10 best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains

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Some come for the sweeping overlooks and deep valleys. Others prefer the roaring streams, gripping history and rich wildlife. In the untamed world of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you feel like a pioneer exploring new lands. But this time around, the notable spots are already mapped out for you.

The depths of the Smokies call your name. But for the best experience, make sure that you tick off at least a few of these enchanting things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains.

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1. Cruise on Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail

The 6-mile (10 km) Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail is an iconic drive through the Smokies. It treats you with grand vistas, waterfall trails and historic cabins.

Right at the start of the Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail, the well-preserved Noah Ogle Place sits. The Noah Ogle Place Nature Trail leads you around the homestead, where the settler and farmer Noah “Bud” Ogle used to live.

It’s a short trail of just 0.25 miles (400 m), but the cabin, barn and mill by Le Conte Creek prepare you for what to come. When you drive the Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail, scenery is everywhere.

Barn nestled in the woods at Noah Ogle Place
Noah Ogle homestead at the Roaring Fork start.

2. Feel splashing Tennessee waterfalls

The elevation gradient in Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes it a park dotted with cascades and waterfalls. With so many wet Smokies attractions to choose from, picking just one isn’t an easy task.

Grotto Falls is one of the most famous waterfalls in the Smokies. That you can walk behind it adds some extra pleasure to the 3-mile (4.8 km) round-trip Grotto Falls hike.

On the same side of the Smokies, a 5.4-mile (8.7 km) out-and-back trek takes you to the misty Rainbow Falls. At the Smokies waterfall — as you might have figured out already — a rainbow often appears.

Elsewhere in the park, Abrams Falls, Laurel Falls and Tom Branch Falls enchant their visitors. The waterfall adventures just never seem to end in the Smokies.

Crashing Tom Branch Falls surrounded by greenery in the Smokies
Tom Branch Falls.

3. Ascend to the top of Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the most elevated point in both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee. Its height 6,643 feet (2,025 m) even makes it the third tallest US point east of Mississippi River.

For 7 miles (11 km) and almost all the way to the top, Clingmans Dome Road traces the Tennessee and North Carolina border. Where the road ends, a paved but steep 0.5-mile (0.8 km) trail is all that remains.

At the summit, a unique perspective awaits. On a clear day, the views stretch more than 100 miles (160 km) in every direction across the surrounding Appalachian landscape.

Although the views aren’t as expanded on hazy days, ascending to the top of Clingmans Dome is always a special thing to do in Great Smoky Mountains. No matter what the weather forecast says, the Smokies’ top is impressive.

Trees and clouds surrounding Clingmans Dome
On top of Great Smoky Mountains.

4. Hike the iconic Appalachian Trail

Past the busy park roads, you find a quieter dimension of the Smokies. With each step you take away from the asphalt, the more relaxing the Appalachian ambience gets.

The most iconic of all the hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Appalachian Trail, which extends from Maine to Georgia. Almost 2,000 miles (3,219 km) long, its entirety is a huge undertaking.

So you may want to save some of those miles for another day. Still, just hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail is a memorable Great Smoky Mountains experience.

For an easy sample, make your way over to Newfound Gap. Here, in the heart of the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail leads out in two directions, northwest towards Charles Bunion and southwest towards Clingmans Dome.

Wooden sign showing that the Appalachian Trail is straight ahead
Are you ready for the Appalachian Trail?

5. Enjoy spectacular mountain pullovers

You certainly don’t have to put on your hiking boots to get a great feel for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Tennessee and North Carolina park is like created for scenic drives.

Newfound Gap Road goes from Gatlinburg in the north to Cherokee in the south. It slices Great Smoky Mountains in two, presenting a cocktail of sweeping overlooks.

Make sure to stop for the vista at Newfound Gap, marking out the lowest pass through the Smokies. Less than a mile (1.6 km) away, the Ben Morton Overlook is another crowd pleaser.

This pattern of scenic viewpoints repeats itself in every area of the Smokies — welcome to road trip heaven.

6. Tour Elkmont Historic District

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Elkmont was a booming Tennessee town. At first, Elkmont thrived as a logging hub, but eventually the town rather became a popular escape for Knoxville’s elite.

