Welcome to the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains are true Mountain Magic. Few of life’s experiences uplift the spirit more than these beautiful peaks and valleys. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the east. For the “Land of Ten Thousand Smokes” (as the Cherokees called the dancing wisps of clouds that populate the peaks and valleys) you’ll want to head for the Sugarlands Visitors Center, located 2 miles south of Gatlinburg on Route 441 just beside the National Park. It’s filled with information racks, wildlife exhibits, wall maps, and park personnel to answer questions.
The Four Seasons of the Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains is a unique place in all seasons; the waterfalls, wildlife, grassy balds, sparkling rivers and forest add an undeniable quality to life in this beautiful area. Mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers offer a variety of outdoor recreation opportunities for all seasons. The Smoky Mountains region is blessed with 4 national parks, 1 national forest and 8 parks, and has truly become a four-season wonderland for all.
Spring – the Great Smoky Mountains and its friendly towns starts with wildflowers blooming through the last snow in late February to early March, as daffodils appear in great profusion and forsythia blooms. By early April, redbuds and dogwood are everywhere, and the Dogwood Festival and Gatlinburg’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage are in full swing. Then Dollywood opens the last weekend in April with a grand parade through Pigeon Forge.
For those who love shopping, Gatlinburg craft shops open, and Pigeon Forge’s many factory outlet malls are in full swing for the season (not that they are ever closed). Other Great Smoky Mountain spring weekend events and activities include Valentine’s Day here in the wedding capital of the USA, plus Easter vacation, the spring Rod Run, and finally Memorial Day weekend on the threshold of summer. Trout season and picnic time begins in the springtime too!
Summer – the magic of the Smokies is what everyone dreams about. From backcountry camping, hiking, fishing, and water sports of every sort, or the gala array of amusements from Dollywood, Ogles Water Park, and dozens of go-karts, slick rides, bumper cars, miniature golf courses, arcades and bungee jumping; it’s every recreation wish come true. Where else could you tour a deep underground cavern, feed a deer, have lunch beside a waterfall, view the mountains from the world’s largest mountain cable tramway? Horseback riding is a special summer treat in the Smokies, with a dozen stables in towns and in the National Park, offering rides for everyone.
Every summer day, entertainment in the Smoky Mountains includes top-name celebrity concerts, country and bluegrass music, dinner theaters, rock n’ roll cafes, revivals, kids’ shows, and live comedy. For more memories, there are dozens of souvenir stores, art galleries, gift shops and country craft studios. And fantastic food at great restaurants; country breakfast places are especially well known, and there’s every kind of country cooking you can imagine.
Fall – the Smokies may be the most famous and romantic in the autumn, from the warm days and frosty nights of Indian Summer to the brilliant shows of red, yellow, orange and gold which splash the mountain sides and valleys as the leaves turn the region into a brilliant visual wonderland. Pumpkins and cornshucks in the fields and wood smoke tinting the air make fall in the Great Smoky Mountains a special season.
Fall is craft time in the Smokies with special festivals; National Crafts Festival at Dollywood, Sevierville’s Apple Festival of arts and foods, and the traditional Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Show in the Convention Center. You can watch artisans at shows or in their country studios making hand-crafted works; broom making, candle dripping, intricate wood carving, quilting, and pottery. Plus, blacksmithing, weaving, sculpture and breathtaking watercolors by the artist in the country. There are toys of every description, leather goods, blankets, stained glass, glass blowing, lamps, and even painted saws. Plus, homemade molasses, apple butter, bread mixes, smoked country hams, jams and jellies, fudge taffy, and much more.
Winter – from November through February, the cities of the Great Smoky Mountains now join together in a four-month celebration called Winterfest. This joyous season includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, plus special January and February winter celebrations. Winterfest sees Sevierville and Pigeon Forge decked out in thousands of decorative lights, while Gatlinburg shines from end to end with Smoky Mountain Lights. The Dollywood Theme Park glows nightly with more than two million sparkling lights in an old-fashioned atmosphere, including special Christmas shows and events.
The Smoky Mountains is the place for skiing and ice skating at Gatlinburg’s famous Ober Gatlinburg Alpine Resort at the top of the spectacular aerial tramway. Both natural and man-made snow on groomed slopes makes for great fun and sports and the large indoor ice rink is in use all year around.
With so much to do, it’s hard to choose. With over 800 miles of trails and more than 100 backcounty campsites; rafters, horseback riders, bird watchers and even those just taking a stroll use the extensive trail system to view the wonder of the Smokies up close. Trails are available for hikers, mountain bikers, rock climbers, and wildlife viewers. The rolling hills and fertile valleys offer ever-changing views in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain region. The surrounding mountain ranges include peaks rising higher than 6,000 feet. The landscape gleams with expansive lakes, cool creek beds, flowing mountain streams and tumbling rivers. One of the nation’s most famous trails, the 2,100 -mile Appalachian Trail, stretches 70 miles along the crest line of the Smokies. In addition to the trails, the park has 77 historic buildings and 151 cemeteries, which are preserved to remember the human history of the park.
