Best Entrances to Smoky Mountains National Park

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What entrance to the Smoky Mountains National Park should you pick?

Welcome to Smoky Mountains National Park, a breathtaking natural wonder straddling Tennessee and North Carolina.

Whether you're a seasoned hiker, a nature enthusiast, or simply looking for a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, this park offers some of the best views in the country.

With over 520,000 acres of pristine wilderness, the park is a great getaway for adventurers and nature lovers. With multiple entrances, deciding where to begin your journey can take time and effort.

Smoky Mountains National Park has three main entrances: Gatlinburg, Townsend, and Cherokee. Each offers unique experiences:

  • Gatlinburg serves as the main gateway
  • Townsend provides a peaceful retreat
  • Cherokee offers an untouched frontier

To determine the best entrance for your visit, consider factors like ease of access, atmosphere, and scenic views.

This guide will explore the three main Smoky Mountains National Park entrances, highlighting the fastest routes and the nearest towns to each location. We'll also uncover key stops near each entrance to help you maximize your visit.

I highly recommend that you enter through each of the entrances during your adventures at the park.

If you've been to the park a few times and hit these main entrances, consider some of the park's quieter areas: Cosby, Greenbrier, or Cataloochee.

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If you aren't sure when to go, I recommend visiting the Smokies in the spring to experience the wildflowers or exploring the Smokies in the fall as the leaves are changing color.

Why the Entrance You Choose Matters

Now, you might be wondering why the entrance you choose matters. Smoky Mountains National Park has three primary entrances, each offering a unique gateway to this most visited national park in the United States. 

Your choice of entrance can significantly shape your experience in the park. Each entrance offers different levels of accessibility, scenic views, and proximity to key attractions.

Understanding the advantages of each entrance empowers you to customize your visit to match your interests and priorities, making your trip more enjoyable and fulfilling.

The Gatlinburg Entrance, located in Gatlinburg, TN, is the main gateway for visitors and is known for its accessibility and vibrant atmosphere. 

The Townsend Entrance, located in Townsend, TN, is often referred to as the peaceful side of the park. It's a great place to find solitude. 

Lastly, the Cherokee Entrance in Cherokee, North Carolina, is best if you're looking for a backcountry adventure and a more rugged experience.

Choosing the right entrance that best suits your preferences is crucial to making the most of your time in Smoky Mountains National Park. This decision lets you control your experience, ensuring you get the most out of your visit.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sign with green trees in the background.

Gatlinburg Entrance: The Main Gateway

Welcome to the Gatlinburg Entrance, the main gateway to the wonders of Smoky Mountains National Park. This entrance is easily accessible, and Gatlinburg has a vibrant atmosphere and many attractions.

This entrance, also known as the Sugarlands Entrance, is about an hour southeast of Knoxville on US-441 South. To avoid driving through the downtown area, take the Gatlinburg Bypass/Parkway Bypass and exit towards the National Park from US-321 North / US-441 South Parkway.

Gatlinburg is a charming mountain resort community bustling with life. Gatlinburg provides the perfect starting point for your Smoky Mountain adventure, from cozy cabins and quaint lodges to vibrant shops and delicious restaurants.

There are plenty of attractions in town and nearby Pigeon Forge. Be sure to check out the Gatlinburg SkyBridge, North America's longest pedestrian suspension bridge.

Downtown Gatlinburg Strip. Stores lining both sides of the road and vehicles on the road.

Key Stops and Attractions

Once you've entered through the Gatlinburg Entrance, you'll find plenty of key stops and attractions to explore. Starting your visit at one of the park visitor's centers is always a great idea.

The Sugarlands Visitor Center, the park's main visitor center, is near the park entrance. Before further entering the park, you can learn about its history, trails, and wildlife.

Clingmans Dome

A visit to Clingmans Dome is a must when visiting this most popular national park. The iconic observation tower offers panoramic views of the mountains, providing a breathtaking reward for a scenic hike.

To reach Clingmans Dome from the visitor center, take Fighting Creek Gap Road / Little River Gorge Road to the right. This road will become US-441 South / Newfound Gap Road, offering breathtaking views.

Expect at least a 40-minute drive to reach this part of the park. 

Note: Clingmans Dome Road closes between December and April.

A sweeping view from Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains, showcasing the Newfound Gap Road winding through a forest with mountains stretching into the distance under a clear blue sky.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a scenic drive that showcases historic cabins, waterfalls, and old-growth forests. It's like stepping back in time and a great way to read about stories of the people who once occupied these lands.

Hiking

There are many great hiking trails close to the Gatlinburg Entrance. We love the Alum Cave Trail and the Rainbow Falls Trail; these paths offer scenic vistas. 

Enjoy a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail!
Enjoy a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail!

Townsend Entrance: The Peaceful Side

Check out the Townsend Entrance to Smoky Mountain National Park if you want a peaceful paradise. 

The Townsend Entrance, also known as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” is located just south of Townsend, TN, on TN 73, about 25 miles west of Gatlinburg.

To reach this entrance from Gatlinburg, take a relaxing drive along Old State Hwy 73 Scenic (Little River Gorge Road) to Townsend-Y Wye Road. Soak in the picturesque views along the way!

Note that if you are coming from the Pigeon Forge area, you may want to take US-321 South / Wears Valley Road to East Lamar Alexander Parkway instead.

You could also take the Wears Valley Entrance option, which would allow you to enjoy some stops along the Little River Gorge.

As you approach the park through the Townsend Entrance, you'll notice the change in atmosphere. Townsend is the heart of the stunning Little River Valley.

Townsend is a small town where time seems to slow, inviting you to breathe in the fresh mountain air and embrace the tranquility.

