50+ Favorite Travel Photos From Years of Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

These photos are sure to inspire your next visit to the most-visited park in the country at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

October 1, 2018

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country. I didn’t take me long to understand why, but it did take me a few years to explore all the destinations within the park. My camera was always in the seat beside me or strapped to my back. Well, when it wasn’t in my hand while I was capturing a photo!

Over the years I’ve seen sunny days, Autumn days, stormy days, and peaceful days. I’ve captured more photos of that park than any other state or national park I’ve visited. It’s my happy place because I can capture so many amazing photos.

It took a bit of time to whittle down my 500+ image archive of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to just my absolute favorites. I still ended up with over 50 photos to show in this photo essay. Grab yourself a coffee and take your time browsing through, then leave me a comment below and tell me which photo was your favorite!

READ MORE: Day Trip on the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail was the first place I ever visited in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It only took that first incredible day to fall in love with the one-way, one-lane road just minutes from Gatlinburg. It’s been my favorite part of the park ever since.

READ MORE: Travel Guide to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In 2016, wildfires swept through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Three years later, I found a hiking trail at a scenic overlook on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail I never knew was there before.

The charred remains of barren trees standing like sticks in a garden was unsettling. But then I noticed the vibrant shrubbery and blooming flowers. Life always finds a way.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is one of the best places for waterfalls, and falling water, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cascades run along about a mile of the road with views from your car as you slowly drive past.

READ MORE: 101 Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Grotto Falls, pictured above, is at the end of a 2.6-mile round trip hike. It’s one of the gorgeous waterfalls on hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Meigs Falls, pictured below, is the only waterfall in the national park viewable from the comfort of your car.

Some waterfalls are really more like ruts full of water when it rains. These two along Newfound Gap Road are dry on sunny days, but with about two inches of rain they become torrents of water running down the mountain.

The Sinks is a cascading waterfall along Little River Gorge Road. Interestingly, the feature is not natural, but instead created by dynamite decades ago when a log jam blocked the river.

READ MORE: The Fascinating Story of How Dynamite Created The Sinks at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Landscapes featuring big mountains are popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But sometimes, Mother Nature decides to hide the mountains. Hidden beneath that cloud was Mount LeConte, but you wouldn’t know it from this photo.

READ MORE: 6 Awesome Auto Touring Routes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The national park is full of hidden, amazing places to discover. The Tunnel to Nowhere, pictured above, is exactly that: a tunnel built for a road that was never completed. But you can walk through it.

Greenbrier is one of my favorite hidden destinations in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Porters Creek Trail is an old forest service road running alongside the creek.

Newfound Gap is the middle of Great Smoky Mountains National Park between Gatlinburg and Cherokee along the state line. The view of mountains and the road winding far below never ends.

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, although people only ever seem to talk about the black bears. Bees, white tailed deer, wild turkeys, and elk are some of the other wildlife I’ve come across.

My favorite places to watch the elk is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee. It’s not a guarantee because the herd wanders through the area, but if they happen to be there it’s a great place to watch them graze in an open field. In late September you can watch the elk rut, a time of year for young bucks to challenge the bull elk!

READ MORE: 10 Off the Beaten Path Spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Morton Overlook on Newfound Gap Road is my favorite place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to just sit and smile. I’ve seen sunny days, stormy days, foggy days, and dramatic sunsets sitting behind that rock wall at that roadside overlook.

The first two times I walked the steep trail and climbed the winding Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower I could barely see my hand in front of my face. The weather up there just kinda does its own thing. But on the third visit, I was treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.

READ MORE: The Complete List of All National Park Sites in the United States

I was thirty-three years old before I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time, which says a lot considering I grew up just five hours away. But it would be another three years before I visited Cades Cove. I’ve always heard people speak of it with just reverence and I never understood why. Suddenly, I did.

I love anything to do with water, so of course I loved Cable’s Mill in Cades Cove. Visit on the weekends or just about any day during the summer and you’ll find volunteers working the grist mill.

The most abundant wildlife is Cades Cove isn’t what you would think. It’s the horses from the riding stables! Each afternoon, just after the last guided tour is finished, the horses are released into a large field just beside the road.

Elkmont was one of the most surprising places I visited in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Lots of old log homes and rickety buildings are the remnants of a logging camp and retreat for wealthy owners from nearby Knoxville. Today, visitors can visit the homes near the campground and a few have even been restored for future rentals!

READ MORE: The Hidden Elkmont Historic District at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Would you be surprised to learn October is the busiest month of the year at Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Autumn is a wonderful time of year to explore. The yellow leaves always turn first, about a week before the rest, creating a beautiful color scheme to enjoy for a few days.

READ MORE: Where to Find the Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most recent addition to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a new section of the Foothills Parkway. The parkway was intended to run from I-40 in Cosby to U.S. Highway 129 in Chilhowee. The road was planned to ride along the crest of the mountain range opposite the Great Smoky Mountains so people could enjoy it from afar. In 2019 the latest section opened, and just a few months later I was driving the whole route.

It took me thirty-three years to get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time. I’ve been back for at least a week every year since. I can certainly understand why it is the most-visited national park in the country. It’s my favorite place to capture photos in the country. After looking through all these photos are you inspired to visit the park?

Photographers crave the first two and last two hours of sunlight each day. As the angle of the sun gets lower, the shadows get sharper. Dramatic photos unfold.

The Caylor Gap Overlook on the Foothills Parkway is probably the best place in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch the sunset.

There are lots of old stone chimneys that remain from early settlers homes through the national park. This one was located on the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail.

One of my favorite things to do is watch summer thunderstorms move across the landscape from scenic overlooks. From my perch at Newfound Gap, it was sunny and pleasant.

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