How many could you think of if someone asked you to name as many national parks as you could? Would you think first of Yellowstone? Or the Grand Canyon? Or maybe the Everglades or Yosemite? What about the Great Smoky Mountains?
Because of the gander and uniqueness of other national parks, sometimes the Great Smoky Mountains can be an afterthought. But as the most visited national park in the country, millions of people flock to its entrances every year. Let’s take a closer look at this National Park!
Where Is Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 522,000 acres in Tennessee and North Carolina. You can enter this National Park via entrances in both states. This part of Southern Appalachia welcomes over 11.3 million people each year–the highest number for any national park.
How Many Entrances Are There to the Smoky Mountains?
Smoky Mountains National park is not as contained to one area like some other national parks and actually has many roads that traverse its boundaries. Even highway 441 passes right through the park, but there are a few more developed access areas.
There are four main entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These include Gatlinburg, Cades Cove, and Townsend in Tennessee, as well as Cherokee in North Carolina. They offer visitors centers and are the most heavily-trafficked areas.
No matter which entrance you use, there’s no fee to enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Use This Secret Entrance for a Magical Smoky Mountains Experience
If you want to experience the nature of the Smoky Mountains from your vehicle without the crowds we have a recommendation for a route that doesn’t show up on most maps. It’s called the Cataloochee Turnpike. But don’t let its name fool you, it’s far from a turnpike by today’s standards. This road was originally built in the 1800s by hand and is narrow and extremely windy with lots of blind curves.
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The road starts near highway 40 to the north and winds its way south to the Cataloochee region of the smoky mountains national park. The road won’t offer sweeping vistas or open spaces as it’s mostly treed, but you will get a chance to glimpse the wildlife that lives in the region’s woods, including black bears and Elk near Cataloochee.
Keep in mind that this route is extremely windy and less maintained than most other roads in the national park, so road conditions are not guaranteed. What I can guarantee is a long peaceful drive into the park and a good arm workout for the driver.
Things To Do in Cataloochee
Cataloochee was an early 1800’s settlement with lots of history and preserved buildings within the park. There is a campground in the area as well as an elk herd that you view. The elk are one of the main reasons many visit this area. This area of the park is known as the quiet side as it’s much less visited. Even the “main” entrance is a winding gravel adventure. The recommended route is from the south along cove creek road.
Things to Do in Wears Valley
If your looking for a less busy recommendation that still visits more of the popular areas of the park we recommend entering through Wears Vally.
Although Wears Valley is a small community, there are many things to do here and in the surrounding area. The Wears Valley Road connects two major roads, highway 441 and highway 73 in Tennessee. Not only can you enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park from here, but you can also access the Cove Creek Cascades. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend are a short drive away.
In Wears Valley itself, you can visit Peter Brickey’s House, a log cabin constructed in 1808. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Headrick Chapel, which was constructed in 1902.
If you’re looking for a unique venue, visit Friendly Falls. Here you can go gem mining at Gnorbert’s Magic Gem Mine. Or you can visit the store and shop for products that local artisans make. Grab an ice cream for an afternoon treat, and then walk over to the waterfalls. Weddings and vow renewals are popular here near the falls and garden area.
Pro Tip: You’ll love spending the night at any of these 7 Best Pigeon Forge Campgrounds for Your Mountain Getaway.
What’s the Busiest Entrance in This National Park?
The busiest entrance (and the one you want to avoid if possible) is Cades Cove. This loop winds 11 miles through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can visit restored buildings along the loop, such as churches, log homes, barns, and a working mill.
Because it’s a single-lane road and the busiest area of the park, expect to spend several hours driving the loop. You’ll have to stop frequently and wait, as well. It’ll be the longest 11 miles of your life!
Pro Tip: If you want the flexibility to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park all year long no matter the season, check out these 7 Best 4 Season Travel Trailers for Staying Cozy When It’s Cold.
Fun Facts About Great Smoky Mountains National Park
If you’ve never visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you need to add it to your travel list. It’s a beautiful area with abundant wildlife and diverse foliage. Outdoor adventures like hiking, birdwatching, camping, fishing, and more beckon tourists year after year.
It’s the Most Visited National Park in the U.S.
As mentioned above, Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes 11.3 million visitors each year, putting it number one on the most visited National Parks list. The next park, the Grand Canyon, welcomes a mere 4.6 million visitors annually.
With numerous entrances and no entrance fee, it’s no wonder that so many people choose to come here to take in the beauty of the mountains. Many people might visit it without even realizing they’re entering the most-visited national park in the country.
There’s No Entrance Fee
Even if you don’t have an America the Beautiful pass, you’ll get free access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is probably one reason it sees so much traffic each year. With no entrance fee, you can enjoy hiking trails, visiting restored buildings, learning about the Cherokee people, and more, just for the cost of fuel for your vehicle.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1983, The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the Great Smoky Mountains as a World Heritage Site for its abundant and diverse ecosystem.
According to the UNESCO, the park “is one of the largest remaining remnants of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era in the world” and “is one of the most ecologically rich and diverse temperate zone protected areas in the world.”
There are over 3,500 plant species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Plus, you can observe the greatest variety of salamanders here.
Pro Tip: Want to bring your furry friend with you to the Great Smoky Mountains? Before you go, make sure to discover Do Any National Parks Allow Dogs?
The Park Is an International Biosphere Reserve
In 1988, Great Smoky Mountains National Park became an International Biosphere Reserve. The Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Program (SAMAB) includes five areas you might recognize internationally for their significance to the natural world. Sustainability is the key focus of SAMAB, which fosters research, education, and training to protect the environment.
Is Visiting Great Smoky Mountains NP Worth It?
Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park is absolutely worth it! Could 11.3 million people be wrong every year?
There’s so much to take in here that you could spend months exploring the Southern Appalachia area. From viewing wildlife to exploring Clingman’s Dome to shopping Cherokee totem poles, you’ll have your pick of activities.
Just try to avoid Cades Cove. Instead, consider the “quiet”Cataloochee region or use Wears Valley to enter the park. From Wears you’ll find lodging and dining in that community but avoid the long wait lines and stress of the other high-trafficked entrances.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is beautiful all times of the year. So when will you visit? Drop a comment below!
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