Just a short drive away, the sounds of music, rides and laughter mingle in the family resort towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Townsend. The region is also home to the bustling cities of Knoxville, Maryville and Oak Ridge; surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Located along the mountainous state border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the 514,885 acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park include 477,670 acres, recommended for inclusion into the National Wilderness System.
Several major highways lead to the Park. The following routes provide access to the three main entrances.
- From the east (and I-81): take I-40 to Exit 407 (Sevierville) to TN Route 66 South, and continue to U.S. 441 South. Follow U.S. 441 to Park.
- From I-40 in Knoxville: exit 386B U.S. Highway 129 South to Alcoa/Maryville. At Maryville proceed on U.S. 321 North through Townsend. Continue on TN Highway 73 to the Park.
In North Carolina:
- From I-40, take U.S. Route 19 West through Maggie Valley. Proceed to U.S. 441 North at Cherokee. Follow 441 N into the Park.
- From Atlanta and points south: follow U.S. 441 and 23 North. U.S. 441 North leads to the Park.
To the Park: the nearest major airport in Tennessee (McGhee-Tyson, TYS) is Alcoa, 45 miles west of Gatlinburg. North Carolina’s Asheville Airport is 60 miles east of the park. No train or bus service accesses the Park.
In the Park: personal vehicle or limited trolley service from Gatlinburg.
Operating Hours and Seasons
The park is open year-round. Visitor centers at Sugarlands and Oconaluftee are open all year, except Christmas Day. Cades Cove Visitor Center has limited winter hours.
Climate and Clothing
Elevations in the park range from 800 feet to 6,643 feet and topography affects local weather. Temperatures are 10 to 20 degrees cooler on the mountaintops. Annual precipitation averages 65 inches in the lowlands to 88 inches in the high country. Spring often brings unpredictable weather, particularly in higher elevations. Summer is hot and humid, but more pleasant in higher elevations. Fall has warm days and cool nights and is the driest period, and frosts occur starting in late September. Winter is generally moderate, but extreme conditions occur with increasing elevation.
Sugarlands Visitor Center, near Gatlinburg, TN, is open year-round and offers nature exhibits, a short film, guidebooks, maps, and park rangers who give lectures, guided strolls, and answer questions. Pick up your camping, hiking, or fishing permits here.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center, near Cherokee, NC, is also open year-round and its exhibits focus on mountain life of the late 1800s. Adjacent to the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of historic farm buildings. Cades Cove Visitor Center, near Townsend and closed in winter, sits among preserved historic buildings representing isolated farming communities of the 1800s.
Trails and Roads – More than 800 miles of trails provide opportunities ranging from ten-minute saunters on quiet walkways to week-long adventures deep in the forest. There are about 170 miles of paved roads and over 100 miles of gravel roads. The “backroads” offer a chance to escape traffic and enjoy the more remote areas of the park.
Programs and Activities
During the summer and fall, the park provides regularly scheduled ranger-led interpretive walks and talks, slide presentations, and campfire programs at campgrounds and visitor centers.
Lodging and Camping
LeConte Lodge is a rustic set of cabins and lodges located at the top of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At LeConte Lodge, when night descends, you can wrap the silence around you like a cloak. The only noises disturbing the stillness are the sounds of nature… nocturnal creatures going their way, the rumble of thunder or breezes rustling through treetops. Accessible only by foot or horseback, the lodge sits atop 6,593′ Mt. LeConte, the Park’s third highest peak.
Mt. LeConte is probably the most impressive peak in the Smoky Mountain National Park. While Clingmans Dome and Mt. Guyot are higher, they are both parts of high ridges and Mt. LeConte seems to tower over its surroundings. It is the most prominent peak when approaching the park from the Tennessee side on Rt. 441.
The Lodge is only accessible by hiking one of five trails. The shortest and steepest is 5 1/2 miles long. The reservation includes dinner, a bed, breakfast, and a great view. There is no running water or electricity in the cabins, and all food is brought up the mountain by llamas. As rough as this sounds, it is VERY difficult to get a reservation; it’s a fantastic experience.
Although the summit of LeConte is tree-covered and has no views, impressive views are available at Cliff Tops, and Myrtle Point on the other side of the summit. The summit can be reached via numerous trails, including Alum Caves Trail (4.5 miles), Rainbow Falls Trail (6.5 miles), Bullhead Trail (6.5 miles), Trillium Gap Trail (7 miles) and the Boulevard (8 miles). The Rainbow Falls – Bullhead combination makes one of the park’s best loops.
