First Timer’s Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a key attraction in Western North Carolina. The Park has over 522,000 acres of mountains, waterfalls, streams, caves, trails, campsites, and wildlife. Because the park is so large and there is so much to do, first time visitors may feel overwhelmed. Here are some of our top tips for first-time visitors to Smoky Mountain National Park in Western North Carolina.

Smoky Mountains view near our Waynseville B&B

Select your point(s) of entry. 

There are multiple entrances to this vast park, but on the North Carolina side, we have two favorites:

  • The first is the entrance on Hwy 441 near Cherokee. From this point, visitors can easily begin a full day exploration of the most iconic locations in the park, such as Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap. Note that guests often encounter elk in the meadows around this park entrance, so be cautious as you drive into the park!
    Insider tip: Stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center as you enter the Park. The rangers know the best attractions – including some great hidden gems – based on the season, current foliage, recent rainfall, and visibility. They also know which trails or attractions are closed for maintenance, which can save you time and headache as you explore.
  • The second entrance is just off Highway 276 on Cove Creek Road. This entrance provides access to the secluded Cataloochee Valley where a variety of historic buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been preserved. The quiet valley boasts some of the most magnificent trails and views in the area and is a year-round haven for elk.
    Insider Tip: The road into the valley is an 11-mile narrow gravel road with no guardrails, so drive carefully!

Smoky Mountain National Park trail sign

Explore at least some of the park on foot.

Much of Smoky Mountain National Park’s vast natural beauty is visible from the road, but there is more to discover! We recommend finding at least one trail to hike, and there are so many to pick from. All trails are well-maintained, and there is something for everyone, regardless of hiking skill. For adventurous hikers, the park includes a 71 mile portion of the Appalachian Trail, as well as the Western end of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs all the way to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Shorter trails include the Alum Cave Trail and the walk up to Clingman’s Dome. Don’t forget to leverage the knowledge of the park rangers for some of the lesser-known hiking recommendations!

Pack food and fill your gas tank.

There are no gas stations or stores (save a few vending machines at the ranger stations) in the park. Distances are also much further than they appear due to the mountainous roads, and you don’t want to run out of fuel! Because you have so much to explore, you should expect to spend the better part of each day in the park. It is a long way to find a place for lunch, so pack your own, or have us pack a picnic lunch for you!

Choose your home base.

It is important to be both comfortable and located near the Park. Our luxurious Waynesville bed and breakfast makes a perfect home base for those exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Book one of our romantic suites and relax in one of our jetted tubs after a day of exploring. Enjoy our homemade three-course breakfast each morning, and enjoy a glass of wine while soaking in our quiet mountain views each evening.

Safe Travels!