Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide: What to Know Before You Go

September 8, 2017

Learn from my mistakes and use our Great Smoky Mountains National Park guide to navigate your time at the park.

No trip to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg is complete without a day at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Actually, I recommend spending a great deal of time exploring this iconic national park. Every time I visit, I discover something new, beautiful, and exciting. It never gets old!

However, on my last trip to the Smokies, I made a few mistakes that had the potential to derail our entire day. I can blame the lack of caffeine, but really it was a lack of preparation. After all, when am I not caffeinated?

Be Prepared for Zero Cell Service

The first thing you need to know about the park is that cell phone service is nowhere to be found. This past trip, I made the terrible mistake of not knowing where the trailhead was prior to entering the park. It only took a few minutes of zero service for us to turn around and head to the Sugarlands Visitor Center for directions. Had we not turned around, we would have been utterly lost. Do not try to rely on Google or Apple Maps!

With this in mind, it is good to keep your phone charged for pictures and the rare moment of cell service. Since you won’t be able to communicate via phone with your group, make a plan in the chance that your group becomes split up during the day. Whether you bring walkie-talkies to communicate or have a place and time to meet, having a plan is a safe bet!

Check Out the Visitor Center First

Before you head out on your Smoky Mountains adventure, it is in your best interest to make a stop at one of the four park visitor centers. The visitor centers are located at Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, and Clingmans Dome. Follow the road signs throughout the park to find each center.

Inside the visitor centers, you’ll find maps available for the whopping price of $1.00. These comprehensive maps will help you throughout the day, especially when cell phone service is non-existent. We relied on the maps throughout our entire trip, from finding trailheads to discovering new trails.

Each visitor center also offers intriguing exhibits about the wildlife, specific areas of the park, notable figures, and more. Spend some time looking at the exhibits to learn something new about the park!

Park rangers and volunteers are stationed at each visitor center and can answer all of your questions with regards to the park, trails, and wildlife.

Wear Appropriate Attire

You would not believe how many families I saw hiking the Smoky Mountain trails in their Sunday best. I couldn’t make that up if I tried! Not only does that scream sprained ankles and far too much laundry, it’s uncomfortable. Seriously, who hikes in sandals anyway?

Wearing appropriate attire leads to a pleasant and safe outdoor experience for all. Instead of putting on your finest clothes for an Instagram picture at a waterfall, wear the following clothes:

  • Sturdy hiking boots or shoes
  • Comfortable socks or hiking socks
  • Shorts/hiking pants
  • Athletic shirt or long-sleeved shirt
  • A light jacket
  • A hat
  • Sunglasses

(I promise you’ll still look fantastic for that Instagram photo.)

On top of wearing proper hiking attire, I recommend bringing an extra layer if you plan to explore trails with a significant elevation change. During my Mt. LeConte hike in July, I wore pants and carried a light jacket as it got chilly towards the cliff tops.

Pack Only What You Need

Knowing what to bring and what not to bring is a vital part of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park guide. In a moment of forgetfulness, my husband and I left our hiking backpacks at home in Nashville. We had to use an ordinary backpack for our hiking endeavors. To say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement. If you’re planning to go on a few extensive hikes, bring a proper pack! Let my mistake be a lesson to you.

In said pack, bring the following:

  • Ample water in refillable water bottles
  • Healthy snacks such as fruit and granola bars
  • Your camera, if desired
  • Personal items such as a wallet and ID
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • A hat and/or sunglasses

While you can bring additional items such as a bandana and hiking poles, always pack the basics. Be sure to pack your bag before the trip and try it on. The last thing you want is to be weighed down throughout your trek.

Leave anything you absolutely do not need back at the hotel room or cabin. This includes:

  • Electronics
  • Extra clothing
  • Mass amounts of food
  • Additional bags such as purses
  • Children’s toys

As a rule of thumb, if you’re second guessing bringing an item, leave it at home.

Understanding the Trails

As one of the most visited national parks in our country, it should come as no surprise that there are approximately 150 official park trails to choose from. Deciding which trail to trek can be overwhelming.

The first place to begin is with the difficulty level. While a trail may be popular, you might not be ready to complete it. If you’re a beginner hiker or are visiting with children, start with these easy trails:

  • Kephart Prong Trail
  • Porters Creek
  • Laurel Falls
  • Andrews Bald Trail
  • Elkmont Nature Trail

If you’re a bit more experienced and are up for the challenge, try these moderately challenging trails:

For seasoned hikers looking for a thrill, these difficult trails are right up your alley:

Always keep your endurance and level of hiking experience in mind when choosing a trail. If you plan to push your limits and try the next level of difficulty, bring a friend along for safety! Remember to follow proper hiking etiquette by moving to the right to let people pass and to never block the trail.

Also, due to the November 2016 wildfires, it is in your best interest to check the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website for trail conditions prior to departure. You can inquire about trail conditions at the various visitor centers as well.

Look Out for Bears!

Understanding what you do if you encounter a black bear is arguably the most important part of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park guide. As black bears roam wild throughout the park (it is their home, after all), knowing the proper tactics for dealing with such an instance is imperative.

If you see a bear, the National Park Service advises you to do the following:

  • Remain alert
  • Do not approach the bear or allow the bear to approach you
  • Back away slowly, do not run.

Hikers are allowed to carry bear spray throughout the park and should not use it on humans, tents, or other objects in the area. Read up on how to handle a black bear from the National Park Service prior to your trip for your safety.

The main rule of thumb is to leave the bears alone. Do not approach wild black bears, especially the cubs, in any situation. While driving through Cades Cove, we saw a family get out of their car and advance towards a family of bears off of the road to get a picture. Fortunately, the bears walked away or disaster could have ensued.

Plan Your Camping Reservations in Advance

Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an unforgettable experience. The park offers:

Reservations are required for all types of camping and permits must be obtained for backcountry camping. It is in your best interest to reserve your spot well in advance of your trip. As you can imagine, this is a popular camping destination!

Additionally, you can reserve your stay at the Mt. LeConte Lodge. This lodge is only accessible by foot on difficult trails and also fills up fast! However, the sunrises from high in the mountains are worth the miles of hiking.

To be a good camping guest, never leave items behind and follow all instructions from park rangers regarding firewood, bear safety, and general campground rules.

Of course, if camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg hotels to choose from.

Explore All the Smoky Mountains Have to Offer

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has something for everyone. From exhilarating trails to serene auto tours such as Cades Cove, it’s easy to find something the whole family will love. At the park, guests can enjoy:

  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Fishing
  • Camping
  • Auto Tours
  • Workshops, Classes, and Guided Tours
  • Wildlife Viewing
  • Picnicking
  • Waterfalls
  • And More

Check out all that the park has to offer at the visitor centers and make a plan for your day!

Double Check the Forecast

A little rain never hurt anyone, right? Double check the day’s forecast before heading out on your adventure.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park only shuts down in the case of severe weather. For fewer crowds, go in the off-season or during a rain shower. Be sure to bring a rain jacket and be a bit more cautious when traversing the trails!

While checking the forecast, you’ll want to find out when sunset is predicted for as well. Although the park is open 24-hours, guest must complete their hikes by sunset.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Guide

With our guide on hand, you’ll be well prepared for a wonderful day in the Smokies. Know someone else visiting the park? Make sure they read our Great Smoky Mountains National Park guide, too!

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