Deciding what to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is like scrolling the endless list of movies on Netflix and picking one for the night. Do you watch a comedy or horror? Binge on a television show or just a single movie? The George Clooney or Kate Hudson movie?
The 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country. It’s partly because of its proximity to most of the country’s population, the lack of admission fees, and the pristine natural beauty. Millions of people flock to the park for the hiking trails, waterfalls, and scenic drives.
So, what do you want to do?
Like picking something for movie night, deciding what to do in this national park entirely depends on your preference. Browse this list of things to do, ranging from mountain summits to doing nothing at all. And, if you find more than one thing you want to do, book a hotel room and make it a weekend adventure.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has experienced an overwhelming 57% increase in visitors over the past decade. Many popular trails began feeling like Black Friday shopping with shoulder-to-shoulder conditions on trails and overlooks.
The national park staff has instituted a few pilot programs to curb the overcrowding, including parking fees and timed entry tickets.
While reading this list of things to do, watch for the “Less Crowded” label. Places with this label so far tend to be less crowded while still offering an exciting adventure in the national park.
Pro Travel Tip?
Before leaving the hotel or mountain home for an adventure in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, be sure to check the current conditions of roads, hiking trails, and visitor centers at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.
Table of Contents
- Brief History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- The New Parking Tags in 2023
- Frequently Asked Questions
Things to Do
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Brief History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
In 1926, Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park were established by Congress, becoming the first southeastern national parks. Tennessee residents wanted a national park near Knoxville, and the over-timbered Great Smoky Mountains were the ideal location.
Over the next decade, money was raised to purchase over 500,000 acres for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sprawling across the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the two halves were connected by Newfound Gap Road and a promise – written into the deed transfer – to never install toll booths on the public highway.
From 1933-1942, nearly 4,000 workers in 22 Civilian Conservation Camps built roads, picnic shelters, office buildings, and campgrounds throughout the park. Although the park officially opened in 1934, it wasn’t dedicated until September 2, 1940. During a speech on the elevated overlook at Newfound Gap, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the national park open “for the permanent enjoyment of the people.”
The New Parking Tags in 2023
Most national parks charge an entrance fee. But Great Smoky Mountains National Park has always been free. And because of two legal maneuvers, it will always remain free to enter the park.
When Tennessee transferred the deeds to Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road to the National Park Service, a restriction prevented tolls on the road. At the time, it was the only public highway between North Carolina and Tennessee. Then, a 1994 federal law prevented the NPS from charging entrance fees on roads where tolls were prohibited.
The unintended result of these legal issues led to the country’s most popular national park being prevented from charging an admission fee. So, to generate much-needed revenue for the maintenance backlog and additional rangers, the NPS started issuing parking tags.
Beginning March 1, 2023, visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park must purchase and display a parking tag when parking anywhere inside the park for more than 15 minutes. Visitors can buy daily ($5), weekly ($15), and annual ($40) passes at recreation.gov, at an automated fee machine, or in person at any of the visitor centers.
Hike to Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is a beautiful 80-foot-tall cascading waterfall and one of the most popular waterfall hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trailhead is only 6 miles from Gatlinburg – one of the primary reasons it’s such a popular trail.
It’s a 2.6-mile roundtrip hike to the waterfall on the Laurel Falls Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) and typically takes about two hours. The moderate trail has a gradual ascent to the waterfall. It’s a deceiving trail because it starts out paved, but the pavement quickly succumbs to nature. The trail is well-maintained but wonderfully rough. Mountain streams cross the trail in several places.
The waterfall is divided into an upper and lower section. A walkway cuts across the middle, allowing visitors to get closer to this waterfall than any other in the national park. With overcrowding reduced, there’s plenty of room to enjoy the spectacle if you bring a lightweight camp chair or hammock.
Best Time to Visit: The mountain laurel – the namesake of the waterfall – blooms in mid to late May, coincidentally the best time of year to visit waterfalls.
Visit the Road to Nowhere Tunnel
When Fontana Dam was completed in 1944, the rural Highway 288 sat at the bottom of the lake. In the 1960s, under pressure from locals who lost access to family cemeteries, the National Park Service agreed to build a road along the north shore of the lake. In the 1970s, six miles of the road and a tunnel were completed before environmental issues permanently halted the project.
Swain County residents have since dubbed it the “Road to Nowhere.”
Lakeview Drives begins as Fontana Road in Bryson City. After entering the national park, the two-lane road twists and curves around the sloped terrain. The Fontana Lake Overlook was the first of what was supposed to be dozens of scenic overlooks on the road.
The road ends at a parking area at the entrance to the tunnel. Walking through a completed tunnel only open to pedestrians is a rare opportunity. On the other side, the 3.2-mile Goldmine Loop Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) circles back to the parking lot.
Best Time to Visit: This is one of the few places in the national park that rarely becomes overcrowded, so it’s great to visit anytime from spring through autumn.
Attend a Ranger-Led Event
National park rangers lead events throughout the year, from daily demonstrations to annual activities. These events are perfect for first-time visitors who want to learn about the national park’s history, culture, and nature, but they are also great for long-time visitors who want something new to do.
Some of the most common events are weekend demonstrations at the Cable Mill in Cades Cove, Mingus Mill near Cherokee, and the Mountain Farm Museum in Oconaluftee. Demonstrations include frontier necessities like making apple cider, building brooms, and blacksmithing.
The Smoky Mountain Harvest Festival is an annual celebration of autumn hosted by the City of Gatlinburg from mid-September through late November. During the festival, national park rangers will demonstrate living history, like producing sorghum, blacksmithing, and making fresh apple cider.
The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is another annual event to consider. Held for four days through the first weekend in May, the event for wildflower enthusiasts includes workshops, round table discussions, and ranger-led hikes throughout the national park.
To see a complete list of upcoming events, visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s calendar at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/calendar.htm.
Go for a Wagon Ride at Smokemont
Not everyone enjoys the rigors of horseback riding. And not everyone can strap on a pair of hiking shoes and trek into the woods. So how else can you experience the peacefulness of the forest in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Smokemont Riding Stables offers daily wagon rides during the prime season from mid-spring through late autumn. The wagons trudge along Old Turnpike Road, one of the oldest roads in the park. The road follows the Oconaluftee River and passes several open fields where wildlife is frequently spotted, especially during the day’s first and last wagon rides.
Smokemont is located on the North Carolina side of the national park, about four miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. After crossing the bridge, turn right toward the riding stables.
Best Time to Visit: The most comfortable time of year for these wagon rides is late spring through early autumn.
Hike to Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls is tiny, but it’s spectacular. The 25-foot-tall waterfall spills over a rocky outcropping into a shallow pool. It’s a popular waterfall located on a popular hiking trail with more than one destination, so it can become a busy place during the prime season.
