A beginner’s guide to visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, covering the Tennessee-North Carolina border is filled with scenic views, roaming wildlife and Southern charm. The park proudly carries the title of the most-visited national park year after year. Its proximity and drivability from much of the Southeastern United States brings more than 11 million visitors each year while the second-most visited national park, the Grand Canyon, only pulls in around 6 million per year in recent years.
I am a proud East Tennessee native and grew up going to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. I hiked the park’s countless trails each summer so I’m excited to dive in and share with you the must-see, must-do attractions the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding area has to offer.
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What to see and do
There is truly something for everyone in the Great Smoky Mountains. Nature lovers can take advantage of numerous hiking trails, tubing opportunities down the Pigeon River, scenic drives and even a one-of-a-kind synchronous firefly festival. Those that prefer more of the touristy attractions can enjoy the day at Dollywood learning about Appalachia culture and riding some of the best roller coasters in the country, or explore all that Pigeon Forge has to offer in the form of mini-golf and moonshine tastings.
Clingmans Dome (1 mile round-trip) is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at 6,643 feet, with truly unbeatable views. The hike to the peak is only a half-mile from the Clingmans Dome parking area and it’s fully paved, but be warned — it’s very steep. It can also be pretty chilly at the top, often 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the park, so bring a jacket. The observation tower at the summit offers sweeping views of both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the national park.
Chimney Tops Trail (3.3 miles round-trip) felt the brunt of the destruction caused by the 2016 wildfires, but it’s been mostly restored since reopening in fall 2017. This trail continues to be one of the most popular in the park year after year. It’s a great option for more experienced hikers, as it’s a pretty short, steep trail that offers incredible panoramic views at the top.
Abrams Falls Trail (5.2 miles round-trip) is a fun, moderate trail that leads to a swimming hole and waterfall at the end — a perfect spot to take a dip and cool down a bit before hopping back on the trail.
Alum Cave Trail (4.4 miles round-trip) is my personal favorite, and one of the most scenic hikes in the Smokies. This trail offers some beautiful waterfalls and breathtaking views. Follow this trail to the top of Mount LeConte.
Laurel Falls (2.3 miles round-trip) is widely considered one of the best waterfall hikes in the Smokies. This trail is one of the easiest and most popular roundtrip hikes in the park leading to an 80-foot waterfall with incredible photo opportunities.
While I consider Laurel Falls to be pretty accommodating for any hiker, the park also has many kid-friendly hikes highlighted on its website, including Kephart Prong Trail and Porters Creek.
Gatlinburg SkyBridge: It’s home to the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America and the best views of the Smokies, hands down! There’s also a chairlift at the same location since the 1950s — a true staple in Gatlinburg!
Be sure to consult the National Park Service’s official website to make note of any alerts, trail closings or extreme conditions that might affect your hike.
Cades Cove Loop Road: This scenic 11-mile one-way loop road is perfect to experience the beauty and nature that the Great Smoky Mountains has to offer. The only thing needed to soak up these views is a car or bike and a little bit of patience, as the loop typically doesn’t move quickly (especially on high-traffic weekends such as summer and fall holidays). Get your cameras ready and expect to see lots of wildlife. On recent trips through the loop, I’ve seen bear cubs, deer and more. It’s worth noting that the road is closed to motor vehicle traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 a.m. throughout the summer to allow pedestrians and cyclists a chance to enjoy the loop.
“The Tail of the Dragon”: Well-known to motorcyclists and car enthusiasts alike, this 11-mile section of Route 129 is infamous for its twists and turns, featuring 318 curves in all. Needless to say, it’s not the best bet if you’re looking for a nice scenic drive, as this is frequented by experienced motorists and can get dangerous during high season.
Synchronous firefly festival
This annual event, unique to the Smoky Mountains, should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been able to snag tickets to this extraordinary display of some of nature’s most unusual creatures, but that doesn’t stop me from attempting each year. This natural occurrence takes place in late May or early June in the Elkmont area of the park. As you can imagine, the popularity of this event means availability to attend in person is limited. Visitors who would like to view the fireflies in person must enter a lottery for a parking pass to take the shuttle from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. More information can be found on the National Park Service’s website.
