hiking trail in Pisgah National Forest
July 31, 2023

While Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers plenty of recreational opportunities ranging from hiking, bicycling and fishing to horseback riding, you’ll find even more fun outdoor activities in the national forests that are next to the Smokies! Here are 3 national forests in North Carolina and Tennessee that surround Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

1. Cherokee National Forest

Cherokee National Forest is divided into northern and southern sections by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and this 650,000 acre forest is the largest tract of public land in Tennessee! As you would expect in a national forest this massive, you’ll find tons of things to do including two Forest Service scenic byways where you can enjoy a scenic drive through the mountains! Hikers will be thrilled to know that there are more than 700 miles of trail to explore, including many backcountry trails where you can enjoy plenty of peaceful solitude! The Cherokee National Forest is also home to 30 developed campgrounds, numerous picnic areas and seven whitewater rivers!

2. Nantahala National Forest

waterfall in Nantahala National Forest

Another one of the national forests in North Carolina and Tennessee that surround Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Nantahala National Forest, which lies in the mountains and valleys of southwestern North Carolina. As the largest of the state’s four national forests, the Nantahala encompasses 531,148 acres with elevations ranging from 5,800 feet at Lone Bald in Jackson County to 1,200 feet in Cherokee County along the Hiwassee River. It is divided into three Districts: Cheoah in Robbinsville, NC, Tusquitee in Murphy, NC, and the Nantahala in Franklin, NC. Visitors can enjoy a wide range of recreational opportunities including white water rafting, camping and 600 miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding!

3. Pisgah National Forest

The Pisgah National Forest encompasses more than 500,000 acres and is scattered along the eastern edge of the mountains of western North Carolina. It is primarily a hardwood forest with whitewater rivers, waterfalls and hundreds of miles of trails. Pisgah is historic because it is home to the first tract of land that was purchased under the Weeks Act of 1911, which led to the creation of the national forests in the eastern United States! It is also home of the first school of forestry in the United States, now preserved at the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site, and boasts two of the first designated wilderness areas in the east.

Difference Between a National Park and a National Forest

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sign

While it is common that the terms “National Park” and “National Forest” are confused, there are actually some important differences between the two areas! National parks emphasize the strict preservation of pristine areas and focus on the protection of natural and historic resources. In addition, park rangers work for the National Park Service (NPS) under the Department of Interior. On the other hand, national forests not only emphasize resource preservation, but other kinds of use including lumber, cattle grazing, mineral products and recreation with and without vehicles. The national forests are managed by forest rangers with the US Forest Service (USFS) under the Department of Agriculture.

If you love to hike, you’ll find about 800 miles of trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and hundreds of other trails in the surrounding national forests in North Carolina and Tennessee! Before setting out on your trek, check out these 7 hiking safety tips that everyone should know!