The waterfall’s trailhead is located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a 5-mile one-lane, one-way scenic drive in Gatlinburg. Begin on Historic Nature Trail and then continue onto Cherokee Orchard Road to the gate at the beginning of the one-lane portion of the scenic drive. Continue to a parking area along the road. There are few marked parking spaces near the two trailheads, but you’ll find more as you continue along the road. A privy restroom is available between the two trailheads.
The hike to Grotto Falls follows a 2.6-mile roundtrip journey (bookmark on AllTrails) on the Trillium Gap Trail. It’s a moderately difficult hike with a 544-foot ascent to the waterfall – but fortunately, it’s downhill coming back. The hike takes about 2-3 hours.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is the best time to visit waterfalls. Specifically, visit this waterfall in late afternoons throughout May.
Pro Travel Tip?
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from about April through November, a llama train trudges along the Trillium Gap Trail, taking supplies to LeConte Lodge. The llamas are typically on the trail by 7:30 a.m. and pass Grotto Falls about an hour later. Taking selfies with the llamas is allowed if you don’t touch the gentle work animals.
Walk Across Fontana Dam
At 480 feet tall, Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains. When it was completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1944, the impounded Fontana Lake spanned 11,700 acres with 240 miles of shoreline. It’s one of the most impressive dams in the eastern United States, and it is open for visitors.
The dam is located about two hours from Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the national park. The TVA operates a visitor center beside the dam’s top. Open May through October, visitors can learn about the TVA’s mission, the building of Fontana Dam, and nearby recreation opportunities.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on the other side of the dam. A scene from A Walk in the Woods, the film starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte based on the Bill Bryson travelogue, features the odd pair hiking the Appalachian Trail across Fontana Dam. You can relive that moment by hiking from the visitor center parking lot.
After crossing the dam, the Appalachian Trail begins a 71.6-mile journey through the national park. Go for a 3.5-mile roundtrip hike (bookmark on AllTrails) on the AT to Shuckstack Fire Tower – a 60-foot-tall fire tower built in the 1930s and open to the public. The daunting hike features a 2,100-foot ascent to the fire tower – but at least it’s downhill coming back.
Best Time to Visit: Go on weekends from May through August for the best chance of the volunteer-run visitor center being open, otherwise, you can visit anytime from spring through autumn for hiking the Appalachian Trail on this end of the national park.
Explore a Historic Building
The Great Smoky Mountains were inhabited – sparsely – before the 522,000-acre national park was established. When the states of North Carolina and Tennessee purchased the land for the park, it often included homes, barns, and churches. And since one of the National Park Service’s mandates is to preserve cultural resources – like historic buildings – for others to enjoy, these structures were made part of the park.
There are over 90 historic structures throughout the national park. Most of them are homes ranging from log homes to clapboard homes. There are over a dozen churches. The other structures include gristmills, schools, barns, and support structures.
Some historic structures were moved from areas outside the national park, and others moved within the park to make them more accessible for visitors.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Cades Cove, and Cataloochee Valley are the three best places to see these historic structures.
The 5-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one-lane, one-way scenic route in Gatlinburg. Before the gated entrance, visitors can stop at Ogle Place to see a barn and tub mill. After passing through the gate, visitors can stop at Jim Bales Place, Ephraim Bales Place, and the Alfred Regan Cabin, with a tub mill beside the road.
Cades Cove near Townsend, Tennessee, has the largest collection of historic structures in any one place in the park. Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church, Primitive Baptist Church, and Cades Cove Methodist Church are easy to visit beside the one-lane, one-way scenic road. Several cabins are beside the road, like the Shield Family Cabin, Tipton Place, Henry Whitehead Place, and Dan Lawson Place.
One of the biggest attractions in Cades Cove is the still-functional Cable Mill at the visitor center. In addition to the gristmill, you can visit a blacksmith shop, smokehouse, corn crib, drive-thru barn, and the Cable House.
Cataloochee Valley is the most remote section of the national park, about an hour from Waynesville, North Carolina. Visitors can explore the Jarvis Palmer House, once used as a ranger residence, and the nearby Palmer Barn. The Caldwell House, built in 1909, is the largest structure in the valley. A 12-mile roundtrip hike on the Little Cataloochee Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) includes the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, Beech Grove School, and a couple of other small historic buildings.
Best Time to Visit: The Roaring Fork is only open seasonally from April through November. Visit the Roaring Fork and Cades Cove in late spring or mid-week in the summer. Any time is a great time to visit Cataloochee Valley – it’s rarely, if ever, overcrowded.
Enjoy the View from the Look Rock Observation Tower
The Look Rock Observation Tower offers one of the most spectacular views of the Great Smoky Mountains. The fire observation tower was built in the 1960s and still functions as a radio and weather observation station. But it also features a place for visitors to enjoy the views.
Look Rock Observation Tower stands at 2,640 feet on the highest point along the Foothills Parkway. The 37-mile Foothills Parkway is a scenic drive along a ridge parallel to the Great Smoky Mountains.
To get to the observation tower, get on the Foothills Parkway in Wears Valley or Walland on U.S. Highway 321 just outside Townsend. From Highway 321, drive 10 miles to a parking lot on the left side of the parkway. From the parking lot, it’s a 2-mile roundtrip hike on the Look Rock Trail (bookmark on AllTrails). The moderate trail includes a 200-foot ascent to the base of the observation tower. Walk to the top of the tower along a lengthy series of ramps.
Best Time to Visit: Late spring through late summer for moderate temperatures, but autumn will be the best view all year.
Spend a Day in Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley is the most remote section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park – making it one of the least-visited areas. It’s about an hour’s drive from Waynesville on the North Carolina side of the park.
After the American Revolution, there was a westward rush of settlers eager for new land. Colonel Robert Love was the first settler in the valley. He divided the land into home sites and sold them to eager families. In 1834, Henry Caldwell was one of the first. The population reached a pinnacle in the early 1900s, with nearly 1,200 people living – and thriving – in the valley.
One of the best features of Cataloochee Valley is the herd of freely roaming elk. In 2001, the National Park Service experimented with returning the animals to their natural habitat. More than 200 elk roam the valley from the initial herd of 25.
Visit historic structures like the Cadwell House and Jarvis House. Hike the 12-mile roundtrip Rough Ridge Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) or the 10.2-mile roundtrip Little Cataloochee Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) to visit a few more historic structures.
Best Time to Visit: Anytime from late spring through autumn.
Hike the Alum Cave Trail
Alum Caves isn’t precisely a cave. It’s an overhanging rock cliff that creates a natural shelter. But that hasn’t prevented the Alum Cave Trail from being one of the most popular hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The 4.5-mile roundtrip Alum Cave Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) leads to the bluff near the summit of Peregrine Peak. The 2.2-mile hike to the bluff is moderately challenging, with a 1,200-foot elevation change. It takes about 3-4 hours to complete the hike, but you might want to schedule some extra time to enjoy the view once you arrive.
