Vacation days are precious.
Most Americans who work regular 9 to 5 jobs get two weeks of vacation a year.
Including the weekends, that’s 14 days.
It’s not a lot.
Allocating those days and how you spend them can be an anxiety-inducing activity. The balance of how many days you need versus how many days you have versus how many days you can afford can be a difficult formula to work out.
How many days should you allocate for your Smoky Mountain vacation?
Of course, that’s really only a question you can answer.
Factors like distance and drive time have to be weighed as well as cost and time of year.
How many days do you need to visit the Smoky Mountains?
Generally speaking, I think you need at least five days for a real Smoky Mountain vacation that isn’t just a quick getaway.
If it were me, I’d allocate one day each in …
- Gatlinburg (Ripley’s Aquarium, Anakeesta, shopping)
- Pigeon Forge (The Island, a show, a museum)
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Wears Valley, Townsend or Cades Cove
Now, you can’t do everything you want to do at all of those places in a single day. However, you can do a lot of damage. Depending on the time of year, you can adjust. It’s also important to note that some things close seasonally.
Primary roads such as Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road and Cades Cove Loop Road stay open year-round (weather permitting). But others close seasonally, like Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Clingmans Dome Road.
From January to March, Dollywood is closed. So if you visit in the winter, you might want to focus more days in Gatlinburg, enjoying some snow up at Ober Gatlinburg.
If you visit during the summer, you might want to allocate a day for a waterpark like Soaky Mountain or Dollywood’s Splash Country. The options are nearly endless.
We have now established the optimum number of days. But it’s important to know when is the best time to use those vacation days to visit the Smokies.
Each season has its charms, of course. Anytime is a great time for a quick visit – let’s say a weekend.
But the only two times I would seriously consider avoiding a trip to the Smokies are in the late winter, early spring of March and the post-Halloween, pre-Christmas days of November.
Is spring a good time to visit the Smoky Mountains?
March in the Smokies is lukewarm to me.
It’s too late to enjoy the charms of a Smokies winter but too early to really enjoy spring.
That being said, I think mid to late spring is my absolute favorite time of year in the mountains as everything is reborn and fresh and green.
Spring is also the peak season to see wildflowers. It’s generally not too hot to enjoy outdoor activities like horseback riding.
It’s also a good time to see some hiking trails, waterfalls and more. Clingmans Dome Road opens again at the beginning of April, the perfect place to see a sunrise or sunset.
This is, for me, is also the best time of year to visit Cades Cove. There’s just something about all that revival that is refreshing.
Is summer a good time to visit the Smoky Mountains?
Summer, of course, is the most popular time in the Smokies for obvious reasons. The kids are out of school, the mountains are alive and green and blooming.
Because I live close, summer is the season I tend to avoid Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg, ceding the cities to the tourists.
If we go to the mountains in summer, it is to keep up in the mountains, take the drive to North Carolina or visit some of our favorite picnic spots like the Chimneys, Metcalf Bottoms or Cades Cove. Wildlife such as deer, bear and turkey are active in the summer.
In June, many visitors come to see the famous synchronous fireflies as well.
In the heat of summer, the cooler mountain air and chilly mountain springs are a blessing.
A word of warning, we used to always take a watermelon for our picnic and drop it into a safe space in a stream to be chilled to the perfect temperature. But the last three times we’ve done that, we’ve fallen victim to children who thought our melon was lost or in one memorable occasion growing there in the water. Each time it’s been picked up accidentally and destroyed.
With many school kids going back to school in August now, late summer can be a great time to visit and have summer fun while avoiding the crowds.
Honestly, though I find August a little depressing now that it’s been gerrymandered into fall.
While June and July are all Beach Boys and bright sunlight, August is a reminder of how fleeting everything is, like we’ve crested a peak and are now plummeting ahead into autumn and winter and how quickly the seasons leap forward carrying us ever more swiftly into our inevitable demise.
Is fall a good time to visit the Smoky Mountains?
Fall is almost as popular as summer because of the colors from the fall foliage in the mountains. If you want to see the prettiest colors of leaves, try a drive along the Foothills Parkway.
With temperatures still quite warm through late September, especially in the lower elevations, this is my favorite time to visit Dollywood.
I like seeing a bit of fall color in the park. Plus, the slightly less crowded days make for an enjoyable getaway.
October is much the same – most schools offer a fall break for a quick getaway – but you do run the risk of cooler temperatures invading.
For many of the same reasons, I find November in the Smokies somewhat blah. You’re past the Oktoberfest and Halloween of everything. The glorious colors are fading into brown and it’s a little early to kick into the Christmas spirit.
Is winter a good time to visit the Smoky Mountains?
If you’re going to come to the Smokies in winter, December is the only logical choice. Dollywood is magical in December and the holiday shopping is at its peak.
Nighttime temperatures will be cool enough to give the right feeling for the season. And the spirit of the yule is enough to make up for the depressingly brown mountains.
It’s the best time to drive around and see Christmas lights or go snow tubing or skiing up at Ober Gatlinburg.
Of course, temperatures are always cooler in the higher elevations.
Some visitors like January in the mountains. But the only reason I’d consider it is if we got a great off-season deal on a cabin with a hot tub. And February is just out, except for Valentine’s Day weekend again.
What is your favorite time to visit the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee or North Carolina? Let us know in the comments!
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