Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the is the most visited national park in the country and a true monument to the beauty of the Appalachians.
Established in the depths of the Great Depression by generous local communities, wealthy philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller Jr., and the U.S. government, this pristine area was spared from further logging and development and is now a premiere outdoor destination belonging to all Americans.
Here in the Great Smoky Mountains are the last remains of the ancient forests that once dominated the Eastern United States.
Explore its clear creeks, old forests, mountain views, and abundant wildlife, and discover for yourself why it’s America’s most visited national park.
About Our Travels to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I visited Great Smoky Mountains back in 2014 with my brother Will to make what would become our film on the park – it’s vast forests, awe-inspiring wildlife, spectacular fall color, and misty mountain charm has had me coming back for years.
The fall color in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is quite possibly the best of all the national parks.
We spent several weeks in the park visiting all of the main attractions and filming them to bring you the best things to do and see in the park.
This vast and beautiful park is like no other and I’m happy to share the best things to do there with you.
Things to Know Before You Visit Great Smoky Mountains
None! But, if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be purchased at any national park) and gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Cell Service is not bad in the park, but as you get away from more developed areas around mountains and narrow gorges you’ll lose it.
Best Guide Book is this one which can help you plan on the fly once you’ve embarked on your roadtrip.
The best map for Great Smoky Mountains is without a doubt this one by National Geographic.
Getting to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The park is conveniently located around the mountain tourist town of Gatlinburg, TN, which is just south of the larger tourist town of Pigeon Forge.
You can fly in to McGhee Tyson Airport (Knoxville, TN) on most domestic airlines, from there you can rent a car and make your way into the park which is a little more than an hour away.
Don’t feed or approach wildlife!
Seriously, there have been problems here with visitors feeding or approaching wildlife that have resulted in serious, even fatal incidents. And in many cases the animals involved have to be euthanized.
Be prepared for crowds.
It is the most visited national park in the country after all. Thankfully, owing to the layout of the park, we’re not talking about Yosemite or Zion level crowds. But in the summer this park is bursting at the seams with tourists and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a campsite or empty parking space (particularly in the Cades Cove area).
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the fall. With the hectic and cramped summer season over and kids back in school visitation to the park tapers off and access becomes much easier. The fall also provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities and some of the best fall foliage found anywhere in the world.
Where to Stay at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Planning a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Here’s our favorite hotel to stay in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1. Ascend Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park & Tennessee.
The observation tower at Clingmans Dome provides sweeping views of the park along with the surrounding mountains and lakes.
On clear days you can see over 100 miles in any direction. This highest peak in the park is easy to access for visitors of all ages and abilities and a must for any visit.
You can drive to the Clingmans Dome parking lot and take in spectacular views from there, but if you want to go to the observation tower you’ll have to walk a little further.
The walk is short and paved, but it is up a steep incline and may take some people a longer amount of time. The views are well worth it.
2. Soak in the Views at Newfound Gap Overlook
This overlook and mountain pass is a must-see in the park. Here you can look out on the majestic Smoky Mountains and see what makes this area so beautiful.
In the fall this overlook is a feast for the eyes with brilliant, kaleidoscopic reds, yellows, and oranges nearly everywhere you look.
This is a popular overlook right off of the road and may not have parking available at times.
Make sure to safely pull your car off the road and watch for oncoming cars.
3. Drive through Cades Cove
This beautiful misty mountain valley is perhaps the most popular spot in the park with its historic cabins, abundant wildlife, including black bears.
In the summer and fall cars line up, sometimes by the hundreds, to enter this loop road and glimpse a black bear, or just to take in the spectacular scenery that makes the Smoky Mountains so unique.
The park service opens the road at sunrise so keep that in mind. Every Wednesday from June 17th to September 30th are car-free days in Cades Cove where you can hike or bike your way through the area free of traffic and noise.
4. Tour Mingus Mill
The historic Mingus Mill was built in 1886 and continues to churn to this day. The historic structure provides for beautiful photo opportunities, especially in the fall.
Step inside the mill and learn about the mill’s operations from a National Park Service interpreter.
Not only is this a beautiful historic mill, but it’s an operating grist mill and you can go inside and see how it works. In the winter you might notice smoke coiling out of the old mill as the there is a wood fire crackling inside.
5. Visit Cataloochee
Far from the hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg and the tourists you’ll find this peaceful mountain valley. Known as Cataloochee, the valley was formerly home to a small mountain community before the park was established.
Now you can explore the remaining historic homes and buildings and take in the peaceful mountain charm that once made this an ideal place to settle.
There is also a herd of elk that can be commonly seen grazing the pastures of the valley. You can also spot wild turkeys and a number of other interesting wildlife in this quiet corner of the park.
Cataloochee is accessed via narrow, steep, gravel road that may not be suitable for some types of vehicles.
