Dramatically rising along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park.
Reaching towering heights of almost 7000 feet, these historic mountains are home to cascading waterfalls, deciduous forests, and over 800 miles of hiking trails.
With an abundance of activities on offer, this incredible destination is a must-visit for all outdoor enthusiasts. To help you plan an itinerary for your next trip, we take a look at the 30 best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
1. Climb Clingmans Dome
Standing at 6643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. Situated along the state-line ridge, it stands half in North Carolina and half in Tennessee.
One of the most accessible peaks in the park, there are a number of relatively easy hikes that will lead you to the base of the mountain. The half-mile-long path to the top is considerably steeper, but it is worth the climb!
At the summit, an observation tower offers 360-degree views across 7 different states. On a clear sunny day, the views up here can reach a distance of up to 100 miles.
Often shrouded in clouds, the summit can be considerably cooler than the lower valley so be sure to pack a warm jacket, even on a sunny day. As the peak is so high, fog, wind, and rain can be a common occurrence!
2. Explore Cades Cove
Cades Cove is one of the most visited destinations in the Smokies. An isolated valley, surrounded by mountains, this peaceful region is known for its breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife, and a large collection of historic buildings.
Although you can hike in the valley, one of the best ways to explore the area is by car. An 11-mile, one-way road loops through the cove, with plenty of opportunities to stop and explore along the way.
Winding through mountain landscapes and wildflower meadows, this scenic driving tour takes around 2- 4 hours to complete – depending on how many times you stop!
In addition to the beautiful scenery en-route, Cades Cove is also one of the best places in the Great Smoky Mountains to spot wildlife. Deer, black bears, coyotes, raccoons, and skunks are just a small selection of the unique animals that inhabit the valley.
3. Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad
The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is based in Bryson City, just minutes from the national park. One of America’s heritage railways, this historic rail line operates passenger excursions through the countryside of North Carolina.
Traveling on traditional restored engines, passengers will be taken on a picturesque journey through mountains and valleys, passing by rushing rivers and a canvas of seasonal colors.
There are two journey options available: the Nantahala Gorge Excursion and the Tuckasegee River Excursion, which stops in the historic town of Dillsboro. A round trip will last around 4 hours, depending on which route you choose.
In addition to their weekly excursions, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad also hosts a number of special seasonal events, including a magical Polar Express-themed journey at Christmas!
4. Head on a hiking adventure
Hiking is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. The park is home to 150 different hiking trails. Whether you prefer a gentle ramble or an uphill challenge, hiking is the only way to experience the true magic of the mountains.
Trails range from moderate to challenging, and can take anything from half an hour to a week to complete! No matter which direction you choose, every path in the park’s extensive trail network will take you on an unforgettable journey, uncovering all of the natural wonders hidden within the mountains.
If you are just visiting for the day, one of the most popular hikes is Charlies Bunion. An 8-mile round trip, this trail covers some of the best viewpoints in the park.
Alternatively, Andrew’s Bald is a great choice for walkers looking for a moderate challenge. Despite its initial rocky and rugged terrain, the peak of this “bald” mountain is covered with acres of grass, wildflowers, and laurel. A great spot for photography, picnics, and birdwatching!
5. Feel the spray of a waterfall
There are over 2000 miles of rivers and streams running through the Great Smoky Mountains, resulting in more than 100 waterfalls scattered throughout the park.
Follow any hiking trail and you are more than likely to discover a number of beautiful cascades hidden along the way. However, there are 4 specific waterfalls that top every visitor’s bucket list.
The “Famous Four” is a quartet of iconic waterfalls – Abrams, Laurel, Grotto, and Rainbow Falls. All featuring something completely unique, these famous waterfalls are all absolutely breathtaking.
Although some of the hikes to these hidden gems can be steep, the view at the end is definitely worth the effort!
6. Conquer Mount LeConte
One of the most iconic mountains in Tennessee, Mount LeConte has the third highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
LeConte may stand at 6,593 ft tall, but you don’t have to be a professional hiker to conquer this mountain. There are 5 different trails that lead to the summit, all varying in length and difficulty.
Although the hike can be challenging at times, once you reach the top, you will be rewarded with some of the most scenic views imaginable.
At the summit of the mountain, you will also find LeConte Lodge. Open from March through November, this rustic 1920s guest lodge offers lunch and refreshments to day hikers – perfect for re-energizing before your return trip!
