Park Itineraries

48 Hours in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s our nation’s busiest park, so here are tips on how to see the best of Great Smoky in just two days. Make the most of your time by visiting some of our favorite spots in both the Tenn. and N.C. sides of the park.

Day 1: N.C. Side of the Park

See Elk at Cataloochee

Bull elk grazing near the Palmer Chapel in Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Bull elk grazing near the Palmer Chapel in Cataloochee Valley. Photo: iStock

In the summer and fall, start on the North Carolina side and wake up early for wildlife viewing at Cataloochee. Arriving early helps you beat the crowds and is one of the best times to see the elk.

Tip: Cove Creek Road is the main access to Cataloochee. Check current conditions at www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Visitors look at the relief map of the national park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Park visitors check out the giant relief map at the visitor center. Photo: Gloria Wadzinski

Talk to a ranger in the visitors center about the park and pick up park maps (free) and pamphlets on the different sections of the park here. Pay for the full-color and really informative pamphlets on the honor system for $1.

Explore the Mountain Farm Museum

The Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Valley inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Valley inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Depositphotos

Go on a self-guided tour of historic buildings to learn about the area’s past. For hundreds of years, Cherokee Native Americans farmed in the Smoky Mountains in permanent settlements. When the government forcibly removed the Cherokees, settlers moved in, building communities that were later supported by railroads and commercial logging.

Drive Newfound Gap Road

Sunset at Newfound Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
View at the Newfound Gap overlook. Photo: Depositphotos

The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Cherokee, N.C. with incredible views. Take a selfie with a foot in two states when you reach the Tennessee-North Carolina sign. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.

Sunset at Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome at Sunset
Clingmans Dome at Sunset. Photo: Depositphotos

Stroll just a half mile from the trailhead to the highest point in Tennessee. On a clear day, you can see seven states, which makes seeing the sun set from here all the more magnificent. Access the trailhead by parking at the end of Clingmans Dome Road via Newfound Gap Road.

Horizontal rule

Day 2: Tenn. Side of the Park

Raft the Pigeon River

Rafting the Pigeon River in Tennessee. Photo by Razvan Orendovici via Flickr
Rafting the Pigeon River in Tennessee. Photo: Razvan Orendovici via Flickr

Wake up and get ready to get wet. See the park from a thrilling seat on a raft cruising down the Pigeon River, which follows the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The rafting launch point is minutes before the first of ten Class III rapids.

Hike to Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Laurel Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Depositphotos

A relatively short paved hike, this 2.6-mile trail leads you to the 85-feet-high Laurel Falls. Enjoy the mist and sight of these amazing falls. Note that while the trail is paved, it’s not a great path for wheelchairs or strollers because it is uneven.

Picnic at Cades Cove

Cades Cove Picnic Area
Cades Cove Picnic Area. Photo: Gloria Wadzinski

Stop at the picnic area in Cades Cove to have lunch and take in the scenery. Get here by entering Cades Cove Road via Laurel Creek Road. At this entry point, there is a quick left-turn to get to the campground and store before entering the loop.

Cruise the Cades Cove Loop

Sunset in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Lee Coursey via Flickr
Sunset in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo: Lee Coursey via Flickr

Once a vibrant community of 700 people, Cades Cove can be seen in an 11-mile loop sprinkled with stops for you to explore the history of this settlement before it became a part of the park.

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.