11 Best Things To Do In The Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Last Updated on August 28, 2021 by Lori

What are some of the top things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains? Whether you love hiking, finding waterfalls, or love gazing at amazing views of the Smokies, here’s a list of the Must-Sees when visiting The Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

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What You Need To Know About The Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Smoky Mountain National Park mountain views
Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Photo by L. Andrews

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and has the highest mountains in the eastern United States.

There are no gas stations or restaurants in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. However, there are many beautiful picnic areas in the park, so be sure to pack a lunch and fill your tank before you enter the park!

Where is The Great Smoky Mountain National Park?

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park borders the states of North Carolina and Tennessee.

You can enter the park through one of the three main entrances: Gatlinburg, TN, Townsend, TN; and Cherokee, NC

Map Of The Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

How Much Does It Cost To Get Into Great Smoky Mountain National Park?

There is no fee to enter the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. In fact, it is only one of a few National Parks that do not charge an entrance fee.

According to the National Park Service, the reason there are no fees dates back to when the land that is today considered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was once privately owned.

The states of NC and TN and local communities paid to construct Newfound Gap Road – a road that stretches from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC.

When the state of TN transferred ownership of the road to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed” to travel the road.

Are Dogs Allowed In The Great Smoky Mountain National Park?

Golden Retriever at Newfound Gap
Buddy The Golden Retriever at Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by L. Andrews

Dogs are welcome along roads and in front country campgrounds as long and in picnic areas as long as they are on a leash of not longer than six feet.

No dogs are allowed on park trails except for Gatlinburg and Oconaluftree River Trails

Where Is The Best Place To Start In The Park?

A great place to start your day in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is at the Visitors Center. Here you can get a Great Smoky Mountains attractions map, ask the Park Rangers questions, and use the restroom.

Visitors Centers At Great Smoky Mountain NP

  • Oconalufree
  • Sugarlands
  • Cades Cove
  • Clingman’s Dome

Sugarlands Visitors Center

Sugarlands Visitors Center Smoky Mountain National Park
Start the day at The Sugarlands Visitors Center Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Photo by L. Andrews

We entered the park through the Gatlinburg, TN entrance, and our first stop was the Sugarlands Visitors Center.

The Visitors Center was very busy, even for a weekday during the summer.

There was a long line outside to get into the Visitors Center (due to COVID restrictions); however, the restrooms are in a building to the left of the center and there were no lines.

I wanted to get a map of Smoky Mountain attractions and got in line. But then I noticed other people reaching for a newspaper so I grabbed the “Smokies Guide” from the stand.

Smokies Guide Newspaper
Smokies Guide Newspaper. Photo by L. Andrew

The newspaper was free and had a map along with tips about the park. Soon, we were back in the truck to decide where we wanted to go.

What Is The Most Visited Destination In The Great Smoky Mountain National Park?

One of the top Smoky Mountain destinations is Cades Cove.

Cades Cove Loop is a scenic 11-mile one-way loop. It is known as being the best location for wildlife viewing in the park.

You should allow at least 2-4 hours to tour Cades Cove.

Pro-Tip – Cades Cove is Vehicle-Free on Wednesdays from May 5-September 1. The 11-mile Loop Trail is closed to all motorized vehicles to allow cyclists, runners, and walkers to use the trail without traffic.

Things Not To Miss In Smoky Mountains National Park

Auto tour of Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Driving through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Photo by L. Andrews

Take An Auto Tour (FREE)

There are 384 miles of roads to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! The speed you will travel on most paved roads averages 35 mph.

Take advantage of the many scenic overlooks throughout the park where you will see amazing views of the Smoky Mountains.

Here are some of the most popular stops you should plan to make:

Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap Smoky Mountains
Newfound Gap Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by L. Andrews

Park in the large parking lot at Newfound Gap, then have your picnic lunch while taking in the breathtaking views at Newfound Gap.

Newfound Gap is at an elevation of 5,046 feet and is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Pro-Tip: Be sure to take your photo where the Appalachian Trail crosses over Newfound Gap Road and straddles the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee.

State Line at Newfound Gap Great Smoky Mountains
North Carolina/Tennessee State line at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountain NP. Photo by L. Andrews

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome Great Smoky Mountains
Clingmans Dome Great Smoky Mountains

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At 6,643 feet, it is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi!

If you want to see spectacular 360-degree views, you can walk the paved 1/2 mile trail to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower.

The path to the observation tower is considered a steep trail – but once you get to the top if it’s a clear day, you can see 360-degree views up to 100 miles!

No dogs or bicycles are permitted on the trail to the observation tower or any other trails in this area.

The road leading to the observation tower is called Clingmans Dome Road. This seven-mile road has many scenic pull-offs where you can stop to see beautiful scenic views of the mountains and valleys.

How To Get To Clingmans Dome

From Newfound Gap Road turn onto Clingmans Dome Road (0.1 mile south of Newfound Gap). Drive along the 7-mile-long Clingmans Dome Road to the large parking area at the end.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Roaring Fork is one of the larger and faster-flowing mountain streams in the park.

