Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There’s a good reason Great Smoky Mountains is the most popular National Park in the U.S., but what do you do while you’re there?
What are the best things to do when you visit the Smokies?
From waterfalls hikes to once-in-a-lifetime wildlife watching and from sunset on the summit to seeing why they’re called the Smoky Mountains, here are some of the top things to do when you visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park spreads its 500,000 acres across North Carolina and Tennessee and there are more than 800 miles of trails within the park. The storied Appalachian Trail bisects the park on an 73 mile ridge-hugging route, but not every hike is a train-for-months backpacking expedition, there are plenty of short hikes and wilderness walks for all levels.
The hike to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, is short and steep (and paved), and it pays off with 100-mile views. Want a real treat? Head to Clingmans Dome for sunrise or sunset. If you don’t want to make the hike to the top, the view from the parking area is spectacular.
While you’re at Clingmans Dome, consider making the 3.5-hour hike to Andrews Bald, a mountain meadow ablaze in summer wildflowers.
Itching to see some waterfalls? The 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls in Cades Cove ends at a 20’ waterfall and huge plunge pool. The 5.4-mile trek to Rainbow Falls along Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a visitor favorite. And the wooded journey along Deep Creek Trail near Bryson City will lead you past a trio of falls and along a creek filled with swimming holes and places to wade.
Park Rangers estimate that 1,500 black bears live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so you have a good chance of spotting a few on your trip to the park. In addition to the bears are white tailed deer, wild turkey, fox, bobcats and groundhogs, making for a wildlife-filled visit.
And that doesn’t even include the elk. Two herds of elk, an animal once native to the Smoky Mountains, are thriving in the park now. To see the elk, head to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee, North Carolina, in the early morning or in the late afternoon.
The elk, and often a few turkeys and maybe a deer or two, fill the field next to the Visitors Center and graze, play, nap, and call to one another there. Another spot to see them is in the Cataloochee Valley at the northern end of the park. This isolated valley is full of campsites and historic structures and an elk herd there roams from field to field to graze.
If you want to spot white tailed deer, turkeys, bobcats and a fox or two, keep an eye open as you drive Newfound Gap Road and Cades Cove, they frequent both places.
Speaking of Cades Cove, this bowl-shaped valley offers an 11 mile one way loop for road touring. Visitors have many opportunities to get out of the vehicle and explore historic cabins, mills, churches and cemeteries at their leisure.
Allow at least two to four hours, longer if you plan on walking some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heaviest during summer, fall and on weekends year-round.
Keep watch for black bears napping in the remnants of family fruit orchards, crossing roads or climbing fences in the wide-open spaces in Cades Cove. In late spring and throughout summer, you might even spot a bear cub or two.
All over the Smokies you’ll see fireflies blinking as they fly around open meadows and lawns, but in Elkmont, not far from the Sugarland’s Visitors Center on the Tennessee side of the park, there’s a rare phenomenon: Synchronous Fireflies.
Only a few places around the world have colonies of synchronous fireflies, and one is right here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These fireflies rise from the grass and blink in unison. Sometimes the whole meadow will light up and blink as one, other times clouds of fireflies will blink, with corners and pockets of the field lighting up one after the other.
The fireflies usually come out for two weeks in the last part of May or early part of June, so watch out for news of when they’ve begun their annual show and see if you can catch a glimpse. A lottery system now exists for the pass to park at Sugarlands Visitor Center and then take a shuttle to view the fireflies at Elkmont. Watch for this to be announced in April each year.
They call them the Smoky Mountains because in the morning and evening, tendrils of mist and fog rise from the mountainsides like campfires and cookfires. Head to any high place – Newfound Gap Overlook, Clingmans Dome, any overlook along Newfound Gap Road – and you’ll see the “smoke” rising above the trees. If you’re lucky you might even see what looks like lakes or oceans of clouds and fog filling the valleys below.
What else can you do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
Go camping or fly fishing, go bird watching or look for rare wildflowers, count the stars or just listen to one of the creeks and relax.
With your GyPSy Guide Audio Tour App to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll find plenty of suggestions on where to go and what to do. The audio tours automatically play stories, local tips and a guided commentary, based on your location. And they use gps-signal, so no wifi, cell or network required while touring.
Can’t wait to see you in the park!