Nowadays, Elkmont Historic District — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — encompasses the remains of the once prospering town.

In the walkable district, you find several restored cabins. Its biggest structure is the Appalachian Clubhouse, appearing just like it did when it first was raised 1930s.

For more traces of the past, continue your exploration on Jakes Creek Trail and Little River Trail. Here, chimneys and stone walls reveal that Elkmont used to be something very different than it is today.

Historic wooden cabin in Elkmont within Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elkmont cabin.

7. Venture to Fontana Lake

Fontana Lake, straddling the southern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, surprises visitors with its huge scale. Boasting a length of 17 miles (27 km) and depth of 440 feet (130 m), this is North Carolina’s deepest lake.

First, paddle or kayak it; the coves to discover are many. Then, when you have worked up an appetite, spread out a blanket on its soft edge and enjoy a picnic while you watch the gentle waves lapping the shore.

8. Count black bears

The Great Smoky Mountains is not only a paradise for nature-hungry visitors. It’s also a haven for a wide range of animals.

More than 60 species of mammals, as well as birds and reptiles, thrive in the Smokies. Among all these animals, in particular one is a Great Smoky Mountains National Park symbol: The American black bear.

There’re so many black bears in the Smokies that it’s, in fact, likely that the next fellow hiker you meet is a bear. The National Park Service estimates a bear density of two bears per square mile in the Smokies.

This frequency makes black bear viewing one of the most jaw-dropping things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Finally, the bear odds are in your favor.

Black bear sleeping in tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Black bear relaxing in Smokies tree.

9. Discover Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most famous valley in the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The isolated valley, located at the Smokies’ western end, is like a park in a park.

Along the 11-mile (18 km) Cades Cove Loop Road, you find many historic structures, including three churches, houses, barns and a gristmill. Allow two to four hours for the slow but incredibly scenic drive.

For hikers, the 5-mile (8 km) round-trip Abrams Falls Trail is a highlight. It takes you to Abrams Falls, one of the most picturesque waterfalls within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The timeless Tennessee cove is also known as a real hotspot for the park’s population of black bears. So when you tour Cades Cove, make sure to keep an eye out for those fluffy locals.

Trail framed by lush vegetation in Cades Cove, TN
Hiking in Cades Cove, TN.

10. Try the attractions off the park

You don’t have to feel bad about it. Despite all the great things to do inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its cozy gateway towns lure you in.

Most famously, Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, a fun-filled theme park and tribute to the Appalachian region.

Take a ride, catch a show or just enjoy the friendly vibe. In Dollywood, surrounded by the magnificent Smokies, it’s easier than ever to have a good time — young or old.

Towering Great Smoky Mountain Wheel in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, during red sunset
Pigeon Forge’s Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.

Where to stay

Now you have the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park covered. But what are the top places to stay in Great Smoky Mountains?

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the most popular gateway towns. At the northern part of the Smokies, they offer not only good park access but also an abundance of activities for rainy days.

The western part of the Smokies, where you find Cades Cove, is called the quiet side. Over here, the sleepy Townsend provides Cades Cove hotels just 11 miles (18 km) from Cades Cove Loop Road.

If you rather want a North Carolina base, Cherokee offers convenient Great Smoky Mountains access from the south. As an additional bonus, Cherokee is the southernmost point of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Margaritaville Resort – Luxury in Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is positioned just a few miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bed down at the town’s luxurious Margaritaville Resort to enjoy top amenities, including inviting swimming pools.

Dollywood’s Resort – Right at Dollywood

Sure, it’s slightly further from the national park adventure, but that doesn’t matter to Dollywooders. This resort, filled with southern charm, offers Great Smoky Mountains accommodations in the front row for an American theme-park favorite.

Dancing Bear Lodge – Cabins at Cades Cove

It’s just something special with cabins in the Appalachians. With your own front porch, you fully embrace the Great Smoky Mountains lifestyle. And guess what, Dancing Bear Lodge is perfectly located for the timeless Cades Cove.

Lonely wooden cabin hidden among trees in Cades Cove
Cabin in Cades Cove, TN.

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