Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: November 2021

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located within the Appalachian mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. It is the most visited national park in the United States and offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery.

We spent the previous night in Knoxville and got up bright and early in an effort to beat the crowds. It was the weekend after the American Thanksgiving after all and we anticipated that it would get busy. We started off at Laurel Falls (2.6 miles / 4.2km round trip) as parking at the trailhead is often limited. By the time we arrived it was just after 8:30 a.m and there were already a few cars in the small parking lot.

The trail is named for the mountain laurel, an evergreen shrub which blooms along the trail and near the falls in the early summer. The trail leads up a ridge along a ravine to a waterfall. The path is mostly paved and is signed with eleven numbered posts which correspond to a viewpoint or interesting detail included in the trail guide which can be found at the trailhead. It was initially built to allow fire crews access to the Cove Mountain area in the event of a fire. However, it became a popular path for hiking, which led the trail to being paved to better deal with erosion.

After taking a couple of pictures at the base of the falls, we turned around and walked back the way we came to the parking lot. On our return journey, we passed by a lot of other hikers, which made us glad that we got here early. The parking lot was completely full by the time we finished and there were even cars parked along the side of the road.

We drove to the nearby Sugarlands Visitor Centre to check out the swag and use the restrooms. Afterwards we headed towards Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and in all of Tennessee. Along the way there are a series of overlooks and viewpoints of the surrounding area. At first we stopped at a few of the scenic overlooks, but then decided it would probably be easier to hit these up on the way back. At the Morton Overlook we noticed a drastic change in temperature and that there was even some snow and ice on a few of the trees.

We then drove the rest of the way to Clingmans Dome. The road leading up to it typically closes from early December through late March, which means that we were close to the cut-off period. The road ends at a large parking lot where there’s a short paved trail, about 800 metres (or half a mile) to the summit and observation tower.

The hike up wasn’t bad, but oh boy was it windy. Once we reached the base of the observation tower, the path became progressively more icy and we could really feel the wind from above the trees. The real advantage to the harsh conditions was that most people didn’t stay long up on the observation tower so it wasn’t crowded. It was worth it though as the landscape looked breathtaking with all the snow encrusted pines and spruces.

There were a few interpretive panels at the top of the observation tower, but they were all covered in ice and impossible to read. I took as many pictures as I could before my fingers felt numb. This was a good sign to get out of the wind and head back to the parking lot.

We hopped back in the car and blasted the heat. We drove to the trailhead for the Spruce Fir Nature Trail (0.35 miles / 600 metres), which is located nearby. The trail is relatively flat and consists mostly of walking along planks of wood through a moss covered forest. Unfortunately part of the forest here, and in other areas in the park, are under attack from a non-native insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid, which if left untreated, will likely kill most of the Fraser fir in the area.

On the drive back from Clingmans Dome, we stopped at a few of the other overlooks that we skipped, including Newfound Gap and the Carlos Campbell Overlook, which provide more gorgeous views of the mountains.

We pulled over to hike along the Sugarlands Valley Trail (0.5 miles / 800 metres). The path is paved and winds through the forest which once contained a small community. Along the way we found a few remnants, including old stone chimneys and crumbling stone walls, from the former settlements.

We then drove back to the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to eat lunch. There was now a line to get into the building and the parking lot was completely full. While we would have liked to explore more of the Smokies, traffic was terrible. We figured it just wasn’t worth the effort to deal with the crowds. Instead we decided to head to Nashville to see what was shaking.


75 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Clingmans Dome with its spiral ramp was definitely one of the most unique observation towers that we’ve been to. The views along the way were really pretty, especially so late in the fall when part of the landscape looked frozen over. It sure was windy from the top though.

  1. kagould17 says:

    I think your timing for this part of your trip was perfect. Seeing those trees all dressed in winter white makes the view spectacular. Obviously, whoever designed the observation tower did not care if it would blend into its surroundings. Looks like a great trip Linda. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s like it was meant to be. The snow and ice covered trees looked beautiful, especially on a sunny day with bright blue skies. This was one of the most unique observation towers that we’ve visited. It definitely took up a lot of space with its concrete spiral ramp and seemed a bit out of place in the forest. Thanks for reading. Take care. Linda

  2. Boots on the Trail says:

    When we lived in Knoxville, we only visited Great Smokey twice – and sat in traffic jams both times. Once we got on the trail all was good, but driving to and parking at the trailheads was a challenge. It may not have seemed like it, but your timing (November & an early start) was near perfect for a minimally crowded visit. 😄

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It always helps to get an early start to try to beat the crowds, but eventually they’ll catch up, especially when the weather is nice. Sitting in traffic or trying to find a parking spot can be super frustrating. Next time we’re in the area we’ll try to visit on a weekday. There’s still so much of the park we have left to explore.

