It’s no secret that the U.S. national park system encompasses some of world’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. Within the borders of these 59 parks are the stunning red-rock landscape of Arches, the liquid fire of Hawaii’s volcanoes, the granite cathedrals of Yosemite, the hundreds of ancient lakes of Glacier National Park, and the mile-deep gash of the Grand Canyon.

So imagine, in such company, what it must take for the Great Smoky Mountains to claim the crown as the most visited national park in the entire system. Perhaps it’s the 16 peaks that rise above 6,000 feet, the 730 miles of fish-bearing streams, or the fact that these 522,000 acres of North Carolina and Tennessee are just a day’s journey from much of the eastern United States.

But whether you’re a hiker or an angler, you’ll soon find out for yourself—if you follow these tips for making the most of your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo courtesy of Melissa D. Jones

1. There’s No Entrance Fee!

In the summer of 2015, 130 national parks, monuments, and historic sites across the country boosted their entrance fees to support a mounting list of construction and maintenance projects.

But as the cost of admission to Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and other beloved parks rose to $30 per vehicle, the price tag of Great Smoky Mountains National Park remained comfortably at $0. This budget-friendly policy was written into Tennessee law in the 1930s, when the state transferred ownership of Newfound Gap Road—the route that bisects the park—to the federal government.

2. You’ll Escape the Crowds by Hitting the Trail

In 2016 alone, more than 11.3 million people visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, dwarfing the 4.6 million visitors that traveled to the second-place Grand Canyon. So it’s only natural that in the peak months of June, July, August, and October, the park’s roads would be clogged with motorists who choose to see the sights through their windshields.

The solution? Take advantage of 850 miles of backcountry hiking trails and you’ll soon find the peace, solitude, and scenery you seek.

Ease into your hiking experience with an early morning walk to Laurel Falls, an 80-foot cascade that takes it name from nearby shrubs that bloom each May. Check an item off your bucket list and walk a portion of the Appalachian Trail, 70 miles of which cross the park at such landmarks as the 480-foot Fontana Dam and the historic stone fire tower atop Mt. Cammerer. And if you’re feeling ready, test your endurance on the trek to Mt. Le Conte’s 6,593-foot peak, a classic 5.5-mile climb that begins at the Alum Cave Trailhead on Newfound Gap Road.

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls | Photo courtesy of Melissa D. Jones

3. That’s Not (Just) Smoke You’re Seeing

Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its dense, deciduous forests were protected as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site seven years later. But many years before that, those same trees gave the mountains their name, thanks to the water vapor and hydrocarbons they exude and the resulting effect of a smoke-like haze.

This phenomenon has been compounded over the years by man-made pollution, as the average summer visibility in the Smokies has decreased by nearly 80 percent since 1948. But on a clear day, there’s no better place to survey the scene than the 6,643-foot summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. Simply follow the half-mile path from the parking lot to the observation tower, and you’ll see up to 100 miles—if the conditions are just right.

4. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Wildlife

If it’s wildlife you’re after, make a beeline to the open meadows of Cades Cove, which frequently host populations of black bears, coyotes, white-tailed deer, turkeys, and groundhogs on the west side of the park. And while the 11-mile Cades Cove loop road can be fraught with traffic in the summer and autumn, there’s an easy method to avoiding the madness. Simply rent a bike from the Cades Cove Campground Store on a Saturday or a Wednesday from May until September, and you’ll find the road quiet and car-free until 10 a.m.

Cades Cove
Cades Cove | Photo courtesy of Melissa D. Jones

5. Save Time for the Streams and Waterfalls

With nearly 2,900 miles of streams and one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States, the Great Smoky Mountains are a magnet for anglers of all skill levels. Whether you’re in search of rainbow trout or smallmouth bass, visitors with valid North Carolina or Tennessee fishing licenses can cast their lines every day, in every stream, from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park | Photo courtesy of Melissa D. Jones

Combine these streams with a generous annual rainfall and a landscape of varying elevations, and you’ll get a collection of beautiful waterfalls—some of which are easily accessed by car or on foot. Follow a 5.4-mile roundtrip trail to glimpse the colorful mist of Rainbow Falls, or hike the three-mile Trillium Gap Trail to walk behind the cascade of Grotto Falls. To reach Meigs Falls, you need only park your car on the side of Little River Road 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center, or keep going five miles further to admire the river falls known as The Sinks.

the sinks smoky mountains
The Sinks | Photo courtesy of Melissa D. Jones

Follow these tips and you’re in for a hassle-free adventure to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. See you outside!

Featured photo courtesy of Steve Harwood

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Author: Maura O'Brien

Born and raised in Northern California and now based in Portland, Maura credits her mom with her sense of adventure. Maura has a special affinity for national parks, the Greek island of Folegandros, and a three-month trip across Europe with her sister that opened her eyes to the magic of travel.