The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited National parks in the United States, and it’s easy to see why!
The Great Smoky Mountains have a rich history and it’s a great place to spend a vacation or a long weekend. You can camp, hike, explore the outdoors, go to an amusement park, do lots of kid-friendly activities, visit bustling cities filled with arts and culture, shop until you drop, and experience memorable family vacations.
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Table of Contents
What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
- When is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains?
- Where to stay
- More Places To Visit in the Southeast
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans two states: Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s a beautiful drive, and the park is free to visit which is rare for National Parks.
When heading into the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s important to plan enough time to visit so you aren’t rushing because you don’t want to miss a thing.
Because the park is so large, it’s best to plan ahead and that is where we come in. This article will help you decide where to go and what to add to your visit to the Smoky Mountains.
You’ll notice many opportunities to stop and take photos along your journey, especially at overlooks often called Chimney Tops.
A few things you need to know
There are more than 1,000 black bears living in the Great Smoky Mountains. Store your food and trash properly if you want to avoid a bear encounter.
You may not have cell phone service while in the park, so be sure to plan for that and any possible emergencies that can come up as well.
This is the most popular National Park. That means it’s going to have lots of visitors when you go and be crowded. Plan ahead. Make reservations well in advance and pack your patience.
Because of the volume of visitors, it does make it difficult to find a good spot in parking lots. Expect to walk quite a bit, both from the parking lot and while you’re exploring the park on foot.
The best time to visit the park is from April to October, based on the climate. The temperature usually doesn’t reach over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but it dips to the 20s in the winter.
It gets foggy in the Smokies, so planning a visit on a clear day is ideal. You won’t get the best views if it’s rainy or foggy. Sometimes, the misty views are unavoidable because this park gets an amazing 80 inches of rainfall each year.
What to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
There is so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains area. Many people come back once a year to experience the scenic views and repeat their favorite things to do.
We like to go in the late Fall and have even been for the week of Thanksgiving. We always rent a cabin in Pigeon Forge.
Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are right outside of the National Park and are popular places to stay with a lot to offer.
The Visitor’s Center
Stop by the Visitor’s Center upon arrival. The volunteers here are a wealth of information! They can help you find where to see the beautiful wildflowers and the most picturesque spots.
There is even a film you can watch that dives into the history and information about the park, which can be educational for kids and adults alike.
There are two visitor centers; Sugarlands Visitor Center, Gatlinburg, TN, and Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Cherokee, NC.
A scenic drive is one of the best things you can do in the Great Smoky Mountains, especially in the Fall.
It is a good idea to pack a picnic that you can enjoy at one of the picnic areas along the drive. Make sure to have plenty of water for everyone. A drive can take several hours. Fill your vehicle with gas before you head out.
The drive isn’t difficult, though it’s probably not one I’d take in the dead of winter. Many passages may be closed in the winter due to snowfall. The road to Clingmans Dome will likely be closed during the winter.
Great places for scenic drives
- Cades Cove Loop Road
- Cataloochee Valley
- Newfound Gap Road
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Upper Tremont Road
Hiking & Trails
The best thing to do is decide what you want to see while hiking, and ask at the Visitor’s Center so they can help you choose the right path.
They can tell you the difficulty of the trail, what you can expect to see, and even the average time it takes to complete a particular hike.
- Charlies Bunion
- Alum Cave Bluffs
- Andrews Bald
- Chimney Tops
- Rainbow Falls
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is also the highest point in Tennessee and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River.
While this hike is steep, it’s only about a mile round trip and it’s paved, so it’s rated as kid-friendly. The panoramic views, along with the wildlife and wildflowers, are second to none and worth every steep step.
Up for more of a challenge, or maybe you brought your bicycle? Cades Cove is an 11-mile one-way loop that takes several hours to complete on foot or about 2 hours by bike. Right now the road is closed on Wednesdays for bicycles only.
On your visit, you’ll see a variety of historic buildings, including a working corn mill, barns, churches, and log houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Grab the self-guided tour booklet at the Cades Cove visitors center to learn more about the history of Cades Cove. If you go early enough, you may be lucky enough to see wild turkeys, elk, and deer. We have even seen a bear family on this drive.
There’s something for everyone here. More kid-friendly hikes include
- Kephart Prong Trail (4 miles round trip, great for older kids)
- Porter’s Creek (2 miles round trip, moderate difficulty)
Hiking trails with waterfalls
If you love waterfalls, you’ll enjoy these trails
- Abrams Falls: 20-foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Hen Wallow Falls: 90-foot waterfall, 3-4 hours for the round trip hike
- Rainbow Falls: 80-foot waterfall, 3-5 hours for the round trip hike
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Located in western North Carolina is Bryson City worth the drive to experience the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
The Railroad offers a variety of scenic, round-trip excursions departing from and returning to Bryson City. Trips range from almost 4 hours to a full day of fun.
One popular ride is the Nantahala Gorge Excursion which is about 44 miles long and takes a good 4 1/2 hours. You will cross a trestle over Fontana Lake and enjoy a one-hour layover for exploring the Nantahala Gorge before boarding for the return trip.
When is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains?
Each season offers its own bounty in the Great Smoky Mountains. The time of year you visit will depend on the kind of adventure you are seeking. We enjoy going during Winterfest in the late Fall.
If you want to see the flowering trees and wildflowers, Spring is your best bet as the forests come back to life. Spring is also a great time for fishing in the area.
Check out the Dolly Parton Dollywood Spring Flower and Food Show.
Summertime brings mountain streams and stunning forests back to life.
If you want to experience the great outdoors, you will find plenty of hiking including trails to beautiful waterfalls, white water rafting, and even zip-lining. You can even go fishing in the Little Pigeon River around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Visit Dollywood in the summer for thrilling rides and their Sweet Summer Nights multi-sensory drone light show.
Fall is a wonderful time to hike any of the many trails and enjoy the Autumn colors. Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome are great places to hike and experience the beautiful fall colors.
You should definitely take a scenic drive if you visit during the Fall. My favorite drive to see the gorgeous colors of the trees is the Cades Cove Loop Road. You can catch early fall colors along the Newfound Gap Road.
Don’t think there is little to do during the winter months in the Great Smoky Mountains because you would be mistaken.
Winterfest takes place each year beginning mid-November until February. Pigeon Forge is transformed into a magical Winter Wonderland with more than five million holiday lights in magnificent displays.
Dollywood during the Christmas season is spectacular. It’s like being inside of a Hallmark Christmas movie, magical.
The dinner theatre places in the Pigeon Forge and Sevierville areas host spectacular shows with seasonal themes you will enjoy.
Where to stay
There are no motels or cabins located within the park with the exception of Le Conte Lodge. You can camp, rent a cabin, stay in a hotel or motel or even stay at a B&B outside of the park, in the area.
Popular places include Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure trove of wonders and a visit belongs on everyone’s Bucket list. Plan your trip today.
More Places To Visit in the Southeast
- 9 Great Places To Spend Christmas In The South
- 8 Historic North Carolina Lighthouses You Can Visit
- 7 Things in Jonesborough Tennessee To See and Do
- 21 Fun Things To Do at Myrtle Beach South Carolina
- 10 Haunted Places In Virginia To Visit If You Dare