Tubing down rivers
Tubing (aka floating down the river in a raft) is a perfect and easy way to beat the summer heat in the Smokies, and there are two recommended areas on the Tennessee side of the park to do so: the Little Pigeon River in the Pigeon Forge area of town and the Little River in Townsend. Tubing is one of the best ways to take in the scenery, especially in late summer/early fall when the leaves begin to change. Make sure to confirm with the tubing rental company in advance that the water flow is good on the given day you select.
No trip to the Smoky Mountains is complete without a visit to the “eighth wonder of the world,” and my favorite theme park in the country: Dollywood. Dolly Parton opened the theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a short drive from the entrance to the national park, back in the late 1980s as a tribute to the Smoky Mountain culture that she calls home. It’s since become home to some of the most exciting roller coasters, mouth-watering Southern food and annual festivals that attract visitors from far and wide. Check out our full review of Dollywood including when to go and what to expect, and be sure to pencil it into your plans.
Shopping and entertainment
One of the newest additions to the Smoky Mountains area is a mountainside family-friendly adventure park called Anakeesta, right off the Parkway in Pigeon Forge. This destination offers everything from zip lines and scenic gondola rides to a treehouse village adventure and mountainside coaster.
The Island in Pigeon Forge is a newer development right off the Parkway (you can see the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel from miles away). The retail and entertainment center offers something for everyone, including multiple dining options (Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen, Margaritaville, Dick’s Last Resort and Yee-Haw Brewing Company — a personal favorite!) and retail vendors (toy stores, cigar shops, hand-blown glass gift gallery and more).
There’s never a shortage of entertainment opportunities in Gatlinburg. Stop by Ole Smoky Moonshine or Sugarlands Distilling Company for moonshine tastings. Schedule a game of mountainside mini-golf. Or spend a rainy day at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, featuring more than 10,000 exotic sea creatures. Also, be sure to check out our guide for 10 family-friendly activities in Gatlinburg.
Another great rainy day activity is to hit up the outlet stores at the Tanger Outlet Mall on the Parkway in Sevierville, featuring retailers like Disney, Eddie Bauer, J.Crew, Kate Spade and many others.
Just a short drive from the park, visitors can swing by Cherokee, North Carolina, for a visit to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, a Caesar’s property, for some gaming action at the biggest casino in the area.
Where to stay
Cabins: For the most authentic experience, I highly recommend a log cabin in the Smokies. There are thousands of cabins to choose from across Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Townsend and more. Be sure to consult our essential guide to renting a cabin in the Smoky Mountains for a list of my favorite cabin rental companies, as well as things to consider when booking a cabin in the area.
If you’re looking to get a little closer to mother nature, the Smokies offer several different options for camping. Make note that most of these areas within the park require reservations in advance.
Backcountry: All backcountry campgrounds in the park require hiking, as well as a permit and reservations.
Frontcountry: Camping closer to your vehicle in front-country campgrounds is available at 10 different spots throughout the park.
Group campgrounds: For groups of seven people or more there are multiple group campgrounds available. These also require advanced reservations.
Horse camps: A unique camping option includes five drive-in horse camps providing ready access to backcountry trails within the park.
Head to the national park’s official website for the map of designated camping locations throughout the park.
Arguably the most luxurious accommodations one can experience in the Smoky Mountains, Blackberry Farm, on the Tennessee side of the park in Walland, gives “Southern hospitality” a whole new meaning. Blackberry Farm resort is a James Beard and Southern Living award winner year after year, and for good reason. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more impeccable combination of hospitality, amenities, cuisine, craft brews and wines from around the world. Don’t believe us? Check out its impressive list of accolades and start saving for your next getaway. A visit to Blackberry Farm is one you won’t soon forget.
Dancing Bear Lodge
In Townsend, Tennessee, also known as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” Dancing Bear Lodge is another award-winning resort offering rustic cabins, scenic views and an elevated experience.
The aptly named LeConte Lodge sits atop Mount LeConte, the third tallest peak in the park, and is one of the most distinctive lodging experiences in the Smokies. The only way to get to the lodge is to hike up the mountain via the Alum Cave Trail, which is about a four-hour hike for experienced hikers. If you’re looking for a more luxurious experience, this likely isn’t it. The lodge is truly back-to-basics. There is no electricity or plumbing, however, there are four flush toilets in outhouses. While the lodge is not points and miles-friendly (no credit cards accepted — eek!), the service more than makes up for it. One of my close friends, a new mom, visited the lodge with some friends on a girls trip and the staff graciously offered to store her breast milk for her — a move that made her a loyal fan for life! With some of the most incredible views in all of the national park, it’s important to note that reservations are difficult to come by and must be made in October of the previous year.
