Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s paradise and a hot spot for Southern Appalachian culture and history. A wondrous diversity of plant and animal life, as well as one of the largest collections of roaring waterfalls in the country, make this national park a must-visit destination.
Why Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in an RV?
This vast national park spans roughly 522,427 acres and the best way to explore this territory is by setting up an RV basecamp at one of the park’s many campgrounds. Most park roads are accessible to RVs, but be sure to check the website for current conditions leading up to your visit.
Because the park is spread out, an RV gives you the freedom to camp at several different locations throughout your stay. This way, you’ll be able to experience the different trails and park attractions while minimizing daily driving.
When to Visit Great Smoky Mountains Park
According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the top-five most visited parks in the US. In 2020, the park received more than 12 million visitors and the park stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
That said, seasonal road closures may impact your ability to access certain parts of the park. Depending on when you’re visiting, be sure to check the park’s website to get information on temporary road and facility closures when planning your trip.
Be aware that park elevations range from 875 feet up to 6,643 feet at the top of its highest peaks. That means conditions can vary dramatically from your campground to the accessible peaks in the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Spring
The NPS classifies spring in the Smoky Mountains from March through May. This is arguably the most unpredictable time for weather in the park and changes can occur rapidly, especially at higher elevations.
In March, the average high temperature at the lower elevations in the park is 61℉ and the average low is 42℉. April’s average high regularly reaches the 70s and lows rarely drop below freezing. In May, the average high is in the 70s and 80s with lows in the 40s and 50s.
Be aware that temperatures can drop 10-20 degrees at higher elevations. Up high, snow is common in March and is possible at lower elevations as well. April and May see average rainfall accumulations between four and 4.5 inches.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Summer
Summer runs from June through August in the park and it includes the park’s busiest season, which is roughly from July 1st through August 15th. Summer in the Smokies is known for three things: heat, haze, and humidity. Afternoon thunderstorms are also common and daytime temperatures at the park’s lower elevations regularly rise into the 90s in July and August.
Comfortable evenings experience lows in the 60s and 70s, making summer the perfect time to stay out late and stargaze in the park. Still, temperatures above 80℉ are rare at higher elevations in the summer and night-time lows can still dip down into the 40s at times.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Fall
The changing colors in the park make fall the second-most popular time to visit. Fall runs roughly from September through mid-November in the Smoky Mountains and is the driest time of the year in the park.
Fall is also known for clear skies and daytime highs averaging in the 70s and 80s in September but fall into the 50s and 60s in November. The first frost of the year typically happens in late September and lows near freezing are common by mid-to-late November.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Winter
Winter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs from mid-November through February. As you gain elevation in the park, extreme weather becomes more likely. The lower elevations, however, typically experience relatively moderate winters.
At lower elevations, more than half of all winter days experience daytime temperatures in the 50s and lows at, or just below, freezing. The lower elevations only receive snowfalls in excess of one inch a handful of times each year.
Most of the higher elevations in the park are blanketed in snow for much of January and February. It’s not uncommon for up to two feet of snow to fall in a single storm at high elevations and temperatures as low as -20℉ have been recorded on the park’s high peaks.
Where to Stay
There are a total of 10 campgrounds within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These are considered frontcountry camping with restrooms that boast flush toilets and cold running water. Each site at these campgrounds offers a picnic table and a fire grate.
Of these 10 campgrounds, seven offer spots that are accessible to RVs. Here are the quick links to these campgrounds where you can find more information on camping fees, RV size restrictions, and more:
- Cades Cove Campground
- Cataloochee Campground
- Cosby Campground
- Deep Creek Campground
- Elkmont Campground
- Look Rock Campground*
- Smokemont Campground
*As of March 2022, the website for Look Rock Campground was not yet up and running. Please check the NPS website for more information or call the park headquarters at 865-436-1200 for more information.
Staying Outside The Park
There are also a number of RV parks and resorts in nearby towns like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Consider these alternatives if you aren’t able to find a site at a campground inside the park.
- Greenbrier Campground: Located in Gatlinburg, TN about 25 minutes from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
- Riveredge RV Park: Located in Pigeon Forge, TN about 20 minutes from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
- Stonebridge RV Resort: Located in Maggie Valley, NC about 40 minutes from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
- Smoky Mountain Meadows Campground: Located in Bryson City, NC about 30 minutes from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Tips For Booking
- Reservations for RV-accessible campgrounds can be made through Recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Making reservations in advance is strongly recommended when visiting the park during the summer and fall months.
- Only heat-treated firewood that is bundled and certified by the USDA or a state department of agriculture is allowed in the park to prevent the introduction of invasive species.
