days
hours
minutes
until the total solar eclipse.

Best Times to Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park | A Monthly Breakdown

When are the best times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? See a month-by-month breakdown to find the best.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

Located on these road trip routes:

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

Share this post

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has one of the best problems: it’s too popular. In recent years, the park has become overcrowded with throngs of visitors parking for miles along the road’s shoulders, cramming onto narrow hiking paths, and clogging major intersections.

So, when is the best time to visit and avoid the crowds?

From late May until the end of October, the national park is visited by more than half a million people every month. As more and more people seek the most popular parts of the park, it becomes more and more difficult to get there.

Fortunately, two shoulder seasons are the best times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And there are always less popular places to visit that still offer hiking trails and scenic views.

Read this month-by-month breakdown of the best times to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park to learn about the peak times to avoid, shoulder seasons that are the best, and specific events you may want to attend.

Do you have a particular time of year you visit annually? Or do you base your plans on off-seasons and around holidays? Leave me a comment below and let me know how you pick a date to visit this park.

do you love
road trips?
Sign up and be the first to read new road trip itineraries and destination guides.
Yes! I would like to receive updates, special offers, and other information from Road Trips & Coffee.

Weather

I learned a lesson about weather predictions in the mountains the hard way. One morning, I checked the local high for the day – it was supposed to top 70 degrees. I grabbed shorts and a t-shirt, left my jacket behind, and headed to a nearby mountain summit for a day hike on the Appalachian Trail.

When I reached the parking lot, which was nearly 4,000 feet higher in elevation, the temperature was a frigid 50 degrees. And the wind made it feel even colder. I hiked to a round bald on the AT, captured precisely one photo, and immediately returned to my car.

Let this be a lesson.

advertisement
 

The chart above shows the average monthly temperatures for the lower elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Places like Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Oconaluftee, and Cataloochee Valley.

But if you want to know the temperature at Newfound Gap, Mount LeConte, or Clingmans Dome, you’ll need to subtract about 15 degrees from the current temperature in Gatlinburg.

Read More | 50 Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

April, May, and September are the most comfortable months for visiting the national park. June and July are the hottest and most humid months. Although it’s about five degrees cooler in the shade of trees, the humidity will cancel it out.

Rain falls in the park several days every month. March is the wettest month, with 4” of rainfall and less than an inch of snow. October is the driest month.

advertisement
 

Crowds

2023 was the second-busiest year ever in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 13.2 million people visited the park for recreation, almost 1 million shy of the record in 2021.

The Great Smoky Mountains was the most-visited national park in the country. But it wasn’t the most-visited unit managed by the National Park Service. That record went to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2023, with an astounding 3.5 million more visitors.

There are several reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited. It’s within a one-day drive of nearly 70% of the country’s population. The popular Blue Ridge Parkway feeds into the national park at Oconaluftee. And there is no admission fee, although there is a new parking tag fee.

June and July are two of the busiest months of the year in the national park, but October is the busiest – nearly 1.7 million people visited the park in October 2023. April and May are a great shoulder season before the hustle and bustle begins in the summer. August and September are a great buffer season between the popular summer and autumn.

advertisement
 

Best Time to Visit

It’s impossible to definitively claim a particular best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That answer depends on what you want to do in the park – hike a trail, spend a night in a campground, or see the fall colors.

But overall, two times a year are best to visit: the shoulder seasons in April through May and August through September.

The shoulder seasons have the most comfortable weather with little rain, comfortable high and low temperatures, and low humidity. These are also the times of year with only half the number of monthly visitors compared to July and October – the park’s busiest months of the year.

You can enjoy scenic drives, popular hiking trails, and flowering plants throughout the park from April through May. It’s a great time of the year to hike to Chimney Tops or Rainbow Falls. It’s also my favorite time of the year to spend a day in Cades Cove. It’s the best time of the year to hike to a waterfall to see the most water spilling over the top.

From August through September, you can enjoy many of the same activities except no flowering plants or thunderous waterfalls.

advertisement
 

January

Each year starts quietly in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. January sees the highest monthly snowfall in the park, with 3.8” on average. U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) closes frequently in January due to the snowfall and typically remains closed for a day or two.

January is the coldest month of the year in the national park. Average temps in Gatlinburg reach a high of 47 degrees and dip as low as 29 degrees overnight. The higher elevations can be 10-20 degrees colder, especially on windy days.

It’s the least-visited month of the year in the park. The visitor centers, hiking trails, and scenic roads have an eerie “ghost town” vibe. 500,000 people still visit the park, but that’s only 25% of the number of visitors that peak in October.

Best Things to Do in January:

  • Snow activities
advertisement
 

February

Following on the heels of January, February is the second least visited month of the year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Temperatures increase slightly, which means less snow and more rainfall.

There are no activities or festivals in February. Clingmans Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are still closed. February isn’t the best time of year to do anything in the park.

Best Things to Do in February:

  • Visit historic structures
advertisement
 

March

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to over 1,500 species of flowering plants. Beginning about mid-March, the flowers start blooming in the lower elevations.

It’s the wettest month of the year, with an average of 4” of rainfall and less than an inch of snow. Daytime highs reach about 60 degrees in the lower elevations but barely break into the 50s at Newfound Gap. It’s the first month of the year that overnight lows are above freezing.

Read More | Travel Guide to Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

March sees a jump in daytime visitors, nearly doubling the number of visitors in February. Weekends become crowded, but it’s still better than during the summer months.

Best Things to Do in March:

  • Find the blooming wildflowers
  • Hike to a waterfall
  • Visit Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley
advertisement
 
Visitors to Grotto Falls can walk behind the waterfall and get their feet wet in the shallow pool.
Visitors to Grotto Falls can walk behind the waterfall and get their feet wet in the shallow pool.

Best Time to Visit

April

April is my favorite month in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And it’s one of the busiest times of year for ranger-led events and natural splendor.

Daytime highs reach the upper 60s in the lower elevation and the upper 50s around Clingmans Dome. Overnight lows still dip into the 40s, so bring an extra layer for after dark.

April is the second-wettest month of the year, with an average of 3.9” of rain. But the April showers are great for the spring flowers and waterfalls – two of the best things to do during this spring month.

Clingmans Dome Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Forge Creek Road, and Rich Mountain Road open around the end of March and the first week of April. This brings the first opportunities of the year to visit some of these areas of the national park that are typically overcrowded in the summer.

Read More | Travel Guide to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

advertisement
 

Hiking to waterfalls is the best thing to do in April. The plentiful rain leaves the waterfalls churning, creating spectacular sights. Although the trails can be wet and muddy, especially the trail to Abrams Falls, seeing the waterfalls at their peak is worth the extra effort.

The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage and Music of the Mountains are annual festivals that attract thousands of visitors. It’s a great time for these outdoor events with comfortable daytime temperatures. National Park Week brings a surge of weekend visitors, but not that many during the weekdays.

April is the first month of the year to see more than one million visitors typically.

Best Things to Do in April:

  • Find the blooming wildflowers
  • Hike to a waterfall
  • Go for a drive on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Day hiking on popular trails
advertisement
 
Beautiful sunset view from the observation tower on Clingmans Dome.

Best Time to Visit

May

May is the end of the shoulder season before the busy summer months begin in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s the best month of the year to visit the national park because of the perfect alignment of weather, crowds, and things to do.

Daytime highs rise above 70 degrees for the first time all year. Overnight lows remain in the 50s in the lower elevations, though you’ll still see upper 30s and 40s at Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap. An average of 3.6” of rain falls throughout the month, which remains steady throughout the summer.

advertisement
 

The number of visitors grows slightly from April, reaching about 1.2 million in May. It’s the midpoint of monthly visitors for the year – five months are busier, and six are less crowded.

Read More | The Complete Travel Guide to the Foothills Parkway in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Pro Travel Tip | The best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in May is during the week. Weekends, especially later in the month, will become increasingly crowded. However, until schools are closed for the summer, there will be far fewer weekday visitors than on the weekends.

