Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Comparing elevation, views, wildlife

Rocky Mountains and Smoky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains (left) and the Smoky Mountains (right) have many differences, but they are both beautiful national parks (left photo by Nick; right photo by SeanPavonePhoto/stock.adobe.com)

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Last fall I had the chance to visit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and I couldn’t help but to compare it to my home, the Great Smoky Mountains.

The two national parks share a lot in common. They’re obviously mountainous, offer great hiking trails and are stunningly beautiful. But, we’re probably kidding ourselves here to think the two are interchangeable.

So what are the big differences between the two? And which one is better?

I’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room. You’re reading this on TheSmokies.com, an entire website dedicated to the Great Smoky Mountains and its surrounding tourist towns.

Will this article be biased? Nah.

Okay, fine maybe a little.

Let’s break it down by a few categories and defining characteristics to determine which national park is better, the Rocky Mountains or the Smoky Mountains. Here we go:

Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains offer very high, scenic views (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Which has better views?

Since this will be a difficult article to tackle, why not start with the most difficult question. Which national park offers better views?

This is difficult to answer, as beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

This one, naturally, will depend on your preference.

When I picture the Smoky Mountains, I think of lush, green trees, babbling streams, waterfalls and historic cabins.

When I picture the Rocky Mountains, I picture … rocks.

Okay, okay, there’s more than just rocks. The Rockies has lots of points of interest too, like caverns, lakes and incredible, 14,000-ft mountain tops.

In fact, the mountains are so tall in the Rockies that you may risk feeling elevation sickness.

Still, I have to give a point to the Rockies here. Even though it pains me to do because the Smokies have my heart.

Maybe it’s because they offered something different, but the Rocky Mountains have perhaps some of the best views I’ve seen in my life.

One reluctant point for the Rocky Mountains. Speaking of elevation …

The Smoky Mountains are not as tall as the Rocky Mountains
The mountains are more lush and green in the Smokies (above), but not as tall as the Rockies (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Elevation

The Rocky Mountains have more than 100 mountain tops that are above 10,000 feet. The highest of which is Mount Elbert, coming in at 14,433 feet.

By comparison, the tallest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is at Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet. Only sixteen mountain peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation in the Smokies.

Read Also: 10 things you didn’t know about Clingmans Dome

In short, the elevation heights in the Rockies more than double that of the Smokies.

Another point to the Rocky Mountains. See? I’m not that biased.

Lake in the Rocky Mountains
If you want a higher elevation, you may prefer the Rocky Mountains (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Land size

What the Smokies lack in elevation, they make up for in pure landmass. This category is hardly even close.

According to the National Park Service (NPS), the Smoky Mountains cover a whopping 522,427 acres, divided between two states, Tennessee and North Carolina with more than 850 miles of trails.

By comparison, the Rockies are nearly half that size at about 265,807 acres and 355 miles of hiking trails.

That’s right, one point for the home team, the Smoky Mountains.

An icy lake in the Rocky Mountains
Since the elevations are so high, it can get very cold at the top of the mountain in Colorado (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Humidity, air quality

Look y’all, I know that Tennessee gets humid. But Colorado is dry. You might be the kind of person who likes it dry over humid.

I, however, felt like no amount of face lotion in the world would help me after my Colorado vacation. I think my face aged about 10 years during my 5-day trip between the elevation and the windburn.

For the sake of this article, I found a few stats on air quality and humidity from the two areas, during the time of this writing:

  • Humidity in the Smokies: 55%
  • Air Quality Index (AQI) in the Smokies: 29 (Good)
  • Humidity in the Rockies: 14%
  • Air Quality Index (AQI) in the Rockies: 80 (Moderate)

And at the risk of sounding too obvious, the weather conditions can be much harsher in the Rockies. For example, what started out as a nice, warm hike ended in a wintery snowstorm during our fall trip.

It’s worth mentioning that your experience will vary widely based on when you decide to visit. But still, I’m giving another point to the Smokies on this one.

Elk in the Rockies
Elk are more commonly seen in the Rocky Mountains (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Wildlife

A large part of the national park’s role is to protect its wildlife population. Both places are a good choice if you want to do some nature watching.

The Rockies list 66 species of mammals that are native to the area, and the Smokies list 65.

We could end this one on a near-tie, but that’s no fun. Let’s take a closer look.

In the Rocky Mountains, species include (according to the NPS):

  • Black bears (20-24)
  • Bighorn sheep (350+)
  • Coyotes (common)
  • Elk (600-800)
  • Deer (300-500)
  • Moose (40-60)
  • Mountain lions (rare)

By comparison, the Smoky Mountains has (according to the NPS):

  • Black bears (1,500+)
  • Elk (200)
  • White-tailed deer (common)
  • Wild turkeys (500)
  • Salamanders

That’s right, salamanders. We made sure to include that on the specifics because the Smoky Mountains are considered to be the “Salamander Capital of the World.”

