Welcome to the most visited national park in the United States of America!
👆 One of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is to see elk!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretches across 2 states: Tennessee and North Carolina.
The list of activities below will include things to do on both sides of the national park.
The list below includes:
The Smoky Mountains are a part of the Blue Ridge mountain range (which extends from Georgia to Pennsylvania) which is a part of the larger Appalachian mountain range (which extends from Georgia to Maine).
Although sometimes the exact boundaries may vary depending on the source, this can work for a simple understanding.
Cost to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The national park entry fee for Great Smoky Mountains National Park is FREE! This is considered to be unusual for a national park.
And pretty much all the things to do in the Smoky Mountains are outdoors and also free.
Where to stay during a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
If you’re trying to figure out where to stay during your Smoky Mountains vacation, staying on the Tennessee side will generally be more convenient.
The main “gateway town” to the national park on the Tennessee side is Gatlinburg TN.
A quieter nearby town is also Townsend TN that is connected to the national park.
Many people also stay in Pigeon Forge (Dollywood). Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are considered to be the 2 tourist towns of the Smoky Mountains.
That said, if you’re looking for a quieter experience, or a generally less popular experience, you may appreciate staying on the North Carolina side.
The “gateway town” to the national park on the North Carolina side is generally said to be Cherokee NC.
The nearest “big city” on the North Carolina side is Asheville NC.
Driving from Asheville to the southern side of the national park is around a little less than 1.5 hour drive.
Most of the most popular attractions are on the northern side of the park.
There are also many campgrounds scattered throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
For the greatest convenience, the Elkmont Campground might be best. This campground is near Gatlinburg and it’s also one of the most popular campgrounds.
You might like Smokemont Campground if your main plan is to do the popular hikes in the Smoky Mountains that come with the best mountain views, since this would provide easy access to Newfound Gap Road, where many of these hikes are found.
Otherwise, you can find many more quieter campgrounds throughout the national park like the Cosby Campground.
There are no showers at any of the campgrounds. And aside from special exceptions (medical/handicapped), campsites have no electricity.
There are regular bathrooms (with regular flush toilets and electricity) at the popular campgrounds.
See more about planning a Smoky Mountains camping trip.
And see below for the big list of activities for your Smoky Mountains vacation!
Side note! See the more of the Smoky Mountains:
- Best shoes for hiking in the Smoky Mountains
- Best hikes with VIEWS in the Smoky Mountains
- Best scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains
- Driving the scenic route from Gatlinburg to Clingman's Dome
- Driving the slow scenic route from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove
- The big list of things to do in the Smoky Mountains
Save the Smoky Mountains video playlist to watch on youtube later!
PLUS visit the Kentucky national park: Mammoth Cave National Park
I am a getyourguide partner: Search for the best tours from Pigeon Forge TN
Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park when it’s your first trip to the Smokies!
1. Sugarlands Visitor Center
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the visitor center that’s on the Tennessee side of the national park.
Make this your first stop to get an intro to the Smoky Mountains! (And to get the $5 Smoky Mountains starter kit so you can be your own guide as you drive around the national park.)
2. Cataract Falls
These are waterfalls you can see with a short walk on a trail.
There’s also a trail that you can take directly from the visitor center that will lead to Cataract Falls.
3. Rainbow Falls
We’ll call this is well-rounded Smoky Mountains hike!
It’s a hiking trail that goes UP the mountain, you’ll be hiking alongside a creek for a bit, you’ll be hiking with mountain views for a bit, and then you’ll get to see waterfalls!
If you want to make it a very long day hike, you can even continue on Rainbow Falls Trail to hike to the Mt LeConte summit. (There are many trails that lead to Mt LeConte.)
You will pass the Rainbow Falls trailhead to get to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
And this is among the popular scenic drives in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It’s a slow-going one way road that is in very close proximity to Gatlinburg.
It’s a scenic drive that you can do without any stops, but if you do want to make a day of it, there are a number of things you can do.
