Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the United States and for good reason. This park is not only beautiful but very accessible by car and a natural stop on many road trips.
We spent one day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park while on a road trip. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a natural, and convenient, stop for us while driving between Nashville, TN and Asheville, NC. We felt that one day in the park was enough for us this time. However, you could easily spend a week here with all the different hiking that is offered.
Here is what we would consider a perfect one-day itinerary for visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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Stay Overnight in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
To get an early start on your day exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park, stay overnight in nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg is less than 15 minutes outside of the park, making it the perfect place to stay overnight before heading into the park.
You may also consider staying overnight in Pigeon Forge which a about 30 minutes north of the park. However, we found accommodations to be equally priced in both locations so it made more sense to stay closer to the park in Gatlinburg.
We did not spend anytime in Gatlinburg, other than at our accommodations. It is very touristy and feels like the Wisconsin Dells on steroids. We were there to see the mountains! That being said, a family with young children who are not as apt to hike may really enjoy exploring these towns around the park as they have plenty of family friendly activities.
Complete an Iconic Great Smoky Mountains National Park Hike
After getting an early start into the park from Gatlinburg, we headed to the Alum Cave Trailhead to hike into the mountains. There are dozens of different iconic hikes to do in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and you could spend your entire day trying to hike as many different trails as possible. However, we opted to pick one longer hike that we felt embodied the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains: Alum Cave to Mount LeConte. After reading dozens of different travel blogs, it was clear that the overwhelming consensus was that this route is the best hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to the variety of the terrain along the trail as well as the views at the summit.
Alum Cave to Mount LeConte Hike
We hiked from the Alum Cave trailhead to Great Smoky Mountain viewpoints just past Mount LeConte Lodge. This trail is about 12 miles out & back (including going to the lookout points, extra mileage that is not accounted for on most hiking apps) with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain. This hike had plenty of forest and mountain views.
Along the way, we saw plenty of interesting geological features, including Arch Rock and Alum Cave. At the top, you are rewarded with panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains. This trail also has a cute small lodge, Mount LeConte Lodge, at the Summit that made for a good spot to stop and eat lunch. You can actually stay overnight at this remote lodge, to break up the hike a bit more, but we opted to do this as a day hike.
In total, the hike took us about 5.5 hours to complete (with breaks) and we highly recommend this as a “one and done” hike in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Some other iconic (and shorter) hikes that you could do instead include Clingmans Dome trail, Chimney Tops trail and Laurel Falls trail.
Drive Through the Park and Stop at the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line
After completing our hike, we drove further into the park. Along the way, we saw plenty of pretty Great Smoky Mountain Views. There are several turn off points along the road but the most prominent is at the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line. This makes for a nice point to stop, get out and stretch your legs, and take a break from the winding roads (especially if you are prone to motion sickness like Nat).
At this stop, you get vast mountain views without the effort of a long hike. The views here are really not comparable to our hiking views from earlier in the day. There is something about the effort to see the view that sweetens it. That being said, if you are not able to hike, these are the best mountain views you will get in the park.
Bonus: Add on a Visit to The Blue Ridge Mountains/Asheville
After visiting the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we headed into the Blue Ridge Mountains on our way to our next stop on our Roadtrip, Asheville, North Carolina. This city is a less than 2 hours driving from Rocky Mountain National Park. We recommend Asheville as a good overnight stop on a road trip after a long day of exploring the park. (See Hiking Shortoff Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina.)
Tip: Do NOT visit during peak season (summer, early fall, late spring)
We visited in November and really enjoyed visiting the park at the time. The combination of cooler temperatures, fall colors, and minimal crowds made for a great short visit. If you are visiting during peak times, especially in the summer, you will need to factor in more drive time. Do not expect to the have any of the trails to yourself.
Fun Fact: Smoky Mountain National Park is FREE to visit.
That is correct, this park is one of the only National Parks you can visit for free. This land was once owned by the state. When the state transferred ownership to the federal government in the 1930s, it was agreed upon that no fee would ever be charged to enter this area.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Anything else you would add to our guide? Any other day hikes you would recommend? We would love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment.
And remember, Always Have A Trip Planned!