- Camping within the park is limited to 14 consecutive days and no more than 60 days in a calendar year.
- General quiet hours run from 10 pm to 6 am and generator quiet hours run from 8 pm to 8 am.
- Check-in time is 1 pm and check-out time is noon.
- Only one RV or trailer is allowed per site. Sites with one RV or trailer may also have one additional vehicle.
- There are a minimal number of food storage lockers available in park campgrounds. Food and scented items must be stored in an enclosed vehicle or in a camping unit made of solid, non-pliable material when not in use.
Get more information on campground rules and regulations before your visit.
How to Get Around Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Downloading maps of the park and surrounding regions is a great way to plan your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cell service may not be 100% reliable throughout the park, so having these maps on hand will help you navigate the attractions you want to visit.
There are three main entrances to the park and they are located in Gatlinburg, TN, Townsend, TN, and Cherokee, NC. There is no public transportation to the park from nearby cities, but there are some commercial operations running out of Asheville, NC and Knoxville, TN.
Depending on the entrance you are looking for, check the park’s website for more detailed driving directions.
Driving Tips in the Park
The more than 380 miles of roads in the park are mostly paved and even gravel roads are suitable for passenger vehicles most times of the year. However, roads can be narrow and winding with blind spots and small shoulders. Speed limits throughout the park are 35 miles per hour or less.
Trailers, RVs, and buses are prohibited on certain roads in the park and RVers should be familiar with mountain driving techniques to avoid overheating brakes and other mechanical issues. If you’re unsure whether a certain road is accessible to your RV, stop and ask a ranger at the closest visitor center.
Places to Go
From starting your trip at a visitor center to exploring off-the-beaten-path, there are many places to go in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here’s a brief overview to help you plan your visit:
The Visitor Centers
There are a total of four visitor centers placed strategically throughout the park. They are located at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, and Clingmans Dome, respectively. Research which location is closest to the entrance you plan to use to get into the park.
A visitor center is a great first stop to pick up maps, inquire about trail conditions, and ask park rangers any questions you may have. They are also the meeting location for any ranger-led programs you’d like to participate in during your stay.
Clingmans Dome is one of the park’s most popular attractions. Topping out at 6,643 feet in elevation, it is the highest point in the park and offers spectacular panoramic views of the Smokies stretching out in all directions.
It is also the tallest mountain in the state of Tennessee and the third-highest point east of the Mississippi. Getting to the observation tower to enjoy the views only requires a half-mile walk from the parking lot, although the trail is quite steep.
If you’re interested in wildlife viewing, Cades Cove is one of the best locations to visit in the park. This broad, lush valley is a bountiful habitat for white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, turkeys, groundhogs, and many of the park’s other animal inhabitants.
Whether you just want to drive through the valley, stop and hike, bike the Cades Cove Loop Road on a vehicle-free day, find a campground, or study the valley’s rich history, there’s plenty to do in one of the most popular areas in the park.
For visitors interested in learning more about the park’s cultural heritage, the Cataloochee Valley is one of the best places to tour historic buildings. From old churches and schools to preserved homesteads, there’s a lot to learn about the people that inhabited the valley before the park was established.
Cataloochee Creek and its tributaries also offer some of the best fishing in the park. Other attractions include wildlife viewing, hiking, and camping. Be sure to pick up the self-guided tour booklet at a roadside stand as you’re entering the valley.
A vast collection of streams and waterfalls awaits visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains’ Deep Creek area. There are several excellent loop hikes with waterfalls scattered throughout and some of the trails in this area of the park also allow mountain biking.
The campground in this part of the park is open from April through October and you can enjoy the Deep Creek Picnic Area if you’re just looking for a spot to pull off and enjoy your lunch before continuing on your merry way.
Numerous archaeological digs in the area have made Elkmont the park’s epicenter for learning more about the prehistoric history of the Appalachian Mountains. Fossil evidence uncovered here has revealed the existence of human inhabitants dating as far back as 8,000 to 5,000 years ago.
More recently, Elkmont was home to the Appalachian Club and, today, 18 of the club’s buildings have been preserved by the park service. The Elkmont Campground is also one of the largest in the park and a great location to base your Smoky Mountains adventure.
Wildflowers are abundant year-round in this part of the park and it’s also a great destination for checking out more historic buildings. Roaring Fork gets its name because the creek flowing through is one of the largest and fastest-flowing streams in the park.
A great place to start here is with a tour of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Along this 5.5-mile one-way road, you’ll have chances to see old log cabins and grist mills and you can stop to stretch your legs on the hike to one of the park’s most popular waterfalls, Rainbow Falls.
Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill
If you’re entering the park near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill are great places to start. It offers several easy-to-moderate walking trails and one of the park’s most unique collections of historic structures preserved in a single location.
On the site, there’s an old barn, apple house, spring house, log farmhouse, smokehouse, and a working blacksmith shop. You’ll truly get a sense of how people lived here more than 100 years ago and it’s a great opportunity to teach kids about historic gardening and agricultural practices used for hundreds of years on the North Carolina side of the park.
While westerners might simply refer to them as “mountain passes”, the term “gap” is more prominent in the vernacular of Southern Appalachia. It refers to a low point between two mountains and the Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass in the park.
Rising to a height of just over 5,000 feet, the drive’s biggest attraction is the diversity of forest ecosystems you’ll encounter along the way. The diversity is often compared to what you’d experience on the much longer drive from Georgia up to Maine. Oh, and the Appalachian Trail crosses over the gap road, so it’s an excellent chance to get out and stretch your legs on this famed long-distance hiking trail.
Standing at a height of 480 feet, the Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam in the eastern United States (east of the Rocky Mountains). Blocking the Little Tennessee River, the dam forms Fontana Lake, which has a reservoir size covering roughly 11,700 acres.
The lake offers about 240 miles of shoreline and excellent opportunities for boating and fishing. The nearby visitor center is open from early May until late October and is a great place to get more information on recreational opportunities in the area.
Attractions in North Carolina
The Tennessee side of the park may be more popular, but the southern side of the park offers plenty to see and do as well. Start at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and then choose one of the following scenic drives to get acquainted with the area.
- Longview Drive: Roughly six miles long including views of Fontana Lake. Starts near Bryson City, NC.
- Blue Ridge Parkway and Cherohala Skyway: While technically located outside the park boundaries, both drives offer excellent mountain views.
The North Carolina side is also one of the best places to spot members of the park’s reintroduced elk herd in Cataloochee Valley or visit the tallest waterfall in the southern Appalachians, Mingo Falls.
Some of the park’s other North Carolina attractions include hiking, fishing, picnicking, camping, biking, and touring historic structures.
Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Because of the park’s mountainous terrain, one of the best ways to experience its diversity is by car. On all the park’s roads, you’ll find numerous pull-outs where you can briefly explore mature hardwood forests, weathered historic buildings, cascading waterfalls, and panoramic mountain views.
You can find affordable booklets at the park’s visitor centers to guide your auto touring adventure in the Smoky Mountains. Some of the most popular roads in the park include Cades Cove Loop Road, Newfound Gap Road, Cataloochee Valley, Upper Tremont Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Most of the roads in the parks allow bicycles, but you must be comfortable sharing the road with automobile traffic. The steep terrain also requires a proper multi-speed road bike and comfort with riding on narrow roads.
The Cades Cove Loop Road is the most popular route for biking in the park. It’s an eleven-mile ride, one-way, and offers chances to see local wildlife and stop to check out some of the park’s 19th-century homesites along the way.
From kid-friendly hikes to multi-day backpacking trips, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers great hiking for people of all skill and fitness levels. If backpacking is your interest, learn more about the Appalachian Trail and the permits required for backcountry camping.
If you’re looking for day hikes, here are a few of the most popular trails:
- Alum Cave Bluffs: This is a moderately strenuous five-mile round-trip hike with highlights including an old-growth hardwood forest and the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock.
- Andrews Bald: This is a moderate 3.6-mile round-trip hike highlighted by massive patches of blackberries and raspberries if you hit it at the right time of year.
- Charlies Bunion: This is a difficult eight-mile round-trip hike along the Appalachian Trail with the halfway point featuring stunning panoramic views from the stone outcropping that the hike is named for.
- Chimney Tops: This is a tough 4.4-mile round-trip hike that is one of the most popular in the park. It features three stream crossings and excellent views of Mount Le Conte.
- Rainbow Falls: This is a moderately strenuous 5.4-mile round-trip hike that concludes at one of the largest falls in the park, an 80-foot drop that sometimes freezes into the shape of an hourglass in the winter.
As a quick safety tip, bears are active year-round in the Smoky Mountains. Bear spray may be carried by hikers while in the park and you should study up on other important hiking safety tips before hitting the trails.
In a park that has more than 2,900 miles of streams, you’ll find plenty of chances for fishing. Roughly 20 percent of the park’s waterways are big enough to support trout populations and fishing is permitted year-round in the park from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset.
Depending on where you plan to fish, you will need to meet the fishing license requirements for North Carolina, Tennessee, or both states. Fishing licenses are not sold within park boundaries and must be obtained in nearby towns before entering the park.