The trailhead is between two parking lots along Newfound Gap Road, about 11 miles from Gatlinburg. A privy restroom is located in one of the parking lots. There are spots for parallel parking along the highway. All the parking spots are frequently occupied by mid-morning from May to October, especially on the weekends.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-week during the prime season from May through October is your best option, or you can visit in April just before the season begins.
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Go Tubing on Deep Creek
Deep Creek is a mountain stream that starts near Newfound Gap and descends the Great Smoky Mountains into Bryson City, dumping into the Tuckasegee River. A one-mile section of the creek has become a popular spot for tubing – the perfect summer escape.
The nearby Deep Creek Tube Center rents tubes for $7 per day. Visitors must transport the inflated tubes with their own vehicle to the Deep Creek Trail Parking Lot beside the campground about a mile away.
From there, the walking begins. On summer days, it’s typically to spot dozens of people with bathing suits and flip flops carrying a giant innertube along the trail. It’s about a 1-mile hike to the put-in across from Indian Creek. Then, the adventure begins.
The upper portion of the creek is narrow and features minor rapids for a thrilling ride. Shortly after passing beneath the trail bridge, the creek widens, becomes shallower, and calms into a smoother ride. Tubers pass Tom Branch Falls, a 60-foot-tall cascading waterfall that plunges directly into Deep Creek. It’s a popular place to stop for selfies in front of the falls and start the trek back up the trail again.
Best Time to Visit: Definitely the summer months because otherwise, the mountain water is too frigid to enjoy. Aim for mid-week for thinner crowds.
Drive the Foothills Parkway
After the Blue Ridge Parkway route was shifted from Tennessee to North Carolina, locals around the Great Smoky Mountains clamored for a national scenic highway. In 1944, Congress authorized a 72-mile parkway along a ridge parallel to the Smoky Mountains between I-40 and U.S. Highway 129.
It took nearly 20 years for Section A, a 5.6-mile route between I-40 and Cosby, to be completed. By 1966, Section H, a 16.9-mile route between U.S. Highway 129 and Walland, was finished. Then, the highway sat incomplete for the next 52 years. Finally, in 2018, Section G was completed between Walland and Wears Valley.
Today, 37.3 miles of the scenic highway are complete, with another 33.4 miles still to finish – there are no construction plans now. The Foothills Parkway features dozens of scenic overlooks with spectacular views of the nearby Great Smoky Mountains.
The best part to drive is the lower 31.7-mile section between Wears Valley and U.S. Highway 129. Begin in Wears Valley, about halfway between Gatlinburg and Townsend. You’ll soon cross the S-shaped bridge – the locals called it “the missing link” because the complex engineering of the curved bridge is what halted construction for decades. A pull-off on the south end of the bridge is the perfect place to see the bridge.
Other noteworthy scenic overlooks include Murray Gap, Butterly Hollow, and Caylor Gap. The Look Rock Observation Tower is the highest point on the Foothills Parkway, with a moderate 2-mile roundtrip hike.
Plan to spend about 2-3 hours driving the Foothills Parkway from Wears Valley to U.S. Highway 129 and returning.
Best Time to Visit: Late spring through autumn. Sunrises and sunsets are particularly beautiful on the Foothills Parkway.
Hike to Mouse Creek Falls
Big Creek is a quiet corner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a small area on the northern boundary at Interstate 40. Mouse Creek Falls is a 45-foot-tall cascading waterfall and one of the most beautiful in the national park.
The 4.2-mile roundtrip hike on the Big Creek Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) leads to the waterfall. It’s a moderately easy hike with less than a 500-foot gradual ascent along a former logging road. Midnight Hole is a gorgeous natural pool 1.4 miles from the trailhead. It takes about 2-3 hours to complete the roundtrip hike.
The easiest way to the Big Creek trailhead parking is to take Exit 451 on I-40. Then, turn onto Waterville Road and drive about three miles to a parking lot at the end of the road.
Best Time to Visit: Mid to late spring is always the best time of year to visit a waterfall, and you can visit this one anytime during the week throughout April and May.
Spend a Night Camping in the Backcountry
One of the best ways to experience the profound silence of the Great Smoky Mountains is to spend a night camping in the backcountry. The frontcountry campgrounds are still campgrounds, and the air is often filled with rattling equipment, inflating air mattresses, and the clamor of a hundred other campers. But in the backcountry, the silence is deafening.
800 miles of hiking trails crisscross throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the 71.6-mile Appalachian Trail cuts through the middle of the park. Dozens of designated backcountry campsites are sprinkled throughout the park on the various trails.
But first, hikers must obtain a backcountry permit for $8 per night. Then, you need to bring the correct equipment. Bear canisters are not required but are recommended. Either way, hikers are required to use a cable system to hang their food each night.
Finally, enjoy the hike to one of the park’s backcountry campsites and enjoy the night surrounded by nature.
Best Time to Visit: If you plan to use any shelters along the Appalachian Trail, summer or early fall is the best time. Otherwise, late spring and early summer are the best times of year.
Hike to a Southern Sixer
Have you heard of the Southern Sixers? They’re a collection of peaks in the southern Appalachian Mountains that rise about 6,000 feet. About 50 peaks make the list, and all but one – Mount Washington in New Hampshire – are in the south.
The tallest mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet. It’s a relatively easy peak to summit with a paved trail from the parking lot to a 45-foot-tall observation tower.
Intrepid Peak Baggers – a loving term for hikers who strive to summit the highest mountains – can reach another seven Southern Sixers along the Appalachian Trail. A 35-mile out-and-back hike from Newfound Gap leads to Mount Kephart, Mount Sequoyah, Mount Chapman, Tricorner Knob, Mount Guyot, and Old Black. A short detour on the Balsam Mountain Trail leads to Luftee Knob.
The second most popular Southern Sixer in the park is Mount LeConte. Rising at 6,593 feet, it’s the third-highest peak in the park after Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot.
Best Time to Visit: Anytime during the summer and early autumn.
Visit the Observation Tower on Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the tallest mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee. It’s the easiest mountain peak to summit in the park, making it one of the most popular attractions.
Getting to the parking lot below the summit is a scenic drive worthy of anyone’s time. It takes about the same time from Gatlinburg and Cherokee – 30 minutes. At Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome Road begins a long climb along a ridge to the parking lot. The road features a few scenic overlooks and access points to the Appalachian Trail.
The parking lot has spaces for dozens of cars, but those spaces become a valued commodity by late morning during the prime season – especially on weekends and holidays. The line of cars doomed to slowly circle the parking lot and leave without parking becomes longer throughout the day. But instead of arriving early, I recommend you arrive late – about mid-afternoon or early evening.
