Trailside Talk: The Perfect Smokies Day

Trailside Talk: The Perfect Smokies Day

Mike Hembree

Get ready, Cades Cove! On the alert, Laurel Falls! Look out, Alum Cave! Sugarlands, here they come! 

Over the next several months, the Great Smokies face the year’s biggest season of visitation as schools dismiss students for the summer and hundreds of thousands of workers target mountain trips for their annual vacations. From one-day picnics to week-long camping and hiking, it’s a very busy time for the park.

Stephanie Kyriazis
Stephanie Kyriazis is the park's chief of resource education. Valerie Polk, GSMA.

In 2021, a record year for Smokies visitation with more than 14 million travelers enjoying the park, the busiest month was July. More than 1.7 million visits were recorded that month.

Taking an educated look at things, it follows that July might not be the best month to roam the roads and trails of the nation’s busiest national park. There will be traffic jams, especially along the park’s major roads, and trails to favorite waterfalls and overlooks also will be crowded.

A similar situation develops in October, when the autumn color change attracts leaf peepers from around the country—and beyond. Last year, October was second only to July in the visitor count.

Sometimes fall traffic is so heavy that you can sit and watch a leaf change from green to gold to amber and then watch it fall to earth—all in one traffic stop. (Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but sometimes it feels that way.)

When then is the best time to visit the Smokies? Is it possible to pick the Perfect Smokies Day?

“Any day of the year has the potential to be a perfect Smokies day,” said Stephanie Kyriazis, the park’s chief of resource education. “Some people like the bustle of humanity, others prefer wild solitude; some people love a particular season, others hope to catch a glimpse of certain wildlife. It’s all about educating yourself about what to expect at certain times of year, times of day, or days of the week, and aligning what you are most hoping to experience with what’s going on.” 

She adds that the park’s social media channels or website—and GSMA’s digital and print offerings—are great places to start learning more so you can plan the perfect Smokies day for you.

Smokies overlook in early fall
Tuesday, October 4, 2022, Mike Hembree's perfect Smokies Day, would be an ideal day for reading at an overlook somewhere in the park. Photo courtesy of GSMNP.

So, let’s figure out the things we want:

1. Long-range, mountain views
2. Wildlife
3. A seasonal change, from winter to the first greening of spring, or the vibrant start of autumn
4. Rushing streams 

And what we don’t want:

1. Traffic
2. Heavier traffic
3. Even heavier traffic
4. Clogged trails

 After careful analysis of all the facts and figures and the visitation numbers dutifully compiled by park officials, I’ve determined that Tuesday, October 4, 2022, is the Perfect Smokies Day.

Being a devoted disciple of the Smokies’ fall color change, I have to choose October. It’s a busy time, of course, but choosing a Tuesday will avoid much of the vehicular traffic that is expected every October weekend.

I’m guessing I can find a parking spot at Newfound Gap to see the splendid view, then hike a mile or so on the Appalachian Trail to see some up-close color. I could even make an afternoon run over to Cades Cove, hoping the majority of cove cruisers chose the morning. And, along the way, there are always excellent spots to stop and enjoy the picturesque Little River, its rolling waters framed by autumn gold.

Smokies LIVE

See you then, if not before.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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