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The 20 Best Things to Do at Great Smoky Mountains


The mountain range along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in the southeastern United States is called the Great Smoky Mountains. As part of the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province and a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains, it is technically the home of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a park, it was established in 1934 and typically has about eleven million visitors per year. In the United States, it is the national park that receives the most amount of visits. When it comes to finding something to do, there's no lack of that here.

As part of the International Biosphere Reserve, the 187,000 acres of old-growth forest sums up the Great Smokies and is the largest of its kind east of the Mississippi River. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountains earn their name from the natural fog hanging over the range. This results from the vegetation releasing volatile organic compounds that release a high vapor pressure according to its surrounding climate and pressure conditions.


20. Autumn Leaf-Peeping

While inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, doing so during the autumn season offers the visitor a spectacular view of its colorful trees. Take in the opportunity to either drive or hike among the higher elevations and take in this natural beauty. The best time to do so is mid-September. In mid-October, the lower elevations are usually at their colorful best.


19. Mountain Mile & Tower Shops (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)

The Mountain Mile & Tower Shops features over a mile's worth of road-front scenic shops that continue to reshape the retail industry of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Stretching from Teaster Lane to Jake Thomas Boulevard, Mountain Mile & Tower Shops travels through the heart of the community and is surrounded by the Cal Ripken Experience baseball tournament park. This is also part of 300,000 square foot The Island, which is also featured on this list as a "must" for anyone choosing the Great Smoky Mountains as a vacation destination.

Smoky Mountains

18. Great Smoky Mountains Cabin Experience

If you're going to visit the Great Smoky Mountains as a vacation destination, the best way to go about it is to rent a cabin. Between private arrangements or through a reputable rental site that specializes in this niche, there is no greater experience to make the most out of your visits.

Although there are great hotels and resorts you can stay in as well, the privacy of a cabin rental puts you in an environment that will feel like a true home away from home. Whatever your idea of a perfect cabin should be, there is no shortage in this area. Big or small, the cabin experience can offer so much.

There are some cabin rentals that offer shoreline opportunities to do some fishing. If you're wanting a romantic getaway just for two, taking in the view of the Smoky Mountains from a private deck is bound to leave a lifetime of memories.

For families, renting a cabin that has something for everyone is a great way to keep everyone together without having to worry so much about neighbors. In hotels, sometimes the walls are too thin and if a family happens to stay next door to a couple that wants peace and quiet, this can pose as a problem. This can also be said for a party that wants to hang out together and have some fun without having to contend with noise complaints.

Double Decker Bus

17. Double Decker Bus Tours

Hop on a two-story bus that made the UK famous as you take a tour of the Great Smoky Mountains. The tour features a guide covering what visitors can see and do, including where the best places are to eat. There are fourteen stops the bus travels as a loop tour between Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. There are also specialty tours that involve Cades Cove, Harrah's Cherokee Casino, and Moonshine and Wine.

Apple Mill

16. The Apple Barn & Cider Mill (Sevierville, Tennessee)

The Apple Barn has been a staple in the Great Smoky Mountains since it was first established in Sevierville, Tennessee in 1910. Its Cider Mill offers samples of its world-famous cider while the Apple Barn Winery offers the same in the form of wine. There's also the General Store and the Apple Barn Candy Factory.

Naturally, the main attraction of Apple Barn is the food. The Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant and the Applewood Farmhouse Grill offer dining experiences that define the Great Smoky Mountains culinary culture.


15. Gatlinburg SkyLift Park (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)

Ride the Gatlin SkyLift to the top of SkyDeck so you can take in the panoramic view of downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Located in SkyLift park, you can also walk across SkyBridge, which is the longest suspension bridge built for pedestrians in North America. The highlight of the bridge is the glass panels located in the middle so you can look straight down to see what's below you.

Old Mill

14. The Old Mill (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)

For a great spot to shop in the Great Smoky Mountains that features some traditional flair, The Old Mill is the place to go. For a memorable shopping and dining experience, Pigeon Hill's Old Mill offers an opportunity to take in some history as you take in one of the most charming attractions Pigeon Forge has to offer.

Pigeon forge

13. Rowdy Bear Ridge Adventure Park (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)

Rowdy Bear Ridge Adventure Park is the most popular adventure park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Thrillseekers will enjoy the world's first Avalanche Snow Coaster and Ski Lift Shootout Coaster. There is also the five hundred-foot plus Tubing Hill, which is the fastest outdoor tubing hill in Tennessee.

Ripleys Gatlinburg

12. Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)

Ripley's Aquarium has a handful of locations that serve as a family-friendly attraction. The one located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, offers an underwater tunnel that allows visitors to see a variety of marine life. There is also the Glass Bottom Boat Adventure and Penguin Encounter. In addition to providing an impressive collection of aquatic animals, the aquarium also offers the opportunity to host parties, sleepovers, and other special events.

Cades Cove

11. Cades Cove Historic District

Cades Cove, Tennessee, was a farming community that was part of the early 1800s Great Smoky Mountains landscape. In the 1930s, it was annexed to its national park as a community that once upon a time had seven hundred people live and work there.

The eleven-mile drive is one way and has many stops for visitors to get out of the car and learn more about the area's history. There are many ways to access this farming community but the most popular route has been Laurel Creek Road. This leads directly to the entry point, which also has a campground and store you can access before actually going into the park.


10. Fontana, North Carolina

With 240 miles of shoreline summing up Fontana Lake, this is a great opportunity to engage in some water-related activities such as boating and fishing. This lake was formed after the Fontana Dam was built on the Little Tennessee River, creating a reservoir that has since become Fontana Village's favorite destination.

Fontana Lake is along the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the northern border of Nantahala National Forest. The dam, lake, and Fontana Village belong to North Carolina. Unlike most of the towns that were submerged due to the creation of the lake, the village still remains. While at Fontana Village, visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center so you can rent a boat to tour the lake.

9. Oconaluftee Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee River Trail

Located at Crump Park, behind the Oconaluftee Visitors Center is the Mountain Farm Museum. This is a great destination for the whole family. Located in Bryson City, North Carolina, the recreation of this late nineteenth-century mountain farm demonstrates what rural life was like living as a resident of the Great Smoky Mountains. While at the farm, take advantage of the Oconaluftee River Trail. It's an easy, one-way trail that is pet friendly and leads to Cherokee, North Carolina.

8. Anakeesta Theme Park (Gatlinburg, Tennessee)

Situated in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is Anakeesta Theme Park. For fans of the great outdoors wanting to embark on an adventure of a lifetime, this is the place to go. If thrills are what you seek, the Dueling Zipline Adventure offers a side-by-side race against friends that soar through the trees. There's also the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster, which is the only single rail ride of its kind in the US.

If you'd rather go for something the entire family can enjoy, try the scenic ride offered by the Chondola and Ridge Rambler. Inside the park is Firefly Village, which is a haven for shoppers and diners. While there, enjoy the Treetop Skywalk, which is a fourteen-bridge stroll that hangs above the ground as high as sixty feet.

Make a point to visit AnaVista Tower, which is the highest point in downtown Gatlinburg. From there you will take in a panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains. You can see peaks as far away as Kentucky, as well as the Vista Gardens located below that feature over three thousand species of fauna and flora splendor. Are you up for the challenge to crawl and slide your way through the challenge course it has to offer?

The Island

7. The Island (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)

The Island is one of the top tourist attractions located at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel offers a breathtaking view of the community and the infamous mountain range. If this isn't enough to appreciate what the amusement park has to offer, take in the water dance and light show presented by The Island Show Fountain. There's something to do at The Island for all members of the family.


6. Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina)

Located in Asheville, North Carolina is the Biltmore Estate and mansion which was built for George Washington Vanderbilt II in 1895. It was a six-year construction project that made the largest privately owned house in the United States. Its size is an impressive 178,926 square feet of floor space and remains as one of the most prominent examples of Gilded Age mansions. It, along with the winery that's also accessible to the public, is owned by Vanderbilt's descendants.

Visitors of Biltmore Mansion will be in for more than just a historical treat. This estate was also designed with a park setting in mind that also includes Biltmore Village. This is one of the most picturesque landscapes featured in the Great Smoky Mountains.

