Only have a short amount of time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Don’t waste your time trying to decide where to get the best views in this vast outdoor wonderland. If you want to feel like you are on top of the world, here are four spots for fantastic views.
For a quiet lookout point, head for Look Rock on the west edge of the park off of Foothills Parkway (closed in winter). The overlook built on top of a cantilevered rock is handicap accessible. Go even higher by taking the one- to two-mile round trip hike (depending on whether you park at Look Rock or the campground) to the Look Rock Tower for 360-degree views of the mountains.
In Appalachia, a “gap” is a low point in a mountain ridge, known as a “pass” in other parts of America. When establishing a route over a mountain, a gap generally gives you the easiest way up and over. Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass over the Smoky Mountains in the park. When a surveyor correctly found that this gap was lower than the previous title-holder, the discovery was “newly found” and hence the name Newfound Gap was adopted.
Its namesake road, 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park. It travels from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, rising 3,000 feet to the pass and down again, ending in Cherokee, North Carolina. The gap itself is near the midpoint of the road at mile-post 14.7 just north of the intersection of Clingmans Dome Road.
From the Newfound Gap parking area, you can stand on the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. Enjoy the views from the many overlooks on the way to the Rockefeller Memorial. The memorial honors a $5 million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation which helped establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The monument itself is a viewing platform of Newfound Gap.
Sunrise and Sunset on Mount Le Conte
Head to Mount Le Conte for the best sunrise and sunset vistas in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mt. Le Conte is the third highest peak inside the park but it is also the “tallest” mountain in the eastern United States when measured from its base at Gatlinburg, 5301 feet to the mountain’s summit, called “High Top.”
There are many trails to get to the top, but the shortest and most popular is 5.5-mile Alum Cave Trail. Two miles from the trailhead you’ll get a bonus: Inspiration Point with views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge and its Eye of the Needle to the northeast. Duck hawk is another name for peregrine falcon; you just might see some here.
Le Conte’s summit however, is not where the best views are.
Famous for its sunrise views is Myrtle Point on Mt. Le Conte’s east side. From High Top, Myrtle Point is less than a half-mile down the Boulevard Trail, taking a spur trail approximately midway.
For the best sunset views backtrack to the west side of Mt Le Conte near LeConte Lodge and take Cliff Top Viewpoint Access Trail. At Cliff Top you can watch the sun go down over Clingmans Dome.
Left: Cliff Top, Center: High Top, Right: Myrtle Point. Zoom in to see detail on interactive map
View Seven States at Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome offers great views without demanding you work too hard to see them. On a clear day, you can see up to 100 miles including seven states from the top of the tower. (Clockwise: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.) Even on a cloudy, "smoky" day, the view is breathtaking.
A 1-mile roundtrip hike from the parking lot, Clingmans Dome is the highest point along the Appalachian Trail at 6,643 feet. It’s also the highest point in Tennessee, so reaching the top gives you serious bragging rights once you return home. Just leave out the fact you only had to walk a mile to get there.
Centrally located in the park, access the trailhead by parking at the end of Clingmans Dome Road via Newfound Gap Road. (If you want to brag a bit more, you can take the longer, seven-mile section of the Appalachian Trail to the dome from Newfound Gap Road.)
Still have energy? Continue 5 miles west on the Appalachian Trail to Silers Bald, a 5,607-foot-high peak. You’ll get a great workout with excellent views along the way. Expansive views include Mount Buckley and Fontana Lake. Since the summit is half located in North Carolina and half in Tennessee, you’ll find yourself in two states at the same time.
Need a map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Buy the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map for Great Smoky at REI.com. The map includes trails, trailheads, points of interest, campgrounds, geologic history and much more printed on waterproof, tear-resistant material.