Horseback Riding, Hayrides, and Carriage and Wagon Rides
Horseback riding is another opportunity in the park, whether you bring your own horses or you’re looking for a guided experience. There are four concession stables to choose from in the park. They are located at Cades Cove, Smokemont, Smoky Mountain, and Sugarlands.
If you want to bring your own horses, you’ll have plenty of trails to choose from. Download a trail map to plan your ride and make sure you stick to horse-accessible trails. There are five horse camps for overnight stays and check out the park’s website to learn more about hayrides and carriage and wagon rides in the Smokies.
Visiting Burial Landscapes and Historic Buildings
More than 90 historic buildings and cemeteries have been preserved or rehabilitated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These sites are an important link between the Southern Appalachian communities that dwelled here before the park’s formation and today’s modern visitors.
Most of the park’s historic log buildings can be found along the main roads for auto touring. The burial landscapes provide unique insights into various community origins, burial customs, religious beliefs, and cultural influences of the early humans in this region.
Viewing the Fall Colors
Starting in early October, the leaves in the park begin to change at elevations greater than 4,000 feet. While the exact dates of the “peak season” are impossible to predict from year-to-year, the fall colors here are truly a sight to behold if you can time your visit correctly.
Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Foothills Parkway are the best roads in the park to drive if you want to see the changing of the leaves on mountain maple, yellow birch, American beech, hobblebush, pin cherry, and many other native trees.
If you visit the park during the spring, the melting snows at high elevations swell the park’s vast collection of waterfalls. Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, and Rainbow Falls are a handful of the most popular cascades in the park and more than 200,000 visitors arrive in the park each year to visit falls like these.
With more than 85 inches of annual rainfall and rugged mountainous terrain, the park boasts the perfect climate for the development of waterfalls. The tallest waterfall in the park, the Ramsey Cascades, drops more than 100 feet before collecting in a small pool that is often home to a family of salamanders.
Spring and summer are also great times for wildflower viewing in the park. More than 1,500 types of flowering plants can be found within the park and nine species of native shrubs, such as Catawba rhododendron and sweet azalea contribute to the annual blooming display.
In fact, the diversity of wildflowers has earned the Smoky Mountains the unofficial nickname of “Wildflower National Park.” From spring beauties blooming in the late winter to the final asters blooming in the fall, wildflower viewing is a year-round attraction in the park.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- A limited selection of groceries, snacks, firewood, ice, and other concessions are available at Cades Cove Campground, Elkmont Campground, and the Smokemont Riding Stables. The majority of your perishable goods should be bought outside the park and packed in your RV refrigerator or an insulated camping cooler.
- There are no gas stations or other related services in the park. There are numerous communities outside the park, but the closest services are in Cherokee, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, and Townsend, TN.
- Bring a pet leash (maximum six-foot length) and keep your pet on it at all times when outside your RV. Pets are only allowed on certain roads and trails in the park but check here to see pet restrictions for all 62 national parks.
- Hiking clothes. Many hikes in the park may require a light shirt at the bottom and an insulated jacket as you climb in elevation.
- Yellowjacket wasps can be extremely aggressive in the park in the fall. Insect repellents and bug sprays will help, as will lanterns and candles. But allergic persons should carry Benadryl or an Epi-pen in their first aid kit. If stung on the hand, it is recommended to remove any and all rings before swelling occurs.
- There are no swimming or tubing areas in the park and climbing waterfalls is strongly discouraged due to algae growth that causes rocks to be extremely slippery.
Be sure to read up on more information regarding water safety, temporary closures and alerts, emergency information, and general park safety tips before visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Brief History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Southern Appalachian history of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can’t be told without acknowledging the Paleo Indians that fished and hunted in these mountains as far back as 10,000 years ago. Projectile points and other artifacts dating back this far have been discovered in various locations throughout the park.
The park has also seen a more recent history of European settlement in the 1800s, a boom-and-bust logging industry, and the work done by more than 4,000 Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees in the early 20th century.
In the early 1900s, the lumber industry made its way to the Appalachian region that now surrounds and includes the park. Within a quick span of 20 years, the industry replaced what had previously been a self-sufficient local economy. This rapid change led many local residents to call for conservation in the area.
That call was answered with the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Although the park protected the last 20 percent of the forest that remained uncut in the park boundaries, it also resulted in significant displacement of long-time settlers.
More than 1,200 local landowners were forced to leave behind their homes and livelihoods when the park was created. This is largely why you can see so many historic mills, farmhouses, schools, and churches in the park today.
Over the years, the park has worked hard to preserve more than 70 historic structures and the stories that go along with them. To date, it is the largest collection of historic log buildings in the eastern United States.