Planning Your Trip
As the most-visited national park in the nation, Great Smoky Mountains can seem crowded. Some 9 million people visit the park each year, most of them in their own cars, which clog roadways and fill parking lots. The busiest months are June, July, and August, when some 3.5 million people will visit. The second most popular time is during the peak of the fall foliage show, which generally happens during the last two weeks of October. More than one million people come to the Smokies each October.
There are some effective strategies for avoiding the crowds. First, avoid peak season. If you must come during the summer, or October, visit during the week instead of on weekends. Also, set out early in the day. Most park roads get busy after 10 a.m., and the early mornings can be lovely times to see the sights.
Another good way to avoid the crowds in the Smokies is to get off the beaten track. There is a crowd mentality among most park visitors, which takes them to Sugarlands, Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome, leaving the rest of the park to you. Plan an itinerary that allows you to enter the park through Cosby, Townsend, or another of the secondary gateways and then to explore some of the lesser-known attractions, such as Abrams Creek, Greenbrier, and Cosby.
The final, and single best, way of shedding the crowds is to get out of your car. Among the miles of hiking trails in the Smokies, only a few are highly trafficked. Even the most popular of hiking trails, such as Chimney Tops and Grotto Falls, are downright empty compared to the park’s roads. It is well worth the sore muscles and sweat to enjoy some of the park’s majesty all alone.
A Word About Driving
Distances to various sites within the park are relatively short; it is 34 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg. But the drives are not quick. National park roads are winding two-lane blacktops. It can take hours to drive from Gatlinburg to Newfound Gap due to traffic congestion and the steep and windy nature of the road. If you are keen on avoiding traffic jams, consider entering the park through either Townsend or Cosby, and start your day early.
Always check the weather forecast before you come to the Smokies. Temperatures in the park, and especially at the high elevations, can be as much as 30 degrees colder than those in the surrounding area. In summer this is welcome, but in the winter it can be deadly. Rainfall in the park ranges from 55 inches per year in the valleys and 85 inches per year on the peaks, more than is received anywhere else in the United States except the Pacific Northwest.
Spring in the Smokies is the season of variable weather; it can be sunny and warm one day and snowy the next. Spring rainfall can cause rivers and streams to swell without warning. Summer is generally hot, with lots of haze and humidity. Afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon.
Autumn is the park’s greatest season. The fall foliage draws thousands of people, and for good reason. The weather is generally cool and crisp, with snow beginning at the high elevations in November. Winter is deep in the high elevations; Newfound Gap experiences an average of 69 inches of snowfall per year. In lower elevations only a few inches fall. Many secondary roads are closed during the winter due to frequent snow and ice.
Planning Your Time
If you have only one day in the Smokies, choose between a day hike or a drive to Clingmans Dome. Make the choice based on your own capacity for hiking, the weather (Clingmans Dome is often enveloped in haze), and the season (avoid Clingmans Dome during peak visitation periods).
If you have a few days, go camping. Spend a day hiking, a day driving, and a day exploring Cades Cove. Stout hikers should make reservations at LeConte Lodge and plan a rest day between the hike in and the hike out to enjoy the peace and quiet at the top of the mountain.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition