Saturday, September 30, 2023


An in-depth look at traveling by RV at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

An Introduction

I love all things nature. I enjoy visiting the National Parks, 23 so far. However, the great American highway offers many unique sites along the way. Like you, we discuss where we want to go and work backward from there. That allows us to research all of those spots in between that fall into the “must-see” column. Therein lies my motivation for this column.

Nature’s Highways promises to provide you with not only hints and facts about nature found on your trip, but those often missed stops along the way. For example, if you are heading from Bryce Canyon NP to Capitol Reef NP, be sure to take time to view the historic grounds of Anasazi State Park in Boulder, UT. 

Perhaps you find yourself on a layover in North Platte, NE, heading to Yellowstone NP. Take a couple of days to tour the older downtown area, then visit Bailey Yard, the Guinness record holder as the largest railroad yard in the world. 

More about these later. I just want to give you a heads-up about this new column. Nature’s Highways will run monthly in the Sunday edition of the newsletter. It will include links to all places discussed, interesting nature facts associated with those places, and a shout-out to good eats along the way. I will add a special line called “Wait. What?!” in each column to give you some jaw-dropping facts about the specific topic and nature in general. 

I hope that after reading Nature’s Highways you will find it interesting, informative, and entertaining as well. As always, your comments and suggestions are welcomed. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Let’s begin our adventure with the most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with 12.9 million visitors in 2022. That is more visits than Yellowstone (3.3M), Grand Canyon (4.7M), and Zion (4.7M) combined. Why is that? It is within one day’s drive of one-half the U.S. population. Plus, plenty of side attractions have located just outside.

Getting there

Using your favorite GPS navigator, the US-441 bisects the park from the most popular entrance on the Northside to the Sugarlands Visitor Center at Gatlinburg, TN. It ends, or begins, depending on your starting point, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center via the Southside entrance at Cherokee, NC. Known as Newfoundland Gap Road, US-441 curves its way through the park to an elevation of 5,046 feet before dropping back down.  

Once close to Knoxville, head south to any one of the popular towns: Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, or Cosby. Among these, you will find more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds. These include KOA Holidays and Good Sam parks.

Coming in from the Southside, you will head toward Cherokee, NC. RV parks are few and the roads to any are winding. The same goes for getting to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. There is a KOA and a few Good Sam parks along with a plethora of campgrounds.

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are looking to “rough it” in your RV, the park offers nine campgrounds. The only one with water/electric hookups (10 total) is Look Rock, plus the means to park RVs up to 48 feet. All others are dry camping only with limited site lengths: Cades Cove and Smokemount – 40 feet RVs, 35 feet for trailers; Elkmount – 35 feet for RVs, 32 feet trailers; Cataloochee – 31 feet; Balsam Mountain – 30 feet; Deep Creek – 26 feet; and Cosby – 25 feet. Availability goes quickly, so a 6-month advance reservation is recommended. You can only reserve at in all national parks. 

You are there. Now what?

First head to the Visitors Center. You must have a parking permit anywhere in the park. The best method is to purchase online. Otherwise, you can purchase one at a Visitor’s Center. 

Settler’s cabin photo by Dale Wade

Driving tours

  • Cades Cove—A scenic 11-mile one-way loop that wanders through the park passing relics of past lives. Many of the early settlers’ houses and a few primitive churches remain standing. Pull-out parking is available, but limited. This is a 3- to 4-hour popular tour, even longer depending on your start time. The earlier the better. The beginning is well marked, from Cherokee, 57 miles; from Gatlinburg, 27 miles; and from Townsend, 9 miles. Restrooms are available about halfway at the Cades Cove Visitors Center. From spring through fall one can expect to see turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. There are a few easy- to moderate-difficulty hiking trailheads along the route. Again, parking is limited and by permit only.
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail—Another popular loop of 5.5 miles takes you through an old-growth forest alongside a mountain stream. At about 2.5 miles is the trailhead for the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail (0.7-mile easy loop). This takes you across two brooks, past his 1880s “saddle-bag” farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and around his “pass-through” barn. Do not miss the “tub mill” used for grinding corn and the only one still existing out of a dozen in the area.
  • Clingman’s Dome—At an elevation of 6,643 feet, not only is it the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it also boasts the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1959, the observation tower allows visitors a 360-degree panorama of the Smokies. On a clear day you can see more than 100 miles. However, most days are “smoky” limiting visibility to about 20 miles. Due to the steepness of the paved ramp up to the tower, wheelchairs, pets, and bicycles are prohibited. Also, remember that at this elevation the ambient temperature is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.
Roaring Fork photo by Dale Wade