7. Track wildlife
Home to an enormous population of protected wildlife, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the ideal destination for animal enthusiasts.
There are more than 200 varieties of birds living in the mountains, and over 65 species of mammals. The most common sighting is the black bear – there are over 1500 residing in the park!
Most of the wildlife here lives deep within the trees, however, the park’s dense forest can make spotting it quite challenging. If you’re following a trail, remember to look up – many of the animals tend to spend their day high in the branches! Smaller critters such as squirrels, chipmunks, and bats are usually amongst the easiest to spot.
Open areas, such as Cades Cove and the Cataloochee Valley, offer some of the best opportunities to see larger mammals such as white-tailed deer, elk, black bears, and raccoons. As the majority of the park’s wildlife is most active at night, the best time for a sighting here is during the morning, or late in the evening.
As these animals are wild, it is essential that you don’t disturb or approach them during your visit. To ensure the well-being of both you and the wildlife, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the park’s safety guidelines before you set off.
8. Cast a line
Home to 4 rivers and over 67 species of fish, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most diverse fishing habitats in the world. There are around 2900 miles of streams within the park boundaries, 800 miles of which offer huge populations of brook, brown, and rainbow trout.
No matter what your ability, the opportunities for fishing in the Great Smokies are endless. From remote mountain creeks to large cool water streams, the park offers a variety of different angling experiences.
Fishing is permitted all year round, from sunrise to sunset. As long as you have a license, you can fish in any one of the park’s many streams, rivers, and lakes. Just be sure to check the restrictions and regulations before you head out on the water.
If you’re not sure where to start, just stop by a visitor center. You will be able to pick up a map of all of the park water, and the staff will be more than happy to suggest the ideal destination to suit your requirements!
9. Tackle the Alum Cave trail
The Alum Cave trail is one of the 5 trails that lead to Mount LeConte. Although it is the shortest route to the summit, it is also the steepest!
Arguably the most popular hike in the Smokies, this scenic trail features some of the most varied terrain and scenery you will find in the mountains.
Ranging from easy woodland walks to more challenging rocky climbs, the Alum Cave Trail is often considered to be more of an adventure than a hike!
Despite its challenges, this steep trail is packed with rich history, unique features, and interesting geological formations along the way. During your hike, you will also pass by many notable landmarks including Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, the Duck Hawk Peaks, and the Alum Cave Bluff.
The Bluff is the final destination along the trail for many hikers, however, if you want to continue towards the mountain summit – it is definitely worth it.
Unlike the other routes to Mount LeConte, this trail isn’t surrounded by dense forest and so benefits from some of the most outstanding views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
10. Rent a cozy cabin
If you’re staying overnight, one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains is to rent a private cabin.
Private lodgings are the preferred choice of accommodation for most guests in the Great Smoky Mountains. Much cozier than a hotel, private cabins offer all of the comforts and convenience of your own home.
Ideally located, all of our cabin rentals in the Great Smoky Mountains offer a great sense of solitude and seclusion, despite being only a short distance from the local amenities.
Whether you’re hidden in a valley, or high on a hillside, staying in a private cabin is the perfect way to experience a real taste of authentic mountain life.
11. Take a roadtrip
As the Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over half a million acres, taking an auto tour is one of the easiest ways to ensure you see as much as possible during your trip!
There are a number of designated routes within the park boundaries that visitors can explore by car. Each tour offers a variety of different scenery, wildlife, and viewpoints. There will be plenty of places to stop during your journey, and you will also find a number of information points, hiking trails, and picnic areas along the way.
There are self-guided tour books available for the most popular auto tours in the Smokies. Keyed to numbered posts or landmarks, these booklets are full of information on the park’s history, wildlife, and plants. All guide books are available from dispensers at the start of each tour.
If you’re traveling in peak season, the auto tour routes can get quite busy, so it is a good idea to set off as early as possible to avoid congestion.
12. Float downstream
During summer, river tubing is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Floating downstream is the perfect way to escape the heat and avoid the crowds.
Although watersports are not recommended in most parts of the national park, the Deep Creek area has a mile-stretch set aside specifically for river-tubing.
Depending on whether you are looking for a wild ride or an easy float, the Deep Creek tubing run has been separated into two sections, divided by difficulty.
