Where are the Smoky Mountains? Why are they so popular?

A panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains with flowers

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park. Why is it so popular? (photo by Margaret/stock.adobe.com)

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For a large part of my life, if someone asked me where the Smoky Mountains were, I could walk out my front door and point.

Over yonder. I never really gave it more thought than that. 

The question seems easy to answer and it is, if you’re asking in a general way. 

Where are the Great Smoky Mountains? 

In the eastern United States, go east of Knoxville, Tennessee or west of Asheville, North Carolina, a little to the north, a little to the south. When you start to go up, you’ve got your Smoky Mountains right there. 

But the truth is, if you want to get specific about it, I’ve never really known – exactly speaking – where the Smoky Mountains are, or maybe more specifically where they are not.

The beauty of its ancient mountains is famous. But it’s also something of a matter of branding. 

A mother black bear and her cubs
The Smoky Mountains are home to about 1,500 black bears (photo by Andrew/stock.adobe.com)

Why are the Smoky Mountains so popular?

The Smokies reputation – their Q-rating, if you will – is so much higher than the larger ranges that surround them.

The Smoky Mountains have become popular, in part, because there’s no need to reach for your wallet at the park entrances. It is one of the few national parks without an entrance fee.

Read Also: Why is there no fee for the Smoky Mountains? Will it always be free?

Additionally, the Appalachian Trail, one of the most well-known in the country, runs through more than 70 miles of the Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Smokies are also famous for the campgrounds and diversity of plant and animal life.

The mountains are a serene place where you can see elk, black bears, deer and more.

The gateway towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Townsend have also become popular vacation spots for visitors.

Bryson City, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, is another gateway town known for whitewater rafting and outdoor activities along the Nantahala and Fontana Lake.

But the surrounding mountain ranges of the Smoky Mountains are much larger. Basically, everything in the Appalachian range from north Georgia to southern Virginia is thought to be the Smokies in the popular consciousness.

But, of course, that ain’t so

Read Also: Are the Blue Ridge Mountains and Smoky Mountains the same? 

When I lived a few minutes from Tellico Plains in Monroe County, TN – right on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest – I would have never thought of those mountains as anything but Smoky. It appears I was wrong or I’d just never properly considered the question. 

The mountains East of Madisonville and Tellico are part of the Unicoi Mountains, located to the south of the Smokies.  

I knew vaguely that they were the Unicoi Mountains. I’d heard the term, and I just assumed it was a smaller part of a larger whole – the Unicoi was to the Smokies as the Smokies were to the Appalachians. 

That’s not right.  

A map of the Great Smoky Mountains, between TN and NC
The Smokies are a subset of a larger mountain range, nestled between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 522,427 acres (map by TheSmokies.com)

Are the Smoky Mountains part of the Appalachian Mountains?

The Smokies are a specific mountain range. They are part of the southern Appalachian mountains and part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.

There is a spot on this Earth, many of them actually, where one foot of ground is in the Smoky Mountains and the foot right next to it ain’t. 

We don’t like to think of mountains that way, or maybe I don’t. I think of them as something larger than boundaries and borders. They’re more than pieces of the world sectioned off by mapmakers and politicians. 

So where are the Smokies?

It’s such a simple question but frustratingly hard to answer. Oftentimes the language is frustratingly academic or on the other end, sufficiently vague as to leave the answer muddled. 

Where is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Part of the problem is that much more information is available about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, the mountains exist outside of the park. 

This map I found on the U.S. Geological Survey provides maybe the clearest answer.

You can see the Smoky Mountains clearly marked outside of the park.

On this map, you can also see the Balsams and the Unicoi and the Blue Ridge. The interlocking pieces are of a natural phenomenon. In truth, we have tried to chop up and categorize them so we can claim them for our state, our county, our town or ourselves.  

But even that map isn’t the perfect answer to our question.

A sign for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Where do the Smoky Mountains start and end?

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers the following answer: 

The Great Smokies lie between Knoxville, Tennessee (just to the west), and Asheville, North Carolina (just to the east), blending into the Blue Ridge escarpment to the east in western North Carolina. They are sometimes considered a division of the Unaka Mountains.

Thanks, guys. That clears it up. 

Another suggestion was to determine the exact location of the Smokies by elevation.

In fact, Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot tried to create an accurate topographical map of the Appalachian Range. He messed up, by the way, when he got some bad info from some locals. But it’s hard to be mad at a guy who climbed every peak in the range. 

The same site also suggested determining where you are in the Smokies based on fauna – or animals.

Sure, just pull out your handy guide to 171 species of salamanders and get crackin’. 

It’s possible – as I’ve tumbled down rabbit holes involving disputes between cranky generals and disgruntled map makers and literally dozens of maps of the national park that tell me everything but what I want to know that I’m overthinking this. 

Perhaps my focus has gone a little too micro after spending years thinking of the mountains in a macro frame of mind. 

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

The Great Smoky Mountains stretch from the Pigeon River in the northeast to the Little Tennessee River in the southeast. The northwestern half of the range gives way to a series of elongate ridges known as the ‘Foothills,’ the outermost of which include Chilhowee Mountain and English Mountain. The range is roughly bounded on the south by the Tuckasegee River and to the southeast by Soco Creek and Jonathan Creek. The Great Smokies comprise parts of Blount County, Sevier County and Cocke County in Tennessee and Swain County and Haywood County in North Carolina.

You want to get more specific than that? 

Start checking the salamanders. 

What are the most popular destinations in the Smoky Mountains?

If you find out exactly where the mountains are, some of the most popular destinations folks like to visit and explore include:

Summer months like June, July and August are usually the busiest months to visit the park. If you wish to see wildlife, going out early in the morning is usually the best time to view them.

However, always remember to keep your distance.

Read Also: What to do if you see a black bear: These 3 tips might surprise you

Have you been to the Smokies? What are your favorite places to visit? Let us know in the comments.

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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3 thoughts on “Where are the Smoky Mountains? Why are they so popular?”

  1. Please please please DON’T turn Cafes Cove into a lake… it’s beautiful just the way it is and I love going there

  2. DO NOT turn Cades Cove into a lake! You will lose all the natural and historical aspects in that part of the smokies. You will also lose alot of tourist who appreciate nature and visit throughout this great family destination.
    Cades Cove- sitting in a quiet meadow on a beautiful day.

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