10 Things in the Smoky Mountains Locals Say You Shouldn’t Miss

clingmans dome

The elevated paved trail through the treetops to Clingmans Dome is one of the most unique man made structures in the Smokies (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

10 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. And don’t forget – there’s never an entrance fee to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But if you plan on parking, you will need to pay for a pass.

The best things to do in the Smoky Mountains include driving the Cades Cove Loop, picnicking in the park, hiking Clingmans Dome, discovering waterfalls, driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, hiking a popular trail, camping, tubing, exploring nearby attractions and horseback riding.

View from Cades Cove
Cades Cove has some of the best views in the Smokies (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Drive the Cades Cove Loop 

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 without needing to pay for parking. 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. To find the Cove, just set your GPS to Cades Cove inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

chimneys picnic area with sandwich in foreground
Relax in the mountains with a picnic meal or plan a cookout (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

2. Picnic at one of these spots

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. 

Clingmans Dome observation tower
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

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. 

Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies (photo by JMichael Photography/stock.adobe.com)

4. Discover one of these 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.

Beautiful mountain view along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

5. 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.  

Hiker on a Cades Cove Trail
The park is full of spectacular hiking trails (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

6. Explore these 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. 

a view of the cades cove campgrounds
The Cades Cove Campground is open year-round but seasonal reservations may be required (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

7. 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. 

River Rat Tubes With Building in Background
There are numerous tubing companies in the Smokies to choose from. We love River Rat Tubing (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

8. 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. 

a train at the great smoky mountain railroad in bryson city departs
All excursions with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad depart from Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the Smokies (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

9. Explore these 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 (a great rainy day activity). 

man on horseback at big rock dude ranch
A guest riding horseback at the Big Rock Dude Rance (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

10. 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

What is your favorite thing to do in the Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments below.

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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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