The upper section of the creek is much narrower and offers the most thrilling experience. With more white water, tubing here can get pretty bouncy! As the water can be swift, this section is only really suitable for adults and stronger swimmers.
If you’re looking for something a bit more relaxing, the lower section of the creek is much wider and calmer – ideal for kids and less adventurous adults.
You can bring your own tube if you prefer, but you will also find plenty of tube rental concessions nearby. As this sport is weather-dependent, most tubing companies operate from late May through September.
13. Take the Appalachian Trail
Approximately 2178 miles long, the Appalachian Trail is the most famous hiking trail in America. Spanning 14 states, this iconic path passes through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for more than 71 miles.
The Appalachian Trail enters the park at Fontana Dam and exits at Davenport Gap, passing by some of the park’s most famous destinations en-route. To help you navigate, you will find white paint marks all the way along the trail, as well as blue paint marks to identify side trails and paths to shelters.
It takes an average of seven days to complete the full trail through the park, but if you want to half the distance, you can start your hike at the Newfound Gap or Clingman’s Dome.
If you do decide to go the distance, there are designated campsites and shelters specifically for AP hikers along the way, but you will need to arrange permits and reservations in advance.
If camping isn’t for you, you could always rent a private cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains. At least this way you are guaranteed a good night’s sleep before you conquer the rest of the trail!
14. See the world-famous Synchronous fireflies
There are over 19 different species of fireflies living within the Great Smoky Mountains, but the Synchronous fireflies are perhaps the most unique.
During spring each year, these fireflies put on a magnificent mating display, using flashing lights to communicate. As they take to the sky, the fireflies synchronize their flashes, creating an incredible pattern of glowing lights.
A spectacular sight, this natural phenomenon only takes place for 2 weeks a year, usually between May and June. The Elmhurst area in the Smoky Mountains is one of the best places in the world to watch the display.
Due to the popularity of this event, you will need a ticket to attend. To ensure equal opportunity for all, tickets are awarded using a lottery system, which you can sign up for in advance.
15. Hit the slopes
Despite the freezing temperatures, the Great Smoky Mountains attract a number of outdoor enthusiasts during the winter months.
Due to its high elevation, parts of the park receive up to 5 feet of snow each year, making it ideal for skiing and snowboarding. Depending on the weather, the park’s ski season generally starts in early December, often lasting up until March.
There are several different locations around the Great Smoky Mountains for winter activities, the most popular of which is Ober Gatlinburg. Situated on the edge of the park, this family ski resort has 10 different trails, accommodating both amateur and advanced skiers.
If you prefer cross-country skiing, you can always head to Clingmans Dome Road. As this is one of the most elevated points in the park, it receives a higher snowfall than anywhere else.
During the winter season, the road is closed to vehicles, transforming it into a fantastic cross-country skiing trail – featuring some absolutely breathtaking views.
16. Take in the view from above
One of the best ways to experience the epic views in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is from above! With such extensive forests and impressive scenery, the park provides the perfect backdrop for ziplining.
There are a number of different zipline excursions available within the park, some of which can reach up to 55 miles per hour!
Whether you choose the highest zipline or the slowest, each exhilarating adventure will take you soaring high above the ground, offering incredible views and a completely unforgettable experience!
17. Admire the foliage
Often nicknamed the ‘Wildflower National Park’, the Great Smoky Mountains are home to over 1600 species of flowering plants, and over 100 different types of trees.
One of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains is to just spend a day admiring the unique surroundings.
With such a diverse range of foliage, each season welcomes a myriad of different flowers and changing colors. If you visit in spring or summer, you will be able to view the park in full bloom, with bright wildflowers covering the mountains and valleys.
During Fall, the lush green foliage takes on a completely different look – one that is potentially even more beautiful. As the temperature begins to drop and the leaves change color, the park is completely transformed with vibrant shades of red, gold, yellow, and orange.
18. Raft the Pigeon River
Whitewater rafting is one of the most thrilling things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There are several places to go rafting within the park, however, the Pigeon River is one of the most popular. Running along the north border of the Smokies, this river is packed with splashing waves, fast rapids, and panoramic views of the mountains.
Divided into two sections, the Pigeon River is suitable for rafters of all ages and abilities. If you have a thirst for adventure, the upper section of the river features class 3-4 rapids, with plenty of action, drops, and surfing opportunities.
