As NC and SC residents, we’ve had the pleasure of visiting the smoky mountains a handful of times. I have never been disappointed with choosing to return! While I normally try to explore a new place when I’m planning a getaway, there’s just so much to explore around this area. From the bustling city of Gatlinburg to the laid back streets of Bryson City, we always have a blast when we take a weekend trip. There are endless hiking trails to explore, craft breweries, and just all the beautiful scenery your eyes can handle. Perfect for a long weekend, you’ll enjoy the relaxed vibes and full days of adventure afforded to you here.
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ABOUT THE GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
The Smoky Mountains are a mountain range located along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. They are a part of the larger range of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s a popular destination for people in the southeast but also among the US and the world!
WHEN TO PLAN A TRIP TO THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
North Carolina and Tennessee experience all 4 seasons. Especially in the mountains, the area gets an extra dose of winter that us in the piedmont region don’t get! Weather will be an important determining factor on when the best time to go to the smoky mountains is for you! However, aside from the snow and ice of the winter you can expect mostly mild weather with the exception of the dead of summer!
Head here in spring to see the beautiful lush greens pop from the dormant trees. The smoky mountains also get an abundance of gorgeous wildfires. Keep your eyes peeled because all the wildlife in the area will be showing off their babies! However, with warmer temps come more crowds. Especially with spring break, you’ll be fighting crowds on the popular roads and trails.
In the fall, you can expect to see that famous mountain foliage. Crisp, autumn air, clear skies, and amazing summits await you! There is truly nothing like the smokies in the fall. And everyone else thinks so, too! Again, autumn is an excellent time to visit but be prepared for heavy crowds.
The main road through the national park (US 441) is closed for a majority of the winter due to snow and ice. This may not be the best time to go to the smoky mountains. There are alternate routes around the closure from Bryson City to Gatlinburg, but this will definitely limit your hiking and sightseeing options if your focus was going to be visiting the national park. BUT! If you are wanting to avoid crowds and get in some epic winter hiking like we did in December 2020, winter is a great time to go to the smoky mountains.
I am a summer gal but y’all. Summer in the smoky mountains is hot, muggy, and buggy. If you’re not from the east coast, you just don’t understand until you’ve hiked in 85 degrees and 85% humidity. It is rough. If the best time to go to the smoky mountains is summer for you, be prepared to hike early in the morning and late in the day. Oh, and pack LOADS of bug spray.
WHAT TO PACK
Weather can change in an instant. That’s true for most of North Carolina but amplified when you’re up in the mountains! On the weekend we visited in April, it was spitting snow on the way up and then 70 degrees and sunny the next day. So pack everything you own?
Okay maybe that’s not my best advice but packing can be tricky for a trip like this.
A good rule of thumb is to always have LAYERS! Even in the summer, you just never know what the weather will be like on the top of a mountain. I usually pack a tank top/short sleeve shirt to hike in, a sweatshirt or pullover, a rain jacket, and then outerwear if it’s going to be cold. For bottoms, you’ll most likely be safe with shorts in the summer but I typically wear long leggings any other time of the year. And WOOL SOCKS! One of my biggest recommendations when purchasing hiking gear is wool socks. They keep your feet warm in the winter and cool in the summer. How do they do this witchcraft?! I have no idea. Wool socks are also fantastic if you have sweaty feet like me. These are my favorite.
When you’re not hiking, keep it casual. Weather in the towns is pretty mild and typically warmer than in the park/on the mountain. It’s not a super fancy area either so I usually have jeans or jean shorts and a top. And Birkenstocks all the way. But if dressing up is your thing… go for it!
WHAT TO DO IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS
There is no shortage of fun activities to do in the smoky mountains. Depending on when you decide is the best time to go to the smoky mountains will determine what kind of things you can do! But whenever you’re there, be ready to explore… so much to do for all ages and families!
As a blog focused primarily on hiking, this seems like an obvious answer. The Smoky mountains and the surrounding area is a hiker’s paradise! Whether you choose to hike in or out of the national park, there are so many different lengths and difficulties to choose from.
