Loving the Loved To Death Park: How to Avoid Crowds in the Smokies

Avoiding The Crowds is Key to Enjoying America’s Most Visited National Park

There are no shortage of published sources that tell you how to have a great time in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. On the subject of avoiding the crowds, most of the advice boil downs to, “Don’t go where the other people do when they do.”

This is good advice, actually…but the problem is that GSMNP, with its vast armies of visitors (11 million guests, annually) is SO busy that there is seldom a ‘quiet’ time to be there.

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Fall is a great time to visit GSMNP…and get stuck in traffic jams.

The NSP website for example advises that the best time to visit is outside peak season. “Peak Season” in the Smokies is basically anytime between Flag Day and Labor Day, plus the entire month of October. Fine as far as it goes, but we have visited the park in March, April, September and November, and while there is no doubt the crowds are much smaller, in places there are still a LOT of people. This is especially true of holiday weekends such as Good Friday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, possibly even Presidents day (with the trend toward warmer temps, late February now seems to be the new March.)

Even in the dead of winter, this park is never completely empty. GSMNP gets more visitors in January alone, its low ebb of the year, than many National Parks get all year round.

Other common recommendations are to visit early in the day and try to visit the more off the beaten path locations. Both are also solid pieces of advice…many areas of this park get almost no visitation in any season, and our experience is that most tourists, especially those with large family groups, don’t get themselves organized until about the crack of noon.

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To which we would add a fourth piece of advice…where possible, ALWAYS go mid-week and avoid holiday weekends. Though this is contrary to the thinking of most people, weekends are often the WORST days to do anything in the outdoors, with long holiday weekends being the worst of the worst. Trails are busy, trail head parking areas full, traffic is heavy and many of the planet’s rudest, most selfish people take to the trail clad in sneakers and blue jeans to go ‘find the great outdoors.’

Plus…In our minds there are few things in life better than being out on the trail while most people are toiling away in work and school.

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Sylvia appears disgruntled. Could it be the crowds?

Brian suggests going in the month of September. There is an approximately thirty-day recess between the peak seasons of summer and fall and many areas of the park are surprisingly empty during this time. Now, September is often a warm and buggy month in the South, more like summer than fall, and this has especially been true over the last few years. But one can usually find cooler temperatures at the higher elevations. September is definitely a better alternative than July or August, and much less crowded than October. Otherwise we suggest March, April and November. You will find greatest solitude in winter, but many roads and facilities may be closed.

As for where to go…we prefer to avoid the park’s strained main corridor and stick to the peripheral areas where visitation is less. Our experience has been that we don’t really miss much in doing so. Some are our favorite areas are…

Cosby

Located on the Tennessee side of the park about midway between I-40 and the chaos of Gatlinburg is the tiny hamlet of Cosby. Many people drive past it; few seem to stop. Too bad for them, because this is one of the nicest places in the park, totally underrated in our opinion.

The Cosby Campground is one of our two favorite places for developed camping in the park (the other being Deep Creek mentioned below.) It is a BIG campground which rarely fills up to capacity; the sites are well spaced and private; visit off peak and you may find whole sections of it completely devoid of people.

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Cosby Campground is as good as any in the Smokies and seldom crowded.

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Right out of this campground is perhaps our favorite hike in the Smokies, and the one with the single best view…Mount Cammerer. This challenging 11-mile hike is comparable to Mt. Leconte or Gregory Bald (the view at the summit superior in our opinion) but with a fraction of the crowds. Twice we have been to the top of this mountain, and neither time did we find it particularly crowded.

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The view from Mt. Cammerer’s Fire Tower is unparalleled in the Smokies.

Greenbrier

Between Cosby and Gatlinburg is the interesting and generally little explored area known as Greenbrier Cove…a valley formed by the Middle Fork of the Little Pigeon River, surrounded by some of the highest and steepest mountains in the Appalachians. There are old settlements here, native America village sites, buildings, artifacts and various other things of historical note…and perhaps the best waterfall hike in the Smokies, The Ramsey Cascades.

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What you WON’T find here is a whole lot of people…thought it’s close to Galtinburg, most of the tourists don’t go down this way, they all seem hell bent on going on through the park’s main gate to mingle with the masses.

The Blue Ridge Parkway

While GSMNP is the most visited National Park in the US, it is NOT the most visited venue in the National Park System. That distinction belongs to the Blue Ridge Parkway, that celebrated snaking mountain motorway that runs almost the entire length of the ridge line that is its namesake. BRP has gotten as many as twenty million visitors in a single year, making it easily the most visited unit in the National Park Service. You would think that the convergence of these two popular recreational behemoths would result in a traffic jam of cosmic proportions.

Strangely, it is the opposite. Despite the fact there are GREAT views from this stretch of the parkway (and a good many of them) the section of the BRP from Rt. 19 near Maggie Valley, NC to the Oconaluftee area of GSMNP is one of the least traveled of the entire motorway. Probably this is because it is simply far from anything, being on the more remote NC side. Most tourists simply don’t come into the park this way; they come in through the main portals, while most of the parkway’s recreational drivers end their tour at Route 23/74 and speed back to Asheville to complete their day with a beer at the Sierra Nevada Brewery or something of the like. They don’t go any further and end up missing some of the best scenery.

