9 Things You Shouldn’t Do in the Smoky Mountains, According to a Local

a tag and discarded trash at an overlook in the smoky mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. It's important for all visitors to help make the experience enjoyable for everyone, like picking up your own trash and ignoring the temptation to leave messages on historic buildings and sidewalks (photos by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

An area Smoky Mountain resident’s plea to park visitors

I see them every so often: Someone visiting one of our national parks with little or no common sense. Maybe they’re out west and get too close to a buffalo. Or maybe they’re in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and want a photo op with a family of black bears (I see that one all the time). 

The National Park Service makes a monumental effort to educate people on the do’s and don’ts of visiting places like the Great Smokies, Yosemite and others. Some people, however, refuse to listen. Cumulatively those guests reduce the experience for others who come to the country’s most visited national park. This is why, I thought it would be helpful to create a guide of sorts for first-time visitors. A plea, if you will, from a local who loves these mountains to those who are just passing through. In an effort to make everyone’s visit to the Smoky Mountains an enjoyable experience.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. And while the area depends on tourism, there are frequent things that some tourists do that drive the locals crazy. So, when you visit, be sure to avoid frequent no-nos like bothering the plant life, getting too close to wildlife or vandalizing any historic buildings.

sugarlands visitor center
Park visitor centers are for more than just bathroom breaks. First-time visitors should always begin their journey at one of our many visitor centers, pick up a map, and speak to a park ranger, before embarking on their journey (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Don’t skip the visitor center

The Sugarlands Visitor Center at the park’s Gatlinburg entrance and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s Cherokee entrance offer a wealth of information both in the exhibits on display and the knowledge of rangers and staff at the facility. Are you looking for something different or off the beaten path? Maybe a tip on the best spot to see a bear or elk? Or maybe just a place where you can learn more about this historic and beautiful region? A park visitor center is a great place to start. Plus they have maps. You’re going to need them. There’s rarely cell phone service in the mountains

Grafitti on a Historic Cades Cove Cabin
Do not vandalize and desecrate historic buildings. Pictured: A cabin in Cades Cove (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

2. Don’t vandalize historic buildings

The Smokies are filled with little pieces, echoes of life in the mountains prior to the national park. Along the 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, there are a number of historic structures, including the historic grist mill. The mountains are known for the quality of their remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Please don’t ruin it for other people. Over the years, certain visitors have taken the opportunity to leave their mark on these edifices of time. The same thing happens along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. When you see something timeless, whether it’s a tree or an ancient cabin, please summon all your strength and fight the urge to carve your initials into the thing

a cat at clingmans dome - where it shouldnt be
Taking a pet on trails can endanger wildlife and humans as well. Stick to the two pet-friendly trails in the park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

3. Don’t take your pet hiking

Look. You love your pet. Certainly, you love hiking. You want your pet to get some exercise. Why not take Fido hiking? Because it’s a bad idea. There are two short walking paths in the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allow dogs. The Gatlinburg Trail and The Oconaluftee River Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other park trails. Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. The leash must not exceed 6 feet in length.

Why? Well, dogs can chase and threaten wildlife. And even if they don’t directly harass local animal life, their scent can indicate the presence of a predator and disrupt the park’s wildlife behavior. According to the park service, small animals may hide in their burrow the entire day after smelling a dog. Therefore, they may not venture out to feed. You want to bring your dog because you love animals, right? Remember to respect the ones who live there. Plus, on the other end of the food chain, your pet might represent an opportunity for a meal. Even if a bear isn’t in the mood to eat your pet, an encounter on one of the park’s hiking trails could leave you, the pet and the bear in an untenable situation. Also, many people, especially young children, are afraid of dogs. Finally, it’s just not considerate. 

trash next to national park sign
Trash has been a problem in the national park. There are groups like Save Our Smokies who are actively fighting to keep the parks clean. Do your part and do not litter (photo courtesy of Benny Braden/Save Our Smokies)

4. Don’t leave your trash

The park has several scenic official picnic areas. With this in mind, if you stop in an unofficial area, make sure you take all of your trash with you. There are some that don’t see biodegradable food items as true litter. People will toss something like an apple core or a leftover bit of sandwich “harmlessly” into the woods. Take that stuff with you.

