I’m so excited to share our trip to one of my new favorite places! Since deciding that we really wanted to start camping with our kiddos at the beginning of the year, I knew Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a must-stay place. I mean, it’s a national park less than 3 hours from us. Done. We had been looking forward to this trip for so long, and- spoiler alert- it did not disappoint.
Before I get started, I do want to disclaim that this is not (yet) a travel guide. We spent 2 days here, and half of that time it rained. We are clearly not experts. I just want to share our trip, what we did, things we learned, and what we hope to do for our next trip! (Which, after completed, will hopefully be able to make this more of a guide.)
I’d also feel a little remiss if I didn’t mention a brief history of this beautiful area. As gorgeous as it is, it has a violent history that I think is important enough to be shared and acknowledged.
History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains were originally home to the Cherokee people. They called this area (and the Blue Ridge Parkway) Shaconage, meaning “land of the blue smoke.” The Cherokee people lived here for years after English settlers invaded, and they adopted many European influences. This included how they dressed and shopped, and it went so far as the Cherokee people establishing their own form of government based off of the United States’ government. This didn’t last, however, and the Cherokee people were eventually horrifically evicted from their land via the Trail of Tears. Today there is a Cherokee reservation before entering the park on the NC side that is home to about 11,000 Cherokee people. (You can read more details here.)
Where We Stayed
We tent camped at Smokemont Campground. This is on the North Carolina side of the park. This was a pretty large campground, and each tent site had a tent pad, a picnic table, and a fire ring/grate. Parking was right beside the campsite. There was also RV camping, but they did not have hookups at this campsite. There were also no showers here, so I would for sure not recommend this site for a long stay. However, it was absolutely beautiful and was perfect for our two nights. We had a creek running right across the street from where we stayed, there was a small field for running around, and everything felt spaced out enough where we didn’t feel overcrowded.
*I will disclaim here that I did not research well. I very wrongly assumed that once you were in the park, you could get anywhere within a decent amount of time from each other. We had planned some hikes on the Tennessee side that were about 2.5 hours from Smokemont. We adjusted and had a great time, but learn from my mistake and look at a map before planning your trip. Make sure whatever campsite you choose is relatively close to the hikes you want to do.
There are about 9 campgrounds in the park, so you’re sure to find one near where you want to be, just be better than me and research 🤓
What We Hiked at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Our hiking plans got thrown all up in the air as soon as we got there and realized that the majority of what I planned was over 2 hours away 🤦♀️. We went with it, though, and got some fun hikes in!
Juney Whank Falls
We got there Friday afternoon, set up camp, and then went to find Juney Whank Falls. This was a quick .6 mile loop that featured a stunning 2 level waterfall. There’s a wood footbridge that crosses it for an up close view. The trail itself was not too crowded and beautiful with a gorgeous tree canopy. We loved this as just an easy hike since we had just driven and unpacked, but the waterfall got the kids (and me, who are we kidding) hyped for the rest of our weekend. There are other waterfalls and small hikes around the area, and you can actually build onto Juney Whank Falls to make it a little longer, if you’d want.
*This was also a big area for tubing. There was a campground nearby that rented tubes out, and so many people were taking a ride in the river that flowed right by the parking lot. The whole park featured a lot of tubing, which is something we did not know before going on this trip!
Chimney Top Trail
This is the one I was most excited about! We woke up Saturday, ate breakfast, and headed out to reach this trailhead by about 9:30 (the trailhead was about 30-40 minutes from Smokemont Campground). This trailhead was crazy by the time we got there! Expect street parking and a short walk to get to the trailhead.
Y’all, this hike was no joke. I had read that it was steep and pretty strenuous, so we knew a little about what to expect. But let me just reiterate that it was STEEP and STRENUOUS. The whole 1.8 miles to the top was uphill. So many stairs to help, which killed my quads a smidge. We had to carry Zoey (age 3) quite a bit, but overall the kids did really well. We also got to see a mama bear and her two cubs (pretty far off of the trail, but awesome to see!), so the kids were stoked about that.
