Can you imagine a place that houses beautiful mountains, lush forests, flowing streams, magical waterfalls, colorful wildflowers, and abundant wildlife? The Great Smoky Mountains, a forested mountain range spilling over the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, has all this and more.
Protected by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the area has many diverse regions to explore. We will cover what you need to know and outline the top places to go so you can make the most of your outdoor adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains
Why are they smoky mountains, then? Thick fog often lingers in the forested ridges, embuing them with a smoky, alluring aura.
Some shorten the name to “The Smoky Mountains.” Others affectionately refer to them as “the Smokies.” No matter what you call them, everyone can agree that the mountains are beautiful.
The Great Smoky Mountains may not have the tallest trees, but their woodlands will immerse you all the same.
The mountain range is next to three national forests:
- Cherokee National Forest
- Pisgah National Forest
- Nantahala National Forest
This is a secret playground for those who want to get lost in the woods.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than a half-million acres with a pretty even distribution between the two states. Sixteen mountain peaks surpass 6,000 feet, with Clingmans Dome being the highest at 6,643 feet.
It is number one by a landslide. In 2021, Great Smoky Mountains National Park received more than three times the number of visitors at Grand Canyon National Park, the fourth most visited park.
Best Places to Visit
1. Visitor Centers
The national park has four visitor centers. Stop at a visitor center first to obtain information about current conditions and ideas for your adventures when going to the park. The four visitor centers are:
- Sugarlands Visitor Center: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
- Cades Cove Visitor Center: Townsend, Tennessee
- Oconaluftee Visitor Center: Cherokee, North Carolina
- Clingmans Dome Visitor Contact Station: Cherokee, North Carolina
2. Historic Gristmills
The park has two historic gristmills. Cable Mill is a water-powered gristmill located in Cades Cove. Mingus Mill, near Oconaluftee, is turbine powered. Here you can learn about grinding grain products.
3. Cades Cove
Cades Cove is among the most popular spots in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is a vast, lush valley surrounded by mountains. Visitors regularly see white-tailed deer. You may spot black bears, coyotes, and other wildlife.
Some of the park’s most beloved hiking trails start in Cades Cove, including:
- Abrams Falls
- Cades Cove Nature Trail
- Thunderhead Mountain
- Rocky Top
Cades Cove Campground is open year-round. It has more than 150 sites and can accommodate tents and RVs up to 35 feet.
Nestled between high mountain peaks, Cataloochee houses historic late 19th-century and early 20th-century frame buildings. Preserved buildings include two churches, a school, and several homes.
In the early mornings and late evenings, visitors regularly spot elk. You can find hiking trails and a primitive campground in the valley. Or, you can go trout fishing in Cataloochee Creek.
5. Deep Creek
The Deep Creek area is known for hiking and mountain biking. Several loop trails lead to beautiful waterfalls. Deep Creek has a picnic area that is open year-round.
Archaeological evidence shows humans inhabited Elkmont 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. Elkmont is an exciting study of how a place can change over time.
In the 19th century, Elkmont was a farming town. It became a logging site in the early 20th century and later a resort community.
The National Park Service is working to restore 19 buildings in Elkmont. A few cabins are open to the public. Preservation efforts continue on the other buildings.
7. Clingmans Dome
If you are willing to complete a steep half-mile trek, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains has an observation tower with a rewarding view in all directions. Temperatures on Clingmans Dome are typically ten to twenty degrees cooler than the valley below. The road to the dome trail is usually closed from December to late March for safety reasons.
8. Fontana Dam
The Fontana Dam, 480 feet, is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains. It is near Fontana Village, North Carolina, on the Little Tennessee River.
The dam formed Fontana Lake, which offers fishing, boating, and access to remote sections of the park like Eagle Creek and Hazel Creek. You can enjoy nearly 240 miles of beautiful shoreline.
9. Mountain Farm Museum
Would you like to see how families lived a century ago? The Mountain Farm Museum is a group of farm buildings built in the late 19th century.
You can explore:
- Working blacksmith shop
After visiting the farm museum, you can hike either Oconaluftee River Trail or the Mingus Creek Trail.
10. Newfound Gap
Do you enjoy scenic drives? Newfound Gap Road connects Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, leading you through various forest ecosystems.
The Newfound Gap has an elevation of 5,046 feet. It is the lowest drivable pass through the Great Smoky Mountains.
You can start at either Cherokee or Gatlinburg. You will climb about 3,000 feet as you drive to reach the top.
The Newfound Gap is nearly a mile high. You will find it noticeably colder than where you started the drive. It frequently snows at the gap.
11. Roaring Fork
Named after an extensive, swift-flowing stream, Roaring Fork offers a few points of interest. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5-mile one-way loop road that takes you along the old-growth forest, streams, and historic buildings.
Roaring Fork is great if you enjoy trails that lead to waterfalls. You can hike to:
- Rainbow Falls
- Grotto Falls
- Place of a Thousand Drips
If you prefer remote regions that are less crowded, go to Cosby. You will find a campground, picnic area, and hiking trails with amazing views.
Popular day hikes include Hen Wallow Falls and Sutton Ridge Overlook. If you seek a challenge, hike to Mount Cammerer Fire Tower or try the strenuous 13-mile Low Gap Trail to the Appalachian Trail and then to the Snake Den Trail Loop.
Famous for its spring wildflowers, Greenbrier offers fishing, casual hikes, and picnicking. The wildflowers typically bloom from March to mid-April.
You can view beautiful wildflowers from your car at Ramsey Cascades trailhead. Porters Creek Trail takes you along the wildflowers for a relaxing, peaceful walk.
14. Laurel Falls
Named for an evergreen shrub that grows nearby, Laurel Falls is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 80-foot waterfall has upper and lower sections. You can obtain a breathtaking view on the walkway at the base of the upper falls.
There are a couple of essential things to note about Laurel Falls. The destination is often crowded and offers little parking. It is most busy on weekends year-round and every day during the summer tourist season.
Black bears are commonly active here. Properly dispose of trash and do not feed wildlife.
15. Chimney Tops
Chimney Tops is a steep climb with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet and a gorgeous but strenuous wooded trail. Experienced hikers love the Chimney Tops Trail for its spectacular views.
Unfortunately, the final 0.25-mile trail section is closed due to fire damage. So, the summit is not currently accessible. You can monitor the Great Smoky Mountains National Park site for updates.
Where to Stay
The national park offers many options for frontcountry and backcountry camping. Cades Cove and Smokemont Campgrounds are open year-round, while all others operate seasonally.
You will need a reservation and a permit for backcountry camping.
If you are not into camping, the communities along the Great Smoky Mountains offer accommodations, including hotels and cabins. Many visitors feel that a cabin makes for a more authentic outdoor adventure.
Here are the area communities for each state.
- Bryson City
- Graham County
- Haywood County
- Maggie Valley
- Pigeon Forge
Other Things To Do
Gatlinburg has shops, restaurants, mini golf, go-kart tracks, and many other tourist attractions if you seek entertainment besides the great outdoors. Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, a theme park with rides, shows, and entertainment. Or, you can play card games like poker and blackjack at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino Resort.
If you have not gotten your fill of nature, drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway up to Shenandoah National Park for more spectacular views.
Wrap-Up: Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains offer an unforgettable outdoor adventure with beautiful landscapes, history, and abundant wildlife. Whether you seek to relax or conquer a new challenge, the Smokies have something for you.
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We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.