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Outdoor Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains

Scenic Drives
Outdoor Adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains
Whether you want to reconnect with nature, learn wilderness-survival techniques, or simply bask in the beauty of the mountains, the Smokies have a special spot to fit the bill.
By Stratton Lawrence, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by John Shaw/age fotostock
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    Scenic Drives
    Scenic Drives
    Drive along Laurel Creek Road at dawn or dusk to experience the fog and mist—the "smoke" that gives these mountains their name—from scenic overlooks offering breathtaking views of the valleys below. Soak up the view of the cascading waterfall known as The Sinks, en route to Cades Cove, where you'll follow the 11-mile loop through picturesque landscapes and watch wildlife feeding in the lush grasslands. Another worthwhile scenic drive is Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It's narrow and a little more secluded, but it rewards with six miles of beautiful views and wildlife sightings.
    Photo by John Shaw/age fotostock
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    Adventure Courses
    Adventure Courses
    High above the tree canopies, you can walk across sky bridges and glide along extensive zip lines, basking in the views of the Smoky Mountains as you pass over streams, ravines, and wildlife. Climb Works' nine different zip lines and unique treetop adventure courses will keep your feet off the ground for more than two hours. Its facility also includes a world-class mountain-bike course, designed to challenge beginners and satisfy experts with the addition of optional routes and obstacles. Climb Works also built the double zip line at the Anakeesta resort that opened in Gatlinburg in 2017.
    Photo by Harrison Shull/age fotostock
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    Skiing in the Smokies
    Skiing in the Smokies
    During the peak winter season, the Smokies' higher elevations can see nearly 70 inches of snow. Even this far south, that means it's possible to ski at Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee's only ski resort. This resort has all the mountain sports you can think of and features nine trails for beginner and intermediate skiers, as well as facilities for snow tubing, snowboarding, indoor ice-skating, and an alpine and simulated bobsled ride. The Aerial Tramway provides ease of access as well as great views of Gatlinburg. On the North Carolina side of the Smokies is Cataloochee Ski Area, where a higher elevation provides slightly longer runs. Cataloochee features 16 trails and more challenging descents, although those accustomed to skiing in the western U.S. may find they are more entertained by the snow tubing and airboarding available here.
    Photo by Katia Singletary/age fotostock
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    Multiday Hikes
    Multiday Hikes
    To fully immerse yourself in the Smoky Mountains, take an overnight backpacking trip along one of the park's various trails. Acquiring a permit is easy—just stop by one of the park's four visitor centers or ask about permits at any ranger station. If you're backpack-savvy, take on the scenic Alum Cave Bluff trail; it's five miles to the peak of Mount LeConte, and you can overnight at the shelter just past the lodge. If you appreciate the knowledge and passion an interpretive naturalist can bring to a hike, join A Walk in the Woods for a two-night, guided backcountry trip. Gear, meals, and wilderness-survival lessons are included.
    Photo by Michele René/age fotostock
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    Light Up the Sky with Love
    Light Up the Sky with Love
    Between May and June, busloads of visitors show up in the park near Elkmont at night to witness one of nature's most intriguing spectacles. Adjacent to the Elkmont campgrounds is Little River Trail, which leads to a stunning display of flashing lights courtesy of the park's synchronous fireflies, one of 19 species of firefly that live here. Thousands of fireflies light up the night among the trees; their flashes are part of a mating ritual that occurs at the same time each year. Synchronous fireflies are the only kind in North America that can synchronize their flash patterns.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    An Afternoon on the Water
    An Afternoon on the Water
    On the northwest side of the Smokies, in Townsend, you can find one of the park's more laid-back activities. River tubing companies cluster together along scenic Route 73, wooing customers to take a lazy afternoon float on the Little River. Enjoy one of the most scenic waterways in the Smokies as you drift along under the shade of bowing trees on a hot summer's day. Outfitters provide all the equipment you need, and some will even provide water shoes and sunscreen. If you're with kids, be aware that there are two sections of the river, each with different conditions. The upper section features Class III rapids; the lower section is ideal for floating with small children. Prefer still water? Fontana Lake near Bryson City is the place for you. Several outfitters, including Alarka Boat Rentals, offer inner tubes and pontoon-boat rentals for a leisurely afternoon of floating fun.
    Photo by Fred Whitehead/age fotostock
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    The Alum Cave Bluff Trail
    The Alum Cave Bluff Trail
    If you're looking for adventure and a physical challenge, a highly recommended hike is the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. You'll pass by 10-foot-high rhododendron bushes, cross over streams via wooden bridges, and ascend through Arch Rock. Alum Cave Bluff is approximately 2.3 miles from the trailhead and is a popular destination. The dust here is one of the rarest kinds and is made up of minerals found only in the driest regions of the world. Venture another mile and the trail opens onto a spectacular view of the vast mountain range. Expect the hike to take about four hours round-trip.
    Photo by Angela Simpson
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    Fly-Fishing the Smokies
    Fly-Fishing the Smokies
    If a mountain trout on the end of your line is your idea of fun, you've come to the right place. Hire a guide from the Smoky Mountain Angler for a fly-fishing excursion around the park. If you're not an experienced angler or you left your equipment at home, you'll find all of the gear and clothing you'll need here. The shop can plan kid-friendly adventures as well. A Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license is required for fishing in the park and is sold at the shop. Note that different permits are required in the park and state-owned lands, so choose your destination before buying the permit.
    Photo by Corey Nolen/age fotostock
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    Horseback Riding
    Horseback Riding
    The Smokies are an ideal place for a trail ride. On the North Carolina side of the park, Smokemont Riding Stable offers rides as long as four hours that explore nearby waterfalls, as well as horse-drawn wagon rides. In Tennessee, the Five Oaks Riding Stables in Sevierville is home to gentle horses and friendly guides who offer help and support to unsteady first-timers; the smoothly graded trail will set any mind at ease. There are half-hour and full-hour rides.
    Photo courtesy of Smokemont Riding Stables
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    Rafting the Smokies
    Rafting the Smokies
    Get the adrenaline flowing with a trip through Class III and IV rapids on the Upper Pigeon River. River trips with Smoky Mountain Outdoors include combo discount packages for other area attractions, such as the aquarium and Aerial Tramway. You can enjoy a six-mile river rapids trip with the option to stay on for the milder second half of the ride, for a total of 12 miles down the river. There's also the choice of combining activities, such as a hike-and-ride excursion that takes you two hours along hiking trails and then on the raft for a wild ride back. This is a great option if you're short on time and wish to experience several activities in the Smoky Mountains.
    Photo courtesy of Pigeon River Photos