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Many, many wide open views along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s southernmost section.

We think this is one of the best sections of the BRP, and you will have most of the pullouts to yourself. Just keep in mind that though you are driving southbound on the Parkway, the road turns a wide ‘fishhook’ shaped bend as it nears its terminus, which has it temporarily going north by the compass.

Balsam Mountain Area

Accessible right off the BRP (and even more remote) is the Heintooga Ridge Road and the Balsam Mountain Campground. There are plenty of views and some great hikes in this area. Many people think that Balsam Mountain, which is the highest campground in the park at 5300 feet, is also one of the best; Brian is not one of these people. While it is without doubt way out there, it’s also a very small and cramped campground with little or no privacy. Also, the views from this treed-in ridge are more theoretical than actual. Brian’s most distinct memory of his stay was seeing an enormous trap set for wild pigs here, baited with cracked corn.

But do check out some of the less ventured hikes in this area.

Deep Creek

Beside Cosby this is our favorite developed campground in the park. The sites are VERY spacious and private, and many of them are right on the creek the place is named for. This is a busy place in summer because it’s a popular spot for tubing on the creek, but in fall it’s almost a ghost town, you can virtually have your pick of secluded sites.

There are several great hikes in this area to waterfalls that may be featured in one of our upcoming Waterfall Weeks. There’s also extensive backcountry hiking available here…it’s not likely you’ll see  many people of the trail here.

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There’s some great waterfalls in the Deep Creek area.

Deep Creek is also very close to the charming town of Bryson City, NC which we enjoy very much.

(Note that Deep Creek should not be confused with Big Creek, a horse camp on the far side of the park.)

Cataloochee Valley

Second only to Cades Cove, and superior in some ways, is the secluded valley of Cataloochee. It’s not much less gorgeous than Cades but receives a fraction the visitation. The reason? Well, partly because it’s far from Gatlinburg, but mostly because it is accessible by a narrow and winding dirt road that makes many motorists think twice before attempting it.

There are dozens of well-preserved historic buildings here. Also, this is the area of the park where you are most likely to see the Park’s herd of 150 or so elk. Come here from mid-September to the end of October to see (and hear) the rutting season.

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Who doesn’t love wildlife?

Brian was able to make it down the road to Cataloochee back in 2008 in his old Nissan Xterra with no issues, and any car could probably do the same unless conditions were very muddy. He was not impressed with the small and unappealing developed campground here…a much better option might be to backcountry camp (available by permit) taking a few days to explore the area. We would strongly recommend this as an alternative to Cades Cove.

After visiting you can swing down to visit the very worthwhile town of Waynesville, NC.

The Fontana Dam and Lake

Surprisingly unvisited is the TVA’s Fonatana Dam, probably most famed for occupying the spot where the Appalachian Trail crosses the Little Tennessee River and enters GSMNP. There is a huge trail shelter here called the Fontana Hilton. Still going strong into it’s 70’s, Fontana is still to this day the tallest damn in the Eastern United States at 480 feet tall.

Every time we have gone to this area, we have found it to be almost completely deserted. Like the Nantahala National Forest to the South, this area of North Carolina is VERY remote. Not many people come here for any reason. But the dam is impressive, as is the 10,000 acre Fontana Lake.

In 2008 during high summer Brian ventured into this area specifically to get a look at the dam and the Fontana Hilton (He was toying at that time with the idea of section hiking the entire AT, an idea he has since abandoned.) He found the Hilton empty and quiet. In fact, the entire dam was deserted; his was one of only three or four cars in the entire vast parking lot, and the rest probably belonged to overnight hikers. He saw no one else.

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We could not find a single picture of any of our trips to Fontana Dam…so here’s a stock one with a pretty rainbow. Note the visitor center in the upper right corner. By TVA Web Team – FontanaUploaded by bomazi, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24569585

A few years later we had an amusing episode in this same area. While parked at a turnout by the river taking a picture, we were approached by some passing motorists looking for directions. They had come down from Ohio for some ‘recreational money disposal’ at Harrah’s down in Cherokee. Their GPS had apparently decided upon the scenic route; they were by that point completely befuddled, with no idea at all where they were, which was in fact basically the middle of nowhere.

We re-assured them that, yes, this was the way to Cherokee and sent them on their way…where for all we know, they later broke the bank at the blackjack table and returned to Ohio rich and happy, and hopefully equipped with a better GPS.

If you are into mountain biking, by the way, there is a GREAT place for it here called Tsali. If you are passionate biker, you already known about it, of course…it’s THE off-road bike Mecca in NC.

Great Smokey Mountain National Park is hands down the greatest National Park east of the Mississippi…and that’s why its so popular. If you heed some of the advice above, there’s a very good chance you can have a great experience in the park. Our main advice is: go off peak, try to get as far away from the roads and developed areas as possible, and enjoy the lesser visited areas, of which there are many.

Just because it’s America’s most Loved to Death National Park doesn’t mean it can’t be loved a little more. Like all love, it just takes a little work to make it happen.

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