The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the United States, for a number of good reasons:
- Near some major cities and popular tourist destinations, including: Asheville, Knoxville, Gatlinburg, Cherokee and Bryson City
- More than 800 miles of hiking trails
- Multiple ways to see and enjoy the park: roads, by trail, and by train
- Wildlife, including black bears (a symbol of the Smoky Mountains), Elk, Deer, owls, eagles, and salamanders
- 2,900 miles of fishable streams, full of trout
- More than 90 historic buildings that you can visit and walk through
The majority of those 12.9 million visitors, see the park by driving along Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee or by visiting Cades Cove and driving along the 11-mile loop road.
Seeing the park this ways causes you to miss so much, and often the most beautiful places the National Park has to offer. Our list highlights our 16 favorite Things to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - You won't be disappointed!
Top 16 Things To Do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Here are our top 16 picks for things to do and see in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
1 - Visit Newfound Gap
In Appalachian terminology, a gap is a low point in mountain ridge. Out west, the are called "passes". At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This fact wasn't known until 1872. Prior to that, the lowest gap was thought to be Indian Gap, located about 1.5 miles from today's Newfound Gap. When geographers discovered that this new gap was actually the lowest, it became known as "Newfound Gap".
Starting from either Cherokee or Gatlinburg TN, visitors can drive along Newfound Gap Road up to the gap, and gain 3,000 feet in elevation. On the way up, you'll drive through a number of Ecosystems and once you reach the top, you'll be almost a mile high, with tremendous long distance views, and significantly cooler temperatures.
Located at Newfound Gap are:
- Rockefeller Memorial - Recognizing the 5 million dollar donation from the Rockefeller location, that jump started the creation of the park. The memorial was the dedication spot used by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
- Incredible scenic views from the parking lot
- The Appalachian Trail crosses the park at Newfound Gap, and visitors can walk up the famous trail.
- Across the road is the access road to the popular Clingmans Dome.
- There is also a comfort station here with restrooms.
2 - See the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has visitor centers at the main entry points. The visitor Center near Cherokee is the Oconaluftee Visitor center, named after the nearby Oconaluftee River and the site of historic Cherokee village.
The visitor center has:
- A welcome center where you can get maps of the park, and trail maps.
- Restroom facilities
- An indoor museum
- An outdoor Mountain Farm Museum
In recent years, the visitor center has also become a popular spot for the Elk as well. They can often be seen grazing in the fields next to the visitor center, early in the morning or late in the evenings.
3 - Visit Historic Elkmont TN
One of our personal favorite places to visit in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the now abandoned and historic resort area of Elkmont, located between Cades Cove and the Sugarlands visitor center.
Elkmont was once a thriving mountain resort for the wealthy of Knoxville. Prior to this, Elkmont was also a very large and thriving lumber operation before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park took over the area.
When visiting Elkmont, you can tour the historic Daisy Town and Appalachian Club house. Many of the Daisy Town buildings have been restored and you can see and walk through them.
You can also see what remains of the burnt down Wonderland hotel along with old signs of railroad's prominence in the area. Of course there are hiking trails, waterfalls, and camping as well.
4 - Drive through the Cades Cove TN Loop
The most visited area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by far, is Cades Cove. Cades Cove is a beautiful and broad valley, surrounded by mountains. "The Cove" offers some of the best opportunities in the Park to see wildlife, including black bears, coyotes, turkeys, and deer.
Cades Cove also has a number of historic buildings you can see and walk-through. There are also hiking trails, and one of the most popular waterfalls in the park, Abram's Falls.
Touring the cove is accomplished by an 11-mile loop road that takes you through the valley. Traffic is very heavy during peak season, and the drive can take 2-4 hours. For a shorter drive, there are two cut-through roads you can take as well. Be sure to stop by the store and get some ice cream!
5 - Explore Big Creek NC
Big Creek was once famous as one of the largest logging operations in the area, and one of the largest on the east coast. Today, it is a remote area of the park, that offers access to stunning Big Creek, hiking trails, camping, and waterfalls.
The parking area offers easy access to the Big Creek picnic area, which provides Creek side picnic tables and charcoal grills. Also from the parking area, you can hike up Big Creek Trail to Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls, or hike up to the top of Mt. Sterling to see the old fire tower.
Throughout Big Creek you'll find the remains of the huge logging operation, including tools, and what remains of the old railroad. One of the unique aspects of Big Creek, is the bright aquamarine color of the water.
6 - See the Elk in Cataloochee Valley NC
Another valley you can visit, that is somewhat similar to Cades Cove, but more remote and rustic is Cataloochee Valley. Cataloochee is most well known as the location where the Elk were re-introduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Valley is one of the main locations for seeing Elk in the park.
Cataloochee Valley is also famous for the rugged and narrow back mountain drive into the Valley. For many, this is an adventure in and of itself.
Once in Cataloochee Valley, you can drive out to the very far end, and on the way see historic homes, barns and other history Chances are you'll see Elk as well, along with black bear and other wildlife.
Cataloochee Valley offers camping and horse camping as well. There are also many different hiking trails that start in Cataloochee Valley as well.
7 - Hike to Rainbow Falls
The Rainbow, often produced by the mist from the waterfall, is how Rainbow Falls earned its name. Not only is this one of the more popular waterfall hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it's also one of the most beautiful. Rainbow Falls is impressive at 80 foot high.
The trail ascends 1500' over a distance of 2.7 miles (5.2 roundtrip), and is considered moderate in difficulty by standard hiking ratings. Many visitors may find this difficult due to the elevation gain, and long distance. You'll want to plan for 4-5 hours for this hike, and be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks and bring good shoes or hiking shoes/boots due to the rocky nature of the trail.
Get more information at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website.
