Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of northern Appalachian Mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national Park.
Although two of the smallest towns in Tennessee, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are two of the state's busiest tourist destinations. The reason for this popularity? The fantastic Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge seem to have the monopoly on the best scenic routes into the park. This fact is easy to figure out once you arrive - everywhere you look there are hotels and entertainment facilities vying for attention, making it the perfect place from which to launch your adventure into the area's spectacular wilderness.
Do yourself a favor and don’t leave the park without checking off at least one of these top 8 Smokies to-dos including historic sites, grand overlooks, wildlife, and waterfalls.
1. Climb Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome at Sunset
This 6,643-foot round-top peak sits at the top of the park—and the state of Tennessee. To tag the high point, drive the scenic access road (closed December through March) from Newfound Gap and walk a half-mile to the summit. Don’t miss the view from the spaceship-like observation tower up top. The peak is popular, so go early in the day to beat the crowds. Strong cross-country skiers and snowshoers can also hit the high point in winter for guaranteed solitude.
2. Go Autumn Leaf-Peeping
The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows, and reds; target mid-September for higher-elevation colors and mid-October for lower ones.
3. Stop to Smell the Wildflowers
The Appalachian Trail runs through rhododendron bushes in bloom on Jane Bald northeast of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Great Smoky Mountains have an explosion of wildflowers in spring and summer. More than 1,500 flowering plants can be found in the region, including delicate spring beauties, several types of trillium, trout lilies, wild geranium, and orchids; visit from mid-April to mid-May for the best blooms. The park’s showy flame azaleas and rhododendrons also burst to life starting in April in the low elevations and into June up high.
4. Paddle Fontana Lake
The boat ramp on Lake Fontana
A dam on the Little River forms Fontana Lake along the park’s southern border, a long, skinny lake with 240 miles of shoreline that beckon kayakers, canoeists, anglers, and stand-up paddleboarders. Rent a boat in Fontana Village or from the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a day trip, or load up a touring kayak for a multi-day backcountry camping trip linking the remote campsites on the lake’s north shore.
5. Touch Pioneer History
The Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Valley inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Before it became a national park, this landscape was home to many settlers who farmed and milled in its hidden valleys. Today, more than 90 historic buildings remain in the park. In Cades Cove, you’ll find the greatest variety of churches, mills, barns, and cabins dating back to the early 1800s. Head to Oconaluftee to tour the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of structures from the late 1800s, or visit nearby Mingus Mill. Cataloochee houses a school, church, and frame homes from the late 1800s.
6. Go Auto Touring on Historic Park Roads
Sunrise at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Driving the 11-mile one-way loop road through Cades Cove takes you through a lush valley surrounded by mountains. Stop to visit historic buildings, a grist mill, and watch wildlife. For a quieter ride, head to the Roaring Forks motor nature trail with views of rushing streams, old log cabins, another mill, and forested wilderness. Other beautiful drives include the 18-mile Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend, and the Blue Ridge Parkway (outside of the park).
7. Get Sprayed by a Waterfall
Over 100 prominent cascades and waterfalls can be found inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park plus numerous smaller cascades and falls on the 2,000 miles of streams and rivers. Hike the well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, or Rainbow Falls or drive to Meigs Falls, The Sinks, or Place of a Thousand Drips.
8. Walk the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail Sign inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Seventy-one miles of this famous trail bisects Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most vacationers don't have the time (or willingness) to through-hike the entire run but there are some sections of the trail that can be done in a day. Take the trailhead from Newfound Gap Road 7 miles to Clingmans Dome (the trail parallels Clingmans Dome Road). Have more energy? Hike to Silers Bald 5 miles one-way west from Clingmans Dome.
Hikers enjoy the smoky mountains during all months of the year with every season offering its own special rewards. Here are some of the most popular destination hikes in the park:
One of the most daunting task spacing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old growth forest? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. 5 miles round-trip is a good maximum distance for novices.
Hiking with children? Kid friendly hikes are an excellent way to learn and enjoy the outdoors.
Please visit the website before you plan your visit to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They have a plethora of information about the park as well as warnings and helpful advice when visiting the park. We hope that you enjoy the beauty and adventure that awaits you.