Top ten things not to miss in smoky mountains national park! Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, and once you visit you’ll realize why! Over 500,000 acres in the Southern Appalachian mountains, in both eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, the Smokies have something exciting for everyone whether it is young families, serious hikers, or drive-through tourists. There are over 800 miles for hiking but it also has plenty of breathtaking scenery accessible by car. We live relatively close and have visited several times over the years, so I thought I’d share my top ten things not to miss in smoky mountains national park as well as some general tips for visiting the smokies and planning your trip. If you have any questions just leave them in a comment and I’ll see if I can find an answer! Scroll all the way to the bottom for a custom google map of all the places I’ve listed, to see what’s closest to wherever you’re staying.
**NEW for 2023- make sure to get a parking pass from the national park!**
In this post I’m focusing on what to do inside the park and not the surrounding towns but for general planning please know that for ‘gateway towns’ Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge is extremely tourist-y and busy, Townsend is quiet and sleepy, and both Bryson City and Cherokee are somewhere in between.
A ranger told me 1/3rd of the U.S. lives within a day’s drive, and with no admission fee and tourist hot-spots nearby it is easy to see why this park is so crowded! There is no ‘best time to visit the Smokies’ because it depends what you want to see, but January and February are typically the lowest traffic months. June and October see the highest traffic for summer break and fall foliage respectively, so plan for long lines and tight traffic!
While you’re here, check out these other posts too:
- 8+ kid friendly hikes in smoky mountain national park
- 10+ national parks board game options
- 45+ of the best gifts for someone who loves national parks
- Visiting national parks – top 10 planning mistakes to avoid!
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things not to miss in smoky mountains
Presented in no particular order; I have personally done almost all of these but sprinkled in photos from instagram when I didn’t have a useful one!
An iconic view of the park, this concrete viewing platform makes for a killer sunrise. This is the highest point in the park and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail! Be sure to plan for cooler temperatures; up at the top can be up to 20 degrees cooler than lower elevations in the park. It’s a short “hike” up a paved path but it is steep, with several benches along the way. Nearby is a connector to the Appalachian Trail and the trailhead for Andrew’s Bald if you want to hit dirt trails after all the pavement. The main road to the parking lot is typically closed for winter so research your route if you’re planning a visit in early spring or late fall to be sure.
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This is the lowest pass through the park that is accessible by car, making it easy to get to for everyone. Pop out and check out the view or hop on the nearby trailhead and away from the pavement.
This 11-mile paved road loop is famous for a reason! If you’re interested in wildlife, this is a fantastic spot to hit. Keep your eyes open in the hopes of seeing black bears, coyotes, turkeys, or deer. It closes to vehicle traffic certain days during summer to allow hikers and bikers explore in the morning, double check the official NPS site to be sure before you make plans. There are also a few trails accessible from the loop, including Abrams Falls which is pictured above, and some historical buildings. Mentally prepare for standstill traffic and a few hours to explore unless you’re there over an hour before sunrise gate opening, which will have you towards the front of the line most days.
Catch a view
I shared a few specific ones that are accessible by paved routes but if you’re able, hit the trail and get to a big view surrounded by nature! Andrews Bald is pictured above but there are many to choose from throughout the park. Check out the Hiking in the Smokys website filtered for views and find a scenic trail that is a good fit for you and your family.
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Roaring fork motor nature trail
Another driving option that has a different vibe; cruise along this road for lush, mossy, heavily treed views. There are also a few trailheads off this scenic drive and historic buildings too.
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71 miles of the epic AT goes right through the heart of the national park! Take a quick stroll on this iconic long trail to see the white blazes with your own eyes. There are multiple access points along the trail for out-and-back day hikes, scroll down to the trail map on the NPS website and scan the green AT line to see what will be nearest to you.
Check out a historical building or two:
History buffs will enjoy all the interpretive signs throughout the park but be sure to sprinkle in some buildings, too! To name a few of the most popular:
- Cade’s Cove has a working gristmill, early 1800s churches, and other structures as well as a small side path to the John Oliver historical cabin
- Cataloochee area has late 19th century homesteads
- The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail has Noah Ogle’s settler cabin and other old dwellings
- Elkmont has a “ghost town” from the remains of an old resort
- Stroll the mountain farm museum and Mingus mill outside the Sugarlands Visitor Center
Get wet; hike to a waterfall and/or tube down the river
There is no shortage of waterfall options in the smokies! Check out Hiking in the Smokys and scroll down to waterfall features and find a trail that’s a good fit. Above is Grotto Falls, located off the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, where you can actually walk behind the waterfall safely, it is a fun hike. If you prefer to enjoy water while relaxing, plan to explore the Deep Creek area and float on a tube through the park!
