The problem with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park being the most-visited park in the country is that people tend to visit the same spots, write about the same spots, and talk about the same spots. If I had a dollar for every time someone told me Cades Cove was their favorite section of the park but they had never heard of Deep Creek I could buy myself a modern cabin with a nice view of those mountains. I guess doing the same as always is the safe choice but maybe just once you want to do something different in the grand spectacle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you have that desire to go someplace new this list of 10 off the beaten path spots to visit is just for you.
Just a few minutes from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee is an old mill along a little creek. The leisure five minute walk from the parking lot is easy so it’s a great place to stretch your legs and see something you may have overlooked before. On weekends and most summer days the mill is open to explore, and water almost always runs down the viaduct from a man-made creek extension. On super frigid wintry days the wooden viaduct will often by covered with ice, and after heavy summer rains water will pour off the side from an overflow spout.
Cosby is one of the most remote campgrounds of the entire national park, located about twenty miles from Gatlinburg. But the area is more than just a cozy campground deep in the woods; there is a large covered picnic shelter, several hiking trails, and the Cosby Nature Loop Trail. The loop trail dips down into a gully covered in moss with a year-round temperate climate, crossing a creek a few times over rustic log bridges and stepping stones. Hen Wallow Falls is a popular attraction and probably brings the most visitors to Cosby; the stunning waterfall is located at the end of a 2.1-mile moderately strenuous hiking trail from the picnic area.
The drive along the dirt and gravel road beside Porters Creek to Greenbrier is enough of a reason to visit this hidden area. It’s only about fifteen minutes from Gatlinburg along Highway 321 so it’s easy to reach. The creek is a popular place for swimming and tubing during the summer. In the spring the area is renowned for the beautiful wildflowers along the road and trails. Ramsay Cascades, the tallest cascading waterfall in the national park, is located along a 4-mile moderate trail from near the end of the road in Greenbrier. The Porters Creek Trail is a great place to see the blooming wildflowers around March-April.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
People may have already heard of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail because of the trails and waterfalls, but few know the true potential for an amazing time in the national park. The one-lane, one-way road begins just minutes from Gatlinburg making it one of the quickest ways to escape the hustle and bustle of Parkway and escape into nature. Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls are two of the most poplar waterfalls in the park to visit. But the motor trail also includes dozens of historic cabins, barns, and buildings to explore at Ogle Place, Jim Bales Place, and the Ephraim Bales Cabin.
The Elkmont Campground is one of the most popular front country campgrounds in the park, but did you know within sight of campers and RVs is the Elkmont Historic District? This area was once the location of several hunting cabins and resort homes for the wealthy elite of Knoxville, but only a few of the rustic homes remain today. The 4.9-mile Little River Trail follows the river for an easy hike into the woods and is the location of the synchronous fireflies event each June. Another 2.2 miles from the end of the Little River Trail is Huskey Branch Falls. If you prefer to stay local Daisy Town is a collection of old buildings brought in when the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company heavily logged the national park; today you can walk down the main street through the old town and admire the old homes.
Cades Cove is one of the most popular sections of the entire national park which is why so many people pass The Sinks without even realizing it’s there. Located along Little River Gorge Road about halfway between Gatlinburg and Cades Cove this cascading waterfall has an interesting history involving early logging of the Great Smoky Mountains, one big log jam on the river, and a huge pile of dynamite. Today it’s a popular place to see some cascading water, do a little fishing, and go for a very dangerous plunge.
Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
Another side attraction between Gatlinburg and Cades Cove is the Institute at Tremont. This non-profit institute offers workshops and guided tours throughout the year for children and adults. That will take some pre-planning, though, but there are still a few other things to do during a spontaneous trip. Spruce Flats Falls is located along a 2-mile round trip trail and is one of the most impressive waterfalls in the park. Indian Flats Falls is a longer 7.5-mile round trip hike.
The Foothills Parkway is an unfinished extension of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that has mostly remained a local secret (until now). Eventually the two-lane parkway with scenic overlooks and hiking trails will run about seventy miles between I-40 near Cosby to Chilhowee. Although the land has already been purchased, construction has been slow to get started so only about fifteen miles exists today, starting at Highway 321 in Walland. One of the most popular and breathtaking places to visit on the Foothills Parkway is the Look Rock Observation Tower. A moderately strenuous twenty minute hike from the parking area takes visitors to a concrete tower that climbs above the trees for a breathtaking view of the local landscapes.
Tunnel to Nowhere
At the end of Lakeview Drive in Bryson City is a long tunnel with an interesting history. When the park was first being developed and Fontana Lake was created by the TVA lots of locals were cut off from accessing cemeteries that were now inaccessible and located inside the national park. The original intent of Lakeview Drive was to provide road access to those cemeteries but shortly after the tunnel was completed the road was abandoned. Today visitors can park one one side and experience a thrilling mini-adventure walking through a tunnel that is long enough to plunge you into pitch blackness in the middle before returning you to nature on the other side.
Another of the off-the-beaten path campgrounds is also a great place to day trip from Cherokee or Bryson City. A large picnic area has lots of tables, shelters, and grills to enjoy a cookout with the family. The nearby Deep Creek Tube Center rents out innertubes for people to gently float down Down Creek, only to reach the campground and run back up the trail again. Along that same trail is Tom Branch Falls and Indian Creek Falls, and on a nearby loop trail is Juney Whank Falls.