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2024 Guide to Visiting The Great Smoky Mountains.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Fall

Ancient mountains, old growth forests, black bears, and the most spectacular fall foliage display in the world. These are just some of the things that make the Great Smoky Mountains one of the most incredible places to visit! When a place is described in such a way, this most often means that many people will share your travel idea this year. The smokies are no exception to this! Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S nearing a staggering 13 million visitors in 2023!! But this does not mean that your dream of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains will be ruined by Disney-like crowds and traffic jams comparable to a parking lot! In this article, I will be sharing my knowledge through a local guide and photographer perspective to help you plan the most incredible, core memory inducing, banger of a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in 2024!


When is the best time to visit the Smokies? All seasons in the smokies are very beautiful, but to choose one over the other can be a difficult choice. By reading this guide, you will have a greater understanding of what makes each season special in the smokies and help you pick one over the other when visiting in 2024.


Spring (Late March to Mid June)


The Great Smoky Mountains National park has the most flowering plants than any other North American National Park! If you were looking for a smokies visit to be littered with tiny colorful wildflowers at your feet, this will be your season! March and early April is when the deciduous trees (trees which go dormant in winter) begin showing their green colors starting at the lower elevations, then working their way up. But it is in that same time frame where most of the smaller but very abundant ground level wildflowers appear in the smokies and can be seen in many places in the park and along roads where the sun is able to reach them.


Woman hiking through field of flowers


Later in the season (Late May to Mid June) is when you can expect to see world class flowering displays of rhododendron and Mountain Laurel. Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel create seas of color throughout the mountain tops and streams in the smokies. For the best displays of Rhododendrons, the third week of June is their peak while Mountain Laurel displays are best early June for low elevations and climb higher later in the month.


Also maybe one of the most notable spring occurrences in the smokies... are it's bugs?.. Fireflies! Every late May to early June, the Elkmont area (and much of the low elevations) is taken over by thousands of bioluminescent insects! I know bugs are not anyone's initial idea of a beautiful sight, but these are really cool! Imagine the magic of dozens of small lanterns lighting up the night in the forest floor, dancing in unison all around you. It is quite incredible but do take into account this is a popular thing to see and the national park knows this. Elkmont is considered one of the best places in the world to see the synchronous fireflies. This being said, the national park holds a lottery every year to be able to park in the very small area. But with a little luck and planning ahead, it is so worth the trouble!

Fireflies flying around a couple in Great Smoky Mountains
Fireflies in Elkmont 2023

Best Trails for Spring hiking

All distances are total round trip.

  1. Whiteoak Sinks: Main interest: ground wildflowers Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Length: 4.6 miles Timing: 2hrs 30 mins Difficulty: Moderate Trail type: out and back trail Best time to go: Mid- Late April for peak flowers Need to knows: For group sizes 8-12 people, from April 12-30 you will need to obtain a permit from Recreation.gov. Also for best experience and traffic try to be here before noon and as an alternative, after 3pm.

  2. Abrams Falls: Main interest: Very impressive waterfall and Mountain Laurel Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cades Cove Length: 5 miles Timing: 2hrs 30 mins Difficulty: Moderate Trail type: out and back trail Best time to go: Late May- Mid June for flowers Need to knows: Get here EARLY. To get here you must go through Cades Cove and in order to get a parking spot/ have an enjoyable (not crowded hike)/not be stuck in one of the most infuriating traffic jams of your life!! Seriously I cannot stress it enough, try to be at the trailhead before 8:30am for the best experience.

  3. Grassy Ridge Bald via Appalachian Trail: Main Interest: Sweeping 360 views of the mountains and very impressive rhododendron bloom Location: Pisgah National Forest by Roan Mountain State Park Length: 5 miles Timing: 3hrs Difficulty: Moderate Trail type: out and back trail Best time to go: Mid June for flowers Need to knows: 2 1/2 hrs from Gatlinburg area

  4. Gregory Bald: Main interest: Mountain bald with view of Cades Cove and spectacular rhododendron displays Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park near cades cove Length: 11.6 miles Timing: 7hrs Difficulty: Hard Trail type: out and back trail Best time to go: Mid June for flowers Need to knows: Long trail that some may rather backpack. In that case, a reservation for backcountry campsite 13 will be necessary.

  5. Random Quiet Walkways on Hwy 441: Main interest: Wildflowers Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park Length: Less than a mile Timing: less than 5 minutes Difficulty: Easy Trail type: Nature walk Best time to go: Early April for spring ephemerals Need to knows: Easy walk to see flowers and usually no humans!





