My family and I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in September and absolutely loved it. Even with the crowds typical of the fall season, there was still so much beauty and adventure across the park's vast wilderness.
With over half a million acres to explore, planning ahead is a must to make the most of your visit. I'm sharing our list of favorite sights, landmarks, and activities in the hopes it will help fellow travelers plan their own unforgettable Smoky Mountain adventure.
I also put these spots on a map (at the end of the list) so you can see where everything is and how to plan your itinerary.
As always, leave a comment to let us know your thoughts. What are your park favorites? What would you add to this list? Let us know, and we may add them so we can check them out during our next visit!
1. Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a stunning valley encircled by mountains, offering a scenic 11-mile loop road for driving or biking. Keep an eye out for deer, black bears, and other wildlife.
Be sure to arrive early to avoid crowds, and bring binoculars for wildlife spotting. The loop road is closed to vehicles on Saturday mornings from early May to late September for biking.
2. Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the park's highest point, providing breathtaking panoramic views. A steep half-mile trail leads to an observation tower.
Dress warmly, even in summer, as temperatures can be chilly at the summit. The road leading to Clingmans Dome is often closed in winter due to snow and ice. You could also hike all the way up there - but it's quite a strenuous hike!
As you drive up there, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife viewing. It's a great area to spot bears.
3. The Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center provides valuable information about the park's history, natural features, and wildlife. It's a great starting point for your visit.
Stop here for maps, trail information, and road and closure updates. The center is open year-round.
4. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork is a one-way, narrow motor trail offering access to several trails, waterfalls, and historic sites.
This road is often closed in winter due to icy conditions. Plan to visit early in the day or during the week to avoid traffic.
5. The Alum Cave Trail
Alum Cave Trail is a popular route to Mount LeConte, featuring fascinating geological formations, including the Alum Cave Bluffs.
Check trail conditions before starting, carry plenty of water, and be prepared for changing weather as you gain elevation.
6. Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is a stunning 80-foot waterfall accessible via a 5.4-mile round-trip hike.
Start early in the day, as the parking area can fill up quickly. Wear appropriate hiking gear and be cautious near the falls, as rocks can be slippery.
It's also good to see the Rainbow Falls in autumn, as featured in our list of must-see national parks in the fall: 9 Jaw-Dropping National Parks with the Most Stunning Fall Foliage You Need to See
7. The Mountain Farm Museum
The open-air Mountain Farm Museum features historic log buildings, capturing the region's pioneer history. The museum is typically open year-round, and it's an excellent place for a leisurely stroll and to learn about the park's cultural heritage.
8. The Deep Creek Area
Deep Creek is known for its waterfalls, including Juney Whank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and hiking trails. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and be prepared for creek crossings. Check trail conditions for any closures.
9. Mingus Mill
Explore the historic Mingus Mill, an operational grist mill from 1886. Mill demonstrations are sometimes held. The mill is typically open from spring to fall. Don't miss the opportunity to learn about traditional milling techniques, too!
10. Charlies Bunion
Charlies Bunion is a challenging hike offering panoramic mountain views from a rocky outcrop. This hike is strenuous, so bring plenty of water and wear sturdy hiking boots. Check trail conditions and closures before starting.
11. Cataloochee Valley
Cataloochee Valley is a remote area known for its historic buildings and the park's largest elk herd. Access roads to Cataloochee Valley may be closed seasonally, so check for road conditions before your visit.
12. Abrams Falls
Abrams Falls is a moderate hike leading to a picturesque waterfall. The trail winds through lush forest.
Start early to avoid crowds, and wear appropriate footwear for hiking. Be aware of any trail closures, especially after heavy rain.
13. The Look Rock Tower
Look Rock Tower provides a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and is accessible during the warmer months. Bring binoculars to enjoy distant views, and be aware of the limited parking available at the tower.
14. Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls is the park's most popular waterfall, with a paved trail leading to it. It's a family-friendly hike.
