Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an amazing playground for outdoor adventure. From endless shorelines to paddle, to miles and miles of gorgeous trails, to some of the only cross-country skiing in the American South, Great Smoky Mountains is filled with incredible opportunities for athletes once you get off the beaten path.
Read on for the top five adventures to put on your Great Smoky Mountains National Park bucket list.
Backpack a Section of the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs for 2,181 miles from Georgia all the way north to Maine. While it takes the average thru-hiker six months or more to cover this distance, you can get a taste of this incredible trail in just three or four days by hiking the section that traverses Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Appalachian Trail enters Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Fontana Dam in the south and continues through the park for 71.6 miles to Davenport Gap, running along the state line of North Carolina and Tennessee. The hike takes most backpackers approximately seven days as you’ll be traversing the Smoky Mountains the entire time. You can either tackle the whole trail through the park with a resupply at Newfound Gap, or you can do either the southern or northern section, ending or beginning at Newfound Gap.
Both sections have their merits. If you hike from Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap, you’ll climb to the highest point in the park, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome. This section of the trail starts at 1,800 feet, so there is intense climbing on this route, but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views and the satisfaction of reaching the observation tower at the top on your own two feet.
Hiking from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap, you’ll be going mostly downhill which might sound more enticing but can be tough on your joints, especially with a fully loaded pack. On this section, you’ll hike by Charlies Bunion, an interesting rock formation and get the opportunity to detour to the historic stone Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. Be warned, both routes are challenging and multi-day treks that should only be attempted by experienced backpackers.
Either way, you can leave your tent at home. The Appalachian Trail through the park has 12 shelters, which both thru-hikers and multi-day backpackers must use when hiking on the AT through the park. These three-sided structures have a roof, a floor and a nearby privy. You’ll likely be sharing the shelter with other backpackers, which allows you to experience the sense of camaraderie you might on the full AT thru-hike. These shelters help concentrate the impact of the many backpackers passing through the park on this trail, protecting the surrounding landscape.
General backpacking permits become available for Great Smoky Mountains National Park 30 days in advance at smokiespermits.nps.gov/index.cfm?BCPermitTypeID=1. Unless you plan to start your backpack more than 50 miles outside the park, this is the type of permit you’ll have to obtain. Reservations open at midnight EDT, and it’s a good idea to log on as soon as they become available in order to get a spot at the shelters for your desired dates as the AT is a popular destination.
To increase the likelihood of getting a reservation, plan trips for the summer months. Northbound AT hikers will have already passed through in the spring and southbound AT hikers won’t reach the Smokies until the fall. The weather is also best for hiking the high elevation sections of the park this time of year.
Cross-country Ski to Clingmans Dome
If it’s snowing anywhere in the American South during the winter, chances are it’s snowing on top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 6,643-foot mountain is the highest in the region and can get more than 100-inches of snow each year. The road to Clingmans Dome closes each winter and remains unplowed, creating the perfect path for cross-country skiers. The route all the way to the observation tower is just under 16 miles roundtrip, but the reward is getting the stunning views of the park, which are normally crowded with people in the warmer months, all to yourself.
Clingmans Dome Road is closed to vehicles December through March every year. While the road isn’t groomed for cross-country skiing, it’s a popular destination in the winter, and you’re likely to find others’ tracks making the climb a little bit easier. The Great Smoky Mountains Nordic Ski Patrol may be some of the folks you see on a snowy winter day. This all-volunteer group, which is certified by the National Ski Patrol, is out working most weekends helping to maintain visitor safety and reporting on conditions.
Before setting out, always check the road status of Newfound Gap as Hwy. 441 is often closed due to bad weather. You’ll also want to check to make sure there’s enough snow to ski on Clingmans Dome. The park has a Twitter account just for road updates: @smokiesroadsnps. If the road is open, get an early start to tackle this long adventure. Espresso sugar donuts from Mad Dog’s Creamery & Donuts in Gatlinburg, Tenn., are a great way to fuel up before a big ski. Park at the Newfound Gap parking area and set out on Clingmans Dome Road just across the highway.
Along the 7.3-mile trek along the road, you’ll gain just under 1,600 feet in elevation. Be sure to drink plenty of water as the increase in elevation mixed with intense cardio activity can quickly lead to dehydration. Along the way, you’ll pass incredible scenic viewpoints with expansive views of the Smokies. When you get to the Clingmans Dome parking area, there’s another half mile of trail leading to the observation tower. The paved walkway is narrow, steep and winding so if you’re not confident navigating more challenging terrain on your skis, especially downhill, it might be wise to leave them at the bottom of the walkway and continue on foot. Be sure to wear gaiters to avoid getting snow in your boots if you end up hiking.
While the Smokies are named for their often-hazy views, the skies are usually miraculously clear on winter days, giving you unparalleled views from the observation tower of the surrounding mountains. Take in the views before enjoying a downhill cruise back to your car.
Cross-country skiing is not a common activity in North Carolina or Tennessee, so you’ll be hard pressed to find a place to rent Nordic skis in either state. If you’re planning a winter vacation to the Smokies, it’s best to bring your own equipment with you.
Kayak on Fontana Lake
While most of Fontana Lake, a reservoir formed by Fontana Dam, doesn’t technically lie within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, its shores do make up the park’s southern boundary. Rent a canoe, kayak or stand-up paddleboard from the Fontana Marina at Fontana Village (fontanavillage.com/marina/) and spend the day paddling on the lake’s calm and clear waters.
Fontana Lake has more than 240 miles of shoreline, much of it composed of remote wilderness. The lake is open to motorized watercrafts so the middle of the lake can get choppy, but stick to the shoreline, and you’ll get the chance to explore all sorts of quiet coves full of spectacular views, birds like herons, eagles and ospreys and stunning green or colorful foliage depending on the season.
While you could spend the day exploring the stunning shore and head back to the marina in the evening, you could also make an overnight or multi-night trip by packing up your canoe and heading to one of the backcountry campsites along the lake’s shores. There are five boat-in only campsites in the park that you can paddle to from Fontana Marina and several others that can also be accessed by hikers. The closest in site, Jerry Hollows, which is on an island, is a favorite. Another favorite is the Proctor campsite, named after the town of Proctor, which now lies at the bottom of Fontana Lake. The town was flooded when the lake was formed during WWII to power an aluminum plant. Today, you can explore the cemeteries that lie above the water line, the remains of a lumber mill and a single house.
Backcountry camping permits are required at all the sites that lie within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. See the section on the Appalachian Trail above for information on obtaining permits. Be sure to take your paddling skills into account when choosing a route as the lake is huge and what might not seem like that many miles on foot could feel exhausting if your muscles aren’t used to paddling.
Summit Mount LeConte
At 6,593 feet, Mount LeConte is the third tallest peak in the park. While this designation alone would make it worthy of a summit, it’s also home to one of the most unique backcountry accommodations in the National Park System: LeConte Lodge. This backcountry lodge is located near the mountain’s summit and was built in 1926. The compound consists of seven log cabins and three lodges with individual bedrooms and a communal dining room.
There are half a dozen trails leading to LeConte Lodge and the summit of Mount LeConte. While ambitious day hikers could tackle most of the routes in a single day, overnighting at LeConte Lodge is a special experience you won’t want to miss when summiting this peak.
Of the six trails that lead to the lodge, Alum Cave is the shortest but steepest at 5 miles one-way and almost 3,000 feet in elevation gain. For those looking for a long route, Brushy Mountain clocks in at 9.1 miles one-way. The most popular route, however, tends to be Trillium Gap at 6.7 miles. It’s argued to be the easiest of the six trails and it also has the bonus that hikers will likely encounter the lodge’s famous llama supply train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays along the trail. Vehicles can’t access LeConte Lodge, so food and other supplies for lodge guests must be packed in. Llamas have the least impact on the landscape, so they help deliver supplies to accommodate guests.
Once you arrive at the lodge, you can enjoy the solitude of the surrounding area. Water and pack lunches are available here for day hikers, along with merchandise from the camp store.
