How to Spend 24 Hours in The Great Smoky Mountains
In October, I spent a little over 24 hours in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was blown away by autumnal beauty. I enjoyed the changing leaves, but am much more inspired by the massive mountains. How the mountains all converged together to create these amazing peaks and valleys of nature. The world needs more credit for how beautiful it is. This trip helped me to realize it is truly so beautiful!
Though I got the chance to stand on the tallest point of the Appalachian Trail to watch the sunset. The amazingly beautiful sunrise I enjoyed the next day truly had me taken back with its beauty. As I stood there speechlessly photographing, I then began to think of how lucky the first settlers of this area were. For them to be able to enjoy such unincorporated beauty, without any visual disturbance by mankind. It was easy to understand why they chose this location to grow their families and create businesses, like the grist mill we visited on the south end of the park.
If you only have a weekend to spend in the Great Smoky Mountains, don’t worry that’s enough time to enjoy lots of breathtaking views. You just have to know what to do to get the most out of your trip. With the short amount of time I had to spend in the park here’s what I did in 24 hours.
24 Hours in The Great Smoky Mountains Means Start Early
Heading to a popular tourist destination, it’s likely to become crowded during the day. There’s always something for people to do in the park, especially if they’re just driving through the park to each visitor center or viewpoint. All these things add up to make for congested roads.
I suggest you plan to get into the park in the early morning, during the peak seasons it will be packed by 10am.
Stay in the Great Smoky Mountains
On the Great Smoky Mountains park edges, both Gatlinburg, TN & Cherokee, NC offer traditional lodging. However, I found that even driving in from these areas for the day will eat up a lot of your travel time.
It was really convenient for me to sleep in the park, wake up and head directly to my trailhead before the sun was even up. There are several campsites within different areas of the park. I stayed at the Smokemont campsite because it was closest to Clingman’s Dome, which I planned to incorporate into my trip.
The benefits of having a “home-base” while in a national park are endless. Though the biggest benefit I experienced was having the opportunity to view wildlife in their natural setting. While I hung out in camp snuggled in my hammock a flock of wild turkeys came roaming into my camp looking for food. It was really awesome to observe wild animals when they had no idea a human presence was there. If I hung out back at a hotel I would have never gotten the chance to see that!
Know where you want to go in the park and where you will be coming from to get there. This seems obvious but driving through the park takes longer than you expect with all the winding mountain roads. If you drive around the park aimlessly it will really detract from the experience.
A good example of this, I stayed at Smokemont, the closest campsite to Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in the park and Appalachian Trail). As the crow flies it is only 10 miles, but it is double the distance when you need to drive – which is also double the time.
Go Big, Then Go Home
There is so much to do and see in any national park, the Great Smoky Mountains included. Don’t try to schedule so much that you can’t be present and enjoy your time doing those things.
I suggest choosing one or two things to do in the park if you only have a weekend to spend there. Choose an early morning sunrise location, as it is really inspiring to enjoy. Or get on the trails before everyone else and enjoy an undisturbed nature hike. Lots of people are interested in sunset views, so those tend to be more crowded.
Recommended Locations To Visit
I do recommend if you aren’t visiting December – April to visit Clingman’s Dome. It was spectacular to be above all the other mountains. Note: That it can be very crowded in the parking area and the walk up the paved path is not for the faint of heart at a 13% incline.Pets, bicycles and wheelchairs and prohibited on the paved trail. The view from the parking area isn’t bad either, but if you can make it up the trail I highly recommend it.
If you are not all about hiking, perhaps vast views at Newfound Gap parking areas would interest you more. Newfound Gap Parking Area #4 was spectacular for sunrise photos and not very crowded at all.
Further down the road at the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Newfound Gap is a very crowded viewing area. It’s a good location to park and enjoy views directly from your car with very little walking. Photographers beware of the many tourists that may obstruct your photos on the lower walkway. This is a different location than described above.
Get into the park early
Plan ahead the adventures you will be doing and where
Stay in the park near your planned adventure area
Don’t try to do too much, pick only a couple amazing things to do in the park
Make sure to be in the moment and enjoy the views you see.
Take lots of photos and be kind! Offer to snap a photo for a family or couple standing near you checking out the same view. It’s always nice when everyone gets to be in the family photo.
National Park Service Cennentinal
All of these amazing places are thanks to the National Park Service (NPS). Their constant maintenance of these beautiful locations keeps all the parks looking great. NPS is currently celebrating 100 years of stewardship! Their centennial celebration kicked off on August 25 this year. You can collect several centennial keepsakes (coins and postage stamps) available to commemorate their 100 years. Find Your Park! You’ve still got a few weeks to participate in the celebration.