Several privy restrooms in the parking lot are a welcome site, although the line at the door can be as long as the line of cars waiting to park. The visitor center near the trailhead offers a small gift shop and a ranger on duty to answer questions during the prime season.
From the parking lot, it’s a 1.2-mile hike (bookmark on AllTrails) to the summit. Although paved, it’s a moderately difficult trail with a steep ascent, climbing 330′ to the top. A few benches provide a welcomed respite along the way.
The 45-foot-tall observation tower was built on the summit in 1959. Getting to the top is a breeze with an elongated 375-foot ramp that spirals around the tower. At the top, a covered observation deck provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the national park if you still have your breath. It’s a spectacular place for sunrise or sunset in the summer.
Best Time to Visit: Summer if you enjoy warmish weather. Late in the day is better than earlier; mid-week is the best time year-round.
Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is one of the national park’s “auto touring” routes – scenic roads designed to allow people to connect with nature from the comfort of their car. It’s only minutes from Gatlinburg and one of the most popular places.
From Parkway, turn onto Historic Nature Trail and drive about five minutes. The road merges with Cherokee Orchard Road at a traffic light intersection and enters the national park. The two-lane, two-way road passes the Twin Creeks Picnic Area, the Bud Ogle Cabin, and then loops around the Rainbow Falls parking lot.
After the waterfall parking lot, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail begins with a turn through a gate – the road is only open from May to October. From there, it’s a 5-mile drive on a one-lane, one-way road that loops back into Gatlinburg.
The route features a few scenic overlooks, the trailhead to Grotto Falls and Mount LeConte on the Trillium Gap Trail, and several historic structures like the Jim Bales Cabin and Aflred Regan Tub Mill. The Place of a Thousand Drips is one of only two waterfalls in the park that can be seen from a road.
The scenic route takes twenty minutes to drive. But during the prime season, holidays, and weekends, it can take more than 90 minutes as vehicles slowly trudge along the route and jockey for awkward parking positions off the road. Be certain you have the time and temperament for the journey because there’s no turning back after passing through the gate.
Best Time to Visit: Late spring before the prime season begins, and September between summer and autumn crowds.
Hike to Juney Whank Falls
Juney Whank Falls is a 90-foot cascading waterfall in the Deep Creek area near Bryson City, North Carolina. The waterfall is divided between an upper and lower section where a rustic footbridge crosses along the trail.
The .8-mile Juney Whank Falls Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) loops around the waterfall from the parking lot. It’s an easy hike with less than a 200-foot elevation change, gently climbing to the waterfall. Hiking the loop takes about an hour.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is always the best time to visit waterfalls. Hike to this one in late April or early May.
Hike to the Summit of Mount LeConte
At 6,575 feet, Mount LeConte is the third highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park after Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot. It’s the most prominent mountain seen from Gatlinburg, and the top sometimes disappears in the clouds. Because of its closeness to the Gatlinburg, it’s almost as popular to summit as Clingmans Dome.
There are several trails crisscrossing the national park to the mountain’s summit. All trails converge at LeConte Lodge, a collection of rustic cabins that have been providing overnight lodging since 1926. A tenth of a mile west is the simple lean-to Mount LeConte Shelter for campers. The definitive summit of Mount LeConte is another tenth of a mile from the shelter.
But the best view is nearby at Cliff Top on the western edge of the summit near LeConte Lodge. The small clearing provides a spectacular view of sunset throughout the year.
These are the four best hiking trails for reaching Mount LeConte’s summit:
- The 6.7-mile Rainbow Falls Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is the second toughest hike, but it’s also one of the most popular because it’s just minutes from Gatlinburg.
- The 6.3-mile Trillium Gap Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is the second easiest, with a gentle 3,300-foot ascent.
- The 5.5-mile Alum Cave Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is the easiest and most scenic route.
- The torturous 9.9-mile Brushy Mountain Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is a favorite for adventure seekers with an astounding 4,600-ascent to Mount LeConte’s summit.
Best Time to Visit: Weekdays from May through September are the best time for smaller crowds on the trails.
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Search for Wildflowers
Did you know the national park hosts the Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage? The non-profit event features guest speakers, exhibits, workshops, and guided hikes in the national park from Wednesday through Sunday in early May.
Over 1,500 flowering plants are scattered throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park – more than any other national park. It’s one of the most diverse biospheres in the country. Species include trillium, lady slipper orchids, jack-in-the-pulpits, and black-eyed susans.
Wildflowers can be spotted along almost every trail in the park from late April through May. Here are five suggested hikes to see the best displays:
- Oconaluftee River Trail is a 3-mile roundtrip hike from the visitor center in Cherokee
- Deep Creek Trail is a 2-mile roundtrip hike in Bryson City that also features two waterfalls
- Gregory Ridge Trail in Cades Cove ascends to the grassy bald, but the first two miles of the trail include wildflowers
- Little River Trail at the Elkmont Campground is a great place to see wildflowers in the first two miles
- Porters Creek Trail in Greenbrier is a popular place for wildflowers in the first two miles
Best Time to Visit: It’s best in mid to late April and throughout May, depending on the seasonal weather conditions. Some of the flowering shrubs won’t begin blooming until early June.
Spend a Weekend in a Campground
There are plenty of places to spend a few nights in nature, with 10 frontcountry campgrounds throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These “frontcountry” campgrounds feature fire rings, nearby potable water, and restrooms with flush toilets. However, no showers are in the national park, so you’ll be left with a hiker’s bath if you’re tent camping.
Here’s a quick overview of the frontcountry campgrounds to help you plan your getaway:
- Abrams Creek – located in Happy Valley on the west side of the mountains from Cades Cove, this small campground features only 16 campsites.
- Balsam Mountain is the highest campground in the park, at 5,310 feet. Near Maggie Valley on Heingtooga Ridge Road, this campground features 43 campsites.
- Big Creek – the smallest campground in the park, with only 12 tent-only sites, located near Interstate 40.
- Cades Cove – one of only two campgrounds open year-round, you’ll find 159 campsites at this popular campground.
- Cataloochee Valley – located in the secluded valley near Waynesville, there are only 27 campsites here.
- Cosby – surprisingly, one of the larger campgrounds with 157 campsites located near Interstate 40 in Tennessee.
- Deep Creek – located near Bryson City, this campground features 92 sites.
- Elkmont – the largest campground in the park with 220 campsites, located about twenty minutes from Gatlinburg.
- Look Rock – recently renovated and reopened, this campground features 68 sites on the Foothills Parkway near the Look Rock Observation Tower.
- Smokemont – one of only two campgrounds open year-round, this campground near Cherokee features 142 sites.
Reservations are strongly recommended during the prime season from May to August and again in October. But in the shoulder seasons in spring and late autumn, the campgrounds switch to a first-come, first-serve basis. Make reservations at https://www.recreation.gov/camping/gateways/2739.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-week in the summer is the best time to enjoy comfortable camping and thinner crowds.
