"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." - Wallace Stegner
National Parks are America's greatest treasure, and Great Smoky Mountain National Park sees the most visitors of any of the 419 National Parks that span over 84 million acres across the U.S.'s beautiful landscape. So what makes the Smokies so special that more than 11 million tourists come through every year, and twice as many people visit as visit the Grand Canyon? We have 5 great reasons why.
1. The Park is Accessible (and FREE) All Year Long.
No matter the season, there's a reason to see the Smokies. In the spring, check out the beautiful wildflowers and mild weather. The high elevation keeps summers from getting too hot, and is a great time to explore the outdoors.
Mother Nature uses the fall to really show off with an explosion of autumn colors and perfect crisp air. In the winter, avoid the crowds, take in the snowy landscape, and catch of glimpse of frozen waterfalls.
No matter what time of year you visit, the park's roads are open, and there's no entry fee at any of the 3 gates to the park in Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee.
2. The Park is Easily Accessible to Most of the East Coast
With parts of the park in both Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is right on Interstate 40, making a great road trip destination that's less than a day's drive from major cities such as Atlanta, Washington D.C., Charlotte, Chicago, and New York. The park is drive-able in less than a day for half of the United States' population! If the drive seems a bit far, the park is also easily accessed via the Knoxville Airport.
3. So Many Activities!
Whether you're looking for a relaxing scenic drive or something more adventurous, there's no shortage of activities for every interest and activity level in the Smokies. Camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and more are all easily available for your trip. There are over 380 miles of scenic roads to explore, with over 5,000 feet of elevation change to get a new perspective. If you're looking to explore on foot, you'll have over 850 miles of trails to choose from. If you're hoping to see some wildlife, you're in luck. The park is home to the largest concentration of black bears east of the Mississippi, and white-tailed deer, elk, bobcat, coyote, fox, and wild boar are also frequently spotted.
4. Close to the Lodging and Attractions at Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg
These adorable towns are the perfect base camp for a trip to explore the parks. There are wonderful shops and restaurants, and plenty of family-friendly entertainment options such as the world-famous Dollywood amusement park which celebrates national treasure and hometown girl Dolly Parton, alpine slides, ski resorts, arcades, and more.
The nearby areas also offer great views and plenty of romantic hideaways for those looking for a more intimate escape. The area is so popular for romance, it is second only to Las Vegas for the number of wedding chapels! Rent a beautiful home with mountain views and let the atmosphere set the mood for your getaway.
4. The Views: From Waterfalls to the Signature "Smoke"
The Smoky Mountains' name comes from the signature blue haze that seems to surround the peaks no matter what the weather. This layer gives the mountains and ethereal, mysterious quality that is unique a beautiful. This haze comes from the high level of VOCs from the rain and vegetation in the park which combine with sunlight and humidity to create the fog, which also gives the park that incredible heady forest scent everywhere you go!
The wet mountain landscape also blesses the park with a large amount of beautiful waterfalls and streams. These impressive waterfalls can be more than a mile high! Some of the most breathtaking include Laurel Falls (pictured), Abrams Falls, Rainbow Falls, Grotto Falls, and Ramsey Cascades.
5. The Firefly Festival
Every year for two weeks in late May and early June, the wildlife puts on a special show. The largest gathering of synchronized fireflies shows off during the Firefly Festival in Elkmont during their mating display, which dazzles as they light up the sky with coordinated flashes. This species of firefly is the only species that can "synchronize" their flashing. This unique event operates on a lottery system because of it's popularity.