I recommend utilizing AllTrails to favorite a bunch of hikes that interest you. I usually compile a list of 10-15 hikes and then choose the day before or day-of depending on weather, company, suitability for dogs, etc.
If you’re looking for a few recommendations on hiking in the Bryson City area, check out this post.
you may also like…The best hikes in nc for leaf peeping
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
I’m sure if you’ve ever heard of Great Smoky Mountains National Park you can imagine it’s located….. In the Smoky Mountains. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP for short in the remainder of this post) is the most visited national park in the US. The park receives over 2 million visitors per year from all over the world!
The park is home to old growth forests, old mills, an abundance of wildlife, and captivating beauty.
Must see sights in GSMNP
Clingman’s Dome: the highest point in the park (and in Tennessee!) offering a beautiful 360 degree view of the park
Cades Cove: popular for wildlife viewing
Roaring Fork: view old growth forests, streams, and old mill cabins
Newfound Gap: the lowest drivable pass through GSMNP
Must do hikes in GSMNP
Alum Cave Bluffs
Located a stone’s throw from Great Smoky National Park, Cherokee is a town dedicated to preserving the culture of the Cherokee tribe. Located on a reservation, you can see the lifestyle of the Oconaluftee indian village preserved with live demonstrations. Stay in the town or take a few hours to explore this unique culture. There’s also a casino if you’re feeling lucky (I am never lucky… ha!).
Bears and elk and birds, oh my!!! The first time we visited the Maggie Valley, I was FLOORED that there were elk! We had just returned from our trip to Yellowstone and for some reason didn’t expect to see elk all the way in NC? The elk love to hang out in the valleys and fields, so keep an eye out! Fields are generally closed when the elk are present. The Oconaluftee visitor center and the surrounding Maggie Valley is a great place to spot them. Black bears also roam this area as well as red squirrels, bobcats, and owls.
Plan a spring visit to catch the synchronized fireflies in action!
Ride a Mountain Coaster
Say what?! If you’re imagining something similar to a roller coaster careening down the side of a mountain…. You’d be correct! Around the smoky mountains, you’ll find several mountain coasters that use power to get to the top and then the incline of the mountain to go down! Adventure lovers, you will love this one of a kind activity.
Our queen Dolly Parton has her own park! This amusement park is located in Pigeon Forge surrounded by the beauty of the smoky mountains. There is a traditional theme park, a water park, a resort, and also themed dinner shows!
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 miles route running through the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. The parkway snakes through the smoky mountains just east of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Drive the parkway for a few hours and make sure you stop at every. single. viewpoint. It’s worth it!
Where to stay in the Great Smoky Mountains
There are several small towns located around Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The most popular area is Gatlinburg which has become a thriving tourist area in the smoky mountains! I’ve mentioned before that Gatlinburg isn’t our vibe… but it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re not staying in the city!
Gatlinburg is located in Tennessee and is a very popular area to travel. Families flock here to see the park and explore all the city has to offer. The main street has restaurants, shops, bars, and more so there’s no shortage of things to do. Nearby you’ll also find mountain coasters, hiking, and plenty of hotels to fit every budget and need.
Very adjacent to Gatlinburg is Pigeon Forge. PF is another popular town that many tourists and families opt to stay in. I’ve personally never been, but the way it’s been described it sounds very similar to Gatlinburg!
If you’re looking for a downsized town in Tennessee, this is it! Located very close to Pigeon Forge, you’ll find a smaller downtown scene but an area bursting with outdoor activities.
One of my favorite NC cities! And just so happens to be very close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’ve visited Bryson City a few times and love it’s size, the charm, the restaurants, and the great hiking it has to offer.
Check out a full post on visiting Bryson City here.
Another NC town in the smoky mountains located in the Cataloochee valley. You can often see elk herds. If you love skiing, the Cataloochee ski area is also here!
Final thoughts/recommendations on the best time to go to the Smoky Mountains
Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains is a must-do for any national park and mountain-loving traveler! Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t the most visited national park in the US for no reason. With beautiful hikes, charming small towns, and rich history you will absolutely love your visit to the Smoky Mountains.