See the Annual Synchronized Fireflies
The synchronized fireflies is an annual natural event that became popular thanks to social media. What was a relatively local event a decade ago is now one of the most popular events in the park all year. In early June, thousands of fireflies put on a light show during their mating season.
Fireflies – also known as lightning bugs – start their mating season with a spectacular show. Each species of the small flying insect flashes an identifying pattern to help males and females find each other. It’s rare in nature, but certain species flash in unison, creating a dazzling display for onlookers.
As the event grew in popularity, the national park staff created a lottery system for tickets. The lottery opens in late April. Hopeful attendees buy a ticket with two dates to attend – a preferred and an alternate. By mid-May, the winners and their scheduled time are announced.
The event is localized near the Elkmont Campground, about twenty minutes from Gatlinburg. Parking is restricted during the event, and attendees are ferried via bus from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Visit https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/fireflies.htm to learn more about the event and purchase lottery tickets in the spring.
Best Time to Visit: The annual synchronized fireflies is typically in June.
Hike to Ramsay Cascades
Ramsay Cascades is not the most popular waterfall. It’s not even in the top five most popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But it is the tallest.
The 100-foot cascading waterfall is located near the Greenbrier area, about half an hour from Gatlinburg. The 8-mile roundtrip hike on the Ramsey Cascades Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) begins at a small parking lot at the end of the dirt road. The trail follows the creek upstream to the waterfall with a gradual 2,185-foot ascent.
It’s a moderately strenuous hike with a steady climb to the waterfall. But it’s a downhill trek back to the car after seeing the spectacular waterfall. A small pool at the bottom is perfect for getting your feet wet. It takes about 5-7 hours to complete the trail.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is always the best time to visit waterfalls, so sometime in April or May.
Stop at a Visitor Center
Any adventure in a national park should start at a visitor center. They’re a great resource for learning about the park’s history, geography, and culture. Rangers and volunteers are usually on hand to answer questions ranging from local curiosities to planning an adventure. And sometimes, the visitor center offers a hidden treat.
All the visitor centers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park feature plenty of parking for cars and RVs, a gift shop, and restrooms. The Sugarlands Visitor Center and Oconaluftee Visitor Center feature charging stations for electric cars.
There are four visitor centers in the park. Here’s where you’ll find them and what to do there:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg features a hidden waterfall. Cataract Falls is a 25-foot cascading waterfall less than a mile roundtrip hike from the visitor center.
- Cades Cove Visitor Center is ironically located at the far end of the cove – you’ll have to drive half of the one-lane, one-way loop to get there. The visitor center features the Cable Mill, a historic house, and several other structures to explore.
- Clingmans Dome Visitor Center is the highest in the park at the trailhead to Clingmans Dome.
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee is the only visitor center on the North Carolina side. It’s also a visitor center for the Blue Ridge Parkway. Visitors can explore the Mountain Farm Museum, a recreation of a frontier farm with a barn, a working garden, and several other structures.
Best Time to Visit: Either early in the day, within half an hour of the visitor center opening, or late evening, just before it closes. Clingmans Dome Visitor Center is only open seasonally because the road is closed in the winter.
Visit Mingus Mill
Built in 1886, Mingus Mill is one of only two extant grist mills in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Unlike the Cable Mill, this mill used a water-powered turbine to operate the machinery. A millrace still carries water to the mill that is open on weekends throughout the summer.
Best Time to Visit: Weekends in the summer if you want to see living history performed. But autumn is another great to visit.
Watch the Sunrise on the Foothills Parkway
The Foothills Parkway is a scenic route along a ridge parallel to the Great Smoky Mountains. Dozens of scenic overlooks offer spectacular views of the mountain range to the east and flatlands of the Cumberland Plateau to the west.
A few scenic overlooks are perfect for watching the sunrise along the 32-mile stretch from Wears Valley to U.S. Highway 129. But the best overlooks begin about 2.5 miles from the intersection with U.S. Highway 321 near Townsend.
The first scenic overlook is an elongated parking area with uninterrupted views across the valley to the mountains. The second parking area is the best, with a gorgeous view of mountain peaks in the distance. A third scenic overlook is another half-mile drive.
It takes about an hour to drive the 32-mile section. Start about half an hour before sunrise if you want to explore the scenic overlooks and find your favorite to watch the morning sun.
Best Time to Visit: August through October are the best months for seeing dawn colors in the sky and enjoying the temperate climate.
Go Bicycling Through Cades Cove on a Wednesday
For over 40 years, the national park staff closed the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road to vehicles on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. This allowed bicyclists to enjoy pedaling around the cove without cars. But this created a bottleneck of cars eagerly awaiting the 10 a.m. gate opening – the line of waiting cars was sometimes miles long.
In 2020, the staff decided to make the entire day vehicle-free rather than dispense with vehicle-free mornings.
Every Wednesday from May through September, the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to vehicles. Bicyclists and hikers can enjoy the deafening peacefulness of the cove. It’s a rare opportunity in a national park to enjoy such a spectacular place without vehicles trudging past.
Visitors use the parking lot before the gate or the camp store parking lot. Bicycles and helmets are available for rent at the store. But on summer days, holidays, and weekends, the rentals go quick. Casually pedaling around the loop road takes about 3-4 hours.
5 Tips for Bicycling in Cades Cove
- BYOB – Bring Your Own Bicycle
- Wear a helmet
- Bring water
- Give yourself enough time
- Late afternoon is better than early morning
Best Time to Visit: The vehicle-free days are only during the prime season from May through September. The shoulder months in May and September are the best times for a thinner crowd.
Hike the Chimney Tops Trail
Chimney Tops is a mountain with two rocky knobs at 4,724 feet. After the 2016 forest fires, sediment slid off the summit, creating a larger rocky summit. The last quarter mile of the trail is permanently closed to hikers, but the remainder offers spectacular views.
The trailhead is along Newfound Gap Road, about ten miles from Gatlinburg. The primary parking lot is the largest but still only has enough room for about two dozen vehicles. Further eastbound on the road is a small pull-off parking area and an additional small lot just before the infamous 360-degree turn.
From the parking lot, the 3.6-mile roundtrip hike on the Chimney Tops Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is a steady climb with a 1,300-foot ascent. The moderately difficult trail takes about 2-3 hours to finish.
Best Time to Visit: Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular in the park. The best time to hike without congested foot traffic is May and September.
Did You Know?
In 2008, the nonprofit Friends of the Smokies established the Trails Forever endowment. The funds provide tools and materials for volunteers to maintain and rehabilitate trails throughout the park. After the 2016 forest fires, the program rebuilt the Chimney Tops Trail.
Go Horseback Riding
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 500 miles of horse trails. Five horse camps – including Smokemont and Cataloochee Valley – provide a place for riders to bring their own horses. But if you don’t have a horse, there are still ways you can enjoy a ride.