If you have advance reservations to stay at the lodge, a hearty dinner is served in the quaint dining room, consisting of beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples and dessert. Breakfast the next morning is scrambled eggs, Canadian bacon, biscuits, pancakes and grits. Lunch is provided in the dining room or to-go if you are staying more than one night. While meals are provided at the lodge, guests will have to carry all their own personal gear with them up the mountain. It’s the backpacking version of glamping.
Take in the views from a rocking chair on the deck, go for a hike or play board games with your fellow guests. When it’s time for bed, you’ll bunk down under the glow of kerosene lamps since there’s no electricity at the lodge. Linens are provided, and all cabins and lodge rooms have propane heaters to keep you warm on chilly mountain nights. There are no showers at the lodge, but there are flush toilets in an adjacent privy building.
Perhaps the best reason to choose to stay at LeConte Lodge rather than summiting Mount LeConte on a day hike is that you’ll be perfectly poised to watch the sunrise from Myrtle Point. This special spot is where the lodge’s builder, Jack Huff, married his wife Pauline and is a stunning place to watch the sun come up and bathe the Smokies in golden light.
This incredible backcountry experience is definitely not a secret. Reservations are coveted and hard to come by. In 2021, the lodge opened a lottery for the 2022 season in early August and closed it in late September. During this time, people could fill out a reservation request for their desired dates. On Oct. 1, the written requests were processed simultaneously with phone call requests. Usually, all dates are booked through this process, but there are occasionally dates that don’t get filled or cancellations. The lodge has a waitlist form that you can fill out and specify three dates you’d like to be waitlisted for. You can also call the office at 865-429-5704 to see if any additional dates are available for reservation. Reservations details for the 2023 season hadn’t been released as of April 2022, but are expected to follow the same system.
While the process of obtaining a reservation can be frustrating, it’s well worth the headache if you get one and get the chance to experience an overnight stay at LeConte Lodge. Find more information at www.lecontelodge.com/reservations/.
Bike Cades Cove
One of the best ways to take in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on a bicycle. On Wednesdays May 5 – Sept. 1, the park closes the popular Cades Cove Loop Road to vehicles, making it a gorgeous, safe spot to bike and experience this incredible part of the park without any traffic. The road winds through a beautiful valley full of historic buildings, such as churches, log cabins, barns and even a working grist mill. It’s also one of the best places in the park to spot wildlife, especially on vehicle-free days. Keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys and other critters.
The fully paved Cades Cove Loop is 11 miles with just over 700 feet in elevation gain. The road is hilly, so you’ll get a good workout pedaling uphill before coasting down. If you’re not up for the full 11-mile loop or traveling with kids who get tired earlier than expected, there are two options to make the loop shorter. Take the dirt Sparks Lane to make the ride 4 miles roundtrip or the dirt Hyatt Lane to make the ride 8 miles roundtrip. Note that if you take the Sparks Lane cutoff, you’ll miss most of the historic buildings.
Park at the Cades Cove Visitor Center, and head to the Cades Cove Campground to rent both adult and children’s bikes. Bike rentals are first-come, first-served, and bikes go quickly on Wednesdays. If you’re planning a morning ride, get there as soon as rentals open at 7 a.m. to ensure you get one. The last rental of the day is at 3 p.m. Pick up sandwiches from the Cades Cove grab n’ go to enjoy a picnic lunch along your ride.
Children under 16 are required by Tennessee law to wear a helmet, which is provided with your bike rental. Adults should always wear their helmets as well.
From the campground, follow the loop counterclockwise. You’ll pass the stables before encountering the first historic building along the way, the John Oliver Cabin, just past the Sparks Lane cutoff. Up next are three churches, the primitive Baptist church which requires a short detour on your left, the Methodist church which is along the main road on your right and the missionary Baptist church just past the Hyatt Lane cutoff on your left.
If you have energy to spare, park your bike at the Abrams Falls Trailhead and hike 5 miles roundtrip to the picturesque falls.
Be sure to stop at the Cable Grist Mill, where a water wheel powers the mill that still grinds corns today. You can even purchase some freshly ground cornmeal to take home with you. This is also where the only restrooms along the loop are located.
There are several more historic buildings on your way back to the campground.