A Guide to Hiking in the Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains: Popular Hiking Season

Leaf-peeping in the Smokies is spectacular, but bear in mind that everyone else thinks so, too!
Leaf-peeping in the Smokies is spectacular, but bear in mind that everyone else thinks so, too!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the single most visited of all the national parks. Approximately 9 million people visit the park each year [source: NPS.gov]. Whether you like to hike busy trails or prefer solitude, it's good to know what the peak seasons are so that you can plan accordingly.

Mid-summer (June 15-August 15) and October, when the leaves are changing color, are the two most popular hiking seasons in the Smokies. Weekends are busier than weekdays, and the narrow, winding roads through Great Smoky Mountains National Park often become congested, especially between 10am and 6pm on peak-season weekends.

There are reasons why any park's most popular sites are popular. Generally, popular sites offer the most convenient amenities, the best vistas and the most exciting flora and fauna. In the Smokies, Cades Cove Loop Road and Newfound Gap Road are the two busiest sections of the park. Expect trails in these areas -- especially the shorter mild-to-moderate ones -- to be heavily used year-round. The Abrams Falls trail in the Cades Cove area, for instance, hosts about 1,000 hikers per day in peak season [source: Doran].

If you're looking to avoid the crowds, you have several options. First, you could visit during the off-season. Or, you could hike early in the morning before the bulk of the traffic begins to arrive around 10am. Finally, you could explore one of the more off-the-beaten-path areas of the park, such as Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Cosby or Greenbriar Cove, among others. There are great vistas and amazing sites to be found in these lesser-known areas. For instance, the Brushy Mountain trail in the Greenbriar/Cosby area offers a strenuous 11.7-mile hike with the chance to explore the remains of a historic farmstead along the way [source: Doran].

Whether you decide to visit the Smokies during peak season or in the quieter off-season, you'll find great views and beautiful, native foliage. Not all hikes are created equal, however. Lucky for you, we've done the research for you.