Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Best Things to Do

Have you visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The park straddles Tennessee and North Carolina, and is one of the most visited national parks in the entire nation. More than 11 million people visit each year, more than the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park. And the best part? It’s less than three hours from Greenville.

This park has been on my bucket list of places to visit for awhile and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to take a trip there with my kids. When I finally got the chance, it blew me away. The scenery is overwhelmingly beautiful. The mountains stretch for miles, green upon green upon green. The fall colors are unreal. The park has the highest concentration of black bears in this part of the country, two per square mile, along with other abundant wildlife like elk, deer, turkeys, and coyote.

For two days, I explored Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, and took a short hike at the Visitors Center to Cataract Falls. We saw bears, elk, log cabins, and spent time at one of the only places near here where you can watch both the sunrise and sunset.

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Sugarland Visitors Center & Nature Trail

Start your visit at the Sugarland Visitors Center, only a ten minute drive from nearby Gatlinburg. You can pick up maps and booklets and explore a small nature center that has stuffed snakes, turtles, boar, and other wildlife native to the park. You can also attend a short presentation by a Park Ranger and learn about different aspects of the park. We listened to a fascinating presentation on elk, where the ranger showed us an elk skin, rack, hoove, and cast skull. It was really cool.

There is a one-mile round trip easy nature trail you can take along a creek that goes to the small but pretty Cataract Falls. It’s perfect for families with small kids. We saw parents even pushing strollers along the flat path.

If your kids want to become Junior Rangers, they can fill out a book ($2.50) that has several activities divided by age and then have a ranger sign off on the book and get the pin. My oldest did this with her scout pack and we had a blast. We learned about different vegetation, trees, and wildlife in the park. It’s fun and educational.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is about an hour drive from the Visitors Center through a winding 20 mile road. It’s beautiful and goes by quickly since there is so much to view along the way. The Cove is a one-way 11-mile road that snakes through a valley amongst the mountains. It is rich in history and wildlife. Be sure to stop at the information center on your way in and grab the Cades Cove guidebook for a $1. It helps to explain what you’ll see along the way.

Cades Cove cabin in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Cades Cove was one of the earliest settlements in the area dotted with log cabins and primitive churches. The coolest part is that you can explore them all. My kids absolutely loved checking out these buildings that dated in the 1800s. They look like something out of an old movie and are a unique part of the experience.

We stopped at the Primitive Baptist Church, dating back to the mid-1800s and set off the main road, to explore the old building and heard beautiful singing coming from inside the church. We had stumbled upon a youth group and their leader with a guitar singing worship songs. It was such a peaceful moment and my kids loved it. The setting, the music, all of it made it easy to picture what this place may have been like when people lived there all those years ago.

Church building in Cades Cove

As we traveled through the cove, we pulled over many times, as signs instruct you to do if you want to stop, and jumped out to take photos of the mountains and log cabins. We got to see three bears and a few turkeys along the way too, which was pretty cool.

There are multiple signs along the route that urge visitors to stay 50 yards away from wildlife because they can be dangerous and result in injury or death. Interesting, we saw many people getting way too close to these bears, including a mama and her cubs. Remember you are in their home and you have to be careful. Basically, use common sense.

There are also several trails accessible from Cades Cove, most notably perhaps Abrams Falls, a 5.2 mile round trip hike. Just look for signs on where to park. I find the AllTrails app to be very helpful.

Cades Cove is open daily from dawn till dusk but closed to cars and only open to bikes and pedestrian traffic all day on Wednesdays over the summer. I highly recommend biking the loop then. It’s such a cool experience. There is no charge to enter Cades Cove. With the weather changing quickly at times and icy winters, always check with the Visitors Center or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Twitter account to make sure the road to Cades Cove is open.

Mountain range view at Smoky Mountain National Park

Newfound Gap

In the other direction from Cades Cove is Newfound Gap, which is on the way to Clingmans Dome. There is a large parking lot at the pull off for the site, with plenty of viewing points and photo opportunities.

Newfound Gap views at Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Newfound Gap sits at just over 5,000 feet above sea level and is the lowest possible pass through the park. Since it’s so high up, it gets a hefty amount of snow a year, average is 69 inches, and is about 10 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

The Appalachian Trail crosses here so you can take a stroll to enjoy the view and stretch your legs.

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Smokies, in Tennessee, and on the Appalachian Trail as well as the third highest point east of the Mississippi River.

Clingmans Dome is about 40 minutes from the Visitors Center and just seven miles from Newfound Gap. The road to Clingmans Dome is closed from December 1 through March 31st, although the observation tower is open year round, but can also close at other times for weather to be sure to check to make sure its open before you go.

The drive up there is stunning. You feel like you’re one top of the world and can see into Tennessee and North Carolina on clear days. The parking lot for Clingmans Dome sits a half mile from the observation deck and it’s a steep hike up there. It’s straight up and not suitable for people with health problems, strollers, or wheelchairs. Don’t worry too much if you can’t make it to the top because the views from the parking lot are amazing.

The storied Appalachian Trail runs through the Great Smoky Mountains and up to Clingmans Dome and you can take a short part of it on the way up or down to the observation tower if you like. It connects to the Clingmans Dome Trail for a total length of almost a mile to the parking lot or back, one way. The vegetation is so vastly different from that of the parks and trails near Greenville that feels like you’re in another world. It’s beautiful.

Appalachian Trail sign

Once you huff and puff your way to the top of the observation tower, you’ll be rewarded with a 360 degree view of the park. I’ve seen so many stunning photos of both the sunrise and sunset from this point and while I’m not hiking there in the dark, the views during the day are breathtaking. It is absolutely worth it to hike up there (maybe bribe the kids with a snack when you get to the top).

The history of the area surrounding Clingmans Dome goes back to the Cherokee tribe as they were pushed out of their lands and walked through what is known as the “Trail of Tears.” Even with the crowds up there, I found the area to be peaceful, especially as we took the observation from the tower back down to the parking lot where we only saw a handful of people. Perhaps those spirits of the Cherokee still linger.

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Where to Stay Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park

There are lovely campgrounds in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I’ve stayed at both the Cosby one (quiet and spacious) and the Cades Cove one, which is beautiful and also pretty spacious, plus right next to the Cove.

There are so many great spots to stay: the Margaritaville Island Hotel in Pigeon Forge, Greystone Lodge in Gatlinburg, the Go Lodge, Westgate Smokies, Smoky Hollow Outdoor Resort, Camp LeConte, and Wilderness at the Smokies. This guide has several options and reviews.

Where to Eat Near Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Your best bet is to bring food with you for a day at the park. We probably enjoyed the best pancakes I’ve ever had at the Little House of Pancakes in Gatlinburg one of the mornings and brought lunch and snacks the rest of the time. The nearest Walmart Supercenter is 25 minutes north in Sevierville.

Townsend is the nearest town to Cades Cove and there are a few places on the way back to Pigeon Forge if you drive through there. We ate at Paw Paw’s Catfish Kitchen, which had a great selection of catfish, crawfish, and gumbo.

With one of our national treasures being so close to Greenville – and free! – it is absolutely worth the time to make a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

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