The best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  • Post last modified:March 15, 2023
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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 multifaceted world of Great Smoky Mountains National Park you feel like a pioneer exploring new lands. But this time the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains are already mapped out for you.

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

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1. Cruise on Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail

The 6 miles (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 preserved Noah Ogle Place is positioned. 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, just 0.25 miles (400 m) long, 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 the falls adds some extra pleasure to the 3 miles (5 km) round trip Grotto Falls hike.

On the same side of the Smokies a 5.4 miles (9 km) round trip takes you to the misty Rainbow Falls. At the Smokies waterfall, which 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.

The crashing Tom Branch Falls 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 6,643 feet (2,025 m) even makes it the third highest 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 miles (0.8 km) long 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 park roads you find a quieter dimension of the Smokies. With each step you take away from the asphalt, the more relaxing the elevated 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. At almost 2,000 miles (3,219 km) its entirety is a huge undertaking.

You might 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 thing to do.

For an easy sample you just need to head to Newfound Gap. There, in the heart of the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail leads out in two directions, northwest towards Charles Bunion and southwest towards Clingmans Dome.

Sign pointing out the Appalachian Trail in the Smokies
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 and presents a cocktail of sweeping overlooks.

The vista at Newfound Gap, which marks out the lowest pass through the Smokies, is a favorite Smokies spot along the way. Less than a mile (1.6 km) away the Ben Morton Overlook is another crowd pleaser.

This pattern 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, is the spot within Great Smoky Mountains National Park that encompasses the remains of the once prospering town.

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

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

Cabin in Elkmont within Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Elkmont cabin.

7. Venture to Fontana Lake

Do you rather prefer water related things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Then Fontana Lake is a must inclusion on your Great Smoky Mountains itinerary.

Fontana Lake, marking the southern border of the park, has countless coves and a seemingly never-ending shoreline. Roughly 17 miles (27 km) long and up to 440 feet (130 m) deep it’s North Carolina’s deepest lake.

With such water opportunities paddling and kayaking are top Fontana Lake activities. Welcome to your best Great Smoky Mountains life on the water.

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 the animals in particular one is a Great Smoky Mountains National Park symbol: the American black bear.

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

This frequency makes black bear viewing one of the most unique things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s a United States park where 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 miles (18 km) long Cades Cove Loop Road you find traces of the past. Three churches, houses, barns and a gristmill make visiting Cades Cove one of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains for history buffs.

But that’s just the beginning of the Cades Cove experience.

For hikers the 5 miles (8 km) round trip Abrams Falls Trail is a highlight in the valley. 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 that you keep your eyes out for the fluffy locals.

Trail 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 just lure you in.

Most famously Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood. So near the wild Tennessee nature it’s a 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.

Are you Dollywood bound? Don’t miss the best Dollywood hotels.

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

Where to stay

Now you know the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 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 conveniently positioned just a few miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So at Margaritaville Resort you’re extremely close to the park but with top amenities, including appreciated pools.

Dollywood’s Resort – Right at Dollywood

It’s slightly further from the national park adventure, but for Dollywooders that doesn’t matter. Dollywood’s Resort, filled with southern charm, offers Great Smoky Mountains accommodations in the front row for the American theme park favorite.

Dancing Bear Lodge – Cabins at Cades Cove

It’s 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.

Historic cabin in Cades Cove, TN
Cabin in Cades Cove, TN.

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