Best Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a mecca for outdoor lovers. Along with its abundant wildflowers and wildlife, the park offers stunning waterfalls along wooded trails (Grotto Falls), strenuous climbs (Clingmans Dome or Chimney Tops) and scenic drives (the Roaring Fork Motor Trail). There are also a bevy of educational exhibits, including historic structures from early settlers like those at Cades Cove. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is a perfect starting point to learn the history of the park, pick up trail maps or make reservations for ranger-led programs.
Updated May 18, 2018
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Also known as notches or passes, gaps are the low points in a mountain ridge. The Newfound Gap, which sits at an elevation of 5,046 feet, is the lowest drivable pass in the park. The 31-mile, scenic Newfound Gap Road – U.S. Route 441 – runs through the center of the park from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, over the mountains and into Cherokee, North Carolina. Mile markers denote several interesting attractions along the way, including the Newfound Gap, Mingus Mill, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum, and the Smokemont Campground and Nature Trail.
Recent travelers who drove along this route raved about the mountain views and photo ops, although some called the twisting mountain road "an automotive roller coaster." Many recommended the Newfound Gap visitor area for its quality facilities and access to trailheads, noting that the Appalachian Trail also crosses here. If you're visiting on a holiday weekend, prepare for crowds: some travelers said they were unable to find parking at many of the stops.
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According to recent travelers, the Sugarlands Visitor Center should be your first stop in the park. The visitor center features extensive natural history exhibits and screens a free 20-minute film about the park. The center also houses a bookstore, a gift shop, restrooms and a variety of information including trail maps. There are also several ranger-led programs offered seasonally.
Recent visitors recommended picking up both driving and trail maps here, and many commented on the excellent displays in the wildlife exhibit. Most travelers appreciated the helpful staff and the gift shop, as well as the clean restrooms. However, some lamented the limited parking during peak seasons.
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The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a nearly 6-mile-long, one-way loop road, offers spectacular mountain scenery and access to two of the region's most popular waterfalls: Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. You can actually walk behind the 25-foot high falls at the Grotto via the Trillium Gap Trail. You'll also see historic log cabins and the remains of a mountain village, the Roaring Fork Cemetery and an array of wildlife from birds and deer to black bears.
Recent visitors who raved about the beautiful waterfalls and mountain scenery on this motor trail said this is a must-see and a great place to spot bears in the wild. However, some summer tourists bemoaned the fact that the trail was crowded and offered limited parking areas. To avoid the midday rush of visitors, plan your drive in the morning to beat the crowds.
- #4View all PhotosfreeCades Cove#4 in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, FreeTYPEHalf Day to Full DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Surrounded by mountains, Cades Cove is an isolated, fertile valley that was once home to many of the early Southern Appalachian settlers. You'll see 18th- and 19th-century cabins, three churches and a working grist mill, as well as other historic outbuildings. The 11-mile, one-way loop road circles the Cades Cove valley and is one of the best places in the park to view wildlife. Once a hunting ground for the Cherokee Indians, the area is now home to deer, black bears and wild turkeys. Several hiking trails, including one to Abrams Falls, begin here. Longer hikes, including Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top, also start here, but are better suited for experienced hikers.
Because the loop road is closed to motor traffic on Saturday and Wednesday mornings until 10 a.m. from early May until late September, it's a favorite among cyclists. If you don't have your own set of wheels, you can rent bikes at the Cades Cove Campground store (rentals for adults cost $7.50 per hour).
- #5View all PhotosfreeClingmans Dome#5 in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDHiking, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDRead More
Clingmans Dome is not only the highest point in Tennessee, but also in the park itself. On a clear day, you may be able to see more than 100 miles. Take a jacket along – even in the summer – as temperatures at the 6,643-foot peak will be much colder than those in the lower elevations. There are several scenic pullouts along Clingmans Dome Road, which ends in a parking area at the trailhead. The trail is paved, but very steep, and leads to an observation tower at the summit. There are also several other trails that start at Clingmans Dome Road and its parking area, including the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Clingmans Dome and is the highest point along its route from Georgia to Maine.
Recent travelers called this the most amazing sight in the mountains, despite the steep trail. Many advised visiting on a sunny day, as clouds and fog can obscure the stunning views from the dome. Some noted that parking is limited and especially hard to snag at peak times during the summer and on weekends. Most also advised bringing warm clothing, and some said the bathroom facilities were less than ideal.