You can do some waterfall hikes, see a historic cabin or 2, see a historic mill, or just make a stop to sit alongside the creek and listen to the water flowing.
Some of these more specific stops are next on the list.
I saw 2 bears in the Roaring Fork area, I think it was on Cherokee Orchard Road, which is the road that leads to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This is a quieter waterfall hike located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
A hike you can do that will likely allow you to escape the crowds.
It’s a mostly downhill hike to get to the waterfalls, which means a mostly uphill hike on the way back.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Baskins Creek Falls
6. Grotto Falls
These are the popular waterfalls located on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and among the most popular waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This is also one of the best hikes near Gatlinburg.
It’s an uphill trail to get to the waterfalls, and you’ll also pass smaller waterfalls along the way.
Once you make it to Grotto Falls, you have the chance to walk behind waterfalls.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Grotto Falls
7. Ephraim Bales Cabin
There are a number of historic cabins you can see when you do the Roaring Fork drive, and this is one of them.
8. Alfred Reagan Mill
There is also a small historic mill that you will come across as you are driving along the Roaring Fork road.
/end Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Moving on!
9. Fighting Creek Gap Road
A scenic road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that has a few pullover spots for lookout points with mountain views.
If you are looking for a campground that’s in the Smoky Mountains and in close proximity to Gatlinburg and convenient enough to access many popular spots in the national park, then this might be the campground you want to stay at.
There is also a campground store here, which sells firewood and ice, along with basic camping supplies in case you have forgotten something.
This is one of the most popular campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It’s possible to get a creekside campsite.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Elkmont Campground
11. Laurel Falls
This is another one of the most popular waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also in close proximity to Gatlinburg.
Because of its popularity, the National Park Service implemented a Laurel Falls trailhead parking reservation requirement.
It’s an uphill hike to the waterfalls, and you’ll get a glimpse of mountain views along the way.
This is one of the few paved hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, although the pavement is uneven in spots.
You can climb down below the waterfalls to sit and eat your light picnic lunch while listening to the waterfalls.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity:
Another scenic drive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This is a winding road, mostly along a river (Little River!), and there are some small waterfalls you can make quick stops to see along the way (next on the list).
You can also make a stop to sit alongside the river and listen to the water flowing.
There are a number of pullover parking areas on the road, and there are some spots where you can climb down to be riverside.
You can take the slow scenic route on Little River Road when you drive from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove (coming up on the list).
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Little River Road
13. The Sinks
Among the small waterfalls you can stop to see when driving Little River Road is called the Sinks, although these are more of a man-made waterfalls.
You can make it a scenic lunch stop here for a riverside picnic spot. Nearby is a hiking trail to Little Greenbrier School, what used to be a schoolhouse and church.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area
15. Townsend Wye
If you’ll be entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Townsend, this is a spot where you can go and wade in the river.
It’s rocky, so wear hiking sandals or water shoes if you want to walk in the river!
This can also make for a casual riverside picnic spot.
You can bring along camping chairs to sit alongside the river.
16. Laurel Creek Road
This is another scenic drive that runs through the national park. And it’s another road that has a number of pullover parking areas.
17. Cades Cove Loop Road
Cades Cove is among the most popular areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And it’s the Cades Cove Loop Road that makes it famous.
This is yet another scenic drive in the Smoky Mountains.
And this is yet another slow-going one way road, with a few side roads and hiking trails, and there are many ways to experience it.
Biking the Cades Cove Loop Road is a popular activity, and many people bring their bikes from home.
Otherwise, there is a bike rental shop near the Cades Cove campground store.
There are also car-free days on the Cades Cove Loop Road, and this would be the best day to bike or walk the loop. (All day Wednesdays were car-free in 2020.)
It’s not unusual to see bears in Cades Cove.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity:
There are a number of historic cabins that you can stop off at while driving along or biking along Cades Cove Loop Road.
This is one of them.
You can walk inside the John Oliver Cabin and imagine what life may have been like back in the day.
If you want to walk the Cades Cove Loop Road, then you can make this cabin your destination.