Hiking trails

GSMNP stands out as a hiker’s heaven with more than 800 miles of trails through an old-growth forest, including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. No wonder it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983). Trails range from easy (Spruce Fir Trail, 0.4 miles r/t, 25-feet elevation gain), to moderate (Rainbow Falls, 5.4 miles r/t, 1685-feet elevation gain), to strenuous (Mt. Le Conte via Trillium Gap, 13.9 miles r/t, 3401-feet elevation gain). Remember, always check with the rangers at the Visitors Center for trail conditions, wildlife spotting, and permits, if required.

Flora and fauna

GSMNP shows more than 1,500 flowering species with spring offering the showiest of wildflowers. Of course, timing is everything. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage offers guided walks and talks.

Black bear photo by Dale Wade

This is black bear habitat. They crawl from hibernation in the spring and forage all summer. July is mating season with bear cubs abundant shortly after. Follow NPS bear safety instructions should you encounter one. Speaking of safety, there are 23 species of snakes, but only two are venomous: Timber rattlesnake and Northern copperhead. Watch your step.

When hiking you may encounter sightings of coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. Enjoy from afar. Park regulations prohibit feeding any wild critter. 

Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus)

Synchronized fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (

Of the 19 different species of fireflies that live within the GSMNP, the synchronous fireflies stand out among them all. The flash pattern alerts females that the males are of their species. It begins with a series of 5-8 flashes, a pause of about 8 seconds, and then this repeated pattern. Watching this mating ritual ranks as a truly unique experience.

To stand among the viewers requires one to enter the park lottery. This happens in late April to early May, when the lottery for vehicle passes closes. The viewing begins when the adults seek to mate, usually in June. To enter one must go to

We did not get in. Another opportunity awaits in northeast Tennessee at Rocky Fork State Park. Again, admission is by lottery only. 

Makin’ merry

Pigeon Forge seems like a carnival that never ends. From Dollywood to the Old Mill Historic District, there are plenty of places for excitement. When it comes to eats, you name it, from fast foods to dinner theaters. Big names like Guy Fieri’s Downtown Flavortown, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen are located on The Island, another tourist destination. In the mood for fried chicken or catfish, try J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen. Plenty of barbecue available, but Preachers Smokehouse is hard to beat. Get there early as they sell out quickly. Finally, do not forget to taste the moonshine. It will make you merry!

I hope that these few words piqued your curiosity and motivated you to roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do not let the crowds put you off. You just have to plan your trip and be smarter than the average tourist. One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all. GSMNP is HUGE, covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

Wait. What?!  Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms, is not limited to fireflies. Several other species “light up.” These include certain fish, shrimp, plankton, jellyfish, fungus, and gnats.

Happy Travels!


Dale Wade
Dale Wade
Dale Wade is a Master Naturalist and a Master Gardener. He participates in many citizen science projects pertaining to learning and preserving all things nature.


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Neal Davis
2 months ago

Thank you, Dale! This is interesting stuff. Currently, I have found national parks too crowded to enjoy. I’ll keep this (and subsequent ones you write) against the possibility of the crowds dissipating. (I doubt it, but have a small measure of hope.)

Val Catena
2 months ago

I enjoyed this article and look forward to reading futures! I travel mostly west of the Rockies but make an east coast loop every 2-3 years to visit family and friends. Seldom do I take the time to detour from direct routes to those planned visits, however, the information Mr. Wade has provided is encouragement to get off that “beaten” path.

Bruce Williams
2 months ago

We were just in the area (July 2023). Traffic was terrible from early morning until late at night. Not relaxing place to take a vacation IMO. Thankfully we were in our towed car and had the Motorhome at the nearby Escapees campground in Knoxville.

2 months ago

I was in the great smoky mountains in April of this year. If you drive straight through the park without stopping you do not need a parking permit. I did see some vehicles that were parked and they had a friendly reminder that they needed a parking permit.

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