  3. Monkey's Tale says:

    I’m surprised that it the most visited national park, but I guess it’s closer to large populations than Yosemite or Yellowstone, one’s that I think of in the US. It is a strange look out tower, but nice views from it. Maggie

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Agreed, I think being in close proximity to a few large cities has a lot to do with the visitation numbers. The observation tower at Clingmans Dome was definitely different with its large concrete spiral ramp. But the views were incredible, even if it was very cold and windy from the top.

  4. Cate Spader says:

    I haven’t been since I was a kid, but I’d visit often with my family. It’s beautiful and thank you for bringing back some fond memories 😀

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. I can see why you have such fond memories of spending time in the Smokies with your family. It’s such a scenic area with lots of great viewpoints and hiking trails.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for commenting. We had a fabulous day hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains (minus the crowds) and couldn’t have asked for better weather.

  5. Book Club Mom says:

    These pictures are beautiful. Makes me want to go outside right now. What a narrow path in the one. Also I love that outdoor fireplace and chimney! Thanks for sharing them and your story 🙂

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      You are too kind. We had a wonderful day exploring the Smokies. Now that Spring is in full force and the weather is getting warmer, it’s the perfect time to be outdoors. Enjoy the rest of your week. Linda

  6. NortheastAllie says:

    The Great Smoky Mountains National Park looks so beautiful! The Carlos Campbell Overlook looks magnificent as well. Thank you for sharing your photos, travel tips, and stories from your adventure there!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The scenery in the Smokies is stunning. There are lots of great overlooks, viewpoints and hiking trails to just soak in the views of the mountains. The only downsides were the traffic and crowds. I guess that’s to be expected when the weather is nice and it’s over a long weekend.

  7. gsilvosa63 says:

    The trail to Clingman’s dome is steep and I had to stop every so often to catch my breath. The view is nice. Start early to beat the crowd who comes later in the day.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thankfully the path is paved, but agreed, it was very steep. We took plenty of stops along the way to take pictures of the icy landscape (and to catch our breath). And yes, I’m so glad we got an early start to the day as the traffic was just unbearable as the day progressed.

  8. leightontravels says:

    I am really enjoying this series through the US and its national parks. After the highest point in Georgia, you reached the highest point in Tennessee. Impressive, as are the views.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! As much as I’ve enjoyed exploring more of Ontario over the past two years because of the pandemic, it’s been nice to get a change of scenery. The highest points are typically a great way to get a nice view of the surrounding area. The ones at Georgia and Tennessee were probably my favourites of the ones we visited during our road trip.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. The scenery in the Smokies is gorgeous with all those mountains. We couldn’t help but stop at every overlook that we passed to just soak in the views.

      • elvira797mx says:

        Wow! Thats great, Linda.
        Let me tell you, You write with a lot of passions about mountains, all the places tat you visit. Transmit the feelings, peace, all the sensaciones and it’s great! Can you imagine a book full of your love of mountains?
        You can do it! Keep well.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        You are too kind. I do enjoy writing about our travels and hopefully our adventures can provide inspiration. The views of the mountains never get old. Nature really is the best artist. Take care. Linda

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for commenting. We had such beautiful weather for being outdoors, which probably explains why it was so crowded. The scenery in the Smokies is stunning.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That’s too bad that you never made it to the Great Smoky Mountains. There are lots of scenic overlooks and hiking trails to soak in the views of the mountains. The top of the Clingmans Dome was very windy and cold, which thankfully helped contain the crowds.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m really glad we ended up taking this last minute road trip south of the border. The timing (and weather) worked out perfectly. The scenery in the Smokies was stunning. It’s too bad about the traffic though. I can handle the cold, the crowds not so much.

  9. Ab says:

    What a beautiful series of hikes the two of you did. I can see why your first stop is the most visited national park in the US. The trails are lovely and the lookout points are wonderful. The snow coated evergreens give such an other worldly feel to them!

    That little cookout (chimney from old house?) in the middle of the forest at the end looked cool. Can you use it?

    Look forward to seeing more of your Tennessee adventures!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The hiking in the Smokies was top notch, but the parking situation for many of the trails and overlooks was pretty limited. It’s crazy how much the temperature changed at the base of the mountains compared to at the highest point at Clingmans Dome. The landscape looked beautiful with all the snow and ice encrusted on the trees thought. As for the old chimneys, I don’t think they are in use anymore, but rather remnants from the past from the previous settlers. Although maybe we should have eaten our lunch there to check them out more.

      And hey, it’s finally Friday!! Have a wonderful weekend!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was very chilly and windy up at the summit, but thankfully us Canadians came prepared, largely because it was much colder back home when we first started our road trip so we had our jackets, hats and mittens with us. It’s too bad that the old fireplaces aren’t in use anymore. Instead we settled for turning our seat warmers and heat on max when we returned to our car.

