Why is Great Smoky Mountains National Park the most visited National Park in the United States? While the mountain top views from Newfoundland Gap Overlook and Clingman’s Dome are beautiful, this National Park has more than 10 million visitors a year because of its waterfalls, lakes, streams, and infamous “smoky” clouds. From scenic drives to hikes to waterfalls to meandering horseback rides, here are 10 of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park .
When I asked park ranger about mountaintop views, she pulled out a fisherman’s map and showed me her favorite rivers across the region. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is unique because it has some of the most beautiful waterways in all of America.
10 Fun Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1. Drive Newfound Gap Road from North Carolina to Tennessee
Many of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most popular hiking trails, waterfalls, and mountaintop viewpoints are found along the 33-mile Newfound Gap Road. The road crosses the Tennessee-North Carolina border at Newfound Gap Overlook. At the overlook, there is a large parking area with multiple viewpoints into the Southern Appalachian Mountains in both states.
The Newfound Gap Overlook is also a great place to access the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not prepared for a long hike? You should still plan to make a stop at the Newfound Gap Overlook to snap a photo of the kids with one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina.
On the North Carolina side of the mountain range, visitors will want to make sure to stop at Clingman’s Dome. It is in the higher elevations of Great Smoky Mountains National Park so it will be cooler than the valleys of Pigeon Forge, TN and Cherokee, NC. It is a one mile round trip paved hike up to the top of Clingman’s Dome at 6,644 feet elevation. Views from the top extend for a 100 miles in every direction!
2. Visit Sugarlands Visitor Center and Hike to Laurel Falls
One of the most popular things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is take the hike to Laurel Falls. It is located about four miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The hike is 2.6-miles round trip on a paved trail.
Laurel Falls is the only place I remember visiting on my very first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a college student. In the heat and humidity of summertime in the South, the mist of the cool mountain waterfall is so refreshing. A waterfall hike through the shaded forest is a great way to get out into nature and beat the heat at the same time.
3. Float Down a Stream at Deep Creek near Bryson City, North Carolina
While the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is certainly a popular local and regional favorite, I don’t think the rest of America is in on the secret of how fun and kid-friendly the Deep Creek waterfalls are for families. There are three waterfalls accessible within about a two-mile walk (round trip) from a parking area and campground. And, this whole area is only about 10 minutes by car from Bryson City, NC.
The waterfalls of Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are not the tallest or the most powerful. But, there is a certain unique beauty about them. And, it’s not just the falls; Deep Creek itself is simply a lovely place for a walk. The trail by the creek is wide and pleasantly flat, perfect for the whole family from tots to grandparents. Families can also rent tubes at the Deep Creek Tube Center and Campground and float past Tom Branch Falls, one of the three Deep Creek waterfalls.
4. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a narrow 6-mile, one way loop for cars on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There is a booklet available to guide visitors as to where to stop along the route. Some popular stops include: the Ogle Farmstead, the trail to Rainbow Falls, and the Place of a Thousand Drips.
A highlight of the Roaring Fork Nature Trail is the 2.6-mile Grotto Falls hiking trail. Grotto Falls is a fun adventure for the family because you can actually walk behind the falls. This area of the park is known for its plant and animal life. Kids can often spot salamanders along the stream in this old growth forest. Also, be on the lookout for black bears!
5. Walk Through the Historic Building near Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the Southern Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the place to go in North Carolina to learn about the history of the Oconaluftee River Valley and Great Smoky Mountain National Park programs. At the visitor center, families can purchase Junior Ranger booklets for their children.
The outdoor Mountain Farm Museum is just short walk from the visitor center and is home to about a dozen 19th century farm buildings from this area of the southern Appalachian mountains. Visitors can learn about the family who built and lived in the cabin, the importance of hogs and corn to the local diet, and more.
If the Mountain Farm Museum is busy, continue into the park a half mile to Mingus Mill. During the summer months families can see the grist mill in action. This area is considered one of the most scenic areas during the later part of the fall foliage season in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Hike the Stairway Up to Mingo Falls
The short, steep hike to Mingo Falls is located less than five miles from the Southern Entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The hike to the falls is less than half a mile, but includes a steep stairway. On the stairway, visitors have written messages from “you’re just getting started” to “almost there.” The falls themselves are quite tall (almost impossible to capture on my iPhone camera), and the water sparkles beautifully in the afternoon light.
6. Ride a Horse from Smokemont Stables in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Just up the road from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center families can take a hour-long horseback ride from Smokemont Stables. Horseback rides are available from Smokemont on both a reservation and drop-in basis throughout the summer and fall. Horseback riding is such a unique way to quietly and peacefully connect with nature. However, it’s even more special in a National Park. The one-hour trail ride crosses a creek, goes through a tunnel under a park road and though some hilly terrain, before returning back to the stables.
7. The Road To Nowhere Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Driving Bryson City’s “Road to Nowhere” is a beautiful, but solemn, reminder of the families that were relocated so the hydroelectric dam could be built to provide the energy for aluminum plants in Tennessee during WWII. The “Road to Nowhere” was originally supposed to go all the way to Fontana Lake so that those who were relocated could visit. But, alas, the road remained unfinished. Today it is little more than a scenic drive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has several trailheads for families to enjoy.
8. Continue Your Adventure on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Beginning at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, driving Blue Ridge Parkway is my favorite way to enjoy sweeping views atop the North Carolina mountains. While the main highway of the national park crosses the mountains, the 469-mile Parkway traces the ridge line.
Waterrock Knob is located about 18 miles from the southern terminus of the Parkway. It is likely the most interesting point in the most southern section of the Parkway. There, families will find a seasonal visitor center and a steep .6 mile trail up to the peak.
For more tips on driving North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, check out Trekaroo’s Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC – 14 Great Spots to Stop.
9. Watch the Elk Graze in the Cataloochee Valley
Looking for a peaceful place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch wildlife and relax with the family? The Cataloochee Valley is one of the most secluded places in the park that can be reached by car. Visitors must traverse a short section of dirt road in order to reach the valley. However, once you’re there you will be treated by the sight of grazing elk in the twilight hours and miles of hiking trails.
The Cataloochee Valley is in Haywood County, North Carolina. This section of western North Carolina is the perfect destination for a relaxing vacation where you can re-connect with your family. For more information on this special spot, read Trekaroo’s A NC Mountain Vacation at Lake Junaluska.
10. Explore the Cades Cove Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cades Cove is one of Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s most popular areas because it is located just a short drive from Gatlinburg, TN. The 11-mile loop road has a little bit of everything from horseback riding and hiking trails to historic buildings. Families can explore cabins built over 100 years ago by early settlers and check out the John P. Cable Mill near the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Be sure to inquire about hikes at the visitor center. A favorite kid-friendly hike is the Abrams Falls hiking trail, a 5-mile roundtrip hike rated easy to moderate.
Planning a Smoky Mountains Road Trip with your family? Check out our Smoky Mountains Road Trip Itinerary.
Where to Stay in North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains
Our home away from home while exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the Squirrel’s Nest Cabin at Lands Creek Log Cabins, just about ten minutes outside of Bryson City by car. The cabin was the perfect fit for our family of three with a king bed and sofa pull-out. With 19 cabins to choose from, there’s a cabin to fit just about any family at Land’s Creek.
Disclosure: My son and I were hosted by Bryson City – Swain County Chamber of Commerce during our weekend in the Great Smokies. All opinions are my own.