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Area AttractionsAsheville Outdoor ActivitiesNC State Parks + Nature CentersOutdoor Adventure

Established in the 1930s and consisting of over 500,000 acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a gem in our ancient yet ageless mountains that borders North Carolina and Tennessee. Known as the “Most-Visited National Park in the United States,” (rivaled only by the Blue Ridge Parkway with 16.7 million visits) this park welcomes well over 13 million visitors each year and has no entrance fee. 

The park has main entrances near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to the north, and near Cherokee, North Carolina to the south – offering access for visitors all over the Southeast. There are seasonal and smaller entrances (without visitor centers) located at Deep Creek, Balsam Mountain, and Cataloochee. 

For those staying in our Western North Carolina vacation homes and Asheville cabins, homes located close to Maggie Valley and Waynesville tend to provide the closest proximity to the National Park, but Asheville is also an easy and scenic drive (approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes) to the park.

For most, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina will provide the most direct access to the park. This visitor center is situated near the Mountain Farm Museum and historic Mingus Mill which is still operational, so don’t forget to pick up some cornmeal that was ground at the mill and check out the working blacksmith shop while there. Many visitors also enjoy viewing the wild elk in the large meadow beside the visitor center in the early morning hours. 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts over 800 miles of hiking trails, including hikes to waterfalls, streams, open fields, and sixteen mountain summits that reach over 6,000 feet in elevation. Some of the higher elevation peaks rarely exceed 80 degrees in temperature. Clingman’s Dome is arguably the most popular vista in the park – 7 different states can be seen from the summit on a clear day along with a 360-degree view of the night sky. Once dark, you can see multiple constellations, meteor showers, the Milky Way, and other astrological events throughout the year. While hiking and walking tend to be the best way of experiencing the park, there are also a variety of whitewater rafting and zipline excursions available nearby. 

In addition to hiking trails surrounded by forest, the park has a remarkable number of preserved historic sites, over 90, in fact –  including old log cabins, barns, churches, and even an old schoolhouse that are worth a visit. Many are an easy walk from your vehicle, and the old buildings in the Cades Cove area tend to be very popular. With over 384 miles of road running through the National Park, scenic drives are also plentiful and will allow you to experience the flora, fauna, and scenery without ever leaving your car. Some of the more popular scenic drives include the Cades Cove Loop Road, Cataloochee Valley, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and Newfound Gap Road.

Unsurprisingly, the park is worth visiting in every season (though be sure to check the National Park website for road closures if visiting during the winter months). Many are drawn to the park during the fall months, especially late September through early November, as the fall foliage changes colors. Synchronous fireflies, one of the 19 species of fireflies that live in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have gained widespread popularity for the annual viewings that happen in early June.

These viewings have become so popular that there is a lottery in place to gain access to the event! In the spring months of April and May, the National Park is in bloom with over 1,600 species of colorful and fragrant flowering plants.

Curious about Western North Carolina’s other State Parks and National Forests? We've created a list of the best ones in our area and their can't-miss attractions!

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