  10. Bama says:

    Starting early always pays off, especially during peak holiday seasons. That shot of icy tips on the foreground with green forest in the background bathed in warm morning light is really beautiful (although warm is probably not the best word to describe this place the day you went). It’s sad to hear that some areas of the forest are under pressure due to the invasive insect species. I hope they can be completely eliminated, or at least managed at a level where the forest can still thrive.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      For sure. It’s crazy how busy the park got later in the morning. I guess it wasn’t that surprising considering the weather was fabulous and it was a long weekend. The frosty landscape looked gorgeous at the summit of the highest point in Tennessee. It was super windy, but well worth the effort to get to the top of the observation tower. The park has a few treatment options that they are using to deal with the woolly adelgid. Fingers crossed it works.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      On the bright side, the cold and the wind helped keep the crowds away from the observation tower. Thankfully us Canadians came prepared with our mittens and toques. And yes, the spiral ramp could totally be used to sled down in the winter! That sounds like it would be fun!

  11. wetanddustyroads says:

    Another hike through high trees and a lovely waterfall – beautiful! Is that ice on the high trees? It sure looks “a bit chilly” (or rather freezing)! Ahh, Nashville … I’m looking forward to your photo’s!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      There was a huge change in the temperature from the base of the mountains where we hiked earlier in the morning to see the waterfall compared to at the summit. There was all this snow and ice that had accumulated on the trees, which looked gorgeous. It sure was chilly though, but well worth the effort.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      The timing worked at well as the road leading to Clingmans Dome was just about to close for the season. It was neat to see all the snow and ice covering the trees, it looked beautiful, especially with such blue skies in the background.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I’d rather take the cold than the crowds. I’ll keep that in mind for the next time we’re in the Smokies. There’s still so many trails and overlooks left for us to explore.

  12. Melanie Gagon says:

    This looks like such a great trip! I love visiting national parks and have never been here! It’s on my bucket list I hope to visit one day! Thank you for sharing 🙂

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Despite the crowds, we had a lovely day hiking in the Smokies. I wish we could have stayed for a bit longer as there is still so much of the park that we have yet to explore. There never seems to be enough time. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Take care. Linda

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I can see why. The Great Smoky Mountains are beautiful and the views of the mountains must never get old. We had a wonderful day of hiking in the park, even if it was crowded.

      • Judith says:

        The only thing we didn’t like about our trip was when we went into Gatlinburg. Aaargh! The crowds! We won’t do that again. I’d much rather spend my time out on the trails!

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        Agreed! There’s nothing worse than sitting in traffic or dealing with the crowds while on vacation. I’d much rather be out on the trails as well.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was also quite the change in temperature from the base of the mountain to the summit. Even though it was super cold and windy from up top, the landscape looked beautiful with all the snow encrusted trees.

  13. ourcrossings says:

    Wow, what a fascinating park, especially covered in snow. I’ve never been to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park but would very much love to visit to explore its wonderful trails on foot. I am glad to hear you had a great time. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I can see why the road leading to the highest point in the park closes during the winter as I imagine it gets even icier. The landscape looked incredible with all the snow crusted onto the trees and I loved how the sun made it all sparkle and shine. Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful weekend. Linda

  14. alisendopf says:

    It’s always worth it to get up early for a hike, especially a popular one on a weekend. Well done! I’m kinda glad others sleep in, otherwise I’m not sure I could handle the crowds 🙂
    It was nice to see a dusting of snow, even that far south.
    Happy travels!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      No kidding. Plus the weather was fabulous, which always brings out the crowds. I’m glad we got an early start, but it’s too bad the traffic later in the day. I guess this means we’ll just have to return and visit on a weekday!

      • alisendopf says:

        And you’re lucky to have the flexibility to go midweek. I find Sundays are a bit less busy than Saturday, so if I *have* to go on a weekend, that’s my day.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        Agreed, I find Sundays are usually a bit less busy than Saturdays too. At least we’re early risers which can make such a huge difference when it comes to finding parking and having a bit of peace and quiet before the crowds take over.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We had a fabulous time in the Great Smoky Mountains. The scenery was spectacular and I loved that there were so many overlooks and viewpoints to soak in the views. The only issue were the crowds, but I guess that’s to be expected over a long weekend.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was crazy at how much the temperature changed from the base of the mountain compared to at the summit. Thankfully the cold and wind was no match for us Canadians and we made it to the top of the observation tower. The frosty trees were gorgeous.

  15. BrittnyLee says:

    I love Mountain Laurel !! The photos you took of the mountainsides are so gorgeous!! Great shots !!!! These trails look very scenic and worth the hike . 🙂

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