The narrow, winding road is a 5.5 mile long, one-way loop road located off the main parkway in Gatlinburg, TN. Along this road, you will see log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings.

The road is closed during the winter.

How To Get To The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Follow the Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance into the National Park. The entrance is just a short distance past the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. ***Note: Buses, trailers, and motor homes are not permitted on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Smoky Mountains Views
Overlook stop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by L. Andrews

Cataloochee

Cataloochee Valley was once one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are several historic buildings to see including churches, a school, homes, and an outbuilding.

How To Get To Cataloochee

The most direct route into the valley is to take Cove Creek Road. To get to the valley from Interstate I-40, exit at North Carolina exit #20 and travel 0.2 miles on route 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley.

Best Hikes In The Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by L. Andrews

With over 150 hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you won’t get bored hiking the same trails over and over!

Here are a few of the most popular destination hikes:

(Note: These do not allow dogs on the trails. The only park trails allowing dogs are the Gatlinburg and Oconaluftee River trails.)

  • Charles Bunion Trail
  • Alum Cave Trail
  • Andrew Bald Trail
  • Rainbow Falls Trail
  • Chimney Tops Trail

Great Smoky Mountain Waterfalls

Rainbow Falls Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Rainbow Falls Great Smoky Mountain National Park

One of the more unique things to do in the Smoky Mountains is there are Waterfalls that you can drive to!

Waterfalls You Can Drive To In The Smoky Mountains

Meigs Falls – 13 miles from Sugarlands Visitors Center. The falls are tucked away on the far side of Little River and can be easily missed when driving.

The Sinks – This waterfall is short, but includes the entire flow of Little River. The parking area to view the falls is along Little River Road – 12 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Place of a Thousand Drips – From the parkway in Gatlinburg, turn at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail into the park. Take Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). The waterfall is at stop #15.

Looking To Hike To See A Waterfall?

Here Are The Most Popular Hikes Leading To Waterfalls In The Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Grotto Falls – 3-mile roundtrip hike leading to a 25 ft. waterfall. The trail to the falls is considered moderate and takes 2-3 hours to complete.

Laurel Falls – One of the most popular destinations in the park. The trail is a 2.6 roundtrip hike to a spectacular 80 ft. waterfall. The trail to the waterfall is considered moderate and takes 2 hours to complete.

Rainbow Falls – On sunny days, a rainbow might be seen from the mist of the 80 ft. waterfall. The trail to the waterfall is 5.4 miles roundtrip and considered moderate to difficult due to the elevation gain and rocky terrain along sections of the trail.

The hike could take from 3.5 – 5 hours to complete.

Camping In The Great Smoky Mountain Naional Park

RV and tent camping
RV and tent camping

There are ten campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open year-round.

Each campground has restrooms with flush toilets. There are no showers, electrical, or water hookups in the park.

Individual campsites have a fire grate and picnic table. Sites are limited to six people and two vehicles and the maximum stay is 14 days.

Dogs are allowed at campgrounds and on roadways but must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet.

How To Make Campground Reservations

Reservations are required and can be reserved up to six months in advance. You can make online reservations at www.recreation.gov.

(Note: the following information is correct at the time of this article. Please check nps.gov website for updates and closures)

  • Abrams Creek – 16 tent-only sites. A remote area of the park with Abrams Creek flowing beside the campground.

  • Balsam Mountain – 42 tent-only sites. A remote area of the park at an elevation of 5,310 ft.
  • Big Creek – 12 tent-only sites. A remote area of the park with relaxing sounds of Big Creek flowing by the campground. The campground is surrounded by beautiful mountain views.

  • Cades Cove – 159 sites for tent & RV. Open year-round. Cades Cove is one of the most popular destinations in the park. The 11-mile one-way Cade Cove Loop is perfect for viewing wildlife.
  • Cataloochee – 27 tent-only sites. Located in historic and scenic Cataloochee Valley

  • Cosby – 157 sets for tent & RV. Limited RV sites, some with tent pads.

  • Deep Creek – 92 sites for tent & RV. Campground next to one of the most popular creeks in the southeast section of the park. All sites have grills, picnic tables & campfire rings.

  • Elkmont – 220 sites for tent & RV with paved driveways, gravel tent pads, fire rings, and picnic tables. The campground is considered the largest and busiest campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountains.

  • Smokemont – 142 sites for tent & RV. Open year-round. Sites have tent pads, grills and fire rings.

  • Lookrock Campground

Why You Should Visit The Great Smoky Mountains

Newfound Gap Great Smoky Mountains
Newfound Gap Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by L. Andrews

If you want to see the most amazing views of the Smoky Mountains, hike to see one of the beautiful waterfalls; or, want to camp in the park – you will find many adventures in The Great Smoky Mountain National Park!

It’s no wonder The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most popular National Park destinations!

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