The geologic factors of the Smokies has spurred the development of 30 salamander species. Beat that, Rockies!

Furthermore, we have way more black bears. Another point for the Smoky Mountains.

It’s worth noting that since there are so many black bears, it’s not unreasonable that you may see one during a visit to the Smokies. Do not feed them and always keep your distance.

Read Also: What to do if you see a black bear, these tips might surprise you

The Treetop Skywalk at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, Tenn is the longest tree-based Skywalk in North America (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)
The Smoky Mountains area offers more attractions, like this Treetop Skywalk at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which is the longest tree-based Skywalk in North America (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

Estes Park vs. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge

Last but not least, let’s take a look at the surrounding towns.

Estes Park is a cute little mountain town with breweries, restaurants and taffy shops.

The surrounding areas of the Great Smoky Mountains are quite a bit more touristy, much more plentiful of mini golf, go-karts and tourist attractions.

Which is better? I’ll just end this one in a tie.

It completely depends on preference here. I’d say that there’s more to do in the surrounding areas of the Smoky Mountains. Heck, you could probably take your family here a dozen times and not run out of new attractions.

However, if you are looking for a quaint little mountain town, you may prefer Estes Park in Colorado.

Smoky Mountains
My Smokies hoodie and I think the Smoky Mountains might just be the winner here (photo by TheSmokies.com)

The result: Which is better?

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Smoky Mountains National Park is that it’s free.

When I went to the Rockies, it cost my small family of two nearly $30 per day just to go on some hikes.

When the Smoky Mountains National Park was being established, Tennesseans were reluctant to hand over its land, and an eventual agreement stipulated that no toll or fee could be imposed.

That’s why we have one of the few free national parks that exist.

Read Also: Why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free and others are not

Now, one might argue that this has led to the Smokies being overcrowded. That’s why, currently, the NPS is working on a pilot project that tests parking fees on one of its most popular trails.

Read Also: Will Laurel Falls remain free?

What does that mean for the future of the national park and parking fees? Time will tell.

But for now, we’re proud to be home of the (literally) free national park.

So, while the Rocky Mountain National Park is stunning, and it is definitely worth visiting at least once in your life, the Smoky Mountains are the most visited for a reason. And I think that the reason might just be that it’s the best.

Or because it’s free.

But why take my word for it? Visit both and see for yourself.

Have you been to both national parks? Are you debating between the two? Tell us your opinion in the comment section below.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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6 thoughts on “Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Comparing elevation, views, wildlife”

  1. I’m a Kansas girl, born and raised. I’ve been to Colorado countless times and love RMNP. Bear Lake is a favorite hike. But when I married into the military, I left the prairie and started to explore the world with my pilot husband. And, by “world”, I mean Oklahoma and Texas. We were recently transferred to Alabama though and I’m so excited to explore the Smokies and this part of the country with our young family! Thanks for your article and info on this park. We’ll definitely be visiting at least once while we’re in the South!

  2. We live near the Ohio River , in southern Ohio. We have been to the Smokies at least 20 times and Rocky Mountain National Park , 3 tines. They are both beautiful in their own way. Estes Park is a beautiful tourist town , maybe better suited for grown ups. Gatlinburg is pretty too, but add in Pigeon Forge , just a few miles away and there is so much to do for children and the family. I would rather hike the Rocky Mountains, the air is thin but very dry , no sweating, but the Smokies air is very humid , hard to breathe and your clothes will stay wet. Even though total elevation is much higher in the Rockies , the Smokies are still big mountains , as Mt.LeConte stands just over a mile above Gatlinburg , the highest point on Trail Ridge Road is 4600 feet above Estes Park which sits in the valley right below the park. Love both places and recommend them both !

  3. You did forget to mention a quaint little town in the Smokies known as the Peaceful side of the Smokies, Townsend TN.

  4. I’ve not been to RMNP itself but I have spent alot of time in the Rockies and I absolutely love them. Do yourself a favor and ignore the national parks and just head out on national forest land. This year was my first time visiting the Smokies and I have to say I was impressed. I was expecting big hills like here in the Ozarks, they have nothing on the Smokies. But for me as far as vegetation and wildlife it was all too familiar, so I definitely give the nod to the Rockies

  5. I have been to both parks, extensively as we have friends and family in both Tennessee and Colorado. I love the sweeping vistas of RMNP and the climate change is really something (it was 90° at the park entrance and 31° with snow flurries at the ranger station at the top of the pass). The Smokies, however, offer a much more homier(?) and friendlier feel. Growing up in the northern Catskills has predisposed me to feeling more comfortable in the Smokies. I’ll take the Appalachians hands down!!

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