The lodge is open mid-March to mid-November and reservations are required. A variety of lodging facilities are available in the outlying communities.
Front-country Campgrounds: The National Park Services maintain developed campgrounds at ten locations in the park. Great Smoky Mountain camping is primitive by design. Besides sites nestled in the woods and along the rivers, all campgrounds provide running water and flush toilets. No hook-ups are available in the Park. Pets must be restrained at all times, and are not permitted on hiking trails.
Ten campgrounds operate in the Park. Most are open from early spring through the first weekend in November. Cades Cove in Tennessee and Smokemont in North Carolina are open year round. Sites at Cades Cove, Elkmont, and Smokemont may be reserved for the period May 15 to October 31 through the National Park Service or on line at http://reservations.nps.gov. The other campgrounds are generally open from late March & April to early November. Camping fees range from $10.00 to $15.00 per night.
Back-country Campsites: Backcountry camping is free but requires a permit. Whether your planned hike is long or short, it is always a good idea to have on dependable hiking boots, wear multiple layers, and carry rain gear. The temperatures are cooler in the trees, especially higher up. The higher the elevations also see more precipitation than the lower ones. Bring along drinking water, as the streams are not drinkable. Most campsites use self-registration at visitor centers or ranger stations, but shelters and rationed sites require reservations. Reservations can be made 30 days in advance.
Food and Supplies
There are no food facilities in the park. Numerous convenience store and restaurant establishments are located in outlying communities.
Wheelchair accessible facilities, including restrooms, are located at the three major campgrounds, Cades Cove and Elkmont in Tennessee, and Smokemont in North Carolina, visitor centers, and many picnic areas. Campsite reservations can be made for the period May 15 to October 31 by calling (800) 365-CAMP. A five-foot wide paved and level accessibility trail, Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail, is a quarter mile south of Sugarlands Visitor Center. Specially-designed communications media, including tactile and wayside exhibits and large print brochures, are part of the trail.
Twelve self-guided nature trails ranging in length from 1/4 mile to a mile roundtrip were specially designed for the handicapped, parents with young children, and older couples.
Camping, hiking, sightseeing, fishing, auto touring, horseback riding, nature viewing, and photographic opportunities abound. Horse rentals are available in season at five horse stables in the park in Tennessee and North Carolina. Plan your visit to the park by stopping at one of the visitor centers or writing ahead to obtain information. Also, be sure to acquire safety information/tips pertaining to your planned activity, especially if you are not familiar with the area.
Special Events and Programs
The park holds a variety of annual events, including Old Timer’s Day, storytelling, a quilt show, Women’s Work, Mountain Life Festival, sorghum molasses and apple butter making, as well as living history demonstrations.
In winter, during hazardous weather conditions, the two main roads will close. Do not leave valuables in your car. Adhere to park rules and regulations.
Fishing is another popular Smokies recreation, there are more than 70 species of fish including rainbow trout, native brook trout, that populate our rivers and streams. A fishing license is required for ages 13-65. Information contained herein is a summary of the fishing regulations for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The official publication for all Park regulations is Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations. A copy of the Code of Federal Regulations may be found at most ranger stations and visitor centers.
Persons possessing a valid Tennessee or North Carolina state fishing license may fish all open Park waters. Licenses must be displayed on demand by authorized personnel. State trout stamps are not required.
Tennessee License Requirements
Residents and nonresidents age 13 and older need a license. The exception is residents who were 65 prior to March 1, 1990. These persons require only proof of age and Tennessee residence.
North Carolina License Requirements
Residents and nonresidents age 16 and older need a license. Residents age 70 and older may obtain a special license from the state.
Persons under 16 in North Carolina and under 13 in Tennessee are entitled to the adult daily bag and possession limits and are subject to all other regulations. The Park does not sell state fishing licenses. They may be purchased in nearby towns.
Fishing is permitted year-round in open waters.
Fishing is allowed from a half hour before official sunrise to a half hour after official sunset.
Daily Possession Limits
The possession of brook trout is prohibited .
Five (5) rainbow or brown trout, small mouth bass, or a combination of these, each day or in possession, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest, or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish.
Twenty (20) rockbass may be kept in addition to the above limit.
A person must stop fishing immediately after obtaining the limit.
Rainbow and Brown Trout: 7″ minimum
Smallmouth Bass: 7″ minimum
Rockbass (redeye): No size limit
All trout or smallmouth bass caught less than the legal length shall be immediately returned to the water from which it was taken. Any brook trout caught must be immediately returned unharmed to the water.
