Top 10 Things To Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Whether you're looking to summit a mountain or want to enjoy a leisurely hike through the forest, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an outdoor paradise for people of all ages and abilities. With miles of trails, amusement parks and attractions, and outstanding flora and fauna, it's no surprise it's the most visited national park in the US.

Nestled between Tennessee and North Carolina, the park encompasses both the Great Smoky Mountains and parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its main entrances are in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Cherokee, North Carolina, and Townsend, Tennessee. The region is known for beautiful foggy vistas and inspiring wildlife scenes.

Designated a national park in 1940 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve, the Great Smoky Mountains are home to diverse human and environmental history. Humans have inhabited the area for thousands of years. The park has long protected historic structures and artifacts to continue telling the stories of people that once called the region home.

The Smoky Mountains offer an adventure like no other. Climb up Clingmans Dome and experience the park from its highest point. Visit in the fall and drive the motor nature trail or parkway to experience some of the country's most beautiful fall foliage. Go camping, ride along the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and dive into the sea at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies.

Whatever adventure you’re looking for, it’s waiting for you here. Here are the top 10 things to do when you visit the Great Smoky Mountains.

Also Read: Travel Tips for Planning Your First Trip to the Smoky Mountains

1: Climb Clingmans Dome

Climb Clingmans Dome
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/David Fulmer

Did you know the Great Smoky Mountains are home to Tennessee's highest point and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi? Standing at 6,600 feet tall, Clingmans Dome is a spectacular summit with unbelievable views of the mountains. On a clear day, you could see as far as 100 miles away.

While you can drive the seven miles to the top, there’s a steep half-mile trail that leads to the true summit – and an observation tower. The trail is paved and well-marked, but it’s very steep. Combined with the high altitude, it makes for a challenging but quick hike. There are several “pull-off” spots for you to stop and rest.

The views are well worth the challenge, though. The observation tower sits above the tree line, giving you the best seat in the house to see the Smokies. When you get to the summit, you'll notice a nearly 20-degree drop in temperature, so bring a jacket! The road leading to the summit is closed through the winter, but the observation tower is open year-round.

Address: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Also Read: Most Amazing Things To See & Do in Gatlinburg

2: Go Autumn Leaf-Peeping

Go Autumn Leaf-Peeping
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Oleg.

There’s nothing like spending a beautiful fall day in the Smoky Mountains! As the temperature drops and the green trees transform into bright reds, yellows, and oranges, leaf-peeping in the Smoky Mountains is like no other. The colorful scenery that blankets the rolling mountains will leave you breathless.

There are so many species of trees in the park that you'll see numerous colors, from golden yellow and deep red to bright scarlet and glowing orange. The beauty of fall in the Smokies attracts a lot of visitors, so plan and arrive early. The best time to view vibrant fall foliage is when temperatures are in the 70s during the day and the 40s at night.

Leaf-peeping is a science, and you need to time your trip right so that you can experience the changing colors at their peaks. The leaves at higher altitudes change earlier and typically begin in early October. In October, the best places to view fall foliage are driving along Clingmans Dome Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Foothills Parkway.

3: Newfound Gap

Newfound Gap

Drive through the lowest drivable pass in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Newfound Gap. At a 5,000-foot elevation, the road travels 31 miles through the park’s center and past some of the most beautiful sights. As you cross the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, you’ll experience a diverse array of changing forests and unique wildlife.

Newfound Gap Road offers some spectacular sights, making it one of the most scenic attractions in the park – and the country. At the Newfound Gap parking area, stand on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line or walk along the historic Appalachian Trail. The trail traverses over Newfound Gap Road, so you have easy access to explore.

The parking area provides breathtaking views, but more spectacular sights await at the Rockefeller Memorial's top, a gift from the Rockefeller Foundation to help create the national park. As you drive along the road, you'll have the opportunity to stop at numerous overlooks to take in all that the Smoky Mountains has to offer.

Address: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

4: Cades Cove

Cades Cove
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/NPS

One of the most popular spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove, a vast valley known for some of the best wildlife viewings in the area. Drive the 11-mile loop around the cove to discover white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, raccoons, skunks. If you’re lucky, you may encounter a black bear or coyote!

Wildlife isn’t the only exciting attraction at Cades Cove. The winding road offers some of the most scenic views in the park. The mountain peak backdrop and rolling green hills will keep you in awe the entire time. Historic early 19th century buildings, including churches, log homes, barns, and mills, invite visitors to go back in time to when European settlers inhabited the area.

Stop at the Visitors Center to learn more about Cades Cove and visit the historic water-powered mill nearby. The drive around Cades Cove can take between two and four hours so that visitors can leisurely drive through. Stop at pull-offs to stretch your legs or discover the land. There are also several trails along the way to explore on foot.

Address: Cades Cove Loop Rd., Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 37738

5: Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Bill McMannis

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its numerous scenic and beautiful drives, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is no exception. This one-way, six-mile-long loop winds past lush forests, bubbling mountain streams, and historic buildings like grist mills. From log buildings to unforgettable natural splendor, this trail is a can’t-miss destination.

