The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a secluded retreat tucked in the Smoky Mountains. Over the last few decades, this national park has become one of the most popular in the United States, seeing millions of visitors each year.
There are tons of things to do in this park — so many that it’s impossible to do everything. But if you truly want to experience what the park has to offer, here are some of my favorite experiences. Some of these can be done in a day, while others can be the highlight of a whole vacation.
1. Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park and one of the most iconic peaks in the United States. Plus (unlike other very high peaks), it isn’t terribly difficult to get to. As a survivalist, I do a lot of hiking. However, even my 5-year-old granddaughter has made this uphill trek.
The whole path is paved and it ends with an observation tower. From the top of the tower, you can (usually) see some great views. However, the weather does have to be clear. Because it’s so high and you’re in the Great Smoky Mountains, it is often pretty cloudy.
I have found the best time to visit is on less humid days in the cooler months. In the summer, it seems like the visibility is always questionable. If you are visiting in the summer, earlier in the day is usually better.
Because this is one of the easier trails, it tends to be congested, especially on clear days. It isn’t a great option for someone who wants to spend some time quietly in nature; there will be other people on the trail. There is even a small store near the base of the trail where you can buy books and knickknacks.
That said, Clingmans Dome is one of those things everyone should see at least once. You can’t really say you’ve “done” the Great Smoky Mountains until you’ve made it to the top of the observation tower.
2. Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a driving “trail” that includes several historical monuments and houses. You can see how the first settlers in the area lived, as well as enjoy the natural beauty of the area. While the historic homes and churches are the main draw, I have always seen plenty of wildlife on this drive, too.
From white-tailed deer grazing in open fields to black bears ambling along the forest edges, this is a great place to see wildlife without needing to trek through the woods. It’s one of my favorite places to go during the warmer summers. It’s also a great option for visitors who want to experience nature but are unable to hit some of the backcountry trails.
Speaking of backcountry trails — there is a remote trail off of Cades Cove that leads to Abrams Falls and features a few backcountry campsites. The trail is a big loop, allowing you to hike to the campsites one day and then hike the rest of the loop the next.
That said, this loop isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes all day to hike and you have to carry in all your camp gear.
3. Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum
I like the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum for several reasons. The trail is very easy and there are some farm animals on the property. Therefore, it’s super easy for my grandchildren to do. There is even a nice creek that runs along the trail, offering the opportunity to see cranes and other wildlife.
There are often people “acting out” old settler skills, as well. These experiences are particularly fun for the younger kids.
However, it’s the elk that bring me back to this spot every trip. To get to this museum, you have to drive down the mountain and into a pretty sizable valley. The park’s elk love this valley and you can often see them just off the side of the road.
The outdoor museum sits in this valley, so there is always a chance that elk will be grazing around it. This is one of the best places to spot elk in the Great Smoky Mountains, so I try to make my way down to the museum every trip.
4. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail winds its way through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, providing plenty of opportunities to see the local wildlife. It goes through some old-growth forests, cascading streams, and some historic sites. Plus, it’s a driving trail, so practically anyone can do it.
My grandchildren particularly love this trail. It goes right along the river for much of the way and they love looking at the stream as we go by. The towering trees right outside of Gatlinburg are very surreal and you can even survey some of the fire damage from the 2016 Gatlinburg fire.
This trail often has other visitors on it; it’s a pretty popular destination. However, it’s long enough that it doesn’t feel crowded. There are many overlooks to stop at along the way, as well as an old home.
If you only have a few hours to explore the park, this driving trail is a great way to do it. It’s also very doable in poor weather, when you may not want to go hiking. In fact, I’ve done it in the rain several times.
5. LeConte Lodge
For those who really want to immerse themselves in nature, consider staying in LeConte Lodge. This mountain retreat is extremely rural. You have to hike several miles to it and the lodge is pretty bare-bones. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is a unique experience for those who want to enjoy the outdoors.
LeConte Lodge has a storied history dating back to 1925, when it was established by Jack Huff and Paul Adams. Named after the prominent naturalist Joseph LeConte, the lodge was built with the intention of providing weary hikers a place to rest and immerse themselves in the surrounding natural beauty.
The lodge is nestled on the third highest point in the park and can only be accessed on foot. Every few days, there is a llama train that takes supplies up to the lodge. Originally, horses were used. However, the park eventually switched to llamas because of their softer feet.
The lodge offers a range of accommodations, from cozy rustic cabins to communal bunkhouses. With no electricity, guests are encouraged to embrace a simpler way of life during their stay. The main lodge building features a dining hall where guests can enjoy hearty meals, often served family-style. Food is included with your stay, so you don’t have to worry about hauling days worth of food up with you.
The real draw of LeConte Lodge, aside from its historical significance, is its breathtaking views. You won’t see many others like it (unless you get to Clingmans Dome on a clear day). Sunrise and sunset are particularly beautiful. I’d recommend staying at least two nights to give yourself a day of rest in between hikes.
There are tons of outdoor activities to experience in the park. Some are very popular and tend to be crowded, like Clingmans Dome. The park is popular for a reason, but that popularity brings crowds of people with it.
Luckily, there are still several opportunities to immerse yourself in nature. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a great option for those who don’t want to hike much or on days with rainy weather. I also recommend heading south and seeing Oconaluftee due to the possibility of an elk sighting alone.
Cades Cove is an all-day trip, but it can make a vacation with its full campground nearby. There are many things to see, including historical sites and wildlife.
One of my favorite destinations is LeConte Lodge, though. If you want to take a unique vacation, hiking up to this mountain retreat is a great option.