8 - Tube in Deep Creek NC
Another gorgeous and fun area of the park is Deep Creek, located just outside of Bryson City NC. Deep Creek, like many other areas of the park, was a large logging operation, built around the beautiful and cool Deep Creek.
Today, Deep Creek offers exceptional camping, hiking, 3 waterfalls and is a very popular place for tubing!
Tube rentals are available all along the entrance road to Deep Creek. Just rent your tubes, park, and hike up the trail, and tube back down. An Awesome and fun way to cool off during the summer!
9 - Head to the top at Clingmans Dome
Another very popular spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Clingmans Dome. The Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at 6,643 feet in elevation.
To get to Clingmans Dome, you drive 7 miles on Clingmans Dome Road (across from Newfound Gap), and park in the large parking area.
The views from the parking lot alone are breathtaking, but if you want even higher and 360 degree views, you'll want to hike up the short but steep trail to the Observation Deck on the summit. This is a tough walk, but worth it. There are benches that you can rest on.
The observation tower at the top allows you to get above the trees, and see 360 degrees all around on a clear day.
At the base of the dome is an access trail that will allow you to walk along the Appalachian Trail as well. Just be sure to have a trail map so you don't get turned around.
10 - Visit the operating Mingus Mill
A real treat is visiting the historic Mingus Mill, anytime of the year, but in particular in the summer. Mingus Mill isn't just a historic mill, but also an operating and functional mill that you can walk inside. You can even meet and talk to the mill operator.
Mingus Mill served a critical function for those living in the area in the mid to late 1800s, and also served as a gathering and meeting place as well. The mill was one of the most technologically advanced mills in its time.
Be sure to explore the outside of the mill, and then venture inside to see it operate and buy some corn-meal. You can also walk up the trail behind the mill-race and flume to see how water is pulled from Mingus Creek for the mill.
From the parking area, you can hike up Mingus Creek Trail for a nice walk through the woods.
11 - Drive Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, near Gatlinburg TN, is a 5.5 mile one way loop road, that will invite you to slow-down, and enjoy the surrounding forest, wildlife, and history that surrounds you.
The nature trail provides views of mountain streams, old-growth forest, preserved cabins and buildings, and if you're lucky, some wildlife, including black bears.
The trail begins at Noah “Bud” Ogle's self-guiding nature trail which is a walking tour of and offers a authentic mountain farmstead and it's surrounding hardwood forest. Immediately past the farmstead is the trailhead for Rainbow Falls, highlighted above. Also in this area is the trailhead for Grotto Falls.
12 - Hike to Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is the most popular and most visited waterfall in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 80 foot tall, it's a large and beautiful waterfall. The trail, and observation bridge divides the falls into an upper and lower section.
Roundtrip to the waterfall is 2.6 miles on a paved, but very rough and uneven trail. The trail is popular with families, but has some very steep grades and drops, so keep the kids close.
We recommend visiting on a weekday, an arriving early to beat the crowds.
13 - Hike to Mingo Falls
Mingo Falls is located in Cherokee, and is just gorgeous after a rainfall. At 121 feet tall, Mingo Falls is one of the tallest and most beautiful waterfalls in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hike up is short (0.4 miles), but has 161 steps up to the Falls from the parking area.
At the top, there is a really nice observation deck that provides exceptional views of Mingo Falls, and the creek below.
14 - Hike Alum Cave Trail
Probably the best trail in the park, but also the most popular is Alum Cave Trail. This trail offers much of what one would expect in a Smoky Mountain Hike, including old-growth forest, water, rock climbs, incredible views, and wildlife.
Alum Cave Trail is 2.3 miles to the Bluffs (4.6 roundtrip). The trail gains 1200 feet in elevation, and is steep in some locations, making for a moderate to strenuous trail rating. Most turn around at the Bluffs, but you can continue up to the top of Mount LeConte (see below).
If you plan to hike this trail, we recommend a weekday, and that you get their very early to get a parking spot.
15 - Drive down Heintooga Round Bottom Road
This mostly one-way, 14 mile road will take up from the upper elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway, down into Cherokee NC. The road is a narrow, back mountain road, that while doable in a 2-wheel drive vehicle, we recommend a 4-wheel drive.
Along the way you'll see beautiful scenes, wildlife, wildflowers, creeks and more. If you are looking to get away from the traffic and people, and enjoy a long quiet drive through the remote mountains, this is the drive for you.
16 - Adventure to the Top of Mount LeConte
For the ultimate "thing to do" in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we saved the best for last. Hiking up to the top of Mount LeConte for some a lifetime achievement.
The hike up to Mount LeConte isn't easy, and to go up and back on the same day, will literally take you all day, but the experience and views are hard to describe in words. This is quintessential Great Smoky Mountain National Park hike.
The hike is 11 miles roundtrip and strenuous. This hike is not for inexperienced hikers. You'll want to come prepared, with water, food, appropriate clothing and shoes, a headlamp and other supplies.
There are multiple ways up, but Alum Bluff trail is the shortest. The trail will take you through dense old-growth forest, alongside the gorgeous Alum creek, then up through arch rock, where you will climb stairs through a steep rock tunnel. Then you'll reach the rocky outcroppings of Inspiration point for incredible scenic views and rhododendron. The eye of the needle can be seen here as well.
You will then hike along a steep rocky ridge, where chain handrails are available, up to Alum Cave and the Bluffs. The trail up to LeConte from here gets steeper, and more rocky. You will hike through the forest, and then begin hugging the rock face as you ascend up LeConte. There are sections along this portion of the trail that have very steep drop-offs trailside.
After this, the trail levels off and passes through dense spruce-fir forest, which smells and looks amazing. You'll think you've arrived in middle-earth. Shortly past the forest is LeConte Lodge.