The most visited National Park in the United States continues to attract millions of visitors year after year
As someone who has endured traffic around Cades Cove for 34 years, the annual announcement of park visitors intrigues me. According to NPS.gov, there were more recreation visits to the park in 2023 (13,297,648) than in 2022 (12,937,635). Although 2023 wasn’t a record-breaking year. That title goes to 2021 with 14,161,549 recreation visits. In this article, we will look at the top three places those 13 million-plus visited inside the park in 2023.
Preliminary data shows 13,297,468 people visited the GSMNP in 2023, up from 12,937,635 the year before. The three most popular destinations for recreation visits within the park included the areas of Sugarlands, Oconaulftee and Townsend.
The 3 most visited areas within the park
Here are the three most visited areas within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to 2023 data.
1. Sugarlands – 4,121,854 visits
Counting Recreation Visits, adjusted to eliminate duplicate reporting, Sugarlands is the clear winner. According to the preliminary data, Sugarlands – with its visitor center located just above the Gatlinburg entrance to the park – attracted 4,121,854 unique visitors last year. That’s up from 3,976,409 the year before.
Are the Sugarlands the most visited spot in the park? Not technically, no. The Gatlinburg Spur – the 4-mile section of road between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge – collected over 10 million visitors in 2023. Although it is worth noting, the parks’ December 2023 report lists the same number of annual visitors for 2023 – 10,832,000 – as in 2022. While people drive along the spur on their way to other areas, its visitors are not considered recreational by the park.
Other areas like the Gatlinburg Bypass – over 7 million visitors – and Cades Cove Loop Road – over 2 million – rank highly. However, they are in a separate category – miscellaneous internal numbers – which do not appear to be adjusted.
2. Oconaluftee – 2,515,803 visits
It’s not shocking to see the bookends to Newfound Gap Road on this list. Oconaluftee is the North Carolina counterpart to the Sugarlands. It offers an intriguing Visitors Center, a historic village and among the best spots to spot elk. The preliminary numbers show slightly fewer visitors in 2023 than the year before. In 2022, 2,531,222 visited this popular spot just outside of Cherokee. In 2023, that number was 2,515,803.
Ultimately, it’s unsurprising to see Sugarlands and Oconaluftee at the top because they are on either end of the best drive through the mountains. Newfound Gap Road offers the best views, access to significant trails and links to massive moments in the park’s history. It’s also the best way to get to Clingman’s Dome – the highest peak in the park. If you plan on helping to increase these spots’ numbers in 2024, know that the road can close in winter weather.
3. Townsend – 1,718,403 visits
The dip was larger for the quiet side of the Smokies, which saw more than 100,000 fewer visitors in 2023. In 2022, the park reported 1,824,875 visitors. That number dropped to 1,718,403 in this most recent year. The Townsend entrance to the park welcomes visitors on their way to the Wye, the popular swimming and tubing spot. You also typically go through the Townsend entrance to visit Cades Cove, Elkmont, the Sinks, White Oak Falls and several great hiking trails.
I grew up a few miles away and this is the park entrance I know – and like the best. It also offers access to two of the best picnic spots in the park – Cades Cove and Metcalf Bottoms. There are dozens of little intriguing spots to get out and explore. There are dozens of great spots for frame-worthy vacation photos as well, like Spruce Flat Falls, just off the Upper Tremont Road.
About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is massive and filled with places of great beauty and great history. Some of them we all know, like the three on this list. But they are just gateways, opportunities to go deeper, explore further and find new things at which to marvel.
Last year, more than 13 million people came to the park, second only to the more than 14 million who visited in 2021. Whenever they visited, however, they came in search of something. They were looking for beauty, peace, and tranquility. Or possibly they were hunting for wild feral people and Bigfeet. Ultimately, that’s the fun of it. The park can be different things to different people but millions of us find a way to enjoy it every year.
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts