19 Best Things To Do in the Smoky Mountains, According to a Local
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the true wonders of the United States. People flock from all over the country – all over the world – to take in the verdant, majestic splendor. But we live in fast times. A day or two of majestic splendor tends to lead to folks looking for more. But as someone who lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, I have good news for you – There’s plenty to do in the National Park and surrounding area, you just have to get out and do it.
IN THIS ARTICLE
- Drive Cades Cove
- Find a good picnic spot (with tips)
- Hike Clingmans Dome
- Spot a black bear (with tips)
- Chase waterfalls
- Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Explore the hiking trails (with tips)
- Seek the hidden gem between two visitor centers
- Go camping (with tips)
- Wade in a stream
- Go tubing
- Tour historic sites
- Explore nearby attractions (with tips)
- Go whitewater rafting (or kayaking)
- Visit the Appalachian Trail
- Go horseback riding
- Visit Mt. LeConte
- Watch the sunrise (or sunset)
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
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1. Drive Cades Cove
As a young man, I took Cades Cove for granted. It was no more than 25 minutes from my house and whenever someone came to visit, we’d go to the Cove. Like everyone else, I enjoyed the scenery on the front half of Cades Cove Loop Road. But the back half – where you don’t get the majestic views and spend a lot more time just riding through some woods – would bore me to tears, especially when traffic is heavy. Luckily, I grew up and now can appreciate the entirety of the Cove. What’s so special? First, it’s accessible. It’s some of the most beautiful parts of our country and you can just drive through it. There are plenty of places to get out and explore, hike, or visit the historic buildings and cabins. The wildlife viewing can be spectacular, though occasionally you want to tell the tourists it’s just a deer. We don’t have to hold everyone up for so long.
2. Find a good picnic spot
We usually have a cookout when we go to the mountains, meaning we grab a spot at one of our favorite areas with a grill and cook burgers and dogs or whatever. Our favorite spots are the picnic areas just outside Cades Cove, the Chimney Picnic Area above Gatlinburg, or Metcalf Bottoms – accessible from Wears Valley or Little River Road, which connects Gatlinburg to Townsend. All three have access to water nearby and serve as a great home base for various adventures, be it hiking, exploring, or playing in the water. Metcalf Bottoms is the best for tubing and Cades Cove is a great spot if you want to visit the Cove before or after. My favorite is probably the Chimneys Picnic area, the beauty and location. It’s just perfect.
3. Hike Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On a clear day, the views from its observation tower can be breathtaking. With a handful of trailheads nearby, it’s a great place to launch an adventure or to rest and take in the majestic beauty. Be warned, however. Even though the path to the observation tower is paved, it’s still a steep hike. Especially as it winds its way through the treetops. So prepare yourself for a bit of a workout. The road leading to the tower is closed typically from early December through late March, and whenever dangerous weather conditions require. To get there, take Newfound Gap Road to the 7-mile-long Clingmans Dome Road where you will find a large parking area at the end.
4. Spot a black bear – other other wildlife
The park is teeming with black bears, deer, and wild turkey. Anecdotally, I feel like bear sightings are far more frequent today than they were when I was a kid 30 years ago. Still, when looking for wildlife, bears remain the star of the show unless you drive over to the North Carolina side of the mountains where the reintroduced elk herds hang out. In fact, chances are, if you spend enough time in the higher elevations, you’ll probably spot one. Sadly, black bear sightings are also becoming more commonplace near dumpsters and restaurants around downtown Gatlinburg. Regardless of where you see one, just remember to keep your distance.
What other animals are in the park? Well, in addition to a variety of birds and snakes, the park has the largest population of salamanders in the world, but unless you’re out digging up rocks in the various stream beds – which you’re not supposed to do – you’re not going to see them. Also, did you know scorpions live in the park? I didn’t until relatively recently and it had me re-thinking my whole park visitation policy.
5. Chase waterfalls
The park is home to several fantastic waterfalls of varying degrees of accessibility. Grotto Falls –where you can hike behind the falls is a fairly easy hike. There’s also Laurel Falls, Rainbow Falls and Angel Falls – all with varying degrees of accessibility, The spectacularly named “Place of 1,000 Drips” is a beautiful fall that is right next to your car at the exit of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. No walking required.
6. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Speaking of this excellent drive located just above Gatlinburg, Roaring Fork is a drivable trail that is somewhat comparable to Cades Cove. It has a lot more change in elevation, so you get some great views from the peaks, but it doesn’t have that sweeping view of the valley you get at the Cove. There are multiple trailheads to launch a hike – even up to Mt. LeConte if you want or to several of the park’s great waterfalls. Like Cades Cove, it’s a one-way loop but it doesn’t take nearly as long to drive it. On our last trip, we saw several unique sights including multiple bears, a driver going the wrong way on the loop, and a child who swore she saw a ghost at one of the historic cabins. It ran the gamut.
7. Explore the hiking trails
The park is full of spectacular hiking trails. I’m not convinced that even if you spent a lifetime trying you could ever hike them all. What are our recommendations? Well, the Laurel Falls Trail – with a trailhead on Little River Road – is generally considered one of the easier hikes in the mountains. It is paved – or partially paved depending on who you ask and ends with a view of an 80-foot waterfall. If you’re more adventurous, consider the Alum Cave Trail which leads to a natural bluff overlooking a spectacular view of the mountains. You can stop there or soldier on. The Alum Cave Trail is the shortest and steepest way to get to Mt. LeConte.