Lures, Bait and Equipment
- Fishing is permitted only by the use of one hand-held rod.
- Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used.
- The use or possession of any form of fish bait or liquid scent other than artificial flies or lures on or along any Park stream while in possession of fishing tackle is prohibited.
- Prohibited baits include, but are not limited to, minnows (live or preserved), worms, corn, cheese, bread, salmon eggs, pork rinds, liquid scents and natural baits found along stream.
- The use or possession of double, treble or gang hooks is prohibited while on a stream.
- Fishing tackle and equipment including creels and fish in possession are subject to inspection by authorized personnel.
- Play a fish as rapidly as possible, do not play to total exhaustion.
- Keep fish in water as much as possible when handling.
- Handle fish with a wet hand, even when using a mesh landing net.
- Remove hook gently; do not squeeze fish or put fingers in gills. Use long-nosed pliers to back the hook out gently. The use of barbless hooks is encouraged.
- If deeply hooked, cut the line, do not pull the hook out. Most fish survive with hooks left in them.
- Gently hold fish upright facing upstream and move slowly back and forth in the water.
- Release fish in quiet water.
Poaching robs fishermen of fish and all citizens of a valuable natural heritage. You can help by reporting incidents when you see them. Remember, you will remain anonymous. Record vehicle description and license plate number if possible.
There are as many ways to enjoy the Smokies as there are personal preferences for doing so. No other place has such a diversity of fun… whether you’re hiking, camping, backpacking, horseback riding, fishing, or enjoying the local attractions in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
HISTORY of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The first native people arrived in the Smokies in about AD 1000. They were believed to have been a breakaway of Iroquois, later to be called the Cherokee, who had moved south from Iroquois lands in New England. The Cherokee Nation stretched from the Ohio River into South Carolina and consisted of sevens clans. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee lived in the Smokies, the sacred ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation.
When the first white settlers reached the Great Smoky Mountains in the late 1700s, they found themselves in the land of the Cherokee Indians. The tribe, one of the most culturally advanced on the continent, had permanent towns, cultivated croplands, and networks of trails leading to all parts of their territory.
In the late eighteenth century, Scotch-Irish, German, English, and other settlers arrived in significant numbers. The Cherokee were friendly at first but fought with settlers when provoked. They battled Carolina settlers in the 1760s but eventually withdrew to the Blue Ridge Mountains. To settle with the newcomers, the Cherokee nation attempted to make treaties to adapt to European customs. They adopted a written legal code in 1808 and instituted a Supreme Court two years later.
White settlers continued to occupy Cherokee land, and by 1819 the Cherokee were forced to cede a portion of their territory, which included the Great Smoky Mountains, to the United States. The discovery of gold in Northern Georgia in 1828 sounded the death knell for the Cherokee Nation.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Removal Act, calling for the removal of all native people east of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The Cherokee appealed their case to the Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Marshall ruled in their favor. President Andrew Jackson, however, disregarded the Supreme Court decree in the one instance in America History when an U.S. president overtly ignored a Supreme Court decision.
The Cherokees had adopted the ways of the whites to the extent of developing a written language, printing their own newspaper, and utilizing the white man’s agriculture and architecture. Nevertheless, most of them were forcibly removed in the 1830s in a tragic episode known as the “Trail of Tears.” About one-third of the Cherokee died in route of malnutrition and disease. Altogether, about 100,000 natives, including Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw, survived the march to Oklahoma, but thousands died along the way.
A handful of Cherokee disobeyed the government edict, however. Hiding out in the hills between Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot, they managed to survive. The few who remained are the ancestors of the Cherokees living near the park today.
Earlier settlers had lived off the land by hunting the animals, utilizing the timber for buildings and fences, and growing food and pasturing animals in the clearings. As the decades passed, many areas that had once been forests became fields and pastures. People farmed, attended church, and maintained community ties in a typically rural fashion.
The agricultural pattern of life in the Great Smoky Mountains changed with the arrival of lumbering in the early 1900s. Within twenty years, the largely self-sufficient economy of the people here was almost replaced, by dependence on manufactured items, store-bought food and cash. At the same time, loggers were rapidly cutting the great primeval forests that remained on these mountains. Unless the course of events could be quickly changed, there would be little left of the region’s special character.
The forest, at least the 20% that remained uncut within park boundaries, was saved. The people, more than 1,200 landowners, left the park. Behind them there remained over 70 structures, many farm buildings, schools, mills and churches. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park now preserves the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East. Congress established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Land acquisition continued and in 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially dedicated the several major highways lead to the Park.
The Cherokee Indians called this land Shaconage – “The Place of the Blue Smoke.” We know it today as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of America’s great natural treasures.