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Are you heading to the most popular national park in America? Here are some tips to avoid crowds in the Great Smoky Mountains!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which stretches across the Tennessee-North Carolina border, is frequently cited as the most visited national park in America.
In 2021, over 14.1 million people traveled to the Smoky Mountains. (That’s over three times the number of visitors to the Grand Canyon during the same year!)
With free entry (although you do need a paid parking pass) and an accessible location in the southeastern United States, it’s no wonder crowds of vacationers peg this as a destination.
Covering over 800 square miles, technically the park offers plenty of space, but of course there are popular trails and areas that tend to stay congested.
Ready to make a game plan to navigate the park in comfort? Here are my top 5 tips to avoid the crowds at the Smoky Mountains!
1. Visit During Off-Peak Season
There are two peak seasons in the Smoky Mountains.
The first is June to August (in other words, summer break). The second is in October for leaf-changing season.
So if you can schedule a trip in spring or fall (except October), you might hit it just right and end up with great weather and fewer people.
Depending on what you want to do in the area, even wintertime can be a good experience. It will be cold at night, but daytime temperatures at the lower elevations can be fairly moderate.
There’s skiing and snowboarding at Ober Gatlinburg. And if the cold drives you inside, there are lots of activities around.
If you do decide to go in the winter, check out my guide to the best women’s clothes for winter camping!
2. Hike Early in the Day
Have you got your eye on some of the most popular trails, such as Alum Cave and Charlies Bunion? It’s true – the views amazing!
Just start as early in the day as possible. Before dawn, if you can. When we hiked Alum Cave a couple of years ago, the parking lots were full by 8:30 a.m.
Besides avoiding the crowds, glimpses of sunrise over the mountains are a pretty sweet reason to go early!
And, if you’re like us and don’t mind carrying a pack, it’s not out of the question to bring along some water, a backpacking stove, a hand-pump espresso machine, and some coffee grounds (we love Illy coffee grounds).
Then, before you know it, you’re savoring a tiny caffeinated cup at what feels like the top of the world! Not a bad reward for getting up so early.
For any hiking, but especially hiking before dawn, I recommend bringing a trekking pole! It really helps when you’re on rocky or steep terrain. For more suggestions, see my recommended hiking gear for the Smoky Mountains.
3. Visit a Less Popular (But Still Gorgeous) Trail
You could decide to skip Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, and instead hike Andrews Bald. Both trails begin from the same parking lot.
We also love the less crowded trails on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, such as the Three Waterfalls Loop in the Deep Creek area, or Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.
Want more ideas? Check out my guide to hiking in the Smokies.
4. Skip Gatlinburg, But Visit Townsend
Gatlinburg has its perks, and there’s a lot to do, but the experience definitely comes with crowds.
Townsend, Tennessee, about 45 minutes east of Gatlinburg, is a more laid-back option.
It’s tiny, but it has some delicious Southern-style cafes (like Black Bear Café) and cute shops (such as the Dogwood Mall, a great place to check out local arts and crafts).
In and around Townsend, there are caverns, hiking trails, museums, and summer festivals, including the Great Smoky Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival!
Or, you could…
5. Skip Gatlinburg, But Visit Bryson City
Bryson City is a quaint little town about an hour and a half south of Gatlinburg with gift shops, a winery, and restaurants we love (like Everett Hotel Bistro).
There are also some adorable bed and breakfast spots, as well as lots of AirBnB cabins. (We loved our stay at the cabin pictured below.)
Plus, Bryson City is just a few minutes from the Deep Creek trails mentioned above.
Bryson City is also the home of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
Scenic rail excursions are available several months of the year. The Carolina Shine car even offers moonshine tastings and cocktails, as well as pulled pork barbecue.
I hope these ideas can help you plan a hassle-free trip to the Smokies!
Are you a national park aficionado? Let us know in the comments what other tips you have for how to avoid crowds in the Smoky Mountains!
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