8. Seek the hidden gem between two visitor centers
Newfound Gap Road – aka U.S. 441 – is bookended in the park by a pair of visitor centers. On the Tennessee side, it’s the Sugarlands Visitor Center and on the Cherokee, North Carolina side it’s the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. In between the two visitor centers is one of the most scenic drives in the country with spectacular views and lots of places to stop, hike or picnic. The fields on the North Carolina side are also among the best places in the park to see elk in the wild. The Oconaluftee Visitors Center features a small village of historic buildings to explore as well.
9. Go camping
Do you want spectacular views of the night sky? Get a campsite in the mountains. There are several front country camping spots in the park, including Cades Cove and Elkmont. What’s front country camping? It’s camping in a park-built and maintained campground. You can also get a permit to do backcountry camping which is hiking to a more remote spot, but that’s more for the hardcore hikers and outdoors people. What’s my favorite camping spot? I like Elkmont. The history of the place as a former logging town and the preserved buildings – 18 cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the National Park Service – make it special and also give a bit of a haunted history vibe. You can also reserve the Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin were rehabilitated in 2010 for day use only.
Again, this is only anecdotal, but it seems there are more bears running around than there used to be. Last year, some family members were camping in Elkmont and had a bear visit their site at night. Make sure – if you camp in the park – you follow all prescribed bear safety recommendations.
10. Wade in a stream
Is there anything better than playing in a cold mountain stream? Working your way across the rocks and pools and eddies? I submit there is not. Be careful, though. The rocks can be slippery. I’ve seen more than a few people get banged up because they were overconfident. That moving water has power. Respect it. We like Oconalufte Island for wading.
11. Go tubing
Speaking of moving water, one of the best things to do is a nice slow float down the river punctuated by the thrill of the occasional whitewater. There are several companies in Townsend that will let you rent the tube, drop you off and pick you up. This is the best option if you don’t know the river. One of our favorites is River Rat Tubing. A couple of tips, always wear a good water shoe and make sure you know what’s around the bend. Once, for my high school graduation, we tried to float the river with my grandparents – who would have been in their 60s. We spend most of the time fishing Papaw out of the overhanging trees and I found myself barefoot and sprinting along the rocks at the river’s edge to keep Nanny from being carried away downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.
12. Tour historic buildings
I find the mountain life prior to the establishment of the park incredibly interesting. Whether it’s the Caughrons keeping livestock in the high mountains above Cades Cove for the summer or the small communities like Elkmont that came and went, life in the mountains prior to the park has stories that have been chiefly forgotten. For instance? In an interview, one of the Walker Sisters – sisters who held rights to live in the park in the 50s and 60s – said when she was young you didn’t see bears in the mountains, they’d only started to return when the park put protections on them.
13. Explore nearby attractions
One can’t vacation on scenic views alone. Communities on the outskirts of the park have grown and thrived, providing entertainment, lodging and food. Whether it’s the railroad at Bryson City (highly recommend), or Dollywood (also highly recommend) in Pigeon Forge, there is so much to keep your family entertained. From the quiet side of the Smokies in Townsend to Sevierville, home to global superstar Dolly Parton, there’s something for everyone, including Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg (another local favorite).
14. Go whitewater rafting or kayaking
The Pigeon River as it flows through Cocke County provides good whitewater rafting rapids up near the Hartford Area. It’s not as good as the whitewater down on the Ocoee River where they hosted Olympic events in 1996 but it’s fun. Again, we recommend Smoky Mountain River Rat.
15. Visit the Appalachian Trail
When I think of the Appalachian trail, I think of Frodo quoting his uncle Bilbo in the Fellowship of the Ring “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The pull of the Appalachian Trail feels like that to me. There’s always one more peak calling you forward. I’ll never hike from Georgia to Maine, but I enjoy walking on the trail that gives me that option, even if it’s for a short time.
16. Go horseback riding
Another connection to the old ways, tackling a mountain trail by horse is an experience in time travel. Equestrians may ride their own horse on select trails in the park. You are free to ride on more than 550 miles of the 800 miles of maintained trails. You can also pay for a guided horseback ride, some of the many locations are listed below:
- Cades Cove Riding Stable | (865) 448-9009
- Smokemont Riding Stable | Cherokee, NC | (828) 497-2373
- Smoky Mountain Riding Stable | Gatlinburg, TN | (865) 436-5634
- Sugarlands Riding Stable | Gatlinburg, TN | (865) 436-3535
- Big Rock Dude Ranch | Pigeon Forge TN (865) 428-9398
17. Visit Mt. LeConte
There are five trails up to Mt. LeConte and none of them are to be taken lightly. If you have not made arrangements to stay at LeConte Lodge, make sure you leave plenty of time to hike back out, remembering the sun sets early in the mountains.
18. Watch the sunrise or sunset
There is nothing better than watching the sun come up over the mountains. Find a nice view of the mountains to the east and wait for a show of colors like you’ve never seen. Though the sun sets in the west, there are often some great views at sunset as well.
19. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
Though it runs all the way up into Virginia, a short drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway will provide scenic views like none other. Add a trip to Maggie Valley or Cherokee to get the most out of your experience.
What is your favorite thing to do in the Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments below.