It is the cabin that will give you the shortest walk.
You can then walk back by taking Sparks Lane.
Otherwise, if you won’t be walking, there are more historic cabins along the loop road, and you can make this your first cabin stop of many as you bike or drive the Cades Cove Loop Road.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: John Oliver Cabin
19. Abrams Falls
Hiking to Abrams Falls is another stop you can make as you drive along Cades Cove Loop Road.
These are the Cades Cove waterfalls you want to see. It’s a hike to get there.
The Abrams Falls trailhead is located down a road off of Cades Cove Loop Road.
There’s a half mile trail to the Elijah Oliver cabin if you are up for it at the end of your hike.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Abrams Falls
20. John Cable Mill
The is a stop you can make when driving along Cades Cove Loop Road in order to see a historic mill in the Smoky Mountains.
There’s the Cades Cove campground located right near the start of the loop road. Experience Cades Cove at a slower pace and at different times of the day by camping in Cades Cove!
You can see the morning fog in Cades Cove, and you can see the sunset across the mountains in Cades Cove!
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Cades Cove campground
22. Newfound Gap Road
Another scenic drive in the Smoky Mountains! And among the most popular drives in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
And, if you are going to choose just ONE drive to do in the Smoky Mountains, this may be it! Driving Newfound Gap Road is possibly the most scenic route in the Smoky Mountains.
This is US-441, the main road that runs through the national park from north to south.
This is the scenic route to drive from Gatlinburg TN to Cherokee NC.
If you were to drive straight through without stopping and without traffic, then it would take about it hour.
But, you will probably stop, and there will probably be traffic!
So you can expect it to take longer. Just how long will depend on what stops you make!
The next few things on the list are some specific stops you can make along Newfound Gap Road.
There are a number of overlooks with parking areas that you can stop off at along Newfound Gap Road, and this is one of them.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Carlos Campbell overlook
24. Quiet walkway
Along the road as you are driving along Newfound Gap Road, as well as other main roads throughout the park, there are “quiet walkways” that you can find along the way.
These are usually short nature trails if you want to stop to stretch your legs or just go for a leisurely nature walk.
They usually have few people on them if you want to go for a walk through a forest away from crowds.
25. Chimneys picnic area
If you end up doing a number of the hikes that are located off of Newfound Gap Road, then this picnic area can be a convenient stop for lunch!
You can sit at a picnic table that’s creekside. It can also make for a scenic stop with a creek and boulders that you can get up close and personal to.
26. Hike to Chimney Tops overlook
This trailhead is directly on Newfound Gap Road.
This is a hiking trail UP to the Chimney Tops overlook.
It used to be possible to hike all the way to the landmark called Chimney Tops, but because of a wildfire it’s no longer deemed safe to hike all the way there.
Instead, the destination is the overlook.
27. Loop Road
This is a small little loop that you’ll drive on Newfound Gap Road!
This is another trailhead that you’ll find directly on Newfound Gap Road.
You can see the unique rock formation that is Arch Rock and hike through a rock.
Part of the trail goes right along a creek.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Arch Rock
And then you can also continue on the same trail, past Arch Rock, to hike to the Alum Cave Bluffs.
This is another unique rock formation in the Smoky Mountains.
This is a common turnaround point and hiking to the cave bluffs is a popular hike.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Alum Cave Bluffs
And then you can continue on even further on the same trail, past the Alum Cave Bluffs to hike to the 3rd highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hike to the Mount LeConte summit!
There are many trails that lead to Mt LeConte, and if you take the Alum Cave Trail (passing by Arch Rock and Alum Cave Bluffs), then you can expect it to be an 11+ mile round trip hike.
Just how long will depend on where you go once in the Mt LeConte summit area.
Other trail options to get to the Mt LeConte summit include the Trillium Gap Trail (you will hike by Grotto Falls) and Rainbow Falls Trail (you will hike by Rainbow Falls).