Cades Cove is one of the best places to go horseback riding in the park. The privately-owned Cades Cove Riding Stables offers guided trail rides from March through November. The one-hour rides include background information about the cove and many scenic views.
Another popular place for horseback riding in the park is Smokemont. The privately-owned Smokemont Riding Stables offers hourly guided rides on several scenic trails along the Oconaluftee River and to Chasteen Creek Waterfall.
If you’re not excited about horseback riding, both stables offer wagon rides along scenic routes.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder months of April – May and September are the best time of year for thinner crowds and comfortable weather.
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Enjoy the View from the Newfound Gap Overlook
The Old Road was a trading route between Cherokee and Gatlinburg established before the 1900s. The road passed through Indian Gap – what was believed to be the lowest passable gap in the Great Smoky Mountains. But in 1872, Swiss geographer Arnold Guyot discovered a “newfound” gap that was lower and easier to cross – Newfound Gap.
Did You Know?
Mount Guyot is the second-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains at 6,621 feet, making it one of the Southern Sixers.
It may be the lowest pass in the mountain range, but it’s still a lofty elevation at 5,046 feet. Temperatures at Newfound Gap are typically 10 degrees cooler than nearby Gatlinburg and Cherokee. The 32-mile Newfound Gap Road passes through the gap, connecting the gateway towns in Tennessee and North Carolina.
The road climbs about 2,600 feet from Cherokee and 3,600 feet from Gatlinburg. It takes about 3 hours to drive the entire route, but it can take much longer during the prime season from May – August with additional traffic, tour buses, and RVs.
The scenic overlook features a ginormous parking lot with room for dozens of personal vehicles and a few oversized spots for RVs. The Rockefeller Memorial honors the Rockefeller Foundation for their $5 million donation to purchase the final tracts of land for establishing the national park. Restrooms with flush toilets are nearby, a few hundred feet along the Appalachian Trail that passes through the gap.
The stone wall at the edge of the parking lot is a perfect example of Parkitecture – the distinct style of architecture developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression when many national parks were built. The wide, stable wall is a great place to sit and enjoy the southeast view across North Carolina.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-week during the summer or anytime between April – May and September.
Hike to Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, routinely competing with Laurel Falls and Abrams Falls for most visitors. The 80-foot freefalling waterfall crashes into a shallow pool and then trickles through a series of small crevasses in the rock-strewn stream below.
The trailhead is on Cherokee Orchard Road before entering the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – one of the reasons why it’s such a popular hiking trail. There are two large parking lots – one located at the trailhead and the other beside the entrance to the motor nature trail. There are also a few pull-off parking spots along the road. There is a privy restroom in the first parking lot.
The 5.1-mile roundtrip hike on the Rainbow Falls Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is moderately difficult, with a gentle 1,600-foot ascent. It’s a steady upward climb alongside LeConte Creek to the waterfall – so it’s a pleasant downhill trek on the way back. The hike takes about 2-3 hours to finish.
Best Time to Visit: Waterfalls are always best viewed in the spring, so around April or May before the busy prime season begins. Visit mid-week in the summer.
Go Picnicking in the Park
There are ten picnic areas and countless scenic spots for a meal throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park. All the picnic areas include tables, grills, and restrooms. Some areas include picnic pavilions that can be rented for large gatherings.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the number of sites in each picnic area:
- Big Creek – 10 sites
- Cades Cove – 81 sites
- Chimneys – 68 sites
- Collins Creek – 182 sites
- Cosby – 35 sites
- Deep Creek – 58 sites
- Greenbrier – 12 sites
- Heintooga – 41 sites
- Look Rock – 51 sites
- Metcalf Bottoms – 122 sites
Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms are the only picnic areas open year-round. The others are open seasonally from about March to November.
Although there are trash cans and dumpsters in the picnic areas, the best rule is to pack it in, pack it out. The Sea to Summit Trash Dry Sack is an easy way to gather your trash in an airtight bag and haul it out of the park. It’s also a good idea to clean the grill and table after use to prevent bears from wandering into the picnic areas and sniffing the remnants of delicious picnic food.
Best Time to Visit: Picnic areas usually don’t fill up unless it’s a holiday weekend, so any other time is great.
Hike to Hen Wallow Falls
Hen Wallow Falls is a beautiful 90-foot cascading waterfall. It’s near Cosby, about 30 minutes from Gatlinburg and 10 minutes from Interstate 40. It’s a less frequently visited part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so you may have the waterfall to yourself.
The trek to Hen Wallow Falls begins at the Cosby Picnic Area. It’s a 4.5-mile roundtrip hike on the Gabes Mountain Trail (bookmark on AllTrails). It’s a moderate trail with a gentle 900-foot ascent and a sudden 150-foot drop to the waterfall’s base. It’s one of the easiest hikes to a waterfall in the park.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is the best time to visit waterfalls. But in late May or early June, the rhododendron will bloom along the trail, creating a spectacular view of the waterfall hike.
Admire the Wildlife from a Distance
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest wilderness areas on the east coast. Over 200 varieties of birds and 65 mammal species are protected in the park. The American Black Bear – the symbol of the Great Smoky Mountains – is the most popular. There are about 1,500 bears in the park at an average density of two per square mile.
The best way to see wildlife is from a distance. The National Park Service recommends a minimum distance of 75 feet. This reinforces a barrier between the wildlife and humans to prevent future problems.
A good pair of binoculars is great for seeing the wildlife from a safe distance or from the comfort of your car. A decent telephoto lens for your camera can help capture photos from a safe distance. You can even buy telephoto lenses for smartphones that screw onto a case – this is especially powerful if your smartphone has a built-in telephoto lens because it doubles the power.
Here are a few of the best places to spot wildlife in the park:
- Cades Cove is a popular place for spotting black bears and deer
- Cataloochee Valley is a great place for spotting elk and deer
- Oconaluftee is a particularly great place for spotting elk
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a great place for spotting black bears and salamanders
Best Time to Visit: Wildlife is most active during the first two hours and last two hours of the day from April through November.
Visit Meigs Falls
Meigs Falls is one of only two Great Smoky Mountains National Park waterfalls that can be seen from the comfort of your car. Meigs Creek plummets into a narrow cove before flowing into the Little River.
Although the waterfall is about 30 feet tall and 60 feet wide, with a good flow throughout the year, it’s difficult to see. The waterfall is set back from the highway about 500 feet across the Little River. A pull-off parking area offers plenty of room for vehicles – typically, people inch along the parking area to enjoy the view from the car and then leave just as quickly as they arrived.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is the best time to visit waterfalls. But this waterfall is particularly spectacular when frozen solid on the coldest winter days.
