Best Driving Vacations 2023: An Iconic View at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mount Le Conte offers gorgeous scenery and unique lodging at the country’s most popular national park.

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
Grotto Falls on the Trillium Gap Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Quick, what’s America’s most visited national park? If you guessed Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, try again. Another park blows both out of the water, and it’s much closer—less than a day’s drive from Central Ohio.

Spanning more than half a million acres split almost evenly across North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw more than 14 million visitors in 2021—a record high in the park’s nearly 100-year history. This popularity may be due, in part, to its status as one of the few national parks without an entrance fee. (Though a new parking tag requirement goes into effect March 1.) Predictably, visitor traffic in the Smokies is highest from spring through early fall, with the biggest spikes in July and October. But with careful planning and a little flexibility, you can easily be one of the millions who will enjoy the beauty of these ancient mountains this year.

The view from Cliff Top on Mount Le Conte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

In early May last year, I hiked to the top of Mount Le Conte, the third-highest peak in the park at 6,593 feet. My companion and I made the most of our trip by hiking up the Rainbow Falls Trail and down the Trillium Gap Trail, which connects to the parking lot at the Rainbow Falls trailhead via a half-mile side trail. The namesake feature on the Rainbow Falls Trail is about 2.7 miles in and well worth the effort of packing down for a short break. After another 2.3 miles or so, you’ll summit a ridge with fantastic, sweeping views to the north and west; on our hike, visibility extended well past Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. From there, it’s ridgeline hiking and one last push to LeConte Lodge and campsites, near the top of the peak.

Three key points are each less than a half-mile away: Myrtle Point faces east for a gorgeous sunrise, while Cliff Top is the place to watch the sunset. Get there early to claim a good spot on the rocky lookout, which offers the kind of stunning views you picture when you think of the Smokies. The third point of interest, High Top, is the peak’s true summit. You’ll find no views here, though; just a large cairn to mark the spot.

Our hike out along the Trillium Gap Trail began when we were greeted by a train of llamas, who make the trek several times a week (usually Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) to bring supplies to the lodge. Though longer than Rainbow Falls, Trillium Gap felt a bit easier to hike, and we passed a few families with small children.

LeConte Lodge, on Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers single- and multi-room cabins that sleep four to 13 guests each.

If you have time, head back to the Gatlinburg park entrance and jump on Newfound Gap Road to Newfound Gap, the lowest point in the park (elevation: 5,046 feet). Here you can park and take a day hike along the North Carolina/Tennessee border on the Appalachian Trail (Indian Gap is a 3.4-mile out-and-back hike), or take Clingmans Dome Road to the parking lot at its terminus. If you’re lucky enough to find a parking spot at this extremely popular site, take the half-mile path up to Clingmans Dome’s peak (the tallest in the park at 6,643 feet). An observation tower there offers 360-degree views of the park, weather permitting. The path is paved, but too steep to be considered wheelchair-accessible.

Know Before You Go

Weather can be unpredictable in the Smokies, and temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees from a mountain’s base to its top. It’s a good idea to have a poncho or rain jacket on hand, especially in the spring and summer. Reservations and permits are required for all of the 100-plus backcountry campsites and are strongly recommended or required for the 10 front country campgrounds, especially during peak season.

Suggested Side Trip

Often called the “gateway to the Smoky Mountains,” Gatlinburg offers much of the same kind of kitschy shopping, dining and entertainment as nearby Pigeon Forge, but with better scenery. Head 400 feet into the air via the Space Needle for sweeping views of the city and park, or ride the 2-mile Sky Lift cable car from downtown up to Ober Gatlinburg Adventure Park and Ski Area. Be ready to work out your wallet; prices are at a premium in this popular resort town.

Where to Stay

LeConte Lodge sits atop its namesake mountain and offers single- and multi-room cabins that sleep four to 13 guests each. They lack electricity, but include comforts like propane heat, kerosene lanterns, beds with linens and blankets, and covered porches with rocking chairs. A shared privy building has flush toilets. Reservations are required and include family-style breakfast and dinner in the dining hall; sack lunches and snacks are available in the gift shop, which also sells apparel, souvenir items and gear.

This story is from the Best Driving Vacations package in the February 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.