Active types adore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but not everybody is cut out for physically demanding hikes. Thankfully, hiking is only the beginning at this national treasure. Opportunities abound for making the most of the park’s natural beauty and serene atmosphere. Be sure to add at least a few of the following destinations to your national park itinerary:
Sugarlands Visitors Center
Get your Smoky Mountains adventure off to a strong start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Open every day except Christmas, this hotspot is home to a variety of exhibits and resources. If you have time to spare, don’t hesitate to watch the visitor center’s twenty-minute film, which serves as an excellent introduction to the park. You’ll also find several natural history exhibits worth exploring.
After you’ve made the most of the center’s inside activities feel free to use this destination as a jumping-off point for a short hike. Favorites include the Gatlinburg Trail, Fighting Creek Nature Trail, and a short hike to Cataract Falls.
Cades Cove Loop
Winding a full eleven miles through the most scenic regions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Cades Cove Loop has long been a go-to route for those looking to experience the park from the comfort of a vehicle. That being said, it’s virtually impossible to remain seated for the entirety of this experience. Several restored structures are situated along the route, providing endless opportunities to get out and explore.
As you plan your journey, keep in mind that restrictions on vehicles apply during certain seasons and times of the day. If you prefer a more active experience, feel free to walk or bike the path during vehicle-free hours.
Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
Another great option for exploring the park by car, this route is named for the rushing stream visible at several points along the way. In addition to multiple streams, you’ll observe old-growth forests and a variety of historic buildings. Early visits are typically preferable, as traffic can make this journey a lot less pleasant. Good tires are also advisable; this narrow, one-way motor trail is definitely not ideal for all vehicles. A low-speed limit is maintained for the entirety of the route, however — and if you abide by this speed limit, you should feel perfectly safe as you witness memorable Smoky Mountains scenery.
Newfound Gap Road
As the park’s lowest drivable pass, Newfound Gap Road traverses the diverse landscape between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the beautiful North Carolina town of Cherokee. Along the way, you’ll observe a vast array of forest ecosystems. Some areas may even remind you of New England’s beloved boreal forests.
You’ll move far more quickly along Newfound Gap Road than you typically would on the Cades Cove Loop or the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, but don’t let that stop you from taking a leisurely approach. Ample opportunities are available for stretching your legs, especially when the Appalachian Trail crosses the road.
Clingmans Dome has long been one of the park’s most-visited attractions, and with good reason — the panoramic views available from this outlook are indescribably beautiful. Reaching a peak height of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is one of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi. An observation tower situated at the mountain’s summit provides awe-inspiring 360-degree views. You’ll need to hike half a mile to reach the summit, but the effort will ultimately prove more than worthwhile.
Over a dozen firefly species reside within the Smoky Mountains region. Synchronous fireflies, however, are among the most impressive. With this unique species, individual fireflies can synchronize to create spectacularly flashing patterns of light. These patterns form an integral part of the fireflies’ mating display. As a result, the flashing is most visible during a brief two-week period typically spanning between late May and mid-June. Timing varies slightly from one year to the next, however.
Firefly viewings can be difficult to come by in the Smoky Mountains, where a lottery system has been put in place to balance the high demand with ecological concerns. If you plan ahead, however, you just might witness this unforgettable sight.
Situated along Little River Road, The Sinks definitely warrant a stop on your scenic drive. This picturesque setting is made possible by an S-shaped bend in the river, which creates natural pools surrounded by giant boulders. It’s a wonderful spot to hit up on a hot day, but think twice before jumping in — these pools are more dangerous than they appear. Still, they’re worth visiting purely for the serene atmosphere and visual spectacle they provide.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you’ll definitely want to check out this challenging trail, which exemplifies the iconic Smoky Mountain hiking experience. An elevation climb of 2,763 feet will take you to the 6,593-foot summit, where you’ll enjoy some of the park’s most impressive views. The journey is just as enjoyable, however. As you head towards the peak, you will observe unique geological features, rosebay rhododendron, and more. Highlights include Arch Rock, a view of The Eye of the Needle, and of course, the trail’s namesake: Alum Cave.
Rainbow Falls Trail
As the park’s tallest single-drop waterfall, Rainbow Falls is well worth a visit. The journey to this visual spectacle is by no means easy, but it’s an undeniably rewarding hike. Set aside at least three hours for your expedition, which could last up to five hours if you maintain a leisurely pace or stop regularly for photos. When you reach the falls, you will be more than ready for a brief rest. Grab a snack and enjoy the view. If you visit on a sunny day, you just might spot a rainbow in the mist.
From scenic drives to challenging hikes, opportunities abound for making the most of the Smoky Mountains. Build a variety of activities into your itinerary so you can experience the true wonder of this beloved national park.