Great Smoky Mountains Attractions and Best Things to Do [updated 2020]

March 2, 2017

Great Smoky Mountains

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.

And if all that’s not enough, it’s close to some really fun places with lots to do and see, such as renting a cabin in Pigeon Forge, strolling around charming Gatlinburg and artsy Asheville.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee


photo ©Kary Kern

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.

Great Smoky Mountains

photo ©Kary Kern

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

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.

cades cove

photo ©Kary Kern

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.

Great Smoky Mountains

photo ©Kary Kern

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

Clingmans Dome

photo ©Kary Kern

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.

Great Smoky Mountains

photo ©Kary Kern

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.

Great Smoky Mountains

photo ©Kary Kern

In addition to the 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.

Click on image to PIN so you won’t forget!

great smoky mountains

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti 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.


  1. Comment by Kelly Duhigg

    Kelly Duhigg Reply March 5, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    I have never been to the Great Smoky Mountains and I had no idea it was the most visited park in the US park system. I would love to visit the Mountain Farm Museum since I love history. I also think Cades Cove looks spectaculiar. Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 6, 2017 at 7:07 am

      Cades Cove is a great place to walk around and enjoy a picnic while taking in the views!

  2. Comment by Hang Around The World

    Hang Around The World Reply March 5, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Thanks for this great overview of the Great Smoky Mountains; really liked the layout of this post. We didn’t visit this place on our last trip in the southeastern United States, but hopefully we’ll visit this gem on our next vacation. We love your photos too much!!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 6, 2017 at 7:06 am

      I hope you get there next time. It’s really beautiful to see.

  3. Comment by Linda Aksomitis

    Linda Aksomitis Reply March 5, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    I’ve visited the Great Smoky Mountains a number of times, but I always find more great places to visit — John Oliver’s Cabin looks especially interesting as a destination for my readers.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 6, 2017 at 7:05 am

      The Smokies never get old. It changes with every season, each of which is lovely.

  4. Comment by Nicole

    Nicole Reply March 5, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    I drove through the Smoky mountains last year and it was amazing. That observation tower looks like a great spot to take in the views.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 6, 2017 at 7:04 am

      The observation tower has the absolute best views, even though it can be a challenge to get to.

  5. Comment by Sarah

    Sarah Reply March 6, 2017 at 6:29 am

    One of my goals is to eventually visit all must-see national parks in the US! Just ’cause I love the nature and hiking (okay, this, not as much!haha)! Have to plan another US roadtrip soon! Smokies is definitely on my list!

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply March 6, 2017 at 7:03 am

      It’s a great park, Sarah — each season changes the views!

  6. Comment by Bhushavali

    Bhushavali Reply March 6, 2017 at 8:46 am

    This was the first ever destination my friend ventured to, after she moved to USA was this!!! I ended up printing those pics for her not-so-techsavvy grand parents to see, here! So yeah, I won’t ever forget this place! That vintage house with a mill beside looks awesome! Is staying there overnight allowed?

  7. Comment by Nicole

    Nicole Reply March 6, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    I drove through the Smoky mountains last year and it was amazing. That observation tower looks like a great spot to take in the views. I hope to go back and check it out.

  8. Comment by Danique

    Danique Reply March 7, 2017 at 1:17 am

    That view is really awesome! I would love to go there one day. It’s surprising that it’s the most visited national park actually. I didn’t expect that.

  9. Comment by Chiera

    Chiera Reply March 7, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    I love Nature! Such beautiful views here! Looks like you had a lovely day 🙂

  10. Comment by Lena from fouronaworldtrip

    Lena from fouronaworldtrip Reply March 8, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    This is really nice.. I espeically like the Dome; from plattforms like this you have always such a stunning view! My kids would love this! As well the old farmhouses and mills, great location to spent a good time!

  11. Comment by Sue Reddel

    Sue Reddel Reply March 11, 2017 at 7:41 pm

    There are just so many beautiful national parks in the US. I haven’t been to the Smoky Mountains but I’d sure like to get there. Your photos are just beautiful.

  12. Comment by Madhurima Maiti

    Madhurima Maiti Reply March 12, 2017 at 6:21 am

    Looks like a wonderful weekend getaway! Beautiful place and you have such amazing pictures. Particularly, Oconaluftee I loved with its vintage looks. Great place to spend a good time in a serene surrounding.

  13. Comment by Anita

    Anita Reply March 12, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    It sounds like a great trip. I love viewing towers and panoramic views of the mountain range, ridges and valleys. I have visited few other National Parks in US and I really loved them. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Pingback: Loudon County TN: Best Things to Do in the Lakeway to the Smokies

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