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Mount LeConte hike
Once in the Mt LeConte summit area, you can hike the Myrtle Point Trail to get some more amazing views of the Smoky Mountains.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Myrtle Point
32. Hike to Cliff Tops
Another spot you can hike to in the Mt LeConte summit area for grand mountain views.
33. LeConte Lodge
There is also the LeConte Lodge near the Mt LeConte summit if you want to spend an overnight in one of the highest areas of the Smoky Mountains.
Depending on the weather, you might be sleeping above the clouds!
The only way to get to the Mount LeConte Lodge is to hike to it!
This makes it a hike-in hike-out lodge!
It’s also in high demand.
Book sooner rather than later.
Cost of LeConte Lodge rooms per night start at around $175 per person and $350 for 2 people, with dinner and breakfast included.
The 2021 season dates were from March 22 to November 23.
34. Morton Mountain Tunnel
This is a short little tunnel, but in case you like tunnels, here’s one to look forward to on Newfound Gap Road.
35. Newfound Gap overlook
This is among the most popular spots in the Smoky Mountains. There’s a large parking lot along Newfound Gap Road and you will know when you’ve reached the Newfound Gap overlook.
Along with scenic views of the Smoky Mountains, this is where there’s a sign indicating the North Carolina Tennessee border. Continuing the drive on Newfound Gap Road to the south of the Newfound Gap overlook, you’ll be solidly in North Carolina.
36. Appalachian Trail
There are people who actually hike the 1,900+ miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Maine on the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is a famous hiking trail that is 3,000+ miles long, stretching along the Appalachian mountain range from Georgia to Maine. Around 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are backcountry campsites that are located in the Smoky Mountains if you want to make it an overnight backpacking trip or a shorter multi-day backpacking trip that covers just a part of the Smoky Mountains.
Or, you can even just hike a few miles of the Appalachian Trail as a day hike! (Next on the list!)
37. Hike to Charlies Bunion
And one day hike on the Appalachian Trail that you may consider is a hike to Charlie’s Bunion! You will be hiking on a portion of the epic Appalachian Trail.
There are many access points for the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To hike to Charlie’s Bunion, you can start the Appalachian Trail from the Newfound Gap overlook parking lot. Your destination will be grand mountain views. You’ll also get mountain views along the way.
As you are driving on Newfound Gap Road, you’ll see a sign for the turn-off onto Clingmans Dome Road.
Drive to the end of Clingmans Dome Road and you will continue to drive higher and higher, and the road will also lead you to one of the most popular destinations in the Smoky Mountains. Depending on the weather, you may be above the clouds! The end of the road is a large parking lot where you will see sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains all around you.
And although the parking lot is pretty big, because of the popularity of this spot, it’s possible that you may end up parking on the shoulder of the road leading up to the parking lot.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Driving to the Clingmans Dome parking lot
From the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, you can then hike up further to the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
There is an observation tower at the Clingmans Dome summit so you can see sweeping mountain views all around you.
Share the Smoky Mountains video with the people you’ll be traveling to the Smoky Mountains with!
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Hiking to Clingmans Dome summit
After you’ve finished hiking to the Clingmans Dome tower, you can add on another hike that comes with views of the Smoky Mountains. This hike starts from the Clingmans Dome parking lot. Pack a light picnic lunch, and you can eat in an open field with mountain views.
See more about this Smoky Mountains activity: Hiking to Andrews Bald
41. Collins Creek Picnic Area
This is a picnic area on the North Carolina side of the national park that’s directly along Newfound Gap Road. As long as it’s not reserved, there’s a sheltered picnic area here for you to use in case you’re looking for a place to take shelter from the rain.
This is the most popular Smoky Mountain campground on the North Carolina side of the national park. You’ll find it right off of Newfound Gap Road, and the access to this road can make this a convenient spot to stay, in particular if your main activities will revolve around the hikes found alongside Newfound Gap Road.
This side of the Smoky Mountains seems to be the rainy side, this according to the worker at the Mingus Mill (next on the list). So while you will want to be sure to prepare for rain no matter where you go camping, you want to be extra sure if you’ll be camping at Smokemont Campground.
