Taking the Road Less Traveled into Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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A road tunnel in the Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the busiest national parks in the country. The park sees nearly 12.5 million visitors annually. If you follow the crowds, you’re likely to spend a considerable amount of time waiting.

You can avoid waiting by taking the road less traveled. Doing so can enhance your experience and make for a more enjoyable trip.

Let’s see how you can skip the crowds and still enjoy this fantastic park.

Where Is Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

North Carolina and Tennessee share the title as the home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is in far east Tennessee and the western section of North Carolina. It lies within driving distance of several major cities, including Nashville, Atlanta, and Charlotte. The convenient location greatly contributes to the park’s tremendous popularity.

Traveler’s Tip: Check out these 6 national parks in the southeastern U.S. that are sure to amaze.

What Are the Busiest Entrances for This National Park?

The two main entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park are notoriously busy. These entrances come from Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C. 

The Gatlinburg entrance is also known as the Sugarlands entrance. It is by far the most popular and busiest entrance in the park. Guests typically drive through Gatlinburg on their way to the park and end up waiting in traffic throughout Gatlinburg and into the park. If you’re anticipating getting a picture at the park entrance sign, expect to wait in line for that too.

The entrance in Cherokee is called the Oconaluftee entrance. The entrance sits on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. In this town, you’ll find museums, crafts, a casino, and more shopping as you prepare to enter the park. This entrance may not be as popular as the Gatlinburg entrance, but it still gets swamped, especially during peak tourist season.

Alternative Entrances into Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds and sitting in lines of traffic, there are a few alternative entrances to consider. These can help save you time waiting outside or in the park and allow you more time for your adventures. Let’s check them out.

Wears Valley

The Wears Valley entrance is in Wears Valley, Tenn., and is likely the least used park entrance. Locals often use this entrance to bypass the hustle and bustle of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. There is no visitor center at this entrance, but you have easy access to the Little River Gorge Area. 

You’ll want to travel from Pigeon Forge on Wears Valley Road to access this park entrance. Continue for just over nine miles or 10 minutes until you reach the town of Wears Valley, Tenn. Take Line Springs Road on your left until you see a sign pointing you toward the park entrance. The road will eventually turn into Wears Cove Gap Road as it crosses into the national park. 

Cosby

The Cosby entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a mile south of TN-32 on Cosby Entrance Road. This is a lesser-used entrance as it’s not super convenient for many of the big-name attractions and hikes tourists flock to see at the park. 

However, the 4.2-mile round trip hike to Hen Wallow Falls is great for families and those who enjoy waterfalls. You can still find quite a bit to see and do in this area, and you’re only a short drive to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Cataloochee 

If you’re coming into the area on I-40, Cataloochee Valley is just 10 miles from the interstate. This road can be a slower route as it can get narrow and windy in places. There’s also gravel instead of pavement in places. You can find many opportunities for hiking and fishing here. Explore the creeks or just enjoy the drive.

There’s no visitor center at this entrance, but it’s not uncommon to see rangers with educational exhibits. If you don’t see a ranger and want to chat with one, there’s a ranger station at the main gate.

Why Should You Take the Road Less Traveled Into Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the many perks of visiting a national park is enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. It’s much easier to enjoy them when there’s not a bus-load of loud tourists running to take selfies.

Hikes are often much easier to enjoy when there’s a chance you might catch a glimpse of some wildlife. Large groups tend to scare away animals and make them avoid popular paths.

If you’re looking for a more natural experience while visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park, take the road less traveled. You won’t regret it.

Avoid the Crowds

It can be challenging to get away from the crowds when you’re visiting one of the most popular national parks in the National Park System. However, if you want to experience this incredible park with a bit more solitude, it’s possible. Try one of these “secret” entrances, and you can spend more time experiencing the park and less time waiting in line.

Have you visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

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  1. Was there in November. 2021, plus a number of times past.
    Thank. You for this info.

    The most dangerous access is 441 between Cherokee and Gatlinburg, where narrow the winding road combined with speeding sportscar drivers are hazardous.

    We drove this road several times in November. 2022, never once saw a driver being ticketed or even a patrol car.

    We often had to pull over anywhere possible to avoid a high speed rear end collision.
    One night after dark, we were behind 3 vehicles approaching a blind curve. Yet a speeding sportscar driver crossed the double yellow line without knowing if a vehicle was approaching around the blnd curve
    Such are the drivers who should get JAIL TIME! Suppose an innocent family had been the victims of their speeding stupidity!💔

    Yet on the Tail of the Dragon, Highway 129, with its 318 curves in 11 miles, with speeding sports cars and motorcyles, we saw highway patrol cars lying in wait for SOMETHING.

    WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE? And WHY is 441 not widely patrolled?

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