As hard as this hike is, it was the most beautiful hike we’ve done. It was so green and luscious, so many beautiful wildflowers, moss, filtered sunlight, tree canopies, climbing stairs….the whole hike was stunning. The beginning of the hike crossed over the river and there is a section with massive stones where many people were picnicking and fishing and just wading in the water. It culminates the top* with a gorgeous view of the Chimney Top and nearby mountains.
It probably goes without saying that the way down is all downhill and goes much quicker than climbing up. Also, it started pouring rain on us about half a mile from the end, so we booked it pretty good from that distance to the end. I think in all this trail took us a little under 4 hours to complete (including spending about ~25 minutes at the top).
*The original trail actually goes up the Chimney Top, and the trail does continue on after reaching the “peak.” However, because of a fire, this section of the trail is technically closed. Many people were hiking on anyway, but there is a barbed wire fence they had to go around. The hike up the Chimney Top section is incredibly steep and narrow, so I was glad it was closed, or I would have been tempted to try it with the kids. Dan did this section, though, and said it was definitely not for small children.
This was an add on, but was one about 20 minutes from the campsite we stayed at. We drove here Saturday afternoon, but it was torrentially downpouring. We thought about walking up anyway, but there was also a bit of a temperature difference we were not prepared for. Ultimately, we decided that best bet would be to try on Sunday morning.
We got here around 10am on Sunday, and I would highly recommend not coming any later than that. We found a parking spot pretty easily, though it was busy. By the time we left around 12, there was an incredibly long line around the parking lot, and people were parking about half a mile away from the beginning of the walk.
And while that may not seem like a huge deal, let me tell you about this walk. It is STEEP, and it is all uphill. It’s only a half mile itself to the observation tower. The whole thing is paved. This might be the most “touristy” type thing we did there. But don’t let it being paved and half a mile fool you. That hill is a workout!
Worth it, though. Clingmans Dome is the highest elevation on the Appalachian trail, as well as in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sits at 6,643 feet and has breathtaking 360-degree views. It was crowded, so in the age of COVID-19, we did wear masks when we reached the top.
What We’re Planning for Next Time
Yes, there is already another trip in the books. Next time, we’re planning to camp at Elkmont. This is the largest campsite in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s the best distance from everything we want to do. High on our list for next time is Rainbow Falls Trail, Laurel Falls Trail, and Cades Cove Loop. We also really want to take advantage of the tubing that seems to happen so much in the park!
What We Learned
We learned so much from this little trip. Firstly, as already mentioned, do your research. I completely underestimated the size of this park. While I’m glad we got to experience what we did, I’m already planning a trip back for the other half of the park. Make sure to figure out what hikes you want to do, and plan your camping around that.
Plan for a few days! We had just under 2 days and could have used so much more time. Next trip we plan I’m hoping for at least 4 days 🤞.
It gets chilly here! We only live 2.5 hours away. It’s been so hot and muggy here, and we assumed it would be similar at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While sun patches in the park could be warm, overall it was much cooler up there. We were almost always in long sleeves at the campsite, and the nights got pretty cold. Even the air on the hikes didn’t feel quite as muggy and was refreshing. All that to say- pack warm clothes and extra blankets if you’re camping!
Prepare for rain! I honestly can’t tell you if all the rain is just because we hit a bad weekend or because the clouds hang so low around these mountains. But all the same, it would be bright sun and pouring rain, so maybe just be prepared for that.
We absolutely loved our few days here and are so excited to get back! I’ll admit- I can easily get jealous of west coast landscapes. Trips like this are such a good reminder of how gorgeous the east coast can be! If you’ve been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, let me know what hike/trail/campground/activity is your favorite- legit starting my itinerary already, ha!
Enjoy just a few more favorite photos!