See the Spectacular “The Sinks”
Logging was the primary industry in the Great Smoky Mountains throughout the 1800s. Before the first railroads were built to haul the timber out of the forest, they were floated along the Little River. But in the last years of floating logs, heavy rainfall left a massive pile of hundreds of logs stuck in the horseshoe bend of the river.
Workers decided to use dynamite to free the log jam. But the tremendous explosion did more than just clear the stuck logs on the river. It created a 30-foot-deep chasm in the riverbed and bridged two ends of the horseshoe bend, rerouting the river.
Today, the interesting place is called The Sinks. It’s about ten miles from Townsend and fifteen miles from Gatlinburg on Little River Road. A bridge crosses the turbulent rapids as the river gushes across the jagged rocks. It’s a popular place for fishing, but swimming is prohibited because of the powerful river currents.
Best Time to Visit: Late evenings throughout the year.
Drive the Cades Cove Loop Road
Cades Cove is the most popular area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The entrance to the cove is about ten miles from Townsend and 30 miles from Gatlinburg, a journey which typically takes about 90 minutes during the summer months.
The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road travels around the cove, connecting various historic structures, hiking trails, and scenic overlooks. The paved road is a one-lane, one-way commitment from the entrance, with a pair of two-way dirt roads crossing the cove. It typically takes half an hour to drive the loop in the off-season from November through April, but for the rest of the year, be prepared to spend 1-2 hours driving the entire route.
Here are some tips to make the most of your adventure on the Cades Cove Loop Road:
- The greatest congestion into the cove is typically in the morning, and heading out of the cove is early evening as everyone heads to dinner. Arrive in the early afternoon and stay until sunset for the best use of your time.
- There is no cellular reception in Cades Cove. Download a Google Map and hiking trails before heading into the cove.
- The one-way road can be shortened if necessary. Sparks Lane is 1.2 miles from the entrance for a 3.5-mile drive through the cove. Hyatt Lane is 3 miles from the entrance for a 7.7-mile drive.
- The only restrooms in Cades Cove are at the camp store near the entrance and the visitor center at the far end of the cove.
- Pull off the road to allow other motorists to continue if you spot wildlife.
Best Time to Visit: August and October are insanely busy but offer the most spectacular views. April and May are pleasant months to visit in the shoulder season.
Hike a Quiet Walkway
Not all hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park involve miles of strenuous climbs on thousand-foot ascents. There are about a dozen “Quiet Walkways” throughout the park – trails with very little elevation change that are a great place to stretch your legs in nature. The trails are typically loops and take about half an hour to walk.
Here are a few Quiet Walkways worth a visit:
- Hickory Flat Branch (bookmark on AllTrails) is a .7-mile trail on Little River Road near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
- Thunderhead Prong (bookmark on AllTrails) is a 1.3-mile trail with a gentle 200-foot climb over a hill at the end of Tremont Road near Townsend.
- Bullhead View (bookmark on AllTrails) is a 1.1-mile trail that meanders along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River on Newfound Gap Road near Gatlinburg.
- Riverview (bookmark on AllTrails) connects to the Bullhead View Quiet Walkway, continuing another 1 mile along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
- Big White Oak (bookmark on AllTrails) is a .6-mile trail that crosses Fighting Creek near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Best Time to Visit: These are easy trails that can be enjoyed anytime.
Explore the Elkmont Historic District
The Elkmont Historic District is the remnants of a social club established in the Great Smoky Mountains by Knoxville businessmen in the early 1900s. The Appalachian Club, a sporting and hunting club, was the first building completed. Over the decades, dozens of cabins and a small hotel were built in the rustic camp.
When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, a 20-year lease was established between the National Park Service and private owners of the cabins. In 2010, the Appalachian Club was renovated and opened as an event rental space. In 2017, the first four cabins were renovated and opened for visitors.
Elkmont is one of the most fascinating historical places in the national park to explore. It’s an easy walk from the parking lots along the one-lane paved road through the historic Daisy Town.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder season around April, May, and September are the best times to visit.
Hike the Appalachian Trail Through the Park
The 2,198.4-mile Appalachian Trail (accurate as of 2023) is a behemoth national scenic trail stretching between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Mount Katahdin, Maine. The trail features more than 460,000 feet of elevation change and crosses fourteen states. The trail is hiked by more than 3 million thru-hikers and day-hikers every year.
The trail enters the national park at Mile 164.4 after crossing Fontana Dam. Hikers are challenged with about 17,000 feet of elevation change to Mile 236 at Davenport Gap and Interstate 40. The trail crosses Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park and Tennessee. The trail also passes through Newfound Gap and several Southern Sixers.
Appalachian Trail hikers must register with the national park and pay a backcountry camping fee. There are thirteen trail shelters and several other backcountry camping sites. Bear canisters and hanging the food is required.
Best Time to Visit: May through September, after the thru-hikers have made their trek through the park.
Spend a Night at LeConte Lodge
At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s the most impressive mountain seen from anywhere in Gatlinburg. And if you’re lucky enough to win the lottery, you can spend a night sleeping in a primitive cabin on the mountain.
Mount LeConte Lodge is a collection of 7 cabins and 3 multi-room lodges. The rustic log cabins are primitive – no electricity or running water. The best activity is sitting on the covered front porch in a rocking chair and enjoying the time.
But it’s not entirely without modern conveniences. Flush toilets and hot water for hiker baths are available. Breakfast and dinner are provided in a common dining room for overnight guests, and anyone spending more than one night gets a packable lunch.
As the popularity of the 60-guest lodge grew in recent years, the lodge put in place an interesting lottery system. Written booking requests by fax, email, postal service, or online form are accepted throughout the current season. In early October, the written requests are randomly shuffled. Bookings of written requests begin simultaneously with phone calls.
Visit their website to learn more about the lodge and how to make a booking – https://www.lecontelodge.com
Visit the Mountain Farm Museum
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is a gorgeous, Gold Level LEED building in Cherokee, North Carolina. The visitor center serves a dual purpose, providing information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway – the southern terminus of the 469-mile parkway is a mile from the visitor center.
Behind the visitor at the end of a short trail is the Mountain Farm Museum. The outdoor museum features a frontier house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, and smokehouse. All the structures were built in the late 1800s and moved from other places in the region to this museum in the 1950s.
Go for a short walk to explore the historic structures, visit a working 1800s garden, and see the David House – a rare example of a log house built with chestnut logs before the blight ended the species.
Best Time to Visit: Anytime from May through October.
Hike to Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls is only 20 feet tall at the end of a moderately difficult trail. But it’s one of the most popular waterfall hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of the year-round water volume that plummets over the falls.
The 5-mile roundtrip hike on the Abrams Falls Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) begins at a large parking lot at the end of Cades Cove just before arriving at the visitor center. The hike is moderately difficult, with a 600-foot descent to the waterfall, which means a long climb back to the car.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder seasons are April, May, and September.
