Are the Smoky Mountains Worth It? A Brutally Honest Opinion

a woman walks the trails of the great smoky mountains national park

Are the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Worth It? (photos by CrackerClips Stock Media/shutterstock.com and Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A local offers pros and cons and determines whether or not a visit to the Smoky Mountains is ‘worth it’

As someone who first visited the mountains as a tourist 40 years ago before moving south in 1990, I’ve something of a unique perspective. I’ve certainly been here long enough to take the mountains for granted. I get up every day and, if I look to the East, I see them. They’re part of the everyday scenery of my life. However, I remember what it was like to see them for the first time, what it was like to be in awe of the sprawling green work of nature.

The Smoky Mountains are among the most visited tourist destinations in the world. The mountains offer natural beauty. The nearby communities offer fun and entertainment and food for the tourists. A visit to the mountains can be an expensive trip, but I’ve never in my life thought the mountains weren’t worth it.

Cades Cove Sparks Rd. Yellow Trees Line the Road
Yellow leaves on fall trees line Sparks Road in Cades Cove (stock.adobe.com)

Smoky Mountain Pros

Let’s start with the obvious. Have you seen the Smoky Mountains? My God, the natural beauty. It’s like stepping into a work of art. The streams and waterfalls, the sweeping vistas. For instance, there’s a spot on the road up to Cades Cove where there’s a grove of trees I can’t name. If you hit them at the right time in fall, the leaves have turned a golden yellow. Find that spot when the sun is dappling just right through the treetops and it can lift the most dour of souls. Places like that made humans create folklore about elves and fairies and brownies. Places that are so wonderful, we created a magical mythology just to explain them. 

And then there’s the wildlife. I remember the first time I saw an elk shortly after the reintroduction. I was mesmerized. Such amazing creatures just walking around loose not far from where I am right now. It’s crazy. And there’s also the bear and the deer and the birds. And the salamanders. Don’t forget the salamanders. The Smokies are the salamander capital of the world. I have not yet seen the massive Hellbender salamander in the wild. But the day I do? That day, I will consider my life complete. 

Also, don’t forget the mountains themselves. They’re almost totally free. I was shocked when I found out other national parks dare to charge visitors. As a Tennessean, I assumed all National parks were free as they should be. Why is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the only one that’s free? When the State of Tennessee negotiated the deal for the National Park with the government, it insisted on the stipulation that the park be free to the public. And it is. Except for the stupid parking fee recently introduced. We don’t like to get into politics here. That’s not what the site is for. But for the love of Pete, the National Parks should be fully funded so the people can visit without paying.  

Outside of the park, you have communities like Pigeon Forge, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, and Townsend. Concentrated centers of joy, fun, food, and cheesiness of varying degrees. This part of the Smokies isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. The restaurants and shows, the attractions. The mini golf and go-karts. The last 60 years of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are essentially a master class in the evolution of fun. 

A Summary of the Pros:

  • The natural beauty
  • The wildlife
  • The National Park is free to visit
  • Plenty of nearby attractions
Dollywood Summer 2023
Attractions such as Dollywood can be expensive (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

Smoky Mountain Cons

It’s expensive. The highly evolved fun comes with a price, of course. Sure, if you’re a local like me you can pop over to the park for a day, take a picnic lunch and have a big old time for the cost of a tank of gas. But if you’re not from here? I hope you brought your wallet. I think the Smokies can still be an affordable vacation destination but when you start tossing in extras like a day at Dollywood or a visit to the Stampede, things can get pretty pricey pretty quickly. 

There’s also a repetitive nature of the area. Somebody has success with a pancake house or a mountain roller coaster and suddenly they’re everywhere. We used to have unique attractions – some of them quite bad but unique. Today? Not as much. 

The people. Did I mention it’s among the most popular tourist destinations in the world?  As a result, the folks in Sevier County have struggled at times to keep the infrastructure up to meet the crowds. And that parking fee I mentioned? They did it in part because so many people were coming to the parks and leaving their cars just willy-nilly. It was chaos. Cades Cove is one of the most beautiful places in the world. But catch it on a heavy traffic day in the loop and suddenly you’d rather be at the dentist’s office or getting a colon exam. Anywhere but stuck behind a vanload of tourists fascinated by the 17th deer they’ve seen that day. It’s a deer. They’re the New York City pigeons of the Appalachians.

A Summary of the Cons 

  • Area attractions are expensive
  • Repetitiveness
  • Heavy crowds

“Anywhere but stuck behind a vanload of tourists fascinated by the 17th deer they’ve seen that day. It’s a deer. They’re the New York City pigeons of the Appalachians.”

– John Gullion, Contributor, TheSmokies.com
Chimney Picnic Area
The beautiful Chimney Picnic Area is only 10 minutes from Gatlinburg (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Are the Smoky Mountains Worth It? 

Yes. Of course, they are worth it. What is it they said about Elvis? Fifty million people can’t be wrong. There are frustrations. They are always frustrations. But there is also transcendent beauty. There is ancient history. There are primal forces of nature and geology and humanity at work. And you don’t have to go far to experience it.

For instance, the Chimney Picnic Area is 10 minutes from Gatlinburg. Get there early and get a spot up near the top of the picnic area. It is the place where all the things that are the park come together. I go up there and sit near the edge of the water. It’s the opposite of sensory deprivation. It’s engaging all the senses … or most of them anyway. I ain’t up there licking the trees. 

But I do like to watch as the cold, clear current cuts its path down the mountain. I listen to the roar of the water as it does the work of cutting its way through the rock, work that will take a millennium. I also feel the wind as it blows down through the trees. It’s a restorative spot. A spot I’ve visited for almost the entirety of my life. A spot I’ll visit until I can no longer do so. Imagine now, thinking even for a second, that spot and the effort it takes to get there. Friends, the Smokies are among the true wonders of the world. How do you put a price on that? 

The Smoky Mountains have loomed large in American lore for more than 200 years. They’ve been a sacred spot to the people who live among them for far longer. Whatever frustrations or setbacks that occur on a Smoky Mountain vacation are surely a small price to pay to see the natural wonder of the world. The dollar amount it costs to visit is a relatively small price to share in a communal experience that Americans – and the world – have enjoyed for generations. Plus, you might see a bear or Dolly Parton. Either way, bonus. Are the Smoky Mountains worth it? Totally. 

PS: Are you planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains? Be sure to check out our coupons page for area promos.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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