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Hunt down something quirky
No one likes sharing their special little finds but do some digging and visit something unexpected! A few ideas to consider:
- You’ll have to imagine the fairies but there is a quirky little stone door that inspires imagination along the Voorheis Estate, pictured above, see more details here; it is on the map as the ‘twin creeks trailhead’.
- Hunt down a trail with some old artifacts along the way; here is one example with a rusted out old car and abandoned chimney along the Middle Prong Trail.
- Play pretend over the “troll bridge” near Elkmont, it’s straight out of a fairy tale! It is on the map as the ‘little river trail’.
Also be sure to check for seasonal specialties
- If you’re visiting at the right time in summer, try to catch the synchronous firefly viewing! Read more here, but basically for a short time during each summer, the fireflies all flash at the same time. There is a lottery for passes or nearby campers get easy access! Dates are announced in the spring of each year.
- Spring means wildflowers! It will take a bit of guesswork since flowers don’t follow a calendar, but get excited to see blooms along the trail with one of these hike suggestions.
- Fall is busy because the fall foliage is jaw-dropping. The official NPS site has details on what to expect and where to see the best leaves!
I’m sharing tips briefly here that I think are especially relevant to Great Smoky Mountains National Park but if you’re in planning mode, make sure to read my more general post: visiting national parks – top 10 planning mistakes to avoid!
- The GSMNP junior ranger program has a small cost but is lots of fun! This is a great way for kids to engage with the park and earn a badge declaring them a junior ranger; read more here.
- The only lodging in the park is Le Conte Lodge and you have to hike to get there and have reservations (that book up to a year out). There are also established campgrounds for RVs or tent as well as primitive, backpacking sites; the former requires reservations and the later requires permits. Never fear, there are loads of hotels and airbnbs outside every direction of the park.
- Make sure to map out driving times and distances before you firm up an itinerary; with a park this big it can be several hours between sections of the park depending on traffic.
- You can’t count on having cellphone service anywhere inside the park but especially when on trails! Be sure to download maps on Gaia or Alltrails and/or carry a paper map like this one.
- Read up on bear safety to keep you and the bears healthy! The saying is “a fed bear is a dead bear” because once they get closer to humans they end up being shot. So please don’t leave food near picnic areas, along the trail, and dispose of all your trash. If you see anyone getting too close to a bear, please contact a ranger as soon as possible. Bear spray isn’t necessary or commonly carried, black bears typically are scared of you and run the other way!
- Come prepared! Many hikes have creek crossings with narrow log bridges or wild rocks to hop; flip flops won’t cut it. Gift shops might be hours away between distance and traffic so bring snacks, water, and pack out all your trash with you.
- Updated road conditions are shared on @SmokiesRoadsNPS so check it before you head out.
- Expect rain! Especially in the afternoon, soggy weather is common. Plan to bring a jacket and avoid the trails during thunderstorms or potential of lightning.
- Have a backup plan. The park will be busy; do you know where else you can go nearby if the parking lot you’re hoping for is full? Don’t waste a day driving around and hoping, come prepared with Plan B and Plan C.
- The Smokies are known as the “salamander capital of the world”, so keep your eyes open on the trails and nearby waterways to see if you can spot one! Their skin is very porous so it isn’t safe for them to be picked up. Please also avoid “rock stacking” because this can kill them, their babies, and disturb their homes – see more information on that here.
Where to take guides tours or classes in the area:
Check out where all the places I’ve referenced above are located, on a custom map! The only specific thing I named above that isn’t listed on the map is the Appalachian Trail because that has several access points throughout the park. Also I link above to more waterfall and view trails, and only included the one specific one I pictured below, so don’t despair if you’re in one area of the park and don’t see a hike listed!
I hope you enjoy your time at Great Smoky Mountains National Park; please leave a comment if you think there’s anything I should add!
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