Best Things to Do in May:

  • Find the blooming wildflowers
  • Look for blooming rhododendrons
  • Hike to a waterfall
  • Go for a scenic drive
  • Visit Clingman’s Dome and Cades Cove
  • Go for a day hike
  • Spend the weekend backpacking through the park
advertisement
 

June

June and July are two of the busiest months in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 1.5 million people visit the park in June, pushing Gatlinburg, Cherokee, and Townsend to its capacity for lodging and dining. Parking in the national park becomes a nightmare as too many cars try to park in too few spaces.

Daytime temperatures reach the 80s in the lower elevations and 70s in the higher elevations. It’s the most comfortable time of the year to visit Clingmans Dome or hike to one of the Southern Sixers.

The synchronous fireflies event draws thousands of visitors to the national park. The annual event at the Elkmont Historic District became so popular that the national park staff created a lottery system for choosing visitors like overnight guests at LeConte Lodge.

Best Things to Do in June:

  • Look for blooming rhododendrons
  • Hike one of the popular trails
  • Go for a scenic drive
  • Visit Cataloochee Valley, Fontana Dam, Greenbrier, or Cosby
  • Go horseback riding
advertisement
 

Worst Time to Visit

July

July is the peak month for almost everything you don’t want to see in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s the hottest month of the year, with an average daytime high in the mid-80s. It’s the most humid month of the year, with an average humidity of 75%. It’s the second-busiest month of the year for visitors, with 1.6 million visitors – just one hundred thousand shy of the busiest month.

Between the Fourth of July weekend, overcrowding, parking issues, and hot and humid weather, it’s the definitive worst time of the year to visit the national park.

But if it’s the only time of the year you can visit, there is still a sliver of hope. Cataloochee Valley, Greenbrier, and Cosby are less popular park areas with hiking trails, waterfalls, wildlife, and scenic views. July is a great time to visit these areas.

And the Foothills Parkway is still a relatively peaceful place to visit in the national park. Go for a short drive to Wears Valley and get on the scenic highway. Drive as far as Look Rock Observation Tower.

Best Things to Do in July:

  • Visit Cataloochee Valley, Fontana Dam, Greenbrier, or Cosby
  • Go for a drive on the Foothills Parkway
  • Hike one of the less popular trails
advertisement
 
A curved bridge offers visitors spectacular views along the Foothills Parkway.
A curved bridge offers visitors spectacular views along the Foothills Parkway.

Best Time to Visit

August

After the mayhem of July, the average number of visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park drops 20%. You’ll notice the 400,000 fewer visitors when you try to find parking, book a campsite, or hike one of the trails.

August and September are a short shoulder season. It’s a lull between the summer tourists and the autumn leaf peepers. Temperatures begin to cool, although daytime highs still linger in the 80s. Interestingly, it’s the second-driest month of the year with just 3” of rainfall.

Read More | Cades Cove Loop Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Travel Guide, Map, and Photos

It’s a great time to plan a vacation to the national park. The weather is perfect for outdoor activities, like hiking, horseback riding, and overnight backpacking. The crowds are small enough to enjoy visiting Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome. August is the last great hurrah for green leaves and shorts.

Besides August being my birth month, it’s also my favorite month of the year for sunsets. Late evening humidity can turn an ordinary sunset into a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and pinks across the partly cloudy sky. Head to the Foothills Parkway, Morton Overlook, or Clingmans Dome for the best sunset views in the park.

Best Things to Do in August:

  • Visit Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, or Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
  • Go for a drive on the Foothills Parkway
  • Hike one of the popular trails
  • Go horseback riding in Cades Cove or Smokemont
  • Watch the sunset from an overlook
  • Spend a night in a campground
advertisement
 
Bull elk challenge each other for dominance near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee.

Best Time to Visit

September

September is a shoulder month in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it one of the best times to visit for smaller crowds. After peaking with an average of 1.6 million monthly visitors in July, the number drops to about 1 million by September. It’s more crowded than the spring months but not as crowded as July or October.

It’s one of the best times of year to view wildlife from a distance safely. The annual elk rut begins about mid-September – it’s the time of year when young bull elks challenge other bulls for dominance in the herd. The elk are frequently spotted at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee and Cataloochee Valley.