As a whole, the estate is eight thousand acres in size and is split in half by the French Broad River. In addition to Biltmore Village is Antler Hill Village. Since 2010, it has featured a collection of gift shops and restaurants. This is where The Inn on Biltmore Estate is located, as well as the Biltmore Winery. Among visitors wanting to stay in a more casual environment, there's the Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate.

The Gap

5. Newfound Gap (between Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina)

From Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina is the lowest drivable point of the Great Smoky Mountains. Referred to as Newfound Gap, this scenic drive treks up and over the mountains between the two communities for thirty-one miles and is the only paved road in the park.

This highway drives clean through the center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along the way, you'll elevate as high as three thousand feet. You will also encounter mile markers so you can locate and access significant sites such as the Mingus Mill, Newfound Gap, and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum. There's also the Smokemont Campground and Nature Trail and the Web Overlook.


4. Climb Clingmans Dome

If you want to take in a great view of the Great Smoky Mountains from way up high, climbing the 6,643-foot round-top peak called Clingmans Dome would be the way to do it. From Newfound Gap, visitors walk half a mile up to the summit. Once there, the observation tower offers visitors to take in the beauty of the mountain range and the natural beauty surrounding it. On a clear day, you can see more than one hundred miles away.

The scenic access road leading to this popular destination is usually open to the public from April until November. Clingmans Dome is a very popular tourist attraction so if you want to make the best of it, the earlier in the day you arrive the better. During the winter season, it offers cross-country skiers and snowshoers an opportunity to test their skills.

Clingmans Dome is part of the Appalachian Trail. Visiting the trail without visiting Clingmans Dome simply won't do if you want to make the most out of your experience at the Great Smoky Mountains.

Smoky Mountains

3. Cades Cove Historic District (Townsend, Tennessee)

Near Townsend, Tennessee is Cades Cove. This was a farming community that was part of the early 1800s Great Smoky Mountains landscape. In the 1930s, it was annexed to its national park as a community that once upon a time had seven hundred people live and work there.

The eleven-mile drive is one way and has many stops for visitors to get out of the car and learn more about the area's history. There are many ways to access this farming community but the most popular route has been Laurel Creek Road. This leads directly to the entry point, which also has a campground and store you can access before actually going into the park.

Cades Cove Historic District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of 1977. This farming community in the valley is rich in history, scenery, and even wildlife. When visiting the Great Smoky Mountains, bypassing one of the area's most popular attractions should not be an option.


2. Appalachian National Scenic Trail

There are seventy-one miles that make the Tennesse run of the Appalachian Trail as the ultimate destination for hikers. Whether one is willing and able to hike the entire run depends on visitor. There are some sections of the trail that can be done in a day. Many of them connect to Clingmans Dome.

The full trail runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. There are nearly 2,200 miles of trail that passes through fourteen states, including North Carolina and Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy claims this is the longest hiking-only trail in the world. On average, three million people hike various segments of this trail per year.

Accessing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail while at the Great Smoky Mountains starts at the Fontana Dam and ends at Davenport Gap. The highest peak is at Clingmans Dome. The trail includes notable landmarks such as Charlies Bunion, Mount Cammerer, and Rocky Top.


1. Dollywood (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)

Owned by Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, Dollywood is a themed amusement park located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This is near the gateway of the Great Smoky Mountains. This is the biggest ticketed attraction in Tennessee and has won several international awards. The park hosts several activities for every member of the family that may take more than a day or two to explore.

It's been known to host concerts and musical events. Be sure to visit the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame while you're there. There are also thirty-five acres of the waterpark, Dollywood's Splash Country, and the twenty-acre Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and Spa. Don't forget Dolly Parton's Stampede Dinner Attraction, as this five-acre treat makes the Dollywood experience epic.

Dollywood has been voted the number one theme park in the United States. Its rich history dates as far back as 1961 when it first opened up as a small tourist attraction called Rebel Railroad. It was designed with the American Civil War in mind that featured a steam train that would experience mock attacks by Indians, train robbers, and Union soldiers. The Confederate soldiers would ride in, saving the day for the passengers.

Since Rebel Railroad, the theme park was renamed over the years before it officially became Dollywood in 1986. Dolly Parton grew up in the area with fond memories of this familiar park that became as much a part of the Great Smoky Mountains as the natural environment itself.

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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