The Best Things to Do and See in the Great Smoky Mountains
How can you go wrong when you’re surrounded by spectacular hills, crashing waterfalls, shaded paths, glinting mountain lakes, winding highways with dramatic overlooks, and all of it within reach of Dollywood? Come to the Smokies and have some natural fun.
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863, USA
Those who have never visited Dollywood may be surprised that Dolly Parton’s namesake attraction is anything but a dusty tourist trap up in the hills. In fact, it’s a world-class amusement park with top-notch thrill rides for all ages. With everything from the Tennessee Tornado roller coaster to the Drop Line tower to the Daredevil Falls log ride, Dollywood rivals the country’s best-known theme parks for variety and adrenaline-spiking coasters. There’s plenty to entertain little tykes as well, including a carousel, playgrounds, and kiddie-size versions of the adult rides. Dollywood’s adjacent Splash Country water park means you can make several days out of a visit, especially if you stay at the on-site resort and cabins. The park also hosts holiday events, including a Smoky Mountain Christmas light display and nightly concerts and shows. Just don’t get so distracted that you forget to explore the Smoky Mountains.
2230 Hidden Mountain Rd, Sevierville, TN 37876, USA
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to over 800 miles of trails, and you’ll encounter crowds on only about a dozen of those. Sharing the magical, remote parts of the mountain range is what led husband-and-wife team Erik and Vesna Plakanis to launch a hiking guide company in 1998. Why take a guide? The Smokies are one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and A Walk in the Woods’ team of naturalists will unlock secrets of the rich flora and fauna’s interconnectivity along your journey. It’s also a fantastic, safe way to try out overnight backpacking, learning about backwoods cooking, emergency preparedness, and gear. Both family and adult trips are available. Booking through the company is also one of the most reliable ways to score a reservation at LeConte Lodge, a sought-after, hike-in-only haven atop its namesake mountain. And if you’re all set for a solo or unguided adventure, there are shuttles and equipment rentals to get your journey started smoothly.
668 Glades Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, USA
Many of the Smoky Mountains’ earliest tourists came here to shop from local craftsmen, popularized by the Pi Beta Phi women’s fraternity that chose supporting these mountain folk artists as their cause. In 1912, the women established a public school for the local children, evolving into the Arrowmont School of Arts of Crafts that persists today. Centuries-old trades continue to be passed down, and visitors will find woodworking, basket weaving, ceramics, and metalworks created in the same manner they have for generations. An organized eight-mile loop road includes stops at 120 artists’ studios and workshops, many with live demonstrations. Travel it at your leisure, or break it up over several days as you discover this thriving remnant of the culture that shaped Southern Appalachia.
1080 Ski Lodge Rd, Maggie Valley, NC 28751, USA
The Southeast may not offer the never-ending runs of the Rockies, but when you need your fix, snow is snow, and Cataloochee’s 740 feet of vertical drop and 5,400-foot summit elevation rank it among the region’s best. Five lifts service the mountain, including the Omigosh lift to the summit and access to a wide beginner-friendly area aptly dubbed Easy Way. For late risers, a twilight pass grants access from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. (also allowing time to hit the tubing park in the morning). Nearby Maggie Valley offers ample dining and lodging, plus easy access to the national park. Be sure to detour to Cataloochee Valley in the morning or evening for a glimpse of the elk herd that was successfully reintroduced into the park in 2001.
135 Smokemont Riding Stables Rd, Cherokee, NC 28719, USA
Smokemont’s horseback-riding routes, which average $30/hour per rider, can easily fill the better part of a day spent outside. The most popular ride is a 2.5-hour expedition that climbs uphill to a hidden mountain waterfall. It’s possible to extend the ride to four hours, adding a second waterfall and a scenic trip along the Oconaluftee River. For those not inclined or physically able to ride a horse, calmer horse-drawn wagon rides are even more affordable and offer many of the same views of the river (there’s also no minimum age for a wagon ride, but only children five and older are allowed on horseback). Smokemont’s season runs through October, making it one of the finest ways to take in Appalachia’s changing autumn colors.
155 Branam Hollow Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, USA
On a mountainside surrounded by the national park, this nine–zip-line course stands apart from many of its competitors in the Southeast. Owned and designed by professionals who build courses all over the world (they own a second in-house location in Oahu), the course sends you soaring over streams and ravines in a 2.5-hour tour. It begins with an ATV ride up the mountain and includes three suspended “sky bridges.” Night and sunset tours are available during summer. Equally exciting and even more challenging is Climb Works’ two-mile El Regis mountain-bike trail. Although it’s beginner-friendly, the combination of ascent and descent ensures that intermediate riders will feel the burn, and optional routes that include wood features, berms, and rollers attract even seasoned experts. Climb Works avoids the touristy feel of some zip-line companies, thanks to a company culture based around sustainability and environmental stewardship.
