who you are with, and when you expect to be back.
- No matter how many times you have been on a trail, it’s a great idea to carry a map in case of emergency.
- Take your phone and either turn it off or put it on airplane mode to conserve battery life. Put your phone in a zip lock bag or a waterproof container. If you really want to get fancy, invest in a Spot.
For more tips and tricks, come by one of our locations, or give us a call at 1-888-707-6708 (Toll Free). Helping people get outside is what we love to do!