In contrast, the lower part of the river offers a much more relaxing and scenic experience. If you are looking for a milder ride, or are rafting with kids, this section of the river is ideal.
19. Catch a sunset
There is no better way to end your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, than watching the sun go down. The Smokies are beautiful at any time of the day, but watching the sunset over the mountains is an unforgettable experience.
There are many places within the park to enjoy the sunset, but as the mountains can often obscure the view, you will need to head high to get the perfect vantage point.
For those who don’t mind a moderate hike, Clingmans Dome and the Look Rock Tower are the perfect sunset destinations. These hotspots both have a vista spanning 360 degrees and offer incredible panoramic views across the mountains.
If you’d rather not go to great heights at sundown, you can always head to Cades Cove. As well as fantastic views of the evening sky, you are also guaranteed some excellent nocturnal wildlife sightings!
If you’d rather snuggle up and watch the sunset from the comfort of your own cabin, many of our Great Smoky Mountain lodgings offer excellent views across the mountains.
20. Travel on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway
A trip on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway is one of the more relaxing ways to see the Great Smoky Mountains from above.
Departing from the town of Gatlinburg, this aerial tram covers around 2.1 miles, ascending Mount Harrison, before stopping at the Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park & Ski Area.
As you soar through the air, you will be able to enjoy panoramic views across the rolling mountains – a sight that is particularly amazing during fall.
21.Let a llama take the lead
Taking a walking tour is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. Exploring on foot is one of the easiest ways to see the more hidden areas of the park – especially if you have an experienced llama to guide you!
A great way to add some excitement to your hike, llama trekking is one of the most memorable things you can do in the Smokies. Due to their strength and natural climbing ability, llamas have been used to transport supplies through the mountains for hundreds of years – making them the perfect hiking buddy!
There are a number of different llama treks available in the park, ranging from easy woodland walks to more adventurous trails. You will be assigned a professionally-trained llama before you set off, who will then lead you on a relaxing hike through the mountains – and carry your bag!
You don’t need to worry about your llama going off course during the trek, every expedition is also accompanied by an expert guide who will be on hand to offer tips and advice about your new furry friend.
22.Take a day trip to Dollywood
No visit to the Smokies is complete without a trip to the world-famous Dollywood theme park! Situated in the scenic Pigeon Forge, at the gateway of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dollywood is the largest ticketed attraction in Tennessee.
First opened in 1986 by Dolly Parton herself, Dollywood is now considered to be one of America’s premier theme parks. Packed with Southern charm, this popular theme park was originally designed to be a celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains’ rich history.
Now home to thrilling rides, live entertainment, and award-winning food, Dollywood welcomes over 3 million visitors each year.
If you’re looking for accommodation near Dollywood, many of our cabin rentals in the Great Smoky Mountains are located in Pigeon Forge, just a short drive from the theme park.
23. Soak in Hot Springs
After a challenging hike in the mountains, taking a soak in Hot Springs is one of the best things to do in The Great Smoky Mountains.
The town of Hot Springs in North Carolina is located just 45 minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Situated on the Appalachian Trail, this small town is home to a number of natural, hot water springs.
Packed with minerals, the crystal clear water in these springs is famous for its legendary healing powers. For hundreds of years, people have traveled to relax in the hot pools and enjoy its many health-giving properties.
To enjoy a mineral bath today, you will need to book a reservation at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa. Located along the scenic Spring Creek and French Broad River, this luxury spa has a number of outdoor jetted hot tubs, which are all supplied with a constant flow of natural spring water.
24. Stand in two states
One of the most popular auto tours in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is along the Newfound Gap Road.
Starting at Cherokee in North Carolina, this 33-mile route makes a 4,000 foot climb up to the Newfound Gap. As the gap is at the midpoint of the journey, there is a designated parking lot, where you can stop and admire the view.
Despite the incredible surroundings, one of the park’s most photographed attractions is actually sitting in the center of this parking lot. Marked with a simple sign, you will find the official border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
Stand across the state line, and you can officially say you’ve been in two states at the same time!
25. Walk in the footsteps of a pioneer
Before it became a national park, the land around the Great Smoky Mountains was once full of thriving mountain communities. Today, the park is still full of evidence of the area’s pioneering past.
On the Tennessee side of the park, the Cades Cove valley was once home to a number of European settlers. First arriving in the early 1820s, these new residents built their own homes, farms, and schools, many of which remain in the valley today.
