May is a transitional month in the Great Smoky Mountains. It offers a chance to see the blooming wildflowers and active wildlife while avoiding the peak summer crowds.
The remaining campgrounds and picnic areas that had closed in the fall are open by the middle of the month.
Access to all roads within the park also resumes by late May, including sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Heintooga Ridge Road, Heintooga-Round Bottom Road with its one-way exit into the Cherokee reservation, and Parson Branch Road south of Cades Cove.
The number of visitors increases as temperatures warm. Approximately 175,000-200,000 vehicles are counted coming into the north side of the park by the Gatlinburg Bypass in May.
The total number of visits in May averages from 1.4 to 1.6 million. Between 25,000 and 30,000 camp or stay in their RVs when visiting.
Pros of Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in May:
- Light traffic in some areas, such as Cades Cove and Roaring Fork, that will become very crowded after Memorial Day.
- Nearby cities such as Cherokee and Bryson City tend to have light traffic, even as the number of vehicles increases in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Cons of Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains in May:
- Occasional cold fronts may cause chilly weather or sharp temperature differences.
- Some services and attractions remain closed into early May.
- Some hotels may not open until the period immediately before or during Memorial Day weekend, especially establishments in areas such as Cherokee and Maggie Valley.
Weather in May
Lower Elevation (Park Headquarters, near Gatlinburg area)
- Average High: 79°F
- Average Low: 50°F
- Monthly Precipitation: 4.5 inches
- Monthly Snowfall: None
- Days of Precipitation: 9
Highest Elevation (Clingmans Dome)
- Average High: 57°F
- Average Low: 43°F
- Monthly Precipitation: 6 inches
- Monthly Snowfall: Trace
- Days of Precipitation: 10
Snow flurries and icy patches are rare in May. However, visitors should be prepared for the possibility of an occasional chilly night along Newfound Gap Road (US Highway 441) between the Deep Creek Trailhead (North Carolina) and the Alum Cave Bluffs Trailhead (Tennessee), as well as Clingmans Dome Road, that may produce icy stretches of road.
Temperatures may vary significantly between lower elevations, such as at the visitor centers at Sugarlands and Oconaluftee, and areas such as Newfound Gap and higher sections of the Appalachian Trail.
Temperatures in the mid-70s may easily drop below 50°F as guests reach higher elevations. Unpredictable weather and wide temperature fluctuations may occur well into May, so packing jackets and warm-weather clothes is a wise decision.
Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains in May
Traffic along Newfound Gap Road is generally light in the mornings during early May, with some areas experiencing congestion during the afternoons and weekends.
Clingmans Dome Road may have some slowdowns on weekends, as well, though sufficient parking spaces should be available during the early part of the month.
As Memorial Day approaches, parking spots at Newfound Gap and the trail to the Clingmans Dome observation tower become more difficult to obtain.
The southernmost sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway within the Smokies and up to the intersection with US Highways 23 and 74 near Waynesville should open by the middle of May.
Balsam Mountain Road, also known as Heintooga Ridge Road, opens in May.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail near Gatlinburg usually opens in early April but remains sparsely traveled during the early part of May. This is an excellent time to enjoy this winding and narrow road to see the cabins and other historic buildings.
The availability of parking lots to access trails to Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls remains good, and everyone enjoys water cascading down the Place of a Thousand Drips waterfall before leaving.
Download this National Park Map from nps.gov (pdf)
The Cades Cove Loop Road – often a spot that resembles an 11-mile parking lot during the summer when bears or elks appear near the road – is much easier to navigate during the early part of May.
On Wednesdays beginning in early May and continuing through late September, vehicle-free access on this one-way road allows hikers and bicyclists to enjoy this loop without having to share the lane with rubbernecking drivers.
Rich Mountain, Forge Creek, and Parson Branch roads open by May, allowing some guests to take different exits from the park after driving along part of the Cades Cove Loop Road.
Trail heads along these and other remote roads become more accessible for day use.
The last two picnic areas that close for the colder months open by mid-May.
Look Rock opens in late April and Heintooga by mid-May.
Picnic sites are available during much of May, though spaces may become difficult to find at peak times around Memorial Day.
The last two frontcountry (developed) campgrounds open by mid-May.
The Look Rock Campground, sitting at 3,000 feet, sits along Foothills Parkway West.
At 5,310 feet, Balsam Mountain Campground may have cool to chilly evenings when the gates open, but dark sky viewing opportunities are great on clear nights.
With all park campgrounds usually open by the third week of May, campers and those with RVs have a variety of options.
Reservations are recommended later in the month, especially as it gets closer to Memorial Day.
Campgrounds on the periphery, such as Abrams Creek Campground on the northwest side of the Smokies and Cosby Campground on the northeast, tend to get less traffic than Elkmont and Smokemount.
Backcountry camping permits for remote stays within the Great Smokies are easy to reserve in early May, but spots begin to fill up by the middle of the month.
Hikers with reservations experience one of five trails along Mount LeConte to the LeConte Lodge for a chance to enjoy a meal and an overnight stay in a rough-hewn cabin located nearly 6,400 feet in elevation.
LeConte Lodge opens in March, with reservations becoming more difficult to get by the middle of May.
With wildflowers in bloom, May is a great time to hike trails within the park.
Many tourists take short walks along paths at sites such as Newfound Gap, Carlos Campbell Overlook, and the trail to Laurel Falls.
Parking spaces are often available at The Sinks, Chimney Tops trailhead, and Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead, places that often reach capacity during the peak summer season.
A year-round activity in the Smokies, fishing takes on a different character in the late spring because streams have greater flow and higher levels due to melted snow and regular precipitation.
Approximately 20% of the streams within the park have populations of trout.
Smallmouth bass are found in certain larger streams.
Anglers need to secure a fishing license from either North Carolina or Tennessee to fish within the park’s 2,900 miles of streams.
Wildlife and Wildflowers in May
Wildlife is visible in many areas of the park, though the growth of new leaves on many trees will give deer and other animals better places to hide from the growing number of people and vehicles in the park.
Bird populations remain significant in more remote areas of the park, even as the seasonal migration of other birds northward during the spring comes to an end.
Occasional flashes of light start to appear in the dark woods during the night. Fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, are a type of beetle that begin to cast their glow for a few weeks during the mating season.
Within the Smokies, fireflies usually offer their peak luminescence during a window between mid-May and late June, depending on the temperature and other environmental factors.
Shrubs and other plants experience blooms in the spring. White and pink mountain laurel flowers start to bloom in early May and continue into June.
Rosebay rhododendrons, often called great laurel, start to bloom at lower elevations in late May and early June. Catawba rhododendrons follow suit at higher elevations a little later.
Lower areas in pine and oak forests also experience substantial flame azalea blooms between April and May.
Although the park’s annual Wildflower Pilgrimage has usually happened in April since 1951, many of the plants featured during these programs remain in bloom into May.
Events in May
Bloomin’ BBQ Festival: A weekend event in the heart of Sevierville (Tennessee), this family event includes music, food, and plenty of barbeque in a festive atmosphere.
Blooms and Tunes, Gatlinburg (annually, mid-April to early June): Spring artworks, seasonal foods, large flower blooms in the Vista Gardens, and live music draw crowds to this central Gatlinburg attraction.
Flower & Food Festival, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge (annually, mid-April to early June): A combination of flowers, blossoming oversized topiary mosaicultures, and music presented by Covenant Health are popular enhancements found at Dollywood during late spring.
Unto These Hills, Cherokee, North Carolina (shows begin in late May and continue until late August): A popular attraction that tells the story of the Cherokee people, these shows that have been a part of the community since 1950 are offered Mondays through Saturdays during the busy summer season.
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