With 520,000 acres spanning North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the largest protected land area east of the Rockies. Great Smoky Mountains attractions make it the most visited park in the American Park System, and one of the best places to visit in the Carolinas.
The park preserves the history of the Appalachian Mountains from the prehistoric Paleo Indians to the European settlers of the 18th century to present-day efforts to protect the ecosystem, wildlife, and nature.
The park is a great place for hikers of all levels, offering 800 miles of trails. Visitors can choose from a serene wildflower walk all the way up to extreme mountain climbing in thick forests. Here’s a guide to the best day hikes in Smoky Mountain National Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains attractions are world-renowned for the abundant wildlife – both in animal and plant form.
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee
Ocanaluftee has a busy visitor’s centers and is also the entry point into Mountain Farm Museum. The museum grounds host a unique collection of historic 19th-century log buildings that were gathered from throughout the Smokies in the 1950’s and assembled together as a cohesive and preserved piece of the area’s history on a single site.
The types of buildings vary, including a farmhouse, a spring house, an apple house, a smokehouse and a barn. There’s also a working blacksmith shop and a collection of equipment and tools from days gone by.
Cades Cove is the most popular attraction in the park. It consists of a lush, green valley, surrounded by the majestic mountain range.
Motorists start with the 11-mile, one-way road that loops around the cove. It’s a virtual guarantee for sightings of wildlife such as black bear, white-tailed deer, coyote, turkey, groundhog, and other animals. It’s a slow pace, especially at peak season, because even though there are formal pullouts as well as abundant signage that prohibit stopping on the main loop, they are largely ignored by motorists seeking photos of the spontaneous wildlife opportunities.
There are numerous places to pull off the road, get out of the car to take a stroll or enjoy a picnic in the meadows. You can visit some of the tiny preserved historic villages, farms, mills, homesteads such as John Oliver’s cabin, grist mill, and primitive churches and imagine what it would have been like to live in that period of time.
Allow up to four hours to tour Cades Cove. If you want to hike, some of the trails will add substantial time on top of that. There is a 5-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls and longer hikes to Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain.
Clingmans Dome offers the most dramatic views of the Smokies and should not be missed. At 6,643 feet, it is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
The drive to the observation tower parking lot is about seven miles of spectacular scenery, with pullouts for photos. There are plenty of spectacular views at the parking area, but be sure to walk the half-mile to the observation tower at the summit. Although the walk is paved, the incline is quite steep, so allow extra time to rest on benches along the side, if necessary. You’ll not be disappointed. The tower offers a stunning 360° panoramic view of the mountain range, ridges, and valleys.
On a clear day, the expansive view can take in up to 100 miles of the sprawling alpine beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains.
In addition to Great Smoky Mountains attractions, here are more fun things to do in the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg.
By the way, did you know that hiking can actually change your brain and body? Have you ever heard of “forest bathing?” Check out all of the benefits of hiking in this terrific article by Bianca Knauf , an avid hiker, in her blog My Wild Earth. Prepare to be blown away by her knowledge in this area!
You may also be interested in fun things to do in Loudon County, TN , the Lakeway to the Smokies.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.