Tips on Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Don’t let the “crowds of Gatlinburg” scare you away from a serene and beautiful national park.

The Great Smoky Mountains is an ideal destination for many.  I suppose that is why it holds the title of being the “Most Visited National Park” in the country. On a given Saturday in July, you might feel the annual head count of 12 million visitors actually all showed up on your day. It’s crowded, for sure! Driving through Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg feels like a Las Vegas for kids. Large commercial signs command your attention and offer you the “the best experience in the Smokies.” Arcades, Escape Rooms, Mini Golf, Pirate shows, Feuding Lumberjack shows, WonderWorks, Extreme Racing, Extreme Trampolines, Mountain Coasters, Indoor Skydiving, the Titanic Museum, and of course, Dollywood! That’s not even all of it. It must be overwhelming for young kids to drive through Pigeon Forge, and with every, “Look at that,” you’ll start to feel the vacation kitty drain from your wallet. That’s a drive that might be better at night when the kids are sleeping in the car or the RV!

That’s part of the appeal, though. There is SO MUCH TO DO there. There are activities for every age, every ability, and every vacation itinerary.

So, with all of that on the fringes of the park, how do you find the peace and the solitude that many seek when visiting a national park?  Believe it or not, it can be done. Don’t let the “crowds of Gatlinburg” scare you away from a serene and beautiful national park.


Where you stay matters. You can stay in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville. If you pick up lodging in Gatlinburg, try to stay near/on the Historic Nature Trail or near the end of the Parkway, closest to the park’s entrance. That’ll cut down on your driving time on the congested Parkway. Staying on the south end of River Road is another great option. It’s out of the fray, close to the park, and walking distance to the Parkway.  If you stay in Pigeon Forge or Sevierville, use the Gatlinburg Bypass to enter the park.  It will whisk you past Gatlinburg and practically drop you at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. You’ll get some pretty views along the way, too.  Of course, you can always camp or get a cabin outside of the heart of Gatlinburg, too!

It’s been stated frequently, and by, well, everyone, to get up and get out early.  That still holds true. If you are on the road by 7:00 A.M., you see and hear more nature and less humans. You can drive the beautiful, forested park and not be frustrated by traffic congestion.  Taking a photo by the iconic entry way sign is always crowded even by seven o’clock in the morning, though!  You may want to go even earlier to get that alone time with the cherished brown welcoming sign.  If getting up early is not your thing, then push your activities to later in the day. Try to avoid starting your day between 9:00 A.M. – 2:00 P.M. You’ll spend more time fighting crowds, searching for unattainable parking, and hating the traffic, and you won’t have the best experience in the park. Things do start to slow down again later in the afternoon, and that still gives you plenty of time to take a scenic drive or find a short hiking trail.

Hiking!  There are several very popular, crowded trails with limited parking spaces.  You must go early or later in the day if you want to find parking, especially for the favored trails: Laurel Falls, Chimney Tops, Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, Clingman’s Dome, and Cades Cove. If you’re a first-time visitor, these are top hikes. You just have to visit them at non-peak times. (At the end of this writing, there are some helpful notes about the trails.)

The most-popular trails offer great hikes or wonderful views or fantastic falls, but they come with a lot of foot traffic, too.  If you are looking for less people, consider these hikes: Abrams Falls, Alum Cave/Mt. Le Conte, Spruce Flat Falls, Little River Trail, and definitely take a walk through Elkmont! Spruce Flat Falls was a hidden gem, and is now one of my favorite all-time Smoky Mountain hikes! Keep this a secret, though, to keep the crowds at bay!

