These Are the Best 3 Spots in the Smoky Mountains You Can’t Miss (2024)

hike to clingmans dome observation tower in the great smoky mountains

Clingmans Dome is one of the most iconic spots in the Great Smoky Mountains (photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A local’s guide on what you shouldn’t skip on a trip to the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a massive forest centered along the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, but it’s not quite as big as many assume. The national park is part of a larger range of national forests along the Appalachian Mountains. To the south, there’s Nantahala National Forest and below that, into Georgia, the Chattahoochee National Forest. Still, the park itself is big enough that even most locals only get a small taste of the wonders inside. So if you’re doing just a short trip, here are the three spots you should not miss in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is full of wonders, but there are at least three spots you should visit if you want to say that you’ve truly seen the best of the park. The list includes Clingmans Dome, which is the highest point in the national park. There’s also Mount LeConte and the Elkmont Campground, which are rich in history, and each are often considered a must-see.

Clingmans Dome hike
The walk to the Clingmans Dome observation tower has a steep incline (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

1. Clingmans Dome

It’s hard to pick one must-see area, but if you haven’t been to Clingmans Dome, you haven’t really seen the park. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park. It is also the highest point in Tennessee and the third-highest peak east of the Mississippi.

Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647 feet), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360-degree views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days, views expand over 100 miles.

So what should you know about this hike before going? First of all, the road to Clingmans Dome is closed from December through March. The observation tower is accessible via a paved trail up to the dome, but the walk is very steep, even though it is fairly short at about half a mile. It’s considered too steep to be wheelchair accessible. Visitors should be in moderate physical shape to take on this hike.

LeConte Lodge in the clouds, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
LeConte Lodge can be difficult to access (photo by Martina/stock.adobe.com)

2. Mount LeConte

Not too far from Clingmans Dome is Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the national park. LeConte is a much more difficult hike compared to Clingmans Dome. Located in Sevier County, LeConte is popular for its scenic views, but also for the LeConte Lodge. The lodge is a small resort established in 1925. Although LeConte Lodge is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, it predates the establishment of the park in 1934. The resort is only available to about 50 guests per night, so reservations are a must and can be hard to come by.

The lodge is only accessible by one of five hiking trails. It is possible to hike up to the peak and back out without spending the night. Also, the resort does offer some accommodations for day hikers. For example, sack lunches and supplies are available as well as souvenirs, but good planning is essential so that you can get up and down the mountain in the daylight. The trails range to LeConte from 4.9 to 8.9 miles. The Alum Cave Trail may be the most popular, leading hikers on a 2.3-mile trek to the Alum Cave Bluffs. From the Bluffs, it’s an additional 2.6 miles to the summit of Mount LeConte.

A sign for the Appalachian club in Elkmont
Elkmont is one of the most historic areas of the Great Smoky Mountains (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

3. Elkmont Campground

Finally, if you’re looking for a place to stay overnight in the park, consider Elkmont Campground. This large campground is located between Gatlinburg and Townsend, off of Little River Gorge Road. According to the National Park Service, the Elkmont Campground was established in the 1950s. But people inhabited Elkmont well before then.

The first settlers in the Elkmont area came in the mid-1800s and were homesteaders, squatters, hunters and loggers. They established farms, built cabins and created the Little River community. The Elkmont area is sometimes called Elkmont Ghost Town because it is full of cabins and homesteads, and honestly, the area can sometimes look and feel a little creepy. However, the cabins are being restored to a less “ghost-like” state by park officials.

Reservations for the frontcountry group and horse campgrounds can be made by either calling (877) 444-6777 or visiting www.recreation.gov. Have you been to any of these spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? What spots would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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Disclosure: We have used and experienced all the products and activities recommended on The Smokies. We may receive compensation when you click on links to some products and experiences featured.

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