A Perfect Day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Got 24 hours? Get the most out of them with this guide. Take a hike, touch the past, cruise a view, and more.
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Wake up in Cades Cove

Sunrise at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sunrise at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

There’s no better way to savor the peaceful Cades Cove valley than by heading there bright and early on a Wednesday or Saturday morning (spring through fall): That’s when the 11-mile loop road is closed to cars until 10 a.m., making it perfect for stress-free cycling. Look for deer, black bears, coyotes, wild turkeys, and foxes in the open meadows as you pedal, but don’t get so swept up in your ride that you forget to stop and check out some of the beautifully preserved historic buildings throughout the cove.

Get Oriented

Sugarlands Visitor Center

Sugarlands Visitor Center

Swing over to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up park information, find out about current conditions, chat with rangers, and watch the free, 20-minute introduction video. Browse the natural history exhibits to learn more about what you’ll be seeing later today.

Take a Hike

Hiking the Baxter Creek Trail near Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hiking the Baxter Creek Trail near Mount Sterling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

There’s something for everyone on the park’s 800 miles of trails, from easy strolls along quiet rivers to strenuous mountain climbs. Make sure to save time for at least a short hike into the Smokies’ magnificent backcountry. Looking for a laid-back walk? Try the Oconaluftee River Trail in North Carolina or Laurel Falls in Tennessee. Into old-growth forest? Hit the Albright Grove Loop Trail. After big views over the park’s peaks? Hike to Silers Bald or Andrews Bald for unobstructed vistas. Looking for solitude? Make tracks for the Twentymile area, Cataloochee, Big Creek, or Cosby.

Head for the Hills

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains viewed from the overlook on Newfound Gap Road

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains viewed from the overlook on Newfound Gap Road

Cruise up to Newfound Gap to experience the park’s spruce-fir forest ecosystem, which blankets the highest elevations. From the 5,046-foot gap (a low point between mountains, also known as a pass or a notch), you’ll find wide views over the peaks and valleys. If you have time, continue southwest from here to touch the high point of the park at Clingmans Dome, a short but steep hike from the parking lot. Or take a hike along the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Newfound Gap on its 2,190-mile journey from Georgia to Maine.

Clingmans Dome at Sunset

Clingmans Dome at Sunset

Touch the Past

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

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee

The Smokies are full of vestiges of the area’s pioneer farmer past, including churches, cabins, barns, gristmills, cemeteries, and blacksmith shops dating back to the 1800s. On the Tennessee side, head to the Roaring Fork area’s Noah “Bud” Ogle Trail to explore a preserved farmstead or cruise the Cades Cove loop road past several structures. In North Carolina, the Cataloochee area and the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center both feature collections of pioneer buildings.

Attend a Ranger Program

Park rangers offer a variety of fascinating (and free!) programs on everything from bears to astronomy to history, including family-friendly activities, guided hikes, and nighttime campfire talks. Kids shouldn’t miss the chance to become a Junior Ranger by completing a series of activities in the park to earn an official badge. Check at any visitor center or look at the park newspaper for the latest schedule.

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.

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