Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide

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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. 

How we rank Things to Do

Updated May 18, 2018

  • #1
    Roaring Fork Motor Trail
    View all Photos
    #1 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

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  • #2
    Newfound Gap Road
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    #2 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #3
    Sugarlands Visitor Center
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    #3 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #4
    Cades Cove
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    #4 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

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  • #5
    Clingmans Dome
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    #5 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #6
    Cades Cove Visitor Center
    View all Photos
    #6 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Sightseeing, Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing, Tours, Free
    TYPE
    1 to 2 hours
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #7
    Abrams Falls Trail
    View all Photos
    #7 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #8
    Grotto Falls Trail
    View all Photos
    #8 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Recreation, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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. 

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  • #9
    Laurel Falls
    View all Photos
    #9 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

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  • #10
    Chimney Tops
    View all Photos
    #10 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    Hiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Hiking, Recreation, Sightseeing, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

    ...Read More »

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