Smokemont Campground: See more about this camping spot in the Smoky Mountains.
43. Mingus Mill
If you are going to visit just one historic mill in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, make it the Mingus Mill! This is located near the far south end of Newfound Gap Road.
Mingus Mill: See more about this Smoky Mountains activity.
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center will bring you to the far southern end of the national park. Stop by here if you haven’t yet gone to a Smoky Mountains visitor center!
And aside from getting your intro to the Smoky Mountains, there’s another reason to go to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
If you want the best chance to see elk, be sure to drive to the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains!
Since they are wildlife and they do what they want, there’s never a guarantee, but the field next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is considered to be a reliable spot to see elk.
In the evening seems to be the best time. During the day they might not be there, although the rain seems to bring them out during the day. If they are out, there may be a bunch of parked cars on the side of the road so that’s one way you’ll know to look for elk.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center: See more about where to see elk in the Smoky Mountains.
Outside of the national park on the North Carolina side is also where you can find:
- The North Carolina end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the “southern terminus” (the other end is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia)
- Mingo Falls
- Soco Falls
45. Mountain Farm Museum
This is an outdoor historical museum that is located right next to Oconaluftee Visitor Center. You’ll park at the visitor center to go here. This is a small farm you can visit to imagine what things may have been like back in the day. When I was here, there was a lone elk sitting in the middle of the field of the “museum”!
46. Oconaluftee River Trail
You can take the Oconaluftee River Trail from the Mountain Farm Museum, and this would be a nice leisurely nature walk. The Oconaluftee River Trail is one of the only trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in which dogs are allowed. (The Gatlinburg Trail is the other dog-friendly hiking trail.)
/end Newfound Gap Road. Moving on to different areas of the park!
47. Deep Creek Trail
There is an area of the national park called Deep Creek. For reference on a map, this is near Bryson City NC. The Deep Creek campground is located here.
You can go for a leisurely walk along Deep Creek, and there are some benches so you can sit and listen to the sounds of the water.
48. Deep Creek waterfalls loop
You can go for a waterfall hike in the Deep Creek area of the park to see multiple waterfalls. You can make it a loop and hike to each of them.
49. Deep Creek tubing
It is also a thing to go tubing down Deep Creek.
50. Hen Wallow Falls
These waterfalls are located in the Cosby area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re looking for a quieter campground, the Cosby Campground is right near the trail to these waterfalls. There’s also the Cosby Picnic Area here, so after your hike you can go for a picnic lunch.
Hen Wallow Falls: See more about this Smoky Mountains activity.
51. Midnight Hole
These waterfalls are located in the Big Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Similarly, if you’re looking for a quieter campground, there is the Big Creek campground nearby.
Midnight Hole: See more about this Smoky Mountains activity.
To get to these waterfalls, you’ll continue hiking on the same trail that you take to get to Midnight Hole. You’ll arrive at Mouse Creek Falls by going a little further along.
Mouse Creek Falls: See more about this Smoky Mountains activity.
This is actually located outside of the national park. It’s a road that basically lines the northern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and there are a number of overlooks that will give you great views of the Smoky Mountains. If you’re looking for a casual couple of hours, you can head to the western area of the Foothills Parkway, stop at the Look Rock overlook and maybe hike up to the tower, then head over to the picnic area to eat with views! There is also the eastern area of the Foothills Parkway, on the Cosby side.
If you’re driving to the Smoky Mountains from the north on I-75 (like from Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky), then the western Foothills Parkway can also make for a nice welcome to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
Foothills Parkway: See more about this Smoky Mountains activity.
And those are some ideas for how to spend your days during your Great Smoky Mountains National Park vacation!
Be sure to see hiking essentials and what to pack for the Smoky Mountains!
And see about planning for a Smoky Mountains camping trip!
The short list of best hiking in the Smoky Mountains for VIEWS!
HAPPY SPENDING TIME IN THE SMOKIES!