First of all, it’s incredibly rude to leave it. But secondly, it’s dangerous to wildlife. The National Park Service is vigilant in working to keep animal life in the park away from access to human food which is incredibly harmful to a black bear. Once the bear associates humans with food, it will cross boundaries that should be preserved. These can lead to a bear having to be put down. If you’re interested in cleanup efforts around the park, check out the nonprofit group Save Our Smokies.

Ginseng plant with berries
Ginseng grows multiple stems that will each develop three to five leaves that resemble poison oak leaves (photo by Christopher Baldridge/shutterstock.com)

5. Don’t bother the plant life 

Did you know that it is illegal to remove plant life from the national park? The Smokies is home to hundreds, maybe thousands of species of plants and native tree species. The diversity of plant natural habitats means the Smokies are home to many cool, growing things. For most of us, it’s easy to forget that we need to respect plant life just as we do animal life.

It may seem harmless to some people to pick a bouquet of spring wildflowers. However, what happens when dozens or hundreds of visitors take the same liberties? What happens when ginseng poachers sneak into the deep forests to claim all the old-growth roots in the woods they can find? What happens when tiny pieces of that plant diversity are plucked away? I’m not here to tell you picking a daisy or pulling a ramp will be the end of the national forest. But that doesn’t mean you should do it, either.

Eastern Hellbender Salamander
The massive Hellbender’s habitat is the rocks in Smokies streams (photo by Hamilton/stock.adobe.com)

6. Don’t touch the rocks

This is one I’ve had to correct myself on. I love skipping stones, finding a deep creek and tossing in a big stone to make that satisfying kerplunk sound. Who am I hurting? Maybe no one. But maybe the salamanders. Most of us don’t need to be told to keep a respectful distance from the bears or not chase the wild turkey or try to mount an elk. But the Smokies’ most plentiful animal is the salamander. And there is a pretty diverse range of amphibians living in the park.

The massive Hellbender can grow to more than a foot long and a new species was recently identified; a kind of black-belly salamander. So tossing those rocks around the waterways of the Smokies could affect the salamander habitat. Certainly, the last thing I want is an angry Hellbender salamander haunting my dreams. In general, leave the Smokies’ wildlife and their habitat alone.

a bear in downtown gatlinburg
A black bear finds his way to downtown Gatlinburg and draws a crowd (photo by Morgan Overholt (with a zoom lens from 150′ away)/TheSmokies.com)

7. Don’t get close to the bears

In this day and age, I still can’t believe this needs to be said – but please keep your distance from our black bears. It is rare for a black bear to attack a human, but it can happen. A study by The Wildlife Society documented 59 fatalities from black bears between 1900 to 2009. While it’s unlikely to be provoked, it’s still extremely important to keep your distance from a wild black bear.

Plus, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the bear. As a rule of thumb, if you see a bear, fully extend your arm in front of you and stick your thumb up. If the bear is not covered completely by your thumb, you are too close. Not to mention the fact that when bears become too familiar with humans they sometimes have to be put down. So you’re not only endangering your own life, you’re endangering the bear’s life too.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and Maggie Valley are on the "other" side of the Smokies in North Carolina (photo by SeanPavonePhoto/stock.adobe.com
The Blue Ridge Parkway and Maggie Valley are on the “other” side of the Smokies in North Carolina (photo by SeanPavonePhoto/stock.adobe.com

8. Don’t forget the North Carolina side

I love Hendersonville and Bryson City. I love Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Parkway and Downtown Asheville and Clingman’s Dome. The Western North Carolina mountains don’t get all the hype that East Tennessee gets, but they’re wonderful, and often less crowded. Give them a chance. The border is just a day trip away.

the clingmans dome tower
The tower at Clingmans Dome is a popular tourist destination in the Smokies (photo by Bernard Hardman/shutterstock.com)

9. Don’t be myopic or possessive 

I apologize. That’s harshly stated. A lot of people feel a deep and personal connection to the mountains or the region. For this reason, changes – like the new parking fee being instituted – seem like a personal affront, a slap in the face. Really, it’s just a way to try to protect the park and enhance the experience for future generations to come. I do respect that it comes from a place of best intentions. 

