Visitors have lots of reasons for making the Smoky Mountains the most visited national park in the country—and you’ll find most of them detailed right here on this site. The sometimes maddening, sometimes miraculous combination of natural beauty and commercial business in the Smoky Mountain region assures the avid adventurer ready to hit the trail, the honeymoon couple hoping for a romantic getaway, and the family looking for fun and affordable attractions will all find their bliss.
This destination coverage includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the surrounding gateway communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend, Tennessee—with greater emphasis on the most popular.
So whether your idea of heaven is going miniature golfing amidst dinosaurs, hiking to waterfalls you can walk behind, discovering chic sandwich shops and gourmet hotspots, soaking in a private hot tub with amazing mountain views, or shopping for outlet bargains and local crafts, this guide’s got you covered.
The most popular national park in the U.S., the Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers all sorts of active outdoor adventures, many scenic drives with overlooks, plenty of historic barns and churches to explore, and a variety of wildlife (including black bears, deer, elk, and more species of salamanders than anywhere else on the planet).
Gatlinburg is chock-a-block with candy stores, t-shirt shops, crazy attractions, family restaurants, art galleries, and quaint shopping malls. It’s also right up against the national park boundary (near the Sugarlands Visitor Center).
Located inbetween Gatlinburg and Sevierville, Pigeon Forge is known for its shopping outlets, its family attractions, its music shows and dinner theaters, and Dollywood (the entertainment and amusement park owned by Dolly Parton).
Sevierville is the county seat, offering shopping, attractions, and festivals of its own–in addition to the first and largest waterpark resort in the region.
Tiny Townsend is known as the official “quiet side” of the Smokies. It sits far away from the craziness of the more crowded gateway towns, and its main claim to fame is the national park entrance closest to Cades Cove.
When should you visit? Although summer is a popular season in the Smokies for families, autumn actually sees more visitors because of the amazing fall foliage displays. (The peak varies from year to year, but usually hits sometime in October.) Spring is quite popular for its wildflowers (not to mention the famous synchronized firefly light show), and winter is the best time for great views since the leaves are off the trees and the vistas are wide open.
Outdoors lovers interested in hiking, picnicking, paddling, camping, and otherwise exploring all the national park has to offer can easily spend a week here, and they’ll still wish they had more time. Families will find the same is true for them, as well–especially if they split their time between the national park and all the family-friendly attractions in the towns surrounding the park. That said, the Smokies also makes a good weekend destination for anyone–especially for couples looking for romantic getaways.
There are two generally recognized peak seasons in the Smokies. The first is mid-summer (roughly between mid-June and mid-August) and the second is the entire month of October (thanks to the Smokies’ splendid fall foliage). In fact, October weekends can be especially crowded, especially on scenic drives such as the Cades Cove Loop Road. The best values can often be had in January and February when there are fewer visitors. For autumn values, visit during September, when the weather is still warm but the crowds have thinned considerably. While the National Park is open year-round, some scenic drives and minor roads are closed in winter.
Summer in the Smokies is hot and humid, with average temperatures in the 80s and rain common. Fall weather features warm days (typically in the 70s at the start of fall and in the 60s by November) and cool nights, with the first frost hitting around mid-September. This is typically the driest season. Smoky Mountain winters are moderate, with highs in the 50s (lower in the highest elevations) and lows at or below freezing. Expect some snow, although the average monthly snowfall for the lower elevations is less than three inches. (In higher elevations, snowfall can be considerable.) Spring highs are typically in the 60s in March, 70s in April and May, and into the 80s by June. Be aware that at the highest elevations, temperatures can easily be up to 10 degrees colder than they are at the lower elevations.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Smoky Mountains is located in the Eastern time zone.
To check the local time in the Smoky Mountains, click here World Time Server.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of “springing forward” and “falling back.”
Except for the middle of summer, dressing in layers is always a good idea. Keep a sweater or sweatshirt on hand if you plan to be in the higher elevations because the temperatures can be considerably colder there than they are in the towns below. In winter, dress warmly with sweaters or coats as well as hats and gloves–and boots in the higher elevations. Be prepared for rain (light rain jackets are fine), especially in the summer, when you should also have sunscreen and insect repellant on hand. If you visit in the spring or fall, light gloves can be a good idea.
If you’re planning a family day in the national park, bring a cooler with food and drinks, since there are few places where you can buy food in the park. (And fill your gas tank before you enter the park–there are no gas stations inside the boundaries of the national park.) Definitely bring binoculars for wildlife viewing, and if you have kids, bring a magnifying glass for examining bugs and other small critters. If you’re bringing a pet, make sure you bring a leash that’s six feet or shorter (required in the national park) as well as pet waste bags.
Accommodations in the Smokies are fairly affordable, especially compared to most other U.S. vacation destinations. Large families or two families traveling together can often pay less to rent a cabin with several bedrooms than they would to stay in several rooms at a hotel. Discounts for AAA and AARP members and those with military IDs are common. Several hotels also offer free wifi and a free breakfast bar.
Prices for attractions surrounding the park vary considerably–some can be quite pricey, although you can always find an abundance of lower-cost options. Some attractions offer combo tickets with other attractions owned by the same company. At almost all attractions, discounts are typically given to children, seniors, and those with military IDs. Some attractions (such as the dinner theaters) include a meal.
Entrance to the national park is always free, as are almost all of the ranger programs (very popular with families).
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airlines site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their friend or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you decide what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities and available here. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage just in case no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework and check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit cards issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have stripped down coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As shared space lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of cash back when paying for your goods this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card which doesn’t make sense if it is lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in major metropolitan areas are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $1 to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 to $10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3 per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2 when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
The closest airport is in Knoxville (TYS). From there, it’s about an hour’s drive to Sevierville, and then a bit longer to Pigeon Forge, and at least an hour and a half to Gatlinburg.
Those who drive will most likely arrive via I-40. Take exit 407 in Sevierville and head south on TN Route 66, which merges into U.S. Highway 321 as it heads to Pigeon Forge and finally into Gatlinburg. Most locals refer to this route as “the Parkway.”
There are no passenger trains that stop near the Smokies.
You’ll need a car to explore the Smokies, although if you’re staying in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, you can hop aboard the colorful trolley busses that run regularly on several routes in each municipality. Fares are minimal. Even so, having a car is much more convenient.
Parking is easier in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville than in Gatlinburg, where you will probably have to pay for a parking lot (when you’re not parked at your hotel or cabin) since space is tighter. Even so, Gatlinburg’s downtown is very pedestrian friendly.