Key Stops and Attractions

While the Townsend Entrance may be known for its peaceful ambiance, it has plenty of attractions. 

Cades Cove

The Cades Cove Loop Road is a must-visit destination. Watch for wildlife sightings, historic structures, and mountain vistas as you drive or cycle along this scenic loop.

Be sure to stop in the Cades Cove Visitor Center to learn about some off-the-beaten-path places to visit in this area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Cades Cove Valley View

Little River

Venture to the Little River to connect more closely with flowing waters. You can enjoy fishing, swimming, tubing, or wading in the refreshing currents.

The river provides the perfect soundtrack to your peaceful escape, helping you reach a state of relaxation and rejuvenation. For an outdoor adventure, go tubing down the river! Check out Smoky Mountain River Rat for two different options. 

Note: Check the water levels before renting a tube. If the water is low, skip it.

People enjoying a day of tubing down the Little River in Townsend, Tennessee, floating in bright yellow tubes surrounded by green trees and calm water.
Townsend – Little River – Tubing” by jared422_80 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center

To peek into the area's cultural heritage, visit the Townsend Heritage Museum. This museum showcases the history and traditions of the town and its people, offering an understanding of the community that thrives in this corner of the park.

With its peaceful ambiance and stunning natural wonders, the Townsend Entrance invites you to unwind, reconnect with nature, and experience the true essence of Smoky Mountain National Park.

It's the perfect gateway for those seeking tranquility and serenity in their mountain getaway.

Cherokee Entrance: The Untouched Frontier

If you want a more rustic experience in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, look no further than the Cherokee Entrance of Smoky Mountain National Park, which is on the North Carolina Side of the park.

As you travel through this gateway, you will find it less crowded. 

The Cherokee Entrance is located in Cherokee, North Carolina, and offers a gateway into the park's wild beauty. To reach it, take the scenic route along the Blue Ridge Parkway and marvel at the breathtaking vistas surrounding you.

Cherokee holds a special place in the cultural heritage of the park. As the gateway town, it offers a glimpse into the history and traditions of the Cherokee people, paying homage to their resilience, wisdom, and connection to the land.

The Cherokee entrance area of the Great Smoky Mountains, featuring a peaceful, green meadow bordered by dense, leafless trees and shadowy hills.
elk and cops at the Cherokee entrance” by pmuellr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Key Stops and Attractions

Once you've passed the Cherokee Entrance, you'll be surrounded by captivating stops and attractions. 

Oconaluftee Visitor Center 

The Oconaluftee Visitor Center serves as an excellent starting point. It provides informative exhibits and helpful park rangers who can help you plan your adventures.

Deep Creek Area

Are you feeling adventurous? Lace-up your boots and check out the Deep Creek Area, just north of Bryson City and west of Cherokee.  The Deep Creek Trail (2.4 miles) passes two waterfalls. This area is one of the few that allows mountain biking.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

For a glimpse into the living history of the Cherokee people, head to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. This museum presents the story of the Cherokee from their origins to modern times.

Mingo Falls 

Another hidden gem near the Cherokee Entrance is the Mingo Falls.  This 120′ tall waterfall cascades down a towering stone face. The 0.4-mile trail is short, but it's about 160 stairs! 

Mingo Falls, a picturesque waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains, cascades down a hillside surrounded by dense foliage.

FAQs: Entrances to the Smoky Mountain National Park

Which entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park is the best for avoiding crowds?

The Townsend, TN, Entrance is your best bet if you prefer to avoid large crowds. Known as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” Townsend is often less crowded than the popular Gatlinburg Entrance. This entrance allows you to enjoy nature in a quieter atmosphere.

Are there any fees associated with entering Smoky Mountains National Park?

Yes, there are fees associated with entering Smoky Mountains National Park. The park operates on a pay-to-park system. There is no entrance fee to enter the park, but there is a parking fee if you plan to stay in one spot for over 15 minutes.

The parking tag does not guarantee a parking space but allows you to park within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Tag durations range from daily, weekly, to annual. Check the park website for additional parking tag information.

A creek view found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

What are some must-see attractions within a short drive from the entrances?

Each entrance of Smoky Mountains National Park is surrounded by beautiful areas worth exploring. Here are some must-see attractions within a short drive from each of the three main entrances:

Gatlinburg Entrance: Don't miss the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which offers breathtaking views of historic cabins, waterfalls, and old-growth forests. Another highlight is the scenic drive along the iconic Newfound Gap Road.

Townsend Entrance: Visit the picturesque Cades Cove Loop Road, where you can explore history, culture, and wildlife. The Little River is a peaceful retreat with opportunities for fishing, swimming, and relaxing in nature.

Cherokee Entrance: Explore the fascinating Cherokee Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn about the rich heritage of the Cherokee people. Mingo Falls will leave you in awe as you witness its power and beauty—it's a steep hike but worth it!

Final Thoughts: Entrances to the Smoky Mountains National Park

Whether you choose the bustling Gatlinburg Entrance for its accessibility and vibrant atmosphere, the peaceful Townsend Entrance to escape the crowds and reconnect with nature, or the adventurous Cherokee Entrance to dive deep into the wilderness, each entrance offers unique charm and opportunities.

While the entrance sets the stage, the park's true magic lies within its breathtaking trails, captivating wildlife, and awe-inspiring scenery. Take the time to explore the key stops and attractions unique to each entrance. 

So pack your sense of adventure, open your heart to nature, and head out on a journey that will leave you with memories to treasure for a lifetime.

Related Posts:

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Cades Cove is among the best places to spot wildlife in the Smoky Mountains!

12 Easy Hikes Near Gatlinburg: Top Scenic Trails

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