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Hike to Indian Creek Falls and Tom Branch Falls
An easy hike in the Deep Creek area near Bryson City features three waterfalls. Tom Branch Falls is a 60-foot cascading waterfall plunging into Deep Creek. Indian Creek Falls is a 25-foot cascading waterfall on a short spur trail. Juney Whank Falls is a 90-foot cascading waterfall near the parking lot.
The 2.4-mile roundtrip hike on the Deep Creek Waterfall Loop (bookmark on AllTrails) connects the three waterfalls. The hike begins on the Deep Creek Trail past Indian Creek Falls, then returns on the Deep Creek Horse Trail to Juney Whank Falls.
The trail is a popular place for tubers during the summer. They lug the giant innertubes about a mile up Deep Creek Trail to a put-in at Indian Creek.
Best Time to Visit: Spring is always the best time to see waterfalls, so April through May.
Did You Know?
You can hike from Deep Creek to Newfound Gap if you don’t mind the 7,500-foot ascent. The 32-mile Deep Creek Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) follows the creek back to its source below Newfound Gap.
Drive the Newfound Gap Road
Locally, U.S. Highway 441 is called Newfound Gap Road. It’s the only route through Great Smoky Mountains National Park between Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina. The 31.7-mile road was initially built by the individual states in the early 1930s, but when the national park took over, they rebuilt the Tennessee portion, opening in 1938.
The two-lane highway is more than just a thoroughfare for cars, RVs, and tour buses. The road connects many of the most popular hiking trails, features a few stunning scenic overlooks, and includes gorgeous views from the car.
The road is free to travel, but visitors must purchase a parking tag to spend more than fifteen minutes in any one place. It takes anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours to travel between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, depending on how many drivers are on the road.
Best Time to Visit: If you just want to enjoy a scenic drive, the shoulder season around May and September are the best time. For the rest of the year, mid-week is the best time.
Did You Know?
You can drive 605 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Front Royal, Virginia, without ever leaving a national park property. Drive the 31-mile Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina. Then, drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway to Waynesboro, Virginia. Finally, drive the 105-mile Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park to Front Royal.
Visit the Cable Mill
Frontier settlers arrived in Cades Cove in the 1820s. Because of the remote location, settlers were required to make nearly everything for themselves. When John Cable arrived in the early 1870s, he built the largest grist mill in the cove. The mill was powered by water from Mill Creek and Forge Creek when needed.
The Cable Mill is still operational. Its 11-foot-tall and 5-foot-wide waterwheel is powered by water from the same creeks. Demonstrations on the weekends, especially during the summer months, give visitors a chance to step inside the mill and see the machinery at work.
The Cable Mill is located at the far end of Cades Cove. The area also includes a visitor center, restroom, the Cable House, and several other structures.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder season is from April through May and September, or mid-week during the summer and October.
There are about 2,900 miles of streams in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And all of them are open to fishing.
The national park is one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. Other fish species in the park’s streams include brook and smallmouth bass. Anglers need a valid fishing license, and there are daily limits on catches and size. Check the national park’s page on fishing for a complete list of rules and regulations.
Here are a few of the popular places for fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
- LeConte Creek along Cherokee Orchard Road near Gatlinburg
- Abrams Creek in Cades Cove
- Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area near Townsend
- Cosby Creek is about thirty minutes from Gatlinburg
- West Prong of the Little Pigeon River along Newfound Gap Road
Best Time to Visit: The best times to fish for trout are late March through June and October through November.
Watch the Sunset at the Morton Overlook
There are about 100 scenic overlooks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But none compare to the beautiful sunsets at the Morton Overlook – my favorite overlook in the park.
Morton Overlook is on Newfound Gap Road just below Newfound Gap on the Gatlinburg side. The overlook has a small parking area with room for about half a dozen vehicles. It’s not an entirely peaceful place with the ramblings of vehicles on the road at your back.
But in front, the overlook has a view of the passage between the mountain peaks followed by Newfound Gap Road. One mountain slope overlaps another in the distance. And during the summer, the sunset almost perfectly aligns with the gap for a spectacular evening show.
Best Time to Visit: April through September arrive at least two hours before sunset to guarantee a parking spot.
Hike the Porters Creek Trail
Greenbrier is a peaceful area about twenty minutes from Gatlinburg along U.S. Highway 321. It’s not a very well-traveled side of the park, so it’s typically a quiet area and one of the better places to escape the crowds of people in the summer.
The 7-mile roundtrip hike on the Porters Creek Trail (bookmark on AllTrails) is a pleasant walk in the woods along the creek. The trail gently ascends 1,500 feet along an old forestry road. Along the way, you can take a spur trail to John Messer’s Barn, a cantilevered barn built in 1875, and the CCC Cabin built during the Great Depression in 1934.
Best Time to Visit: The prime season from May through August. It’s busier in October but not as busy as other parts of the park.
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Congress authorized Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park at the same time in 1934. They were the first two national parks in the southeastern United States after decades of new parks in the west. During the construction of Shenandoah National Park, U.S. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia met with President Roosevelt and suggested a scenic highway connecting the two parks.
Initially called the Appalachian Scenic Highway, construction began on the Blue Ridge Parkway in 1935. But WWII and the infamous “missing link” at Grandfather Mountain prevented the parkway’s completion until 1987 – 52 years after construction began.
The southern end of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway meets Newfound Gap Road near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Several note-worthy overlooks are within a day’s roundtrip drive of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Waterrock Knob at Milepost 451.2 features views in all directions, including nearby Cherokee. A 1.2-mile hike leads to the mountain’s summit at 6,292 feet.
- Richland Balsam at Milepost 431.4 is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
- Cowee Mountain at Milepost 430.7 features one of the best overlooks on the parkway.
Best Time to Visit: The shoulder seasons of April through May and September, or mid-week during the summer months and October.
Frequently Asked Questions
The amount of time you spend in the Great Smoky Mountains depends entirely on your desires. Plan one day for any hiking trail longer than five miles, driving any of the auto touring routes, and visiting remote places like Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, and Cataloochee Valley.
Go for a drive on one of the scenic auto touring routes, watch sunrise or sunset from one of the overlooks on the Foothills Parkway, or explore the historic structures in Cades Cove or Cataloochee Valley.
It’s a big park, so don’t try to do too much in one day. Whatever amount of time you have allotted for a certain activity, double it during the summer months. Visit mid-week if at all possible. And be certain to buy the park’s new parking tag because it’s being strictly enforced.
The best times to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the shoulder seasons from April through May and September and mid-week from June through August and October.
The Great Smoky Mountains stretch from the Pigeon River and Interstate 40 in the northeast to the Little Tennessee River and U.S. Highway 129 in the southwest.
The Great Smoky Mountains are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country for three primary reasons: there is no admission fee, the park is within a ten-hour drive of 60% of the country’s population, and it’s one of the most gorgeous natural places in the eastern United States.