Best Things to Do in September:

  • Witness the elk rut at Oconaluftee
  • Visit Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley
  • Hike one of the popular trails
  • Watch the sunset from an overlook
  • Spend a night in a campground
  • Go for a scenic drive
advertisement
 
Fall colors surround the Cable Mill in Cades Cove.
Fall colors surround the Cable Mill in Cades Cove.

October

October defies the laws of nature because it simultaneously exists in two states. It’s the best and worst time of the year to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It’s the best time of the year because of the spectacular autumn colors sweeping the mountains. But it’s the worst time of the year because of the 1.7 million visitors – the most of any month of the year.

It’s difficult to chase the fall colors in the national park because of the tremendous differences in elevation. Another challenge is timing the natural event to book your lodging before it’s all gone. The fall colors peak from mid-October until early November in different park areas.

Whenever the colors begin to peak, here’s when you can expect to see the best fall colors in different areas of the park:

  • Week #1 | Little River Road, Cades Cove, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Oconaluftee
  • Week #2 | Cataloochee Valley, Fontana Dam, Foothills Parkway, and the lower portions of Newfound Gap Road
  • Week #3 | Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, Look Rock, Mount LeConte, and the Appalachian Trail
advertisement
 

Pro Travel Tip | Many hotels, resorts, and short-term lodging have a window for booking cancellations. Make several bookings if you can visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park whenever the fall colors are peaking. Book your lodging for once a week from the second week of October until the first week of November. When the cancellation date approaches, make your decision about when to visit.

While the daytime highs remain in the 70s in the lower elevations, by September, the higher elevations begin dipping into the 60s during the day and 30s overnight. It’s the driest month of the year, so at least you don’t have to worry about being cold and wet.

Best Things to Do in October:

  • Visit Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Newfound Gap, or Clingmans Dome
  • Go for a scenic drive (last chance of the year)
  • Visit a less popular place like Greenbrier, Cosby, or Fontana Dam
advertisement
 

November

Everything changes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in November. Campgrounds, scenic drives, and visitor centers begin closing for the season. The weather takes a significant turn toward winter. And the visitors finally go home.

Smokemont, Cades Cove, and Elkmont are the only campgrounds open year-round. The Balsam Mountain Campground is the first to close seasonally in mid-October. These campgrounds close for the year by the end of October:

  • Cosby
  • Abrams Creek
  • Big Creek
  • Cataloochee
  • Deep Creek
  • Look Rock
advertisement
 

Cades Cove, Cataloochee Road, and Newfound Gap Road are open year-round. These scenic drives close between the end of October and the end of November:

  • Clingmans Dome Road
  • Heintooga Ridge Road
  • Rich Mountain Road
  • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome Visitor Centers close at the end of October. But if you need information or advice, you can still visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee.

The weather gets closer to freezing temperatures, with overnight lows dipping into the 30s in the lower elevations. November is a wetter month, and typically, it is the first month in autumn to see snowfall.

The number of visitors plummets by almost 50% after the peak of fall colors. November isn’t the quietest month of the year – that’s January – but it’s quiet enough to enjoy scenic drives and hiking trails without seeing many others.

Best Things to Do in November:

  • Visitor historic structures (outside only)
  • Build campfires in the campgrounds
advertisement
 

December

The year ends with thunderous silence after the chaotic leaf peeping season and overcrowded summer. Temperatures drop to the second lowest of the year, and up to one inch of snow blankets the mountain summits and Newfound Gap.

Surprisingly, 700,000 people visit the national park in December. Most are day trip visitors from Gatlinburg and Cherokee eager to hike the sparsely populated trails.

Sugarland Visitor Center and Oconaluftee Visitor Center are closed during the winter. December and January are the only months of the year with no open visitor centers.

Best Things to Do in December:

  • Winter camping at Cades Cove, Elkmont, or Smokemont

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Search
Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
LinkedIn
Email

Share this Article

Did you enjoy reading this article? If so, then share it with your friends. Sharing is caring, after all.