Summer (Mid June- Mid September)

Summer in the smokies is a time full of high mountain peak blooms, black bears, and lush green filled trails. While it may be one of the busiest seasons in the smokies, there are ways to navigate around this to ensure the best trip possible for you and your group! Whether your trip is based out of Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge to explore the National Park or you are planning on taking a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, having a plan to navigate around the busy times/places is essential. The main rule of thumb that works most of the time for most trailheads/ areas, is being at your planned trail by no later than 8:00am. By doing this not only do you have a higher likelihood of finding a parking spot, but also you will have the trail more to yourself to better soak in the views and memories you planned on making! Waking up at or around sunrise is much more pleasant than either driving an hour with traffic through Gatlinburg or the Blueridge Parkway to either not find a parking spot or have to hike along the busy road several miles before you even start the trail (You might think I'm exaggerating but I have legit seen this done). That being said, lets get to some of my favorite summer trails!


Best Trails for Summer hiking


Alum Cave Trail to Bluffs and Mount Leconte (pronounced Le-Cont):

Main interests: Arch Rock you can hike through. Heath Bald displays with Rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms. Cave bluffs (crazy cool rock formation where most hikers turn back). Sweeping views of much of the National Park including chimney tops and Clingmans Dome (on a clear day).

Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Length: approx. 11 miles

Timing: 7 hrs

Difficulty: Hard

Trail type: out and back

Best time to go: Mid June for flowers

Need to knows: Very strenuous trail but also very very popular. Get here as early as possible.


Mountain ridge in Great Smoky Mountains

Clingmans Dome (the not paved trail):

Main interests: observation tower and fir tree rainforest.

Location: GSMNP

Length: about 2 miles

Timing: an hour

Trail type: out and back

Best time to go: Any time in the summer

Need to knows: Very popular around lunch time. Everyone will be going up the paved trail but if you head towards the visitor center from the parking lot, just after you walk away from the parking lot, you will see a trail sign for Forney ridge. Go down the trail until the junction, take a right. You'll go up in elevation through a fir forest for a while until the next junction, turn right on the Appalachian trail which will lead you straight to the observation tower without all the effort of the extremely steep paved trail and with some quiet as a bonus!


Mountain ridge in Great Smoky Mountains

Gregory Bald:

Main interest: Mountain bald with view of Cades Cove and spectacular rhododendron displays

Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park near cades cove

Length: 11.6 miles

Timing: 7hrs

Difficulty: Hard

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Mid June for flowers

Need to knows: Long trail that some may rather backpack. In that case, a reservation for backcountry campsite 13 will be necessary.


Grassy Ridge Bald via Appalachian Trail:

Main Interest: Sweeping 360 views of the mountains and very impressive rhododendron bloom

Location: Pisgah National Forest by Roan Mountain State Park

Length: 5 miles

Timing: 3hrsDifficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Mid June for flowers

Need to knows: 2 1/2 hrs from Gatlinburg area


Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain via Art Loeb Trail:

Main Interest: 360 degree mountain views and rocky outcroppings

Location: Pisgah National Forest on Blue Ridge Parkway

Length: 4 miles

Timing: 3hrs

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Any time in Summer

Need to knows: 2 hrs from Gatlinburg area. Parking area is small and busy.


Tennent Mountain peak

Chimneys and The Amphitheater via Mountains to Sea

Main Interest: Gorge View from Amphitheater and rugged Chimneys near table rock

Location: Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, Pisgah National Forest

Length: 7 miles

Timing: 4hrs

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Any time in Summer

Need to knows: 3 hrs from Gatlinburg area. Road is gravel and has rocks (I was fine driving a Mustang)


Linville Gorge sunset





Fall (Mid September- Early November)


The Great Smoky Mountains are world renowned for their biodiversity, and in the fall months, this aspect really shines. Biodiversity is all about variety of life within an area, the Great Smoky Mountains in particular has an incredible amount of species variety in its trees. This is why each autumn, these mountains are painted vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange. These colors coupled with varying elevations not exceeding the timberline results in a longer and more colorful leaf peepin' season compared to elsewhere.


Coming to the Smokies in fall is a magical experience but to ensure you get to see the best colors, again, planning will become most important. I'll say this as a disclaimer and word of advice, finding "peak" fall foliage is a matter of both being at the right place at the right time and personal opinion. Why I used quotation marks and described "peak" fall foliage as personal opinion, is that in reality, peak fall foliage can mean different things to different people and is very subjective. Generally vivid reds is an indicator of good or peak foliage, which is what I mean when I say peak foliage. Also vividness of color is how your eyes perceive them. For example, on a cloudy fall morning, the colors may appear very vivid to you making you think this would be peak fall color time. That same day, the clouds float away and you're left with top down very bright conditions which wash out much of the color you saw earlier. Also in addition to local conditions such as cloudiness, fall color can also be impacted by annual rainfall and other weather conditions as well, creating many variables to how long fall color will last and how vivid they will be.

