Take I-40 from Asheville to U.S. 19; then take U.S. 441 to the park's southern entrance near Cherokee, a distance of 50 miles west.
Access Points & Orientation
Although there are several side roads into the park, the best routes are through one of the three main entrances, two of which are located on Newfound Gap Road, U.S. 441, a 33-mile road that stretches north-south through the park. The southern entrance is near Cherokee, North Carolina, whereas the northern entrance is located 33 miles away near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The third main entrance is on the western side of the park at Townsend, Tennessee. Other access points are from the campgrounds at the edge of the park. The park is open year-round, and admission is free.
At each of the three main entrances is a visitor center for the park. Each center offers information on roads, weather, camping, and backcountry conditions. You'll also find books, maps, and first-aid information.
Sugarlands Visitor Center and Park Headquarters (tel. 865/436-1291; www.nps.gov/grsm; for park headquarters and all three visitor centers) is at the northern entrance, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This center is the largest and offers a 20-minute movie. A natural-history exhibit features stuffed animals such as a wild boar and other wildlife of the region.
The smaller Oconaluftee Visitor Center is at the southern entrance and offers a few exhibits on what to see and do in the park.
Cades Cove Visitor Center, at the western end of the park on Parson Branch Road about 12 miles southwest of Townsend, Tennessee, is set among a cluster of historic 19th-century farms and buildings.
The visitor centers are open daily from April to October: in April, May, and August 31 to October from 8am to 6pm (9am at the Cades Cove center) and June to August 30 from 8am to 7pm (9am at the Cades Cove center).
Fees, Regulations & Permits
Entrance to the park, backcountry permits, and parking permits for people with disabilities (which can be obtained from the visitor centers and ranger stations) are all free.
Park visitors must adhere to quite a few regulations, which help preserve the surroundings and keep visitors, as well as wildlife, safe:
- Alcohol is allowed only in designated picnic and campsite areas and at LeConte Lodge. Open containers in automobiles are illegal.
- No hunting, weapons, or fireworks are allowed, including bows, arrows, and slingshots.
- Fires are allowed only in designated areas, such as established fire rings and fireplaces. No trees can be cut down for firewood, although dead and downed trees may be used. Firewood is sold by concessionaires at the Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont campgrounds.
- You may camp in designated areas only. To camp overnight in the backcountry, you must obtain a permit from a ranger station, one of the campgrounds, or one of the visitor centers (but not at Cades Cove).
- Motorcycles, bicycles, and mountain bikes are allowed on paved roads and in campgrounds. They are not permitted on trails and administrative roads. Helmets are required for motorcyclists. Skateboarding is prohibited in the park.
- Pets are allowed in parking lots, in campgrounds that are accessible by motor vehicle, and along paved roads. They are not allowed on the trails, in public buildings, or in the backcountry -- with the exception of Seeing Eye and hearing guide dogs, which are permitted to travel throughout the park.
- It is illegal to pick, damage, destroy, and/or disturb any natural feature of the park. Federal law protects the forests and wildflowers of the Great Smokies.
- Food should never be left out. You'll find bear-proof trash cans and dumpsters throughout the park for depositing any food, wrappings, and containers.
From late March to June, spring brings great bursts of color from the wildflowers. Flowering shrubs spread across the countryside. At the higher elevations, mild daytime temperatures around the mid-70s (mid-20s Celsius) are recorded, although evenings are much cooler, dipping into the mid-40s (single digits Celsius).
As the season changes to summer, which lasts from June to August, the lush greenery comes into its full splendor and the weather gets warm and humid. Although the higher elevations offer milder temperatures, ranging from the low 50s to the mid-60s (teens Celsius), the lower ones can bring on days that are in the 90s (30s Celsius). Autumn colors first appear at higher elevations when the leaves on the fire cherry tree change to brilliant shades of crimson. Around the beginning of October, elevations above a mile have seen the end of fall, but lower elevations are just coming into their own. The best time to experience this change is from mid- to late October. Winter in the park can be very scenic, with snowfalls blanketing the countryside. At higher elevations, the temperature can drop below 0°F (-18°C). Throughout the year, weather can change often and rapidly, often within the same day. The wettest months are generally March and July.
Park rangers provide assistance to visitors at the ranger stations scattered throughout the park, as well as at the visitor centers. Rangers also offer films, short talks, guided nature and history walks, and evening campfire programs, along with slide presentations covering geology, bears, plant life, and early settler life. These programs are posted daily at the visitor centers.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.