Recently, the leaders of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribe announced they’re beginning a process that may end with an official request to the federal government to restore the original name given by the Cherokee people to Clingmans Dome. Some people disagree with the name change. But “Kuwohi” – translation The Mulberry Place – was the mountain’s name for generations before a Swiss mapmaker named Guyot came in and renamed the place after a buddy of his, a former Confederate general named Clingman.

I don’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be attached to the name of a mountain they have occasionally visited. I see a certain poetic reason for restoring the original name if the Cherokee leaders decide that they’d like to do that. It wouldn’t be erasing history. It would be acknowledging a deeper, older history. If people are clinging – sorry – to the old name, they certainly could keep the name for the observation tower. Honestly, I thought for years that Clingmans Dome was the tower’s name, not the mountains. Did I wonder why they named a tower a dome? Reader, I did, but not enough to look it up in the days before the internet. Anyway, the mountains belong to all of us.

Do you have a what not to do in the GSMNP to share? Let us know in the comments!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com (preferred) or call 865-505-0648.

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12 thoughts on “9 Things You Shouldn’t Do in the Smoky Mountains, According to a Local”

  1. Don’t build fires in un destined areas should be on here. Getting to be major problem at the “Y” or “wye”

    Reply
  2. Don’t park in an area that is not designated by the park service as a safe parking spot. It’s dangerous and someone could get hurt.
    Don’t feed the wildlife.

    Reply
  3. When camping in the national park campgrounds, or any others, don’t blow the horn on your vehicle wile locking your doors at 11:30 at night over and over. And be courteous by dimming your lights when stopped idling waiting for someone or after leaving your vehicle. You are in a campground with other campers in tents sleeping, not in your neighborhood.

    Reply
  4. Cade’s Cove is closed one day a week to motorized vehicles. That day is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians. Cyclists that chose to ride on other days, should be aware there is no lane specifically for them. We were there in September and the cyclists were dodging in front of cars repeatedly, very dangerous.

    Reply
  5. A huge yes to all of the above. I once a man trying to put his child on a bears back for a picture. A woman tried to put her child on a horses back and the horse kicked and killed her child. The last one was a long time ago, but the other one was recent. I think we need to stop asking how stupid people can get. They are taking it as a challenge.

    Reply
  6. In Cades Cove pull to the side no matter how excited you are to see a bear. Do not stop in the middle of the road and cause a “bear jam”.

    Reply
  7. Treat the locals you encounter with at least as much respect and courtesy as you would expect a visitor to your neighborhood. Just because you’re on vacation, in a vacation destination, doesn’t mean you get to act however you want. We live here. There are many of us that would love for it to not be a vacation destination just so we didn’t have to put up with the tourists, but here we are. So maybe try being the kind of tourists that are looked forward to. Tip well, follow the rules, and don’t be a jerk. It’s not hard.

    Reply
  8. My feelings are close the parks during winter,to allow the wildlife to roam freely without being harassed.
    Allow the mountains to breathe again without humans.
    But there is too much profit to be made more houses to build and the mountains slowly die
    I’m sure with enough money the mountains are for sale. If you don’t believe it someone or a corporation bought acreage just over the parkway down hwy276 to Caruso. What I considered a part of the Blue Ridge Parkway
    Little by little we are losing ground

    Reply
  9. The amount of adults and children I see chasing after deer and bear is astounding. Please use common sense. This is the home of these magnificent creatures. Respect that….and your life

    Reply
  10. Don’t place your children in the bed of your truck or the roof of your car and feed them as you drive thru Cades Cove hoping to see black bears and other wild animals!!! Don’t cross the fences they are there for a reason. Basically stop being stupid!

    Reply

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