The best way to experience Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sans the crowds, however, is somewhat new. This year, the National Park Service closed Cades Cove to automobile traffic on Wednesdays. Therefore, walkers and bikers get to roam about on the loop road almost freely in this historic and beautiful area – which also is the best place to catch a glimpse of the park’s favorite residents: black bears! I stopped recommending a drive through Cades Cove a few years ago because it is just too congested. However, if you are up to walking or biking the eleven-mile loop (or part of it), this is the BEST way to experience Cades Cove!  You can rent a bike at the campground store, bring your own, or rent from an outside source. The bike rental process seemed to be changing a bit, so call ahead. You may get to reserve one in advance, or you may have to show up by 6:30 A.M to get one of the 50 bikes they don’t allot for reservations. We went early and got our bikes, but we noticed people coming after lunch, too, and they were able to secure bikes. There is an early rush, and then after exploring the area for 3-4 hours, people start returning the bikes.  A Ranger told us about e-bike rentals in Townsend, and next time, I would do that.  The path is hilly, and e-bikes will be worth it to give you a boost over some of the tougher hills! On our trip, we did the eleven-mile loop twice, and we saw eight bears (including several cubs!). No cars, no bear jams, no crowds. Another plus was leaving Cades Cove without all of that traffic. We got lucky and saw another Mama bear and her three cubs and there was no crazy bear jam traffic. We watched the cubs play and climb trees and watched Mama search for food. Since traffic was limited, there were only about 10 cars who got to see this wonderful spectacle! If you go to the Smokies, set yourself up to bike Cades Cove on a Wednesday!  Be sure to thank the National Park Service Rangers for allowing us to do so, too! That’s a service we want to keep!

One last hidden treasure to help avoid the crowds is to take a drive on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This is a narrow, one-way, 5.5 mile loop that treats you to a plush forest, mountain streams, and a few old cabins. If you go later in the day, you won’t encounter the hiker traffic – several trail heads are off of this loop. You can relax and drive the winding roads and look for bears! The drive is slow-going so you have to plan for 1-2 hours to drive the loop. It’s great just before dinner or just after if you have enough remaining daylight.


I spent a week in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in July and never really felt the crowds until I walked the Parkway in Gatlinburg at night going to dinner. My lodging was in the right place, I was on the road early every day, I hiked less-popular trails, and oh, that bike ride through Cades Cove was the absolute best! Don’t let the “it’s too touristy” stories, or the title of “America’s Most-Visited Park,” deter you from seeing the Smokies. You can find peace and solitude in this beautiful national park!


Trail Information:






Laurel Falls

2.6 mi. r/t

2 hrs.

Moderate (steep in some areas)

You’ll get up close to an 80-foot waterfall.

Parking is limited. Bears have been spotted on trail.

Chimney Tops

4 mi. r/t (if you go the full distance)

3-4 hrs.

Has been listed as easy and difficult. Elevation gain makes it strenuous even if you don’t go the full distance.

Some of the best views in the park.

It’s not easy, but it’s a favorite.  Go slow and enjoy the views!

Rainbow Falls

5.6 mi. r/t

3-5 hrs.


The largest single-drop waterfall in the park.

Very rocky. Wear sturdy hiking shoes.

Grotto Falls

3 mi. r/t

2-3 hrs.


A trail behind the falls.

Ask the Rangers about the llamas.

Clingman’s Dome

.5 mi one way paved trail

1-2 hrs.

Very steep at high elevation. Benches to rest along the way.

Highest point in GSMNP and all of Tennessee. Great views on a clear day; cool to be in the clouds when not clear.

Call Ranger station in advance for weather conditions. Small Visitor Center with stamp!

Abrams Falls

5 mi. r/t

3-4 hrs.

Moderate to difficult.

20-foot rushing waterfall.

Bears have been active in this area.

Alum Cave/Mt. Le Conte

4.6 mi. r/t (cave bluffs); 10 mi. r/t to Le Conte Summit

2- 4 hrs. for the cave bluffs; 6-9 hrs. for Le Conte.


Arch Rock; incredible views along the way and at the cave bluffs. At Le Conte, you get sweeping panoramic views and the lodge.

It is a popular hike, but people were well-spaced. Elevation at Le Conte can bring about weather changes.

Spruce Flat Falls

2 mi. r/t

2- 3 hrs.

Moderate to difficult


A large, picturesque waterfall!

Very rocky and challenging at times. Worth it!

Located in Tremont.

Little River Trail

Up to 5 mi. r/t

1 or more hours. Make it your own out-and-back walk.

Very easy

Peaceful stroll on old logging road that hugs the river.

Easy stroll. No real end destination, so make it your own length.

Elkmont’s Historic Daisy Town

Short walk on “main street”

1 hr.

Very easy

Walk through the abandoned resort area once known as Daisy Town.

NPS is restoring the cabins now, but I liked it better “frozen in time.” Still a cool place to see.