Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, comprising more than 800 square miles of dense forests, streams, and lakes wreathed in the mountains’ namesake mist. The park receives more than 11 million visits every year on average, and though parking lots can get crowded (you’ll need a permit if you visit during peak season), the Smokies are still well worth a trip.
As you decide where to go and what to do in the Smoky Mountains, make sure to book your getaway with Mountain Vibe Vacations. With locations in Pigeon Forge as well as Ellijay and Blue Ridge, Mountain Vibe Vacations’ cabin rentals will serve as an ideal home base for your trip to the Smokies, no matter what you plan to do during your visit.
Between waterfall hikes, gorgeous viewpoints, and much more, there are countless different things to do and see in the Smoky Mountains. To help you start planning your visit, we’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in (and just outside) the Smoky Mountains!
Catch Views at Clingmans Dome
Topped by a 45-foot-tall observation tower, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at an altitude of 6,643 feet above sea level. On clear days, you can see up to 100 miles and seven states, making Clingmans Dome an excellent point to take in expansive views of the mountains and surrounding area. It’s also one of the most popular viewpoints in the national park since a wide, wheelchair-accessible (though steep) ramp leads to the top of the tower.
The road to Clingmans Dome is closed between December and April, but if you hike in during this time, you might just get the tower and views all to yourself. Otherwise, consider visiting during fall to experience the breathtaking foliage, or come right at sunset for a colorful show as the sun sinks below the horizon.
Explore Cades Cove
One of the most-visited destinations in the Smoky Mountains, Cades Cove is a quiet valley that you can explore on an 11-mile-long paved road. Once inhabited by some of the earliest European settlers in the region, Cades Cove features restored examples of early buildings, including a gristmill, three churches, and log cabins.
Though cars can drive through Cades Cove almost every day, the road is closed to vehicles on Wednesdays from May through September to allow hikers and bikers the chance to experience Cades Cove without all the traffic.
Even on a typical day, you can still hike several trails around Cades Cove, including the Abrams Falls trail. Take some time to slow down and imagine what life was like for some of these early inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains — as you do; you might just see some wildlife.
Hike the Appalachian Trail
One of the longest continuous hiking trails in the country, the Appalachian Trail (AT) runs more than 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine, and nearly 72 miles of it falls within national forest boundaries. Along those 71-plus miles, the AT passes some of the most famous overlooks in the Smokies, including Charlies Bunion, Shuckstack Tower, and Clingmans Dome.
Backpacking this American gem all the way through the national park will take most hikers about a week, but there are also many shorter sections perfect for a short day trip accessible at various trailheads. You can hike to points of interest like Mount LeConte and the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower, or just take this historic footpath to the nearest mountaintop and enjoy the cool breezes.
Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway runs more than 400 miles from North Carolina to Virginia, starting just north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can easily spend a day (or more) taking a scenic drive along the parkway in your car, hunting for viewpoints and short hiking trails along the way.
The Blue Ridge Parkway has something new in every season: eye-catching spring wildflowers, lush green foliage, wild blueberries in the summer, colorful autumn leaves, and even winter snowfall (though some sections are closed to cars during colder months). Even if you only have time to see a few miles of the Parkway, you won’t be disappointed by its variety and breadth of scenery year-round.
Cruise the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
For a shorter but still spectacular drive within the national park boundaries, head to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This scenic loop is only five-and-a-half miles total, but that short span covers some great sights and excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.
You’ll be near hikes to Grotto Falls and Rainbow Falls (one of the most famous attractions in the park), as well as an old farmstead that dates back to the late 1800s. There’s also the Place of a Thousand Drips, a small, car-accessible waterfall right off the road — no hiking required. You’ll want to bring along a picnic lunch or at least some snacks so you can find yourself a peaceful spot to eat and take in the scenery.
Ride Roller Coasters at Dollywood
Alright, Dollywood might not be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but it’s still in the Smoky Mountains foothills. Dolly Parton herself opened this action-packed theme park in Pigeon Forge and still runs it today.
Visitors can ride roller coasters, eat at several restaurants serving delicious Southern cuisine, and enjoy live entertainment made for the whole family. You can even see Appalachian artisans, like glassblowers and blacksmiths, showcasing their trades and selling their wares within the park. In the summer, cool down at Splash Country, and come for the dazzling lights displays and special Christmas shows during the holiday season. Keep an eye out for Mrs. Parton, too — you might see her in the park on special occasions.
Discover Local History
History buffs should plan a trip to the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, both located just past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center outside the town of Cherokee. Mingus Mill still has a working grist mill in operation, powered by a water turbine, and you can purchase the freshly ground cornmeal right on site.
The Mountain Farm Museum, meanwhile, is composed of a collection of old farm buildings, including a farmhouse, apple house, and a blacksmith shop, moved to the site from elsewhere in the park. Once you’re done exploring the mill and the museum, you can hike the trails nearby, where you may catch a glimpse of black bears or elk.
Go For a Horseback Ride in the Mountains
If you want to experience the Smoky Mountains at a slower pace, consider taking a horseback ride. Within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, three different sites — Cades Cove, Smokemont, and Sugarlands — provide guided horseback rides lasting from 45 minutes to several hours in length throughout most of the year.
You can also go for a hayride or horse-drawn carriage ride at Cades Cove, while Smokemont offers wagon rides for curious visitors. Those who already have horses can bring their own livestock into the park, which has more than 500 miles of trails marked as suitable for horseback riding. Drive-in horse camps include Cataloochee, Big Creek, and Round Bottom, where you can set up your own ride into the backcountry.
Hop on a Zipline
Generally speaking, most visitors to the Smoky Mountains come here for the peace and quiet — but if it’s a thrill ride you’re after, the local ziplining companies won’t disappoint. Several different establishments just outside the park boundaries boast hundreds of feet of cable for visitors to zip down. Over in Gatlinburg, CLIMB Works has six ziplining courses sure to satisfy both adrenaline junkies and nature lovers alike.
Other companies only slightly further from the park include Smoky Mountain Ziplines and Wears Valley Zipline Adventures, both of which have fun and exciting courses to get visitors up above the trees in the Smoky Mountains.
Float the Rivers and Streams
More than two thousand rivers, streams, and creeks flow through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and if you’re visiting during the warmer months of the year, getting out on all that water is a must.
You can inner tube at Deep Creek, take a guided whitewater rafting trip on the Pigeon River, or simply bring a picnic and a fishing pole to one of the quieter areas within the park boundaries. You can even go kayaking or canoeing on the calm, cool waters of Fontana Lake, just outside the park’s southern boundary.
Plan Your Trip and Book Your Stay
Now that you know all the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains don’t forget to book your cabin with Mountain Vibe Vacations. Whether you stay at one of our Pigeon Forge, Ellijay, or Blue Ridge locations, you’ll be just minutes from all the action in this stunning, must-visit national park.