Be sure to arrive early to secure parking, as the trailhead can be busy. The trail is relatively short but can be slippery when wet.
15. Gregory Bald
Gregory Bald is famous for its seasonal flame azalea blooms, creating a spectacular display in late spring and early summer.
Timing is key for this hike, as the flame azaleas are at their peak for a short period. Check bloom forecasts and trail conditions ahead.
16. The Historic Elkmont Ghost Town
Explore the abandoned structures of Elkmont, a once-thriving logging and resort community from the early 1900s.
Access to certain areas of Elkmont may be limited. Interpretive signs provide historical context for the structures.
The Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont (late spring)
Synchronous fireflies create a magical display in Elkmont during late spring.
Park service releases information on peak viewing times, so make parking reservations well in advance, bring flashlights with red filters, and follow park guidelines to protect this natural phenomenon.
17. Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls is a unique hike where you can walk behind the waterfall, making it a popular trail among visitors.
Be cautious of slippery rocks behind the falls. The trail can get crowded, so consider an early morning visit.
18. Newfound Gap Mountain Pass
Newfound Gap is a mountain pass on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, offering stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
The road to Newfound Gap may be closed during winter storms. Be cautious of rapidly changing weather conditions at this elevation.
19. The Foothills Parkway
The Foothills Parkway offers some of the most scenic drives in the park, with numerous overlooks for taking in mountain vistas.
Check for road closures and conditions, especially during winter. Plan for photo stops and enjoy the views along the way.
20. The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail cuts through the park for 71 miles, offering hikers a chance to experience a section of this iconic trail.
You don't have to hike the entire trail, of course. The cool thing here is that you can find the points where the AT intersects with park roads and hike it for a few minutes and back. And then tell your friends back home that you hiked the legendary Appalachian Trail.
Clingmans Dome, mentioned above, is one such spot where the trail is actually part of the Appalachian Trail. We just thought the AT was worth an additional mention on this list, in its own right. And now, let's talk about a few other trails that are worth your attention.
21. The Spruce-Fir Nature Trail
The Spruce-Fir Nature Trail offers a short walk through a high-elevation forest, allowing you to experience unique plant and tree species.
This trail is typically open during the warmer months when the road to Clingmans Dome is accessible.
22. Porters Creek Trail
Porters Creek Trail is a lovely hike, especially in spring when wildflowers bloom. It also leads to the historic Smoky Mountains Hiking Club cabin.
Check for trail conditions, as portions of the trail may be closed due to maintenance or weather-related issues.
23. Chimney Tops Trail
The Chimney Tops Trail offers challenging but rewarding hiking with panoramic mountain views from the exposed rock outcrop.
Just note that the top 0.25 miles of Chimney Tops Trail, including its summit, are closed due to fire damage and safety concerns. This steep section caused numerous rescues.
So you can safely enjoy the hike to the ridge overlooking Sugarland Mountain, stop before the final climb.
More Ways to Enjoy the Park
In addition to its most popular landmarks and sights, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation and adventure.
Go horseback riding with a guided tour along scenic trails, take a ranger-led tour for fascinating historical and ecological insights, or challenge yourself camping in remote backcountry sites.
The park also caters to cycling enthusiasts, with the popular 11-mile Cades Cove Loop offering stunning valley vistas.
Wildlife lovers (that's everyone, right?) may spot black bears, white-tailed deer, and over 200 species of birds. In fact, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was where our family had the most bear sightings in a single park, except for Denali and Glacier National Park.
Anglers will enjoy fishing for native brook, brown, and rainbow trout in the park's crystal-clear streams. Or join in the fun during a seasonal festival or cultural event ranging from music concerts to artisan demonstrations.
And finally - here's the map with the locations mentioned on this list. Hopefully, it will serve as a helpful stepping stone to further research and create your own itinerary!
Let the magic of the Smokies renew your spirit as you check off bucket-list experiences. One trip may not be enough, as these mountains can call you back for more!