Best Time to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains
With such majestic scenery, so many people want to know the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains in the eastern United States. Great Smoky Mountains National Park borders Tennessee and North Carolina with more than 500,000 acres to hike, fish, and explore. From wildlife to wildflowers, the Great Smoky Mountains are a must-visit for outdoor lovers.
Look out from the peak of Clingmans Dome, look for bears and wildlife in scenic Cades Cove, or just enjoy the drive and fresh air along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 10 million visitors every year. There are so many activities to enjoy, and it is one of the few free national parks in America. Visiting the communities that have the Smoky Mountains as their backdrop, like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee, and Asheville in North Carolina, are other ways to enjoy the Appalachian ambience that is so unique to this region.
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Best Time to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open year-round, but the best times to visit are during the summer months (June, July, August) and in the fall (October) during the peak color season. The popular summer season is when wildlife is active, waterfalls are flowing, and trails are open.
Summer is hot, but temperatures can be comfortable since the mountains are in higher elevations up to 6,000 feet. Even in the summer, you will want to pack several types of clothing layers because temperatures can be as much as 20 degrees different from the parking lot to the peaks. Summer will have the most tourists and the highest rates for lodging.
Another popular and scenic time to visit is in October, when the fall foliage is at its peak. The air is cooler, and the brilliant colors are stunning across the dense forest. Take a drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and watch the falling leaves drop from overhead like rain.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center should be your first stop before setting out to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park on foot or by car. You can get current trail and road conditions and recommendations from the rangers on where to go based on your particular interests. There are exhibits to enjoy, a video about the park's history, and a nice gift shop inside.
Best Season to Visit the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains will offer a different experience in every season of the year. You can take a ranger-led workshop during your visit to find out more about the wildlife habitats and the seasonal landscapes in the park if you have time.
Spring: The spring months in the Smoky Mountains are nice because trees, flowers, and wildlife are waking from their winter slumber. March weather can be slightly unpredictable, and you may find some mountain roads closed due to snow or ice. The lower elevation trails will be open, and an early spring hike can be invigorating. Just pack layers and water for your trek.
April and May have warmer temperatures and are in the shoulder season, so you will have fewer crowds. You can get lower lodging rates during the week, but spring weekend rates will be higher, as many in-state visitors come to enjoy the April explosion of wildflowers and budding trees. Both months do see a bit of rain, but if you pack some wet weather gear, you can still get out to enjoy the park.
Since National Park Week falls in April, you will find special activities and opportunities that coincide with that at the park. On the North Carolina side you can enjoy the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage with nature walks, photography classes, and art demonstrations.
Summer: While summer is probably the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains, it is also the most congested with tourists. You can expect a lot of road traffic and packed hiking trails. The high summer season is when many festivals and outdoor concerts take place that are fun to experience. June, July, and August are when you can take full advantage of all the outdoor activities, like fishing, rafting, and horseback riding, and tackle some of the best hiking trails that are tough to access other times of the year due to their higher elevations and the potential for ice and snow.
Summer will mean higher rates for lodging, and you will want to book far in advance to ensure availability since this is a busy season. Keep in mind that some of the popular experiences in the Smoky Mountains, like the Cades Cove Loop and Newfound Gap Road will take longer due to the high volumes of people driving through them. Since the summer heat can get quite uncomfortable, plan your outdoor activities for the mornings.
Fall: Next to the busy summer vacation season, fall is the ideal time to visit. The crisp fall air is nice, and the colorful fall foliage is stunning. Fall colors begin to emerge on the trees in mid-September. This is also when lodging rates dip to low-season rates. Peak fall colors emerge in October, and this is when tourists and high-season hotel rates will spike again briefly on the weekends. You can still get great rates and fewer tourists to compete with at key outlook spots in the national park during the weekdays in October.
By November, temperatures begin to drop significantly, and some roads could close in the higher elevations. Since it is on the shoulder season, many tourists question whether to go in November but it is still a pleasant time to visit, and you can score great deals on lodging. Jackets and layers will be necessary throughout the fall, but the scenic drives and hikes in the cool air will be pleasant.
Another benefit of visiting in the fall is the opportunity to see wildlife activity in places like Cades Cove on the Tennessee side. In North Carolina, fall means the start of the monarch butterfly migration and the elk rut, so you will see wildlife activity, especially in the mornings and at dusk.
Winter: The winter months of December through February have the fewest tourists, but they also have the coldest weather. You can still hike in the mountains, but some trails and roads will likely be closed in the higher elevations from icy conditions. It is important to stop into the national park visitor center when you first arrive if you plan to hike to get the daily update of trail conditions.
Though some wildlife like bears are hibernating during the winter months, it is a great time to see active wildlife like deer since there are no leaves on the trees. Hiking to see some of the frozen waterfalls throughout the park is a special way to experience the Smokies, especially if you do photography. The winter months bring a stillness in the park that is peaceful.
Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains for Fall Color
If you want to plan your Smoky Mountain trip around the fall colors, it is important to know that the peak window changes every year depending on weather conditions. Generally, the fall foliage begins mid-September and peaks in October. Some years, the peak hits in early or mid-November. You can enjoy the colorful spectacle of fall by taking hikes or scenic drives through the national park on Newfound Gap Road or Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
You will want to wait until August or September to book your fall lodging, when you can review the fall foliage forecast for the area. Hotel rates are low in the fall season with the exception of weekends, when tourists flock to the mountains for fall color viewing, mostly in October.
