With over 522,000 acres across North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has something for every type of vacationer. Some 850 miles of trails are waiting to be explored by hikers. Campers can choose from road-accessible RV sites or campgrounds only reachable on foot. History enthusiasts will love the preserved pioneer communities.
Millions of visitors each year flock to the park for the views alone. Whether it’s brilliant wildflowers in summer, vibrant leaves in fall, or wandering wildlife, there’s always something to see. It’s no wonder the Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular national park in the U.S.
Take in the beauty of nature
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of beautiful plants and wildlife. No matter where you go, there’s something to see. Visitors flock to the mountains in the fall to see the gorgeous leaves change colors. In spring and summer, over 1,500 types of flowering plants bloom across the park. You can explore hundreds of waterfalls and grottos. Thousands of animals call the Great Smoky Mountains home, including black bears, coyotes, salamanders, elk, and bobcats. In September or October, the monarch butterfly migration passes through the park. No matter what you want to see, you’ll be able to find something along the trails.
Take a guided hiking tour
A guided hike is perfect for anyone who loves hiking and wants to learn more about the area. Experts guide visitors through a variety of hikes, including backpacking trips, day tours, canoeing, wildlife, and historical adventures. There’s an option for everyone regardless of skill level. They’re perfect whether you have specific things you want to see during your trip or if you aren’t sure where to start. The tour guides know the best routes and will educate you along the way.
Tubing through the Great Smoky Mountains is a wonderful way to relax and take in the sights. Some areas have concession stands that rent out tubes and others allow you to bring your own. You simply throw it in the water, get comfortable on it, and let yourself float away. If you’re looking for something more adventurous, the Deep Creek tubing area is split up by difficulty, and the section through Deep Creek Gorge is a whitewater run. Other tubing spots are the Oconaluftee River in Cherokee, North Carolina, and Little River in Townsend, Tennessee.
Catch the view from the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway
The Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway runs next to the Great Smoky Mountains and provides a stunning view. It begins in Gatlinburg and takes guests the 2.1 miles to the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski slopes. Each of their two cars carries 120 passengers and the ride is about 10 minutes long. The tramway starts at 1,341 feet elevation and ends at 2,813, giving a fantastic view of the surrounding land. If you appreciate the beauty of autumn leaves, there’s no better way to take them in. All that plus an amusement park!
Explore the Appalachian Trail
The full Appalachian Trail is one of the longest hiking treks in the world at 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Seventy-one miles are included in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It takes about seven days to hike the whole way. It’s split up into smaller chunks, though, for visitors that want to experience some of it. Besides the length, it’s a relatively easy trek. There are campsites and shelters along the way if you want to go multi-day. Even without the history of it being the Appalachian Trail, the plants and wildlife along it are a sight to be seen.
Hike to Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the highest point of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the state of Tennessee. It’s a seven-mile hike to the spaceship-like observation tower at the top of the 6,643-foot peak. The tower was built in 1959 to give visitors a 360-degree view of the area during a country-wide project to improve national parks. On a clear day, the view is nearly 100 miles. Typically, though, the Great Smoky Mountains live up to their name and have a 20-mile view through the fog. With good weather, visitors can see seven states from Clingmans Dome: Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. While it’s a long hike, it’s one of the easiest with its paved pathways.
Take a swim in Midnight Hole
There are plenty of swimming spots in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but Midnight Hole is one of the prettiest. It’s part of Big Creek and is a 1.5-mile hike from Big Creek Campground. You’ll walk beside the aforementioned creek along the way, and if you head past Midnight Hole a bit you can see the 41-foot Mouse Creek Falls. The natural pool is crystal clear and surrounded by boulders that you’ll likely see kids (and maybe some adults) jumping from. Midnight Hole stays pretty busy as the whole family can enjoy it. The water is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of the weather, so it’s especially popular in the summer.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of historical sites, one being the pioneer community of Cataloochee. It was settled in the early 1800s and was a thriving town through the 1930s. The park conserved many of the community buildings, like the Palmer Chapel and Caldwell Place. If you love history, you’ll want to see Cataloochee and the other pioneer settlements in the park. Your entire trip can be spent in Cataloochee alone since there’s a campground and trails there. In 2001, the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the area after 150 years without them. They’re now a common sight in the evenings.
Drive through Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a historic farming community settled in the early 1800s. An 11-mile road called Cades Cove Loop Road winds through it and has several points where you can stop to learn more about the history. This scenic drive photo tour is an awesome way to see the area, especially if hiking isn’t really for you. Cades Cove includes several churches, log cabins, and a grist mill. The final site on the one-way road is the 18-foot Abrams Falls and trailhead.
Stay in a historic cabin
LeConte Lodge is the only lodging in the park, but it’s not your typical resort. The only way to get there is by hiking one of the five trails that leads to it. The resort is a collection of rustic cabins, and none of them have electricity or running water. The list of amenities is probably not what you’re expecting: Kerosene lanterns, a washbasin and bucket, table and chair, and rocking chairs on the covered porch. Meals are served in the lodge dining room that is exclusively stocked by llama train. It’s truly a way to disconnect from the present and live in the past for a while.