10 Best Things to Do on a Great Smoky Mountains Vacation

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Don’t leave the park without ticking off at least one of these top ten Smokies to-dos including historic sites, grand overlooks, wildlife, and waterfalls.

1. Climb Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome at Sunset

Clingmans Dome at Sunset

This 6,643-foot round-top peak sits at the top of the park—and the state of Tennessee. To tag the high point, drive the scenic access road (closed December through March) from Newfound Gap and walk a half-mile to the summit. Don’t miss the view from the spaceship-like observation tower up top. The peak is popular, so go early in the day to beat the crowds. Strong cross-country skiers and snowshoers can also hit the high point in winter for guaranteed solitude.

2. Go Autumn Leaf-Peeping

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains in autumn

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains in autumn

The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows, and reds; target mid-September for higher-elevation colors and mid-October for lower ones.

3. Stop to Smell the Wildflowers

The Appalachian Trail runs through rhododendron bushes in bloom on Jane Bald northeast of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Appalachian Trail runs through rhododendron bushes in bloom on Jane Bald northeast of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

The Great Smoky Mountains have an explosion of wildflowers in spring and summer. More than 1,500 flowering plants can be found in the region, including delicate spring beauties, several types of trillium, trout lilies, wild geranium, and orchids; visit from mid-April to mid-May for the best blooms. The park’s showy flame azaleas and rhododendrons also burst to life starting in April in the low elevations and into June up high.

4. Paddle Fontana Lake

The boat ramp on Lake Fontana

The boat ramp on Lake Fontana

A dam on the Little River forms Fontana Lake along the park’s southern border, a long, skinny lake with 240 miles of shoreline that beckon kayakers, canoeists, anglers, and stand-up paddleboarders. Rent a boat in Fontana Village or from the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a day trip, or load up a touring kayak for a multi-day backcountry camping trip linking the remote campsites on the lake’s north shore.

5. Touch Pioneer History

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.

Before it became a national park, this landscape was home to many settlers who farmed and milled in its hidden valleys. Today, more than 90 historic buildings remain in the park. In Cades Cove, you’ll find the greatest variety of churches, mills, barns, and cabins dating back to the early 1800s. Head to Oconaluftee to tour the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of structures from the late 1800s, or visit nearby Mingus Mill. Cataloochee houses a school, church, and frame homes from the late 1800s

6. Go Auto Touring on Historic Park Roads

Sunrise at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sunrise at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Driving the 11-mile one-way loop road through Cades Cove takes you through a lush valley surrounded by mountains. Stop to visit historic buildings, a grist mill, and watch wildlife. For a quieter ride, head to the Roaring Forks motor nature trail with views of rushing streams, old log cabins, another mill, and forested wilderness. Other beautiful drives include the 18-mile Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend, and the Blue Ridge Parkway (outside of the park).

7. Get Sprayed by a Waterfall

Abrams Falls.

Abrams Falls.

Over 100 prominent cascades and waterfalls can be found inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park plus numerous smaller cascades and falls on the 2,000 miles of streams and rivers. Hike the well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, or Rainbow Falls or drive to Meigs Falls, The Sinks, or Place of a Thousand Drips.

8. Walk the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail Sign inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Appalachian Trail Sign inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Seventy-one miles of this famous trail bisects Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most vacationers don't have the time (or willingness) to through-hike the entire run but there are some sections of the trail that can be done in a day. Take the trailhead from Newfound Gap Road 7 miles to Clingmans Dome (the trail parallels Clingmans Dome Road). Have more energy? Hike to Silers Bald 5 miles one-way west from Clingmans Dome.

8. Stay in a Rustic (or Glamorous) Cabin

LeConte Lodge on Mt. Le Conte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

LeConte Lodge on Mt. Le Conte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Even though Great Smoky only has one lodging option, cabins, cottages, and vacation homes are plentiful in the Great Smoky Mountains region. You'll find rustic cabins for adventure travel, luxurious homes with large balconies, outdoor kitchens, and hot tubs for family reunions, and romantic hideaways for honeymooners and other occasions. One thing they all have in common is the view of the Great Smoky Mountains.

10. Be an Unapologetic Tourist

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee at night.

Surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Park are gateway towns with attractions and souvenirs for the traveler. After a retreat to nature, emerge into town and enjoy aquariums, rides, museums, and Dollywood, an amusement park and resort founded by country singer and actress Dolly Parton. A bit farther down the road you'll enter Asheville. There you can tour the Biltmore Mansion built by George Vanderbilt, and sample wine from their estate winery.

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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