Read Now, Travel Later
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!
I always tell people the first place they should visit in a new destination is the visitor center. That has never been more important than visiting a national park site, especially a big one! Here is where you’ll find the visitor centers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, what they offer, and some other things to do while you’re there.
Sugarlands Visitor Center
Located just a few miles from the edge of Gatlinburg the Sugarlands Visitor Center is the most-visited visitor center in the park. The massive parking lot includes room for RVs and trailers and even has a few charging stations for EV cars.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center has a large information area usually with two or three rangers or volunteers to answer questions, a museum to explore along with a 20-minute video on the history of the park, and a large gift shop and bookstore. The restrooms are outside and usually kept pretty clean.
Since this is the “main” visitor center for the national park this is where you would get your backcountry camping permits.
Probably the best-kept secret waterfall in the entire park is located near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. I almost don’t wanna tell you about it, but this is what I do.
Cataract Falls Trail begins near the restrooms at the visitor center. The 0.75-mile roundtrip hike leads to Cataract Falls, a small 25’ waterfall near Fighting Creek. It’s an easy hike along a gravel path.
Cades Cove Visitor Center
Located at the end of the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Ironically you have to drive through half of Cades Cove before you get to the visitor center which seems kinda silly, but that’s the way it is!
The visitor center has a nice albeit small gift shop, an information desk, and a place to collect your National Park Passport stamp. There are some rather nice restrooms near the massive parking lot.
READ MORE: 8 Fun Things to Do in Cades Cove
The John Cable Mill is located beside the Cades Cove Visitor Center along a winding walking path. The entire site includes the mill, historic Becky Cable House, a couple of barns, and a few other structures. The Cable Mill is usually operated during the peak season and weekends throughout the summer and fall.
Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center
I guess you would call this the highest visitor center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s located at the end of Clingman’s Road at the beginning of the path to the very top. This visitor center is closed December-March each year because the entire road is closed in the off-season.
The Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center is the smallest with a closet-sized gift shop and information desk. You can collect your National Park Passport stamp here and get information about conditions at the observation tower at the top. Trust me: that last three hundred feet in elevation can make a big difference.
The restrooms are located near the end of the loop road in the parking lot. The parking lot is quite large but there are no specific spaces for RVs or trailers.
Of course the big attraction at this visitor center is the hike to Clingman’s Dome. The 1.2-mile roundtrip hike is along a paved path, but it’s pretty strenuous with a 300’ ascent to the top. At the top is a 54’ tall observation tower with uninterrupted views in all directions.
At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the state of Tennessee. It is also the third highest peak in the Southern Sixers, a collection of mountain peaks above 6,000’ in the Appalachian Mountains.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is actually one of my favorite places to hang out for several reasons. It is located on the Cherokee, North Carolina side of the national park and also serves as a visitor center for the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The visitor center is the newest in the national park with some neat attributes to make it sustainable and environmentally friendly. The restrooms are very nice and kept clean. Inside there is a large seating area with tall glass windows, an information desk, a small museum, and a rather nice gift shop with a large book section. You can collect your National Park Passport stamps here as well.
Mountain Farm Museum
The Mountain Farm Museum is an outdoor exhibit recreating frontier settlement farm life. The log structures, including a massive barn, farmhouse, smokehouse, and corn cribs, were moved to this location from other areas. A self-guided walking tour winds through the exhibit and some of the buildings.
Viewing the Elk
One of my favorite things to do at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is view the elk herd. Directly beside the visitor center and Mountain Farm Museum is a large open field. Frequently, though not every day, a large elk herd will meander across this field grazing about an hour before sunset. During the fall months you might just be able to witness the elk rut here!
Gatlinburg Welcome Center
The Gatlinburg Welcome Center is located along Highway 441 between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It’s a dual welcome center that serves both the national park and local towns.
The welcome center has a very nice gift shop with a lot of artwork from local artisans, a nice bookstore, and an information desk. The restrooms are located inside the welcome center. There is a large parking lot on the hill just behind the visitor center with plenty of room for RVs and trailers, and you can also hop on the free trolley into town from here.
Sevierville Visitor Center
The Sevierville Visitor Center is located along Highway 66 just after exiting from Interstate 40. It is another dual visitor center that serves the national park and the city of Sevierville.
Townsend Visitor Center
The Townsend Visitor Center is located Highway 321 (E Lamar Alexander Parkway) near the middle of Townsend. It is a dual visitor center serving both the national park and Townsend.
The visitor center has limited parking with no room for RV’s or trailers. There are restrooms located inside. The visitor center has an information desk and a very nice gift shop.