Right before entering the trail, stop and walk through the Noah “Bud” Ogle nature trail. The path takes you through a mountain farmstead nestled in hardwood forest. Just beyond that are the park's most famous falls, Rainbow Falls, and the five-mile trail to reach it. Whether you're looking for a quick drive or hours of exploring, Roaring Fork is as long or as short as you want.

The best time to drive the trail is after heavy rainfall when the bubbling streams transform into inspiring gushing falls. There are numerous trails along Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to take you to stunning waterfalls. Grotto Falls is just off the road, and Place of a Thousand Drips provides a breathtaking finale at the end of the trip.

6: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Brent Moore

The Smoky Mountains is home to bears, mountains, and exciting attractions out of Gatlinburg. When you're visiting the area, you can't miss Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. As one of the top aquariums in the United States, it's home to more than 100,000 exotic ocean species. Encounter colorful fish, barracudas, jellyfish, and much more while exploring.

Stroll through the 340-foot underwater tunnel (one of the longest in the world!) where you'll come face-to-face with sharks, stingrays, turtles, and more sea life. Stand along the moving path, which will guide you through the tunnel. For kids, the Gatlinburg aquarium is a series of tunnels and the penguin exhibit where kids can crawl and explore right alongside them.

Don't be discouraged by the aquarium's size compared to other nationally ranked facilities. The world-class exhibits at Ripley's provide an experience like no other, making it one of the country's top aquariums. The aquarium gets more than one million visitors every year, so plan your visit during non-peak times or weekdays for a more relaxing stay.

Address: 88 River Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

7: Foothills Parkway

Foothills Parkway
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/NPS Site

The 72-mile Foothills Parkway is a historic, scenic national parkway that takes you through the Smoky Mountains' most beautiful spots. Construction began on the parkway in 1944, and it's still yet to be completed. While it's estimated to take another 20 years, there are several miles of roadway open to exploring that give great views of the Smoky Mountains.

The southern section of the Foothills Parkway is open to visitors. It offers some of the best views of the Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee Valley. On the clearest days, you'll see more than 50 miles to the Cumberland Mountains, creating a breathtaking sight. The parkway is part of the Great Smoky Mountain Loop, a 150-mile loop that takes drivers on a day-long journey.

The Foothills Parkway offers impressive views of fields below towering mountain peaks, lush greenery, and much more. While it’s not completed, the open sections are a must. Drive past expansive valleys and gushing streams. Pull off to discover overlooks and take in the surrounding natural phenomenon.

Address: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

8: Grotto Falls Trail

Grotto Falls Trail
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/Phil Horton

If you're looking for a fantastic hike with unforgettable sights, add Grotto Falls Trail to your list. The 2.6-mile walk takes you through old forests and toward impressive waterfalls. In the spring, wildflowers peek up on the side of the path as you cross over streams and walk through the woods. Grotto Falls is accessible after about a mile trek.

The cascading falls are the only waterfall visitors can walk behind in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making a popular destination all year. Standing at 25 feet high, Grotto Falls is a beautiful, shady spot to relax and enjoy the Smoky Mountains' beauty. As you explore the falls, be sure to watch for slippery rocks – particularly in the winter.

Grotto Falls is accessed from the Trillium Gap Trailhead (located outside Gatlinburg) off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. After visiting the falls, you can continue two more miles to the Brushy Mountain summit. Avid hikers often hike five more miles to Mt. LeConte’s summit, which is more than 6,500 feet in elevation.

Address: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

9: Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

If you’re tired of hiking or driving, take a break and hitch a ride aboard a steam or diesel train on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Located just outside the national park on the North Carolina side, the railroad takes you from a historic train depot through breathtaking countryside. There are even events year-round to make the journey even more special.

Start your journey at the Bryson City depot. Depending on the season, the railroad company will be offering a variety of seasonal excursions. One of the most popular rides is the Nantahala Gorge Excursion, which features a train ride along the Nantahala River. You’ll ride across Fontana Lake and into the gorge, all the while experiencing the beauty of the Smokies.

Whatever excursion visitors choose, First Class seating includes onboard dining while gliding past scenic mountain views, gushing rivers, and quaint small towns. Passengers can also purchase a boxed lunch. Many ticket options also include a souvenir travel mug and tote bag. The open-air gondolas aboard the trains offer the best views, especially for photos.

Address: 45 Mitchell St, Bryson City, NC 28713

10: Go Camping at the Park

Go Camping at the Park
Photo Courtesy: Flickr/NPS Site

A trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park isn't complete with camping! There are numerous campgrounds available to set up a tent and roast some hot dogs and marshmallows. Cades Cove is one of the most popular spots to set up a tent, so reserve early! Cosby Campground offers several secluded areas in the heart of the mountains. It's a great spot for avid hikers or fishers.

Abram's Creek is a first-come, first-served campsite, so you don't have to plan weeks in advance. If you're car camping, Deep Creek Campground offers one of the best spots to set up your car or RV. The region offers easy access to waterfalls and mountain biking trails. It also features restrooms with running water and fire grates and picnic tables at each site.

Wherever you decide to set up a tent or RV in the Smoky Mountains, each campground offers a relaxing, cozy spot to sleep. Whether you love the community of close-knit campgrounds or want a secluded site nestled in the mountains, there is something for everyone.

Address: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738

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