While all these considerations can feel overwhelming, as a peak fall foliage chaser, here is what you can do when planning your 2024 fall foliage trip to the Great Smoky Mountains:

  1. Use websites such as SmokyMounatins.com to see their annual fall foliage prediction map

  2. If possible, book your trip either for the whole season or wait until more detailed local news networks give their own fall foliage reports and predictions

  3. Use social media and search for recent photos of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, The Blue Ridge Parkway or Pisgah National Forest to check up on the foliage yourself. I also usually post fall foliage updates on my Instagram as well and you can follow me @joshfrasca !


Also to note: Generally speaking on a typical year, Peak fall color timing is as follows.

First week of October will be your peak colors at the highest elevations.

Second to third week of October will be peak for mid elevations.

Last week of October and first week of November will be peak for low elevations and in Gatlinburg.


Now lets get into some of my favorite fall hikes!


Best Trails for Fall hiking


Appalachian Trail to The Jump Off:

Main Interest: Ridged rocky peaks, geological formations, huge mountain views, rugged early fall foliage views

Location: GSMNP

Length: 7 miles

Timing: 2.5hrs

Difficulty: Moderate/ Hard depending on ice conditions

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Sunrise and Early Fall

Need to knows: Begin your hike at Newfound gap parking area (this can fill up around noon but usually has a steady in and out traffic if you are willing to be patient). AllTrails does not have a map for this yet but there are signs that tell you where to go while approaching mt Kephart.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Fall

Various Quiet Walkways along Hwy 441 and Road to Caves Cove from Sugarlands Visitor Center:

Main Interest: Fall Color!

Location: GSMNP

Length: usually less than a mile but vary

Timing: Less than 5 minutes or up to as long as you would like!

Difficulty: Easy

Trail type: Nature Walk

Best time to go: Anytime you see great foliage out your car window!

Need to knows: Quiet Walkways are designated areas where the hike "does not have a destination" but usually have a nice and pretty creek to look at and climb over. These places usually do not have a full parking area (unless near Alum Cave Trail as many use these parking spots for that hike)


Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Fall


Mt Cammerer Fire Lookout via Low Gap:

Main Interest: Cool Western style fire lookout and 360 degree mid- late fall color views

Location: GSMNP

Length: 11.5 Miles

Timing: 7hrs

Difficulty: Hard (because it is strenuous)

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Mid to Late fall and Sunset

Need to knows: This is one of my all time favorite hikes in GSMNP. That being said, there are some things to note. It is hard. It is not technical (no rock climbing) but it is rough on the legs! I would rate this trail harder than Alum Cave to Mt Leconte... (It is also longer). But it is very worth it! This fire lookout is the single coolest fire lookout and tower I have ever been to, plus coupled with the fall colors in the smokies is an absolute dream!


Mount Cammerer Fire Lookout during fall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Abrams Falls:

Main interest: Very impressive waterfall and low elevation fall color

Location: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cades Cove

Length: 5 miles

Timing: 2hrs 30 mins

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Late October to Early November for those later season fall colors

Need to knows: (Ditto the last entry for Abrams Falls) Get here EARLY. To get here you must go through Cades Cove and in order to get a parking spot/ have an enjoyable (not crowded hike)/not be stuck in one of the most infuriating traffic jams of your life!! Seriously I cannot stress it enough, try to be at the trailhead before 8:30am for the best experience.


Abrams falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during fall

Overlooks on Hwy 441:

Main Interest: Fall mountain views

Length: 30 miles

Timing: About 45 minutes

Difficulty: Easy

Trail type: Road

Best time to go: All fall! just be careful around noon because of traffic

Need to Knows: Plenty of cool pull offs, best to explore yourself and pick a favorite with local great fall color!



Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Fall


Winter (Early November- Mid March)

The quieter season of the Smokies. Peaks and valleys shimmer with snow, dormant trees unveil the once foliage obstructed views. Winter is an incredible time to visit the smokies for those seeking solitude and a higher chance to have some of the most popular views of the park to yourself. A snowy Appalachian view with no one else around, you may be thinking to yourself, "what's the catch?". The snowy smoky mountains is quite the sight to see, although, this kind of scenery usually causes for the main park roads to be closed for most the season. This makes your favorite day hike in the smokies turn into a multi-day backpacking trip. Although, depending on where you would like to hike, with good planning and some words of advice from yours truly, your snowy Great Smoky Mountains trip will be one for the books!

When planning a trip to the Smokies to have that perfect wintry view, here are some things to take note of.

