As we gear up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of America’s national park system, we wondered which of the 59 federally protected areas is the most popular. The answer may surprise you but the number of annual visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn’t even close to the runner-up: Grand Canyon National Park.
In 2014, the Smoky Mountains saw a record number of visitors – more than 10 million. (Grand Canyon, by comparison saw around 4 million) Its close proximity to nearly two thirds of the United States allow many travelers to arrive within a single day. July is the busiest time of the year while January is the month with the fewest crowds. The park does not currently charge an entrance fee.
There’s nothing quite like the first time you stand along one of the mountain trails and stare ahead at the park’s indescribable natural perfection. With every turn of your head, it looks brand new and somehow more beautiful. The only disappointment is trying to capture the Smoky Mountains on camera – it’s impossible. Nothing can replicate the view from your own eyes.
Located between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest national park east of the Rocky Mountains at 522,427 acres. Visitors can hike nearly 850 miles of trails, make use of the 1,000 individual camp sites or take a drive along the 384 miles of roadway that winds through incredible scenery. It’s also one of the only places in the eastern part of the U.S. with such vast wilderness that offers opportunities for everything from fly fishing to bird watching.
So how does Great Smoky Mountains National Park become America’s top park? “We have so many experiences for a wide range of visitors whether you’re looking to enjoy quiet solitude or to do something more active” says Dana Soehn – the park’s Public Affairs Director.
Wildlife viewing is very popular. People love to spot animals like elk, deer or even a black bear. Even something simple like splashing around in a stream can create a lasting memory. Other activities include horseback riding, hayrides and special “junior ranger” programs for kids.
Perhaps you’re only interested in simply seeing what the hype is all about. You’re in luck – the roads were designed for an optimal viewing experience with well maintained look-out-points or “vistas” for people taking scenic drives.
“The original landscape architects were very thoughtful about how people could see the park” says Soehn. “We know what a huge draw it is and we’re always working to make sure guests can continue to enjoy those spectacular views”
Unlike some other national parks – the gates here are open year round to experience all four seasons.
Fun fact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the “salamander capital of the world” with more of the slimy amphibians here than anywhere else on Earth.