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Road Trips for Nature Lovers: A Visitor’s Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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great smoky mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Photo: Pixabay

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles both North Carolina and Tennessee, covering a total of 520,000 acres. Its stunning mountain views and diverse plant and animal life make it a worthy destination to add to your nature-focused travel list. Here are some important things to keep in mind when planning your road trip to this park.

Seasonal Service: Schedule a pre-trip maintenance appointment for your car

Best months to visit

planner calendar
Photo: Pixabay

Per the National Park Service, the Smokies have two different peak seasons: mid-June to mid-August as well as the entire month of October. If you want to beat the summer vacation and fall color crowds, plan your visit outside of these time frames.

It’s also worth noting that the park is more crowded during certain times of the day. Per NPS, the park is busiest from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. So if you aim for early morning hikes, you’ll enjoy a quieter experience and have a better chance to spot animals.

Navigation tips

Due to the park’s popularity, certain areas of the park can be more crowded to hike and navigate by car than others. According to the NPS, Newfound Gap and Cades Cove Loop roads are busy year-round. You might want to try a less-frequented area like Greenbrier Cove, Foothills Parkway, Balsam Mountain, or Abrams Creek for a quieter hiking experience.

Make sure to download maps or print some off before journeying to the park, since vehicle navigation systems and GPS often provide inaccurate data in the mountains. Check out the NPS website for maps of the park, trails, campgrounds, and region. There’s also a topographic map if you prefer to view a more detailed overview of the geography’s nuances during your hike.

Get a Grip: Invest in new tires for safer travel this spring and summer

Activities and key attractions

great smoky mountains national park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Photo: CBunn via Pixabay

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park provides a scenic backdrop for a variety of pastimes. Camping, cycling, fishing, horseback riding, picnicking, and wildlife viewing are just some of the activities tourists enjoy.

Hiking is one of the best ways to take in all the park’s beauty and geographical challenges while getting some great pictures. For a shorter hike, the Outdoor Project recommends the 2.7-mile trail part of Mount Sterling via Big Creek Loop or the 2-mile trail at Chimney Tops. Glimpse three different waterfalls on the Deep Creek Loop or look for salamanders on the Little River Trail.

For a longer hike, try the 8-mile round-trip hike on the Appalachian Trail at Charlies Bunion. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop is another rewarding jaunt and one of the best places for wildlife viewing.

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park, making it great for a photo op. Hike the steep inclines or take a more leisurely hike on the 1-mile round-trip walk to the observation tower.

Wildlife to look out for

A black bear ripped apart a Ford Ranger.

Per the NPS, the park is home to 65 species of mammals, 67 native fish species, more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 200 bird varieties. Elk, deer, black bears, deer, turkey, woodchucks, and bats are just some of the types of animals you’re likely to see in the park. You might also spot a warbler, owl, wren, hawk, sparrow, waterthrush, or kingfisher if you bring your binoculars.