Last fall, I had the chance to visit the Rocky Mountain National Park, and I couldn’t help but compare it to my home, the Great Smoky Mountains. The two national parks share a lot in common. They’re 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 surrounding tourist towns. Will this article be biased? Okay, 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.
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Rocky Mountains vs Smoky Mountains: Which has better views?
Since this will be a difficult article to tackle, we’ll start with the most difficult question. Which national park offers better views? Of course, 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. But there’s more than just rocks. The Rockies have lots of points of interest too, like caverns, lakes and incredible, 14,000-ft mountain tops. The mountains are so tall in the Rockies that you can get elevation sickness.
Still, I have to give a point to the Rockies here. Even though it pains me to do so 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 …
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. In short, the elevation heights in the Rockies are more than double that of the Smokies. Another point to the Rocky Mountains. See? I’m not that biased.
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.
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 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.
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 have (according to the NPS):
- Black bears (1,500+)
- Elk (200)
- White-tailed deer (common)
- Wild turkeys (500)
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 have 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.
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, and 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.
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. Now, one might argue that this has led to the Smokies being overcrowded. That’s why the NPS began charging a parking fee.
So, while the Rocky Mountain National Park is stunning, and it is 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. 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.