A Park Ranger's Guide to Great Smoky Mountains

Backcountry management specialist Christine Hoyer has spent the last seven years working at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

An outdoor enthusiast through and through, Christine is fortunate enough to have made her love of the outdoors into a career. When she’s not working in “America’s most visited national park,” Christine can be found hiking, backpacking, and photographing in her favorite place—the Great Smoky Mountains.

Here’s a look at this diverse park through her unique lens.

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Great Smoky Mountains Is My Park

When you try to figure out the best time to visit the park, the first thing you have to decide is what you hope to experience. The spring brings an abundance of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and other wildflowers. In the summer months the thick forest vegetation is lush and green. As the leaves turn, autumnal temperatures set the mountains ablaze in color and bring out the crowds. If solitude is what you are after, and the cold doesn’t give you pause, winter is the best time to visit the park.

My park’s biggest attractions are the mountain views, but a visit isn’t complete without seeing one of the many waterfalls.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to plan ahead. There is more to see and do in the Smokies than can be experienced in one trip, regardless of how long you have to spend in the park. Figure out ahead of time what you want to see—from the mountain views to the historic structures, the wildlife to the waterfalls. It will also go a long way to be familiar with the park regulations before you arrive. If you plan ahead you will not only make the most of your time in the park but you will also leave less of a trace of your visit for all those that come behind you.

My favorite “park secret” is the night sky. Given its proximity to big cities and the areas of dense vegetation, some might not think of this as a place to enjoy the stars. In fact, there are some great places, both front country and backcountry, to experience the brilliance of the stars and/or enjoy the shadows cast by a full moon.

Watch out for changing temperatures from the low elevations to the highest points in the park and be sure to bring a map, camera, raingear, layers, closed-toed shoes, and water when you come to the park.

Head to Cades Cove if you want to see wildlife. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a black bear, as well as deer, turkey, and other wildlife. If you are in search of the elk, a drive out to the meadows in Cataloochee is your best bet.

For the best iconic view, head to Clingmans Dome. You can enjoy the view from the parking lot or walk up a half-mile, steep, paved trail to the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies (6,643 feet). The view from the Clingmans Dome Tower is expansive and it is a great spot to catch the sunrise or sunset.

With more than 800 miles of trails, most of which I have hiked at this point, it is challenging to pick a favorite! One of my favorite hikes in the park is to a place called Charlies Bunion. This is a popular spot but if you get on the trail early you may have this extraordinary rock outcropping to yourself. On a clear day you will be treated to a view of the mountains and valleys that stretch out in front of you. It is also a great place to catch a “smoky view” if you find yourself in or above the clouds.

A drive to the middle of the park, Newfound Gap, from either Gatlinburg or Cherokee provides a scenic experience. You will have the opportunity to see views of the mountains that you are in at numerous overlooks. The park also provides a number of scenic loop drives that are well worth investigating.

If you’re up for an adventure/physical challenge, take a hike to the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower. There is more than one route that will take you to the top of Mt. Cammerer, the most common of which is 10.5 miles round trip. No matter which route you chose, you climb to just under 5,000 feet and travel along a beautiful stretch of the Appalachian Trail to get there. The 360-degree view from the Mt. Cammerer Fire Tower makes the trip well worth the effort.

The Smokies is full of cultural history and each of the more than 100 historic structures left standing has a story to tell. They can be found from one side of the park to the other, from Oconaluftee to Cades Cove. To experience the park’s cultural side, explore the Elkmont Historic District which began as a logging town in the early 20th century. If you are willing to travel into the backcountry and off the beaten path you can also explore the remnants of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps and the walls, trails, and structures they built in the park during the ’30s.

There are plenty of places to stay outside the park but I would offer that the best places to stay while you’re visiting are within the park boundary. Depending on your experience and comfort level with camping, you might consider staying at one of the park campgrounds, backcountry campsites, or backcountry shelters. Bring a picnic as you will also find some great picnic areas to enjoy. 

If you only have one day to spend in the park, make sure to take a drive up to Newfound Gap, get out of your car, and take a short walk among the trees, and then enjoy a ranger program. (One day is never enough!)

If you’re interested in a guided tour, I recommend taking advantage of the ranger-led programs. Our Interpretive Rangers lead hikes and provide a wide range of programs that focus on the history, the stories, and the resources of the park.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be alongside a park waterway. There are more than 2,900 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks in the park, which provides plenty of opportunities to sit and listen to the natural soundtrack as the water flows.

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The park volunteers are the “unsung heroes” of my park because they are one of the things that make the Smokies such a great place. We are honored by the service of thousands of volunteers who perform a variety of duties—walk the trails, pick up litter, educate and assist visitors, protect the wildlife, etc. These volunteers provide the park with their time, energy, and talents as they assist staff in fulfilling the park’s mission.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the park nature trails. These are short loop trails (a mile or less), some of which have brochures that tell the story of the resources or the area the trail passes through. You can find most of these trails near the park campgrounds or other developed areas. They are great for family adventures!

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the Fontana Dam on the North Carolina side of the park or the art district and attraction-packed town of Gatlinburg in Tennessee.

Some might think that the black bear should be the mascot of the Smokies, but I would offer that if my park had a mascot, it would be the salamander. The Smokies boasts at least 30 species of salamanders, one of which is only found here. Due to the abundance and diversity found in the Smokies it is often called the “Salamander Capital of the World”. These creatures find great hiding places and are quick, but once you know where to look you will find them. As predators they are also an important player in the park environment and they act as an indicator species for the health of the park’s complex ecosystem.

The biggest threats to this park’s future are things we humans introduce. In my mind, this includes the invasive species that we bring in, as well as the impacts we create through air pollution and use of the resources. We can all do our part to minimize these threats by acting responsibly and respectfully as we engage with this special place.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because of its diversity. The park contains ecological and cultural diversity that is unmatched and there is something here for everyone to discover.

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources (books, films, websites, apps, etc.): Official Great Smoky Mountain Park site; digital trip planner; Great Smoky Mountains Association site; and once you arrive in the park, stop by one of the Visitor Centers to get a copy of the seasonal Smokies Guide, which will provide information about the park, ranger-led programs, and other recommendations on things to see and do in the park.

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