Follow the Cades Cove loop road and you will find The Myers Barn and The John Cable Grist Mill, as well as some of the area’s first churches, cabins, and houses.
On the North Carolina side of the mountains, the Cataloochee Valley was originally the largest and most prosperous settlement in the area. Best known for its farms and orchards, you will still discover a number of preserved historic buildings hidden amongst the trees.
26. Ride the Great Smoky Mountains Wheel
As you drive through the mountain town of Pigeon Forge, it is almost impossible to miss the Great Smoky Mountains Wheel.
One of the largest observation wheels in the world, this iconic attraction stands at a staggering 200 feet tall. The wheel features 42 glass-enclosed gondolas, which each seat up to 8 guests.
Lasting around 10 minutes, each ride is made up of four complete rotations of the wheel, throughout which you will be able to enjoy excellent aerial views over the Great Smoky Mountains.
For a completely different experience, you can also take a ride during the evening. The wheel is open until midnight every night, and offers fantastic views of the city’s twinkling lights below!
27. Try horseback riding
Whether you’re an expert rider or a complete first-timer, horseback riding through the Smoky Mountains is one of the most amazing ways to explore the great outdoors.
Although certain areas within the park are off-limits, there are around 550 miles of scenic trails that are designated for horse use. Depending on the route you choose, trails can range from 45 minutes – to several hours long!
If you’d like to experience the mountains from a pioneer’s perspective, there are 4 riding stables within the park that offer guided horseback trail rides. Led by an expert equestrian, each trail will take you off the beaten track, on an unforgettable journey through the wilderness.
28. Walk the Gatlinburg Strip
Situated in Tennessee, the picturesque town of Gatlinburg borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As it is the main gateway to the mountains, this town attracts over 11 million tourists each year.
Due to its location, Gatlinburg is home to a huge range of accommodation, outdoor adventures, and sightseeing opportunities.
The infamous Gatlinburg Strip runs through the heart of the town and is jam-packed with family-friendly attractions, souvenir shops, and restaurants.
Compared to the serenity of the national park nearby, The Strip is a total sensory overload – in the best way possible!
29. Borrow a bike
Renting a bike is one of the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Outside the confinements of a car, you will be able to get up close to all of the sights – and enjoy the fresh mountain breeze!
There are no mountain biking trails within the park, however, for those just looking for a peaceful cycle, bicycles are allowed on the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and the lower Deep Creek Trail.
You can take your bike out on most of the roads running through the park, however, with steep terrain and heavy traffic, most of the routes aren’t suitable for inexperienced cyclists.
The only exception to this is the Cades Cove Loop Road. To allow cyclists to enjoy a traffic-free experience, this road is closed to all vehicles until 10 am on Wednesday and Saturday mornings – from May through September. Perfect for a stress-free cycle!
30. Leave no trace
Filled with incredible views, natural beauty, and unique wildlife, it is easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular destinations in the world.
As it attracts so many visitors, the park has an important Leave No Trace policy in place. Designed to protect the natural environment for future generations, this policy states that all visitors must leave the park exactly as they found it.
From disposing of waste to being respectful of others, the policy is made up of a number of key principles that will enable travelers to reduce their impact whilst exploring the national park.
If you’re planning to visit the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the best things you can do is familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace policy before you arrive!
Planning a visit?
Top Villas offer a range of beautiful accommodation in the Great Smoky Mountains. Scattered between the mountains and the meadows, all of our homes are ideally situated close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Although there are hotels in the area, one of the best ways to experience a real taste of mountain life is to book private lodgings. Handpicked for both style and comfort, you could easily spend your entire vacation inside, however, if you do want to venture out, you’ll be within easy reach of all the local amenities!
Book a stay
When you book with us, not only will you get beautiful accommodation at great prices, you’ll also benefit from amazing round-the-clock customer service. Whatever your preferences, our expert team will be on hand to help you find the right home.
With Top Villas, booking a stay couldn’t be easier. All you need to do is follow our simple online booking process and you can secure your dream vacation home instantly without any phone calls or fuss. Our website makes it easy to check availability, get a quote, and book instantly online. Alternatively, you can submit an inquiry and we’ll get straight back to you.
You can see our full range of Smoky Mountains cabins and lodging here.