1. Tubing in the Great Smokies
Bring your water shoes, strap the kids in life jackets, and plop in the cool waters of Smoky Mountain streams for a lazy couple of hours. Tubing and other water sports are not recommended in most areas of the national park except for the Deep Creek area, but just outside on both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides, you’ll find tube rental concessions, or you can use your own.
Deep Creek inside the National Park
On the North Carolina side of the park, Bryson City is your stop for tubing in the Deep Creek area of the park. The tubing area is divided by difficulty – the upper whitewater section runs from Indian Creek through Deep Creek Gorge, and the calmer lower section is where the creek is wider and easier going. Rent your tube from concessionaires on West Deep Creek Road or bring your own. To get to the upper creek, it’s about a mile hike from the Deep Creek Trailhead to the tube put-in point. On the way down the creek, you’ll pass by Tom Branch Falls! Put in at the swimming hole above the first bridge for the milder float.
Cherokee, North Carolina
In Cherokee, North Carolina you can tube the Oconaluftee River past rapids and swimming holes. Tubing concessionaires will transport you to the river and pick you up at the end. The Oconaluftee River however has varying depths and obstacles so it’s best for a family with older children or adventurous adults.
Have your own tube? Head to downtown Cherokee’s Oconaluftee Island Park and bring a long rope. Enterprising tubers hang on to the rope from the water as the current bounces them in place. The trick is to have a buddy standing on the bridge holding the rope’s other end. Infinity tube surfing!
On the other side of the park, Townsend, Tennessee is the headquarters for tubing the Little River. The upper section of the river is for adventurous souls because it has exciting rapids and swimming holes. Farther down, the lower section of Little River is a family-friendly float that has mild rapids but mostly calm waters. Sometimes the river can run a little shallow and tubes have trouble getting over the rocky river bed. A new Townsend outfitter, Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center, has a solution with its “Rocktagon” octagonal-shaped tubes. The unique tube design skirts over the rocks for a floating experience with less drag and fewer snags.
2. Swimming and Wading in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its waterfalls and streams. In the summertime when air temperatures are in the high 80s and 90s with 90% humidity, the cool 65 degree F mountain waters are a refreshing relief.
Midnight Hole in Big Creek
On the Tennessee-North Carolina border off I-40, head to the Big Creek area for one of the most beautiful swimming holes in the park, Midnight Hole. From the Big Creek Campground, take Mouse Creek Falls trail for approximately 1.5 miles to reach the pool. Readers of an outdoor magazine ranked Midnight Hole as one of the top ten natural swimming holes in the country.
Crashing water from some of the park’s waterfalls have created inviting pools. Popular splashing spots on the Tennessee side of the park include Laurel Falls off Laurel Creek Road, Grotto Falls in the Roaring Fork area, and Abrams Falls in Cades Cove. Each requires a short hike. Abrams Falls has a large swimming area but stay away from the falls itself as it creates a strong undertow. Likewise, The Sinks on the Little Pigeon River has been a popular place to swim because of its accessibility from the road, but the fast current can be dangerous so we don’t recommend taking this plunge.
Swimming Outside the Park
Swimming spots just outside the park include Fontana Lake, a large reservoir in North Carolina on the southwest side of the Park, and the swimming beach at Oconaluftee Islands Park in Cherokee.
Wherever you’re swimming, use caution: Cold, swift water and underwater hazards (such as boulders) pose a risk in some spots.
3. Whitewater Rafting Near the National Park
Rafting the Pigeon River in Tennessee
The Pigeon River runs from North Carolina to Tennessee skirting the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’ve done a lot of rafting, you already know this stretch of water by reputation. From Gatlinburg, head east to Wilton Springs, then south on Highway 40 as it travels along the river. Just before you cross the state line, you’ll see a dozen or so rafting outfitters lining the riverbanks ready to give you a thrilling adventure. The rafting launch point is minutes before the first of ten Class III rapids. Riding six miles of the upper Pigeon takes about one-and-a-half to two hours. Not up for rapids? The lower section of the Pigeon River serves up family-friendly scenic floats with Class I and II rapids. If you are staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, you will find river outfitters that will transport you to the river.
Rafting the Nantahala River in North Carolina
Three other nearby rivers also offer rafting opportunities. The Tuckasegee River has relaxing floats. The Class IV-V rapids of the Choah River are control-released waters from the Santeetlah Lake Dam with limited rafting dates. The Ocoee River also has challenging waters; it hosted the National Whitewater Championships for several years. Local rafting guides for all four rivers can be found in Bryson City, Topton, and Whittier.
4. Kayaking and Canoeing in the Smoky Mountains
The rivers and lakes south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are a great place for kayak instruction (of all levels.) The Olympic Kayaking Team trains here on the Nantahala River. Whitewater kayakers enjoy many of the same rivers as rafters (see above).
Flatwater Kayaking and Canoeing
Cheoah Lake is smaller and an easier paddle if you want to go it alone.
5. Boating near Great Smoky
Enjoy boating on two lakes on the southern edge of Great Smoky.
Cheoah Lake is quaint in size and offers public boat ramps. The narrow lake is a perfect lane for fishing boats (not so much for water sports.) The lake is home to rainbow, brown, and brook trout. Even better – rainbow trout and muskie are stocked by the state of North Carolina.
Fontana Lake is 35-miles long (or 26-miles or 29-miles depending on how you measure.) It has largely undeveloped banks because it borders the national park on one side and a national forest on the other. The lake has several areas for boat access, all on the south side of the lake.
– Alarka Boat Dock
– Almond Boat & RV Park
– Cable Cove Boat Ramp
– Flat Branch Boat Ramp
– Fontana Dam
– Fontana Village Marina
– Lemmons Branch Boat Ramp
– Lewellyn Branch Boat Ramp
– Old 288 Boat Ramp
– Prince Boat Dock
Old 288, Lemmons Brand and Lewellyn Branch Boat Ramps are all handicap accessible.
The Fontana Marina on the west side of the lake offers watercraft rentals, a store, fishing licenses, and lake tours. A pontoon boat acts as a hiker’s shuttle to and from the southern rim of the park for hikers.
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.