Leaves begin to change from vibrant green to oranges, reds, and yellows when the temperatures are in the 70s during the day and in the 40s at night. Higher elevations have the most dynamic color first, which generally occurs in late October. Peak color in the lower elevations hits about a week later.
Best Time to Go to Cades Cove
One of the best experiences in the Smoky Mountains is a drive through Cades Cove. You can easily access it on the Tennessee side of the national park. Cades Cove is a secluded area of the Smoky Mountains that was the home of the Appalachian settlers in the 18th century. There is an 11-mile loop that winds through the Cades Cove valley, where you can see active native wildlife like black bears, deer, wild turkeys, and birds.
Since it was home to early settlers, you will see original historic cabins, a grist mill, and three churches. Cades Cove is a popular area for photographers, historians, and families to learn about early American settlers and the Cherokee Indians that used to hunt on the land in the Smokies. If you want to park your car and hike there are several trails in Cades Cove. One of the more popular is Abrams Falls, which takes you to a picturesque waterfall.
The loop is a one-way drive, so you want to plan enough time to get here, drive through, and get out to enjoy the scenery. Be sure to stop at the Cades Cove Visitor Center to learn about the history of the area and see exhibits about early settlers and the wildlife. You can take a ranger-led tour or program if one is offered during your visit. There is also a nice gift shop with hiking maps of the Smoky Mountains, nature-inspired gifts, and even jacket patches to buy to commemorate some of the notable hiking trails in the park.
Best Time to Go to Clingmans Dome
You often hear Clingmans Dome mentioned in conjunction with the Smoky Mountains. That is because this 6,643-foot-high peak is the highest point in Tennessee and in the national park. It is one of the most picturesque spots in the entire park, which is why it is congested with tourists during the summer and on the weekends. The best time to visit is summer, but you may want to plan your trek to Clingmans Dome in the late spring, around May, or late summer or early fall (September or October), when weather conditions are still favorable, and the tourist crowds have lessened.
You can access Clingmans Dome from several parking lots along Clingmans Dome Road that lead to trailheads. From the mountain peak and summit observation tower, you can see almost 100 miles into the distance. The trail is paved, but it can be an aggressive trek. If you do not want to go to the peak, you can enjoy the view from several scenic lookout points on the road along the way. No matter when you visit, plan on taking a jacket, as the elevation makes temperatures quite cool.
Best Time to Climb Chimney Tops Trail
One of the most popular and aggressive trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Chimney Tops. While there are many trails in the park suitable for novice hikers, Chimney Tops is best for those who have experience. The trail to Chimney Tops requires climbing over rocks to get to the summit, and it is a steep climb. The best times to go are in late spring or late summer to avoid the crowds. You are less likely to encounter inexperienced climbers and hikers if you stay away from the busy summer months.
Before starting the Chimney Tops trail, stop by the visitor center to check with rangers about the trail accessibility. Some damage from the 2016 fires occasionally impacts the trail access, and weather conditions at the higher elevations can also change from year to year.
Weather in the Smoky Mountains
The weather in the Smoky Mountains is fascinating but important to understand if you are planning a trip, especially to hike on the many trails. The elevation differences range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet at the highest peak on Clingmans Dome, which means that weather conditions like rain can differ at various altitudes and temperatures, and vary as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fog and visibility can differ as well from one elevation to another. You can plan ahead with proper clothing and timing for your hikes by knowing the general conditions of the seasons in the Smoky Mountains.
Spring: The spring months of March through May have the most unpredictable weather in the Smoky Mountains region. That means pack for anything: snow, rain, wind, sun. During these months, the weather can also change quickly. There may still be some snow in March, particularly in the higher elevations.
April weather is more stable, and temperatures are warming, but it can be a month with a lot of rain, usually in the afternoons. May still has some rain, but the daytime temperatures are comfortable, and it is a nice month to enjoy the mountains before the summer tourist season. You are advised to bring a light jacket during the spring months.
Summer: The summer months of June, July, and August are hot and humid. These are great months to hike to higher elevations where the air is cooler. Evenings are usually cooler and more comfortable, so you can enjoy star gazing over the mountains, but daytime temperatures can be sweltering. If you plan to do a lot of outdoor activities, it is best to do them in the morning hours. There are occasional thunderstorms during the summer months.
Fall: The fall weather during the months of September through November in the Smoky Mountains is pleasant. These are the driest months in the Smokies, so you will not encounter much rain. The first frost can come as early as the end of September, and snow is likely by November, especially in the higher elevations. Daytime temperatures are cool and comfortable, but hikers will want to dress in layers to accommodate the air temperatures along the trails.
Winter: The winter months from December through February are cold and snowy but not unbearable. You can still dress in layers and take hikes on some of the trails in the lower elevations. You can even tackle some of the higher elevation trails, like those to Mount LeConte, but be prepared to wear durable, waterproof hiking boots and take ice trackers and hand warmers with you. The higher elevation trails that are still open will most likely have ice in sections and below freezing temperatures. January and February have the most snowfall in the Smoky Mountains.
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Where to Stay in Tennessee: While planning your Smoky Mountain vacation there are a number of lodging options to consider in Tennessee, including resorts in Pigeon Forge and hotels in Gatlinburg, or you might want to rent a cabin in the woods.
Where to Stay in North Carolina: If you are planning to see the Smoky Mountains from the North Carolina side, then you may want to stay in one of the hotels or resorts in Asheville and make a day trip to the mountains or rent a cabin closer to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hendersonville is a nearby town, which also makes a good base. For more ideas, see our guide to the Best Mountain Towns in North Carolina.