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The Cades Cove Visitor Center is located about midway on the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road. One of the most popular areas in the park, the Cades Cove valley is known for its abundant wildlife, including white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, raccoons and other animals. The visitor center features both indoor and outdoor exhibits detailing Southern mountain life. Visit the Cable Mill, a gristmill that operates in the spring, summer and fall, and the historic Becky Cable House, or explore the exhibits inside the center and view a short film on the area. Several ranger-led programs are available seasonally and the visitor center offers a bookstore, public restrooms and trail maps for hikers.
Recent travelers complimented the friendly staff members and extensive information available at the Cades Cove Visitor Center, and noted that the center's public restrooms are the only ones available on the loop drive. Many also loved the free film detailing the history of the area and several praised the well-stocked gift shop. Some reviewers noted that on busy weekend days during peak seasons, traffic was very slow on the loop road and parking was limited.
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Named for a Cherokee chief whose village once occupied a spot alongside the creek, Abrams Falls is small, but mighty. While the falls are only 20 feet high, they pump out a large volume of water, creating a long, deep pool at its base. The 5-mile, round-trip hike through the forest is considered moderate for experienced hikers, but difficult for novices, and rangers recommend carrying a supply of water and wearing sturdy hiking shoes. Swimming in the pool at the base of falls is extremely dangerous, due to strong currents and an undertow.
Many recent visitors said this hike offered a great way to escape the summer heat, with many recommending hikers pack a picnic lunch to enjoy by the water. Some also advised using hiking poles on the rough and unpaved path, and many noted that this trail was particularly crowded with amateur photographers. Hikers also suggest setting out on the trail early in the morning or later in the afternoon to enjoy some peace and quiet. One family noted that although the hike is fairly long their children were enthralled with the scenery.
- #8View all PhotosfreeGrotto Falls Trail#8 in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Located along the Trillium Gap Trail – off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – Grotto Falls is a nearly 3-mile-long, round-trip hike that actually runs behind a 25-foot waterfall. Summer hikers love the cool environment through the old-growth hemlock forest and by the falls, although park officials caution that swimming or climbing on rocks near the falls is prohibited.
Although some recent visitors said Grotto Falls was doable for amateur hikers, most cautioned that the rough and slippery trail – and its exposed tree roots – is not recommended for novices or children. Many also commented on the uphill climb and the stream crossings, which can be very slippery, but all visitors were impressed with the amazing waterfall. Reviewers recommended wearing sturdy hiking shoes with good traction and carrying both bear and bug spray.
- #9View all PhotosfreeLaurel Falls#9 in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
Named for the mountain laurel (an evergreen shrub) that blooms throughout the park, Laurel Falls is one of the most popular trails in the park. The path has an upper and a lower section, divided by a walkway that crosses a stream at the base of the upper falls (which measure 80 feet in height). Although the round-trip hike is only 2.6 miles, it takes about 2 hours, due to the rough and uneven pavement and steep incline. Because of its popularity, the trail is busy year-round, especially on weekends and during the peak summer season.
Some recent hikers thought the trail was difficult and somewhat dangerous, mentioning steep drop-offs with no handrails and the rocky nature of the trail itself, while other more experienced hikers found it easy. All agreed that it was incredibly scenic and a great location for photos, especially in May and June, when the laurel is in bloom. Many advised that the lack of ample parking required some extra walking to reach the trailhead and noted that the area is known for its bear population, cautioning visitors to carry bear spray and refrain from discarding food along the trail.
- #10View all PhotosfreeChimney Tops#10 in Great Smoky Mountains National ParkHiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDRead More
One of the most popular trails in the park, Chimney Tops is one of the few mountains that has a bare rock summit and the views from the summit are spectacular. It's a short but very steep climb that requires scrambling over rocks to reach the top, so it's not for novice hikers or young children.
Hikers who visited recently noted that although climbing the pinnacles is not possible due to fire damage from 2016, the vistas from the viewing platform (which is part of the lower portion of the trail from Gatlinburg, Tennessee that is still accessible) is worth the trek. Some recommended taking a break at the scenic picnic area by the stream, located below the chimneys. Many also cautioned that the area is bear territory.
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