  1. It's usually not so snowy here. This is mostly due to relatively low elevations. The smoky mountains at their highest only get to around 6,500 ft (I'm talking peaks here). While places you would most likely book your next ski trip, Colorado for example, has a state average of about 6,800 ft in elevation across the whole state.. That being said though, when a cold front does come through we can get some good blankets of snow even around the low elevations of Gatlinburg. So if you want a good snow day you got to plan to come here when snow is expected or long enough to wait for a good snow or just get very lucky on a random time. Usually the snowiest months are from mid December - late January but this last year we had an incredible snow and dusting in mid October during fall colors! Unlikely to happen but my point is it could happen.

  2. Roads, they be closin'. You may have just gotten back from your ski trip in Colorado and have seen many people drive in conditions 10000x worse than the light dusting you might see on the ground here in the Smokies but do not be surprised when you drive up to a orange and yellow fence that says the road is closed. If you intend on taking park roads in wintertime (Hwy 441 through GSMNP or the Blue Ridge Parkway), keeping an eye on the Blue Ridge Parkway website and or the GSMNP road conditions X (pre Elon Musk, twitter) page to make sure these roads are still open. Sometimes they give warnings to closures ahead of time, but do not rely on that. Basically if you see snow on the way and you want to use the roads, you will have to get on them usually the day before the storm and have a backcountry permit (if GSMNP) and plan on being out there for at least two nights so the road may be cleared for you to travel back down. This in mind, obviously two nights is a simple suggestion for how long the road is usually closed for, not all the time. I've seen the roads closed for a week or so before reopening, just depends on each storm and how fast the ice melts off the roads. If the storm is going to be pretty lengthy, multiple days, I'd say a better option is planning on parking in areas that do not close to ensure that you may leave when you need to. This will usually cost more miles in your hike, but it is worth it if you need that flexibility. For the question you may have which is, "what if the road is still closed when I am trying to leave?". To be completely honest, I have not put myself in that situation before but I have hiked Hwy 441 before while it was closed for snow/ice and there are rangers/ vehicles salting the roads that can probably open the gates for you but unless you have the equipment to safely make that drive in very icy/ snow conditions, I'd try not to be THAT person.

  3. It's still really cold and can be treacherous in wintertime. I know the Smokies are not the highest of elevations but it does get very cold (the negatives), wind can be really killer, and while during a snowstorm you will likely be the only one on the trail at that given time (which is both dope and also bad if you get in a sticky situation). Bring that heavy jacket, micro spikes for your shoes, good waterproof gloves and also a buddy! If you do a solo hike, make sure someone knows your itinerary and bring a sos device/ satellite phone.


This all being said, lets get to my favorite winter hikes!


Best Trails for Winter hiking


Porters Creek Trail:

Main Interest: Easily accessible snowy hike in GSMNP to see snow on the ridges of horseshoe mountain and Leconte!

Location: GSMNP

Length: 7 miles

Timing: 3hrs 30 mins

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: During Snow

Need to knows: Near Pittman center (close to Gatlinburg). Can access when snowing.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Winter

Black Balsam and Mount Tennent via Art Loeb Trail:

Main Interest: 360 mountain views

Location: Pisgah National Forest near Blue Ridge Parkway

Length: 4 miles

Timing: 3hrs

Difficulty: Moderate

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Really anytime but during a snow is very cool

Need to knows: 2 hrs from Gatlinburg


Woman hiking on Tennent Mountain peak on Art Loeb Trail


Appalachian Trail to Charlies Bunion (USGS):

Main Interest: Ridged rocky peaks, geological formations, huge mountain views

Location: GSMNP

Length: 9.5 miles

Timing: 4hrs

Difficulty: Moderate/ Hard depending on ice conditions

Trail type: out and back trail

Best time to go: Anytime but snow is really cool (again lol)

Need to knows: Hike starts at Newfound Gap Parking Area. Okay *sits up in chair* so this is where this becomes a bit confusing but I'll attempt to explain it the easiest way possible. There are two Charlies Bunions. One of which, the official GSMNP trail ends at and features a bulbous small rock formation which most people stop at (The "GSMNP Bunion" or also known as "The Tourist Bunion"). The other less known Charlies Bunion ("USGS Bunion" or "the real bunion") is .3 miles past the first Charlies Bunion on the Appalachian Trail and is actually the marked Charlies Bunion on AllTrails if you have ran into that problem before (if you know, you know).

Why this is important: While each bunion offers really awesome views, in my opinion, the craziest view from this area is from the Appalachian Trail looking at the USGS Bunion, .8 miles from the "GSMNP Bunion". The two photos below show the area I'm describing.


Charlies bunion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park




Great Smoky Mountains National Park mountain ridge


Conclusion


Hopefully this guide helps ensure the perfect adventure for you and your group! For more Smokies knowledge and guidance, book a guided trip with us today on our website parkadventurescaptured.com and follow us @joshfrasca on Instagram! See y'all out there!












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