6. See Fontana Lake
Fontana Lake marks the southern end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and dips into Nantahala National Forest.
The lake is a great spot for a picnic lunch away from the crowds in the busy parts of the park, or quiet walk.
The drive to the lake from the main part of the park is very scenic, especially in the fall.
The lake is a good distance away from most other points of interest in the park so you’ll want to keep that in mind when planning your trip.
7. Hike the Appalachian Trail
As Route 66 is often called “the mother road” for it’s iconic status among scenic roads, the Appalachian Trail could likewise be called the mother trail for its similar status among hiking trails.
Completed in 1937, this legendary trail stretches some 2,200 uninterrupted miles from the mountains of north Georgia to the heart of Maine, passing through 14 states in all.
The Appalachian Trail cuts through the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and there are many opportunities to hop on the storied trail in the park, even for a short walk.
Clingmans Dome provides one of the easiest opportunities to hike a stretch of the AT.
8. Check out the Ocanaluftee Mountain Farm Museum
At the south entrance of the park you’ll find the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center. Adjacent to the visitor center is a walking trail along the Ocanaluftee River that takes visitors through the Mountain Farm Museum.
The museum is actually a cluster of preserved historical pioneer buildings including a blacksmiths shop, a cabin, barn, and others.
Here you can walk through the history of the area, exploring old buildings and learning about the pioneer way of life while the scenic Ocanaluftee River rushes along just behind the treeline.
This is also a great spot to see some of the park’s elk.
They’ve been known to congregate in this area in the early morning, particularly in the fall.
9. View the Majestic Elk
A lot of people don’t realize that you don’t have to head out west to see elk! That’s right, elk are native to the woodlands of the Eastern United States and were largely extirpated in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
But thanks to the National Park Service these magnificent mammals are once again roaming the forests and meadows of places like the Great Smoky Mountains and are a delight to see.
Early morning is the best time to see the elk.
I’d recommend calling the park and asking a ranger where you might have the best odds of safely viewing them depending on the time of year you’re going.
10. Tour the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5 mile one way loop through a beautiful section of forest dotted with historic buildings.
Along the way you’ll pass cascading streams, a historic grist mill, and plenty of serene nature.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail offers the ability to slow down off of the main roads and enjoy the beauty of this area from your car.
There are also a number of hiking trails along the road taking visitors to scenic waterfalls.
11. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
That’s right, the famed Blue Ridge Parkway begins in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Why not hit the parkway when you’re done visiting the Smokies and wind your way al the way up to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
No matter what your plans are, I recommend hopping on the Blue Ridge Parkway for at least a few miles and enjoying the scenery – it’s especially beautiful in the fall.
12. Hike by Deep Creek
The Deep Creek area offers numerous hiking trails following streams and offering views of several of the region’s many waterfalls.
Bicycles are allowed on portions of Deep Creek and Indian Creek trail and there’s a campground that is open seasonally from April to late October.
Hiking is relatively easy in the Deep Creek area and suitable for most visitors. Don’t forget to grab your Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license and try your hand here!
13. Hike to Andrews Bald
Named for an 1840’s cattleman who grazed his cattle high up here, Andrews Bald is a grassy ridge top offering spectacular views of the surrounding area.
To get there you’ll take Forney Ridge Trail from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot.
From there you’ll descend for about a mile before ascending for the last half mile to reach Andrews Bald. In all the trail is 1.8 miles one-way.
I wouldn’t recommend this trail for those who aren’t prepared for a little huffing and puffing as you’ll traverse 1200 feet of elevation change and the way back can be a bit steep. I’d rate the trail’s difficulty as moderate.
14. See the Chimney Tops
Think the Angels Landing of the eastern United States.
Chimney Tops is one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and has attained Angels Landing-like status as a must-do hike in the park.
Is it a must-do, and for that matter is Angels Landing?
No, especially not with the crowds, but if you come in the offseason it’s worth checking out if you’re up for a challenge.
The trail ascends more than 1400 feet in the span of 2 miles and culminates in some rock-scrambling as you reach the summit.
From there you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the surrounding hills and mountains as you raise your hands to the sky in exaltation.
15. Take Part in Some Wildlife Viewing
Apart from elk, the park is home to black bears, foxes, white-tailed deer, river otters, turkeys, and abundant bird species.
Meadows and open areas are great places to spot deer and elk, while forests are home to black bears.
For most wildlife your best chance to see them is around sunrise and sunset. Remember, don’t feed the animals!
Summary of the Top 10 Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Clingmans Dome
- Newfound Gap Overlook
- Cades Cove
- Mingus Mill
- Fontana Lake
- Appalachian Trail
- Ocanaluftee Mountain Farm Museum
- View Elk
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Blue Ridge Parkway
- Deep Creek
- Andrews Bald
- Chimney Tops
- Wildlife Viewing
Map of Things to Do at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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