5 Tips for a Memorable Summer 2023 Vacation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Scenic pull-out in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, June 2, 2023.

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I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina earlier in June. This was my sixth or seventh visit over the decades and every visit is still magical. Things were a little bit different this time, so I’ve put together these five tips for you to have a memorable summer 2023 vacation.

A morning ray of light beams through the trees and onto a road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn., June 2, 2023.
A morning ray of light beams through the trees and onto a road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn., June 2, 2023.

Tip #1: Arrive to the Park Early

This is the most-visited national park in the United States because it’s within a day’s drive to half the U.S. population. In 2021, the park welcomed 14.1 million visitors!

The early bird gets the worm, and the early visitor is typically rewarded with a bounty of treats. These include less-crowded roads, access to trailhead parking spots, active wildlife, and gorgeous photo opportunities.

The park is open 24 hours a day during the summer and the best way to make the most of the day is waking up in the park. The only in-park lodging is campground camping. There’s something special about rising with the sun in the park. There’s also something about being awaken at midnight by a howling coyote. (True story!)

Gateway communities like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Townsend in Tennessee and Cherokee and Maggie Valley in North Carolina offer modern accommodations like glamping to hotels with familiar names and lush resorts to family-run cabins and cottages. These are fine alternatives to camping within the park. I’m a BIG fan of HipCamp glamping options.

New for 2023 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are parking tags.
New for 2023 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are parking tags.

Tip #2: Park it Forward

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an entrance fee-free park but new this year is a required parking tag for cars parking longer than 15 minutes. A daily pass is $5, weekly is $15 and annual is $40. Parking pass kiosks are found throughout the park in high visibility areas, like visitor center parking lots. Purchase one in-person at a National Park Service visitor center. Or purchase through Recreation.gov or Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Each parking tag is valid for one vehicle, needs to be displayed on the dashboard, and the license plate number on the tag must match the respective vehicle. All funds generated stay within the park to enhance the visitor experience including trail park ranger staffing, trail maintenance, custodial services, and trash removal. Learn more about parking tags by visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.

A word of caution – while I was purchasing my pass in the National Park Service Sugarlands Visitor Center Bookstore, a visitor stated they ordered theirs online. However, it did not arrive prior to their departure. Because a physical paper tag needs to be displayed, if you don’t plan accordingly, you may not receive your tag prior to departure, and you’ll need to purchase one upon arrival in the park.

The park doesn’t charge an entrance fee because the land was originally acquired by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. The state of Tennessee transferred Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road to the park in 1951. Conditions of the transfer prevents tolls on these roads and federal law prevents an entrance fee. (Source: Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

The $5 Smokies Starter Kit is a great packet to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All purchases benefit the park.
The $5 Smokies Starter Kit is a great packet to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All purchases benefit the park.

Tip #3: Trade $5 for Invaluable Information

You don’t need to be a park newbie to benefit from the Smokies Starter Kit. For $5 (plus tax), receive a backcountry trail map, safety in bear country flier, auto tour booklets for Newfound Gap Road and Roaring Fork, and tour booklets for Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome. These items can be picked up individually but as a packet, you’re saving 25 cents and have the convenience of having it already put together for you in a nice plastic, zip-top bag. All purchases of this packet benefit the park.

While picking this up, grab the “Smokies Guide: The Official Newspaper of the Smokies,” if it already isn’t in the $5 packet. It’s published seasonally and includes pertinent information for an enjoyable visit.

Find these packets at the park visitor centers. I purchased mine at the pullout before entering the Cades Cove Loop Road. National Park Service volunteers were there to answer questions.

Tip #4: Plan Accordingly

All day Wednesdays between May 3 and Sept. 27, 2023, access to Cades Cove is motor vehicle-free. This is an opportunity for pedestrians and bicyclists to enjoy the 11-mile loop drive without motor vehicles.

In early June, I saw 10 black bears on my drive! TEN! So, you don’t want to miss this drive and sites along the way. If the Cades Cove drive is on your agenda (as it should be), plan on visiting any other day than Wednesday. Of course, if you’re bringing your bicycle or want to walk it, this is your day. Visit the park website for tips on visiting on motor vehicle-free days.

Tip #5: Be a Good Human

Our national parks are our true treasures and need to be treated with respect. When visiting the park, be a good human, a good steward for future generations to enjoy. This includes:

  • Park in designated spots.
  • Pack out your trash.
  • Respect wildlife including.
    • Enjoy from a distance (at least 50 yards for black bears and elk).
    • Don’t harass or molest them.
    • Don’t feed them (a fed bear is a dead bear).
  • Say “no” to graffiti! Yes, I did see this. And no. It’s not cool! Don’t –
    • Write your name or put stickers on signs.
    • Carve your initials in trees or anything else.
  • Donate and/or spend money within the park boundaries.
    • You’ll see donation boxes throughout the park.
    • Purchase something from one of the in-park bookstores.
  • Adhere to road signs (i.e.: mind the speed limit).
  • Obey National Park Service personnel.
  • Practice patience. This is America’s most visited national park and you’re sharing the roadways with others taking in to enjoy this magnificent natural environment.
My dog and I at pose for a selfie at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn., June 2, 2023.
My dog and I at pose for a selfie at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn., June 2, 2023.


Enjoy your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and explore as much of the 522,427 acres as possible. If you don’t see it all, don’t sweat it. Just plan a return trip!

Where to Stay

For this visit, I traveled with my dog and spent one night in Gatlinburg at dog-friendly Quality Inn Creekside Downtown Gatlinburg. On the second night, I camped at Elkmont Campground within the park.

Video: Trying Out a Picture Post in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If the above video doesn’t play, visit the link on YouTube.

Solo Travel Girl

Jennifer A. Huber is the voice behind Solo Travel Girl. She's an award-winning travel and outdoor blogger and writer in Southwest Florida. Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led her to a career path in the tourism industry for more than 30 years. She spent a decade with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley, and Everglades National Parks. She founded the travel blog, SoloTravelGirl.com with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely. Jennifer holds a Travel Marketing Professional certification from the Southeast Tourism Society, is a certified food judge, member of the NASA Social community, and alum of the FBI Citizens Academy. In 2023, she was a finalist in AARP's Benefits Badass competition. When not traveling, she is either in the kitchen, practicing her photography skills, or road tripping with her dog, Radcliff.

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