Great Smoky Mountains National Park is gigantic, bursting with trails, mountaintop views that span state lines, historic sites, famous waterfalls, bewitching wildflowers, and even black bears. But where should you start? If you’re visiting the area for the first time, and have limited time, here’s a guide to the top 10 Smoky Mountain attractions.
10. Appalachian Trail
The 2,200-mile journey from Maine all the way down to Georgia is as scenic as it is daunting. If you want to pull a "Forrest Gump" and go from start to finish, you deserve major bragging rights and will join the ranks of other “thru-hikers.” However, you can also just check out the Smoky Mountains’ portion of the trail, which does not disappoint. It is home to the 5,499-foot Standing Indian Mountain (along the Nantahala River) and Clingmans Dome, another one of our picks for the top 10 Smoky Mountain attractions.
9. Cades Cove
The 6,800-acre Cades Cove Valley in Tennessee was originally developed by the Cherokee Indians, but they were tragically uprooted and replaced by American colonists in the mid-1800s. By the time the Civil War rolled around, the valley had all but been abandoned. In addition to the mills and homesteads left behind (the John Oliver Cabin is a highlight), you may get lucky and spot a black bear, fox, wild turkey, red wolf, or elk. The 11-mile trail is extremely popular with visitors; Cades Cove is not only one of the top 10 Smoky Mountain attractions, it’s the most visited! Tip: Springtime is a little more peaceful. See nearby places to stay.
8. Clingmans Dome
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee. Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, and requiring only a half-mile walk, it’s super accessible. And that’s very fortunate, as it offers up the best views of the Southern Appalachian Mountains around. On a clear day, you can see 7states from the Dome’s 54-foot observation tower! Stay either in Gatlinburg or Bryson City.
7. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
If you’re staying in the Gatlinburg area, you can’t miss this dazzling, 6-mile drive, dotted with old farmsteads and the must-see Rainbow and Grotto waterfalls. Get out of your car for a leisurely trek and you’ll be treated to even better views.
6. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Kick off your hiking boots, sit back, relax, and explore western North Carolina on a train. Choose from dozens of excursions departing from Bryson City. Follow up your train ride with a visit to the Smoky Mountain Trains Museum, and you’ll really be in business! This is definitely the most kid-friendly of the top 10 Smoky Mountain attractions. Stay in Bryson City.
5. Chimney Tops Trail
If you want astonishing, 360-degree views of the park, and are willing to work for it, this is your trail. The first half of Chimney Tops is laid back and easy, but about a mile in, it gets difficult, as you’ll have to hike up about 900 feet! For adventurous nature lovers, this hike is a dream. For others, it may or not be doable. Stay near in Gatlinburg.
4. Cataloochee Valley
Once upon a time, 1,200 or so farmers and fishermen were tucked away in this valley. You can check out remnants of their 19th-century settlement, from schoolhouses to antebellum homes. You can also check out the wildlife, like elk, turkey, black bear, and trout (Cataloochee Creek has lots), which still thrive. Visiting in the fall or winter? Go skiing on Cataloochee Mountain! Stay in Maggie Valley or Waynesville.
3. Laurel Falls
The 80-foot waterfall is one of the Smoky Mountains’ best photo ops (and that’s saying a lot). While the 2-mile trail is pretty easygoing, it gets steep and may not be suitable for kids or the elderly. It’s also not suitable for last-minute planners—Laurel Falls is so popular that parking nearby is sometimes impossible. Visiting on a weekday or in the morning will increase your chances of finding a good spot. For all your efforts, the falls are a great payoff, though. Tip: For the best show, visit after a big rain. Stay near in Gatlinburg.
2. Mountain Farm Museum
Summertime is the best time to visit this re-created 19th-century farm. In addition to the old buildings, built from logs collected from other locations in the park and placed here, you can tour a working farm that's populated with people in period costumes, along with real crops and livestock. Balance out your history lesson with a little nature on the dog- and bike-friendly Oconaluftee River Trail. Stay in Cherokee, NC.
1. Mount LeConte
This peak is not the highest in the park, but it comes pretty darn close, at 6,593 feet. The views are fantastic, but it’s the well-rounded Alum Cave Trail leading up to them that steals hearts. Summits and waterfalls beg you to take a breather and enjoy the view along the way. In the summer, the brilliantly pink rhododendron wildflowers are in full bloom, the trail’s namesake Alum Cave (a gorgeous bluff, technically not a cave) is a must-see, and then there’s the finale—Mount LeConte. Expert hikers will love the constantly surprising trail, while beginners won’t get left behind. Stay near in Gatlinburg.