Asheville, North Carolina
While I’m biased to the Tennessee side of the park, there are a ton of incredible options just over the border in North Carolina as well. Consider a stay in Asheville at the Omni Grove Park Inn — a personal favorite filled with mountain views and Southern charm (and an incredible spa and golf course to boot!)
Where to eat
Whether it’s shrimp and grits, fried chicken or biscuits and gravy, Southern comfort food fills the senses and just hits differently. There’s no better place in the U.S. to find authentic Southern cuisine than at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Take note of my favorite spots to feast near the park, but also make sure to swing by a grocery store to pick up picnic fare to pack for your day in the park.
There is no shortage of dining options in Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Pigeon Forge with everything from delicious donut shops, Mexican cantinas, family-owned eateries and lots more! Here are my favorites:
This area is known for having a multitude of pancake houses, and it will seem like there’s one on every block, but the most iconic is the Pancake Pantry located on the strip in Gatlinburg. Lines frequently stretch out the door here, so I suggest arriving early and coming hungry.
The Peddler is a rustic, riverfront steakhouse right at the entrance to the park in Gatlinburg and known for its quality and tradition in the area. The restaurant has been around for decades and promises a quality experience for every single patron.
The Apple Barn & Cider Mill, right off the Parkway in Sevierville, is a great stop for multi-generational visitors. I have memories of visiting here with my mom and grandmother when I was much younger, eating mouth-watering apple fritters and stocking up on its delicious jams and kinds of butter. It’s a must-visit spot for any out-of-towners.
If there are beer connoisseurs in your group, head over the North Carolina border to Asheville. The city boasts more breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S., including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Oskar Blues and more than 40 others.
If you’re looking for a unique, kitschy experience check out one of the dinner shows that lines the parkway in Pigeon Forge for a truly entertaining and one-of-a-kind dining experience. Dolly Parton’s Stampede and the Hatfield & McCoy shows are both unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the U.S., packed full of cowboys, bluegrass music, corn on the cob and more!
How to get there
The closest airports to the Smokies are McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville on the Tennessee side of the park and Asheville Regional Airport in North Carolina. McGhee Tyson is about 30 minutes to an hour’s drive away from the park, depending on where you want to enter. Knoxville is at the crossroads of two major interstates – I40 and I75, which makes it an easy drive from many major cities in the Eastern U.S. The Asheville airport is about an hour’s drive away from the park and will bring you in on the east side near Maggie Valley and Cataloochee.
The Smokies are very car-friendly and fairly easy to navigate by automobile. With plenty of car rental options at the airports and around town, renting a car is probably your best bet.
As mentioned above, the area is also a hot destination for motorcyclists, with scenic views around each turn of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Be sure to do your research in advance for any restrictions on where you can or can’t ride.
The city of Gatlinburg offers trolley service that will pick you up or drop you off at more than 100 different locations around the area, including Dollywood and the national park itself. Costs, routes and hours vary, so check its website in advance to help plan your trip.
When to visit
While fall is peak season for the Smokies (October typically sees the highest visitation on average each year due to the beautiful fall foliage), there’s really not a bad time to visit. June through October are the busiest times, with January and February being the slowest. The area experiences pretty mild winters for the most part, so even planning a trip in November or December would be a great time to take in the sights, and likely find discounted accommodations. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas also have a lot to offer in the winter including the annual Winterfest light festival, Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas and more! Just keep in mind that some trails and roads might be closed from November to March, so be sure to do your research in advance on the national park’s official website.
While I may be a little biased as a Tennessee native, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is somewhere everyone should experience at least once. The truth is there is so much to do and see in the Great Smoky Mountains that we couldn’t possibly cover everything here. You’ll inevitably find your own favorite off-the-grid trail, scenic overlook, moonshine distiller or pancake eatery that we haven’t covered, and when you do, come back here and share it with us so we can add it to our list!
As the most visited national park in the country, it’s no secret how much the park and surrounding areas has to offer — whether it’s a family reunion, summer vacation, bachelorette party, destination wedding or just a trip with the guys, the Smokies has something for everyone and they’ll have a big ol’ glass of sweet tea waiting for ya.
Featured image by Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto/Getty Images
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