Oconaluftee Indian Village, Cherokee, NC 28719, USA
Native American history comes alive at this re-creation of a Cherokee village that’s designed to replicate life in 1760, when European contact begins to negatively affect the tribe. Visitors experience life and witness skills that have been passed down for generations, including traditional canoe hulling, basket weaving, clay pottery making and traditional medicinal practices using plants native to the Smokies. The village consists of earthen trails through replicas of Cherokee huts, and the day is punctuated by live reenactments, including dances and ceremonies as the tribe prepares for war with the European invaders. After a day at Oconaluftee, stay for Unto These Hills, a dramatic retelling of the Cherokee story from contact with the Spanish in 1540 to the Trail of Tears under President Andrew Jackson to the reemergence of the tribe as it exists today.
576 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, USA
Accessible only via a gondola or chairlift, this mountaintop theme park features fun for the whole family. Thrill rides like a double zip line and single-rail mountain coaster appeal to adrenaline seekers, while the treetop skybridge—the longest in North America—is ideal for more mellow guests. Kids can even spend all day at the treehouse playground if they’re not distracted by the Catching Fireflies boutique or the promise of ice cream at Pearl’s Pie in the Sky. Also on-site are several dining options, from the Smokehouse BBQ food truck to the Cliff Top Grill & Bar, as well as an amphitheater for summer concerts and a memorial trail through the forest that was partly lost to the 2016 Gatlinburg fires. Whether you come for the rides, the food, or the hikes, Anakeesta is worth the trip up, if only for the views of Gatlinburg below and the towering Mount Le Conte to the east.
7230 Grassy Branch Road
Fontana Lake, on Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s southwest border, is a worthy vacation destination. Easily accessed from Bryson City, North Carolina, the lake offers camping, hiking, fishing, and boating in one of Appalachia’s most scenic areas. For a day of family fun, rent a 24-foot pontoon boat from Alarka and spend the afternoon tubing or exploring the lake’s hidden coves. If bass fishing is more your style, check out a 16-foot SeaArk to access honey holes inaccessible from land. The marina also coordinates with several guide services, to better your chances of landing a keeper to roast over the campfire that evening.
469 Brookside Village Way, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, USA
Streams in the Smoky Mountains are among the most productive mountain trout fisheries in the world, but without knowing where to go, you’re likely to do a lot more fishing than catching. The staff at the Smoky Mountain Angler, Gatlinburg’s most respected tackle and guide shop, can point you in the right direction. Better yet, they can take you there, whether you want to target trout or bass. They’re also proficient in the quickly growing technique of Euro nymphing, featuring fast-sinking flies that open up waters that are nearly impossible to fish with a traditional approach. The Angler also sells fishing licenses and rents waders and rods, so even if you’re determined to have a solo outing, it’s a smart first stop.
Black Mountain, NC 28711, USA
OK, America has plenty of beautiful little mountain towns. I just happened to catch this one on a quiet, low-season day and I was utterly charmed. The secondhand bookshop was a thing of joy - run by a woman who knew her Dorothy Parker from her Dorothy L Sayers - and the Dripolator coffee shop, above, had a great vibe, with its beaten up sofas and community notices pinned all over the walls. And then there’s the mountain views, and the clear air. If you’ve had a big night out in Asheville, I can’t think of a better place to deal with your hangover.
Rainbow Falls Trail, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, USA
Rainbow Falls is known for producing a visible rainbow on sunny days. Close to get to from downtown Gatlinburg, this is a fairly popular hike although not for the ill prepared. It’s rated moderate to difficult and is a 5.4 mile roundtrip with jutting rocks and roots abound.
Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited national park. Among the forests and ancient mountains, visitors find a vast array of plant and animal life as well as vestiges of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Each season here offers its own surprises—spring brings wildflowers and blossoming trees; summer is perfect for swimming in the mountain streams and cascading falls; fall draws hikers and leaf-peepers; and winter, with its bare trees, exposes stone walls, chimneys, and other reminders of the past. Popular hikes through the park lead to waterfalls, old-growth forests, and sweeping views, making it easy to spend several days exploring.