After hiking and exploring national parks on the west coast over the years, I vastly underrated the east coast’s parks. But the Great Smoky Mountains National Park went above and beyond to prove itself as one of the best national parks on the east coast and one of the most diverse in the United States.
Encompassing more than 522,000 acres of pristine wilderness and forest in Tennessee and North Carolina, the Smoky Mountains truly offer something for everyone. If you’re a hard-core to beginner hiker, the park’s trails, which traverse the famed Appalachian Trail at many twists and turns, will scratch your hiking itch.
If you enjoy camping, there are secluded spots in the park surrounded by greenery. If you enjoy getting out on the water or just seeing lots of water, there’s whitewater rafting and endless streams with natural swimming pools. If you’re not a hiker but enjoy a great view overlooking mountaintops as far as the eye can see, there are plenty of pull-off overlooks on the winding roads traversing the park.
If you enjoy… well, let’s just dive into all the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m positive you’ll be able to cross a few of these off your list during the first visit and head back to finish them off.
While hiking continues to surprise me at nearly every park I visit, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s paradise. It features more than 850 miles of hiking trails, including 70 miles on the famed Appalachian Trail.
To put it lightly, you could hike through the park for years and still not step foot on every square inch of trail the park has to offer. From easy nature walks to towering waterfalls and hard hikes on trails filled flowing streams, waterfalls, caves and pristine panorama vintage points, hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the absolute best things to do.
I spent six days total in the park during the beginning of a five-month road trip and I didn’t even scratch the surface of what the park offers. Although I did hike many different trails to get different perspectives of the park.
Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, Grotto Falls, Little Cataloochee and Clingmans Dome trails were my favorite hikes in the park.
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2. Whitewater Rafting
If you’re an adventure seeker or just want to relax on the river, whitewater rafting in the Smokies is a necessity. The best place to do so is in Hartford, Tennessee, which takes you down the Pigeon River on the north side of the national park.
While late summers typically feature Class 1 to Class 3 rapids, early spring and after heavy rainfall can get the rapids up to Class 4. I’ve been whitewater rafting in an actual raft before, and it was awesome, but this time I decided to go solo and rent an inflatable kayak.
If you like kayaking or just want to mix it up a bit, I strongly encourage you to go with the kayak. It allows you to go at your own pace and hit the rapids as fast as you can paddle! To my knowledge, Big Bear Rafting is one of the only places you can rent an inflatable kayak — and it’s well worth it!
3. Scenic Driving
It doesn’t matter whether you or aren’t a hiker, scenic drives through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park rivals almost any lookout point at the peak of the trail. The only difference with driving is that it’s much easier and you can hit a lot more peaks in a single day.
The park offers so much diversity that every drive feels like you’re in a new national park. It really is incredible. My favorite scenic drive was Newfound Gap Road, which is a 30-mile trek down US 441. It features seemingly endless overlooks that cut deep into the mountains, including the namesake Newfound Gap, which is at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
But you’ll also need to check out Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Little River Road Auto Tour. Since the park is so diverse, the speed limits are low and there’s plenty to see along the way, expect each drive to take at least 1 hour to 1.5 hours each way.
If you’re visiting the Great Smoky Mountains, the best and most efficient way to see more of the park — and truly experience the park — is to camp. There are four main campgrounds within the park (Smokemont, Elkmont, Cades Cove and Cosby Campgrounds) that you’ll want to stay at. The remaining campgrounds are either reserved for groups or horses or are just too far away from everything.
If you do stay in a hotel in a place like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, be prepared to spend four to five hours of driving in your vehicle each day, especially if you want to cover a lot of ground in the park.
The only knock I have on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that everything is very far away from one another. But it makes the park seem less crowded and makes for some much-needed rest between hikes and other activities.
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5. Wildlife Watching
Wildlife watching is one of the best things to do in the Smokies because it’s free and the park has such a diverse array of wildlife. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more than 1,500 black bears, so your chances of seeing one (or luck out like me and see three in six days) are really good.
After being hunted to the brink and ultimately disappearing from the park, 25 elk were reintroduced into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. Today, elk are thriving and there are around 200 estimated to be living in the park.
You can also see wild turkeys around almost every bend — seriously, they’re everywhere on the side of the road. And there are so many birds and other wildlife species to see in the park.
The best places to see black bear are on the Newfound Gap Road, Cataloochee Valley and Cades Cove. The best places to see elk is in the Cataloochee Valley, Cades Cove and near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The best places to see birds, hawks and other wildlife are pretty much everywhere in the park.
6. Waterfall Chasing
There are more than 100 named waterfalls scattered through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But there are so many more that are less than 5-feet tall that are still worth chasing. The only hike I went on without a waterfall was Clingmans Dome, but that’s just because it’s the highest peak in the park and it’s tough for water to begin that high.
Some of the best waterfalls in the park (all of these require a bit of hiking) are Grotto Falls, Rainbow Falls, Laurel Falls and Ramsey Cascades, which is the tallest waterfall in the park and requires an 8.1-mile hike.
7. Cades Cove Bicycling
While I didn’t get the chance to rent a bicycle and bike around the 11-mile loop road in Cades Cove, many people swear this is one of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can rent a bike for $7.50 per hour for adults and $4.50 per hour for children at the entrance to the 11-mile loop.
Cades Cove features incredible scenery. Stunning in fact. But it’s also at the base of the mountain, so you won’t get those cooler temperatures you find high in the mountains. If you plan to bike the Cades Cove loop, especially in the summer, get there early so you’re not biking in the heat of the day.
Cades Cove is home to a ton of old homes, farms and churches from the settlers back in the early to late 1800s. While many of these structures weren’t originally located in Cades Cove, each has been moved there in its original homestead fashion.
8. Fontana Lake Paddling
Fontana Lake is a 16-square-mile lake at the south part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It actually separates the Smokies from the Nantahala National Forest. But it’s a dammed lake at the base of forested mountains that creates such an incredible view!
You can rent a standup paddleboard, kayak or boat, but the cheaper route is to choose one of the two paddling options.
9. Wildflower Walking
Alright, this may sound a little cheesy, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is brimming with wildflowers. You’ve got to sit back and enjoy what nature surrounds you with, and you’re almost always surrounded by colorful wildflowers in this park.
Wildflowers are in bloom during spring and summer, so visiting during the fall will provide some different shades of colors. But if you do visit in the fall, be sure to take in the park during the amazing changing of the leaves.
10. Horseback Riding
I was all set to hop on a horse and gallop through the Smokies on horseback at Smoky Mountains Riding Stables. That was before the whole quarantine thing shut them down. I guess they just couldn’t have multiple people hopping on the same horse throughout the day, so every riding stable I looked into was close.
But if you go after this is all over, be sure to check out Smoky Mountain, Smokemont or Sugarlands riding stables. They’re the only three places in the area that are registered to take you on horseback through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The other stables on the outskirts of the park aren’t allowed to take you inside the park’s boundaries.