Year Established: 1934
Annual Visitors: 11 million
Entrance Fee: $0
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country's most-visited national park, drawing more than 11 million people to it every year. The park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and features miles upon miles of the Appalachian mountains, virgin-growth forests, and diverse flora and fauna. The park also hosts boundless streams and waterfalls, fed by the large amounts of annual rain in the region.
Thanks to the park’s thriving ecosystem, many different types of wildlife call it home, including around 65 species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.
Perhaps one of the park’s most well-known animals, the American Black Bear, is found in abundance in the region; in fact, the national park offers the largest protected bear habitat in the East, housing approximately 1,500 bears. Other animals you may encounter during your visit include flying squirrels, white-tailed deer, and four different types of endangered small fish.
However, if you were to enter the park before its establishment in 1934, then you would be likely to encounter a lot more animals. Before the park became protected land, hunters, traps, and changing land uses eradicated a wide variety of species, including mountain lions, gray wolves, bison, and river otters. Fortunately, according to the National Park Service, one of its primary goals is to “preserve the flora and fauna of the Smokies in a condition similar to that which existed prior to the arrival of modern, technological humans. In accordance with this mission, the National Park Service has helped reintroduce the river otter, elk, and Peregrine Falcon to the Smokies.”
Due to the park’s dense forests, viewing wildlife can be a little tricky, but open areas such as Cades Cove and Catalooche are some of the best places to catch a glimpse of deer, bears, turkeys, and other animals.
In addition to viewing wildlife, you can get in some exercise while beholding the park’s scenic beauty through any number of hikes along the mountain trails. And each season has something to offer. For instance, if you hike in the spring, then you’ll be surrounded by gorgeous wildflowers and flowering trees. Meanwhile, the fewer leaves during the winter reveal formerly hidden chimneys, foundations, and stone walls of people who lived in the region hundreds of years ago. And summer time will let you take full advantage of the beautiful waterfalls, creeks, and cascades that dot the park.
Some of the park’s most popular trails include Charlie’s Bunion, the Alum Cave Bluffs, and Rainbow Falls. You can track these and other trails through this downloadable trail map. However, if you do choose to go on a hike, then keep in mind that you’re sharing a home with black bears. For that reason, the park advises hikers and other visitors to exercise caution and permits the use of bear pepper spray to protect against bodily harm.
Given the majestic setting of the park and its boundless hiking trails, you may want to spend a few days in it, in which case, camping is a great option. The park offers four different types of campsites: backcountry, frontcountry, group campgrounds, and horse camps.
Backcountry sites are designed for backpackers and require you to hike several miles to reach them. Frontcountry campsites allow you to camp near your car in a developed campground, complete with restrooms, a fire grate, and a picnic table. Group campgrounds are, well, for groups, and they’re located in the frontcountry campgrounds, while horse camps offer hitch racks for horses and primitive camping facilities.
No matter how you choose to experience the park, be it a week-long hike through the forest or a day trip to a waterfall, you’re sure to create some majestic memories.
Our Favorite Cabins and Treehouses on Airbnb Right Now
To help you make your post-pandemic travel plans, we’re highlighting some of our very favorite cabins and treehouses on Airbnb right now, and they're nothing short of magical.
Exploring Redwood National and State Parks
The Redwood National and State Parks are located along the northern California coast and are best known for their expanse of coast redwoods, which are among the tallest and longest-living tree species.
Hiking 101: Essential Tips for Beginners
You don’t need fancy backpacking gear and other equipment to start hiking, but there are definitely a few tips and tricks that make any hike more enjoyable, safe, and comfortable, especially for beginners.