Summer’s just about officially upon us, which means Great Smoky Mountains National Park is soon to experience its peak visitor season. To help you plan your summertime getaway in this most popular national park in the USA—and to generally whet your appetite—here are three surefire contenders for the best things to do in the Great Smokies during those long, sunny days!
1. Explore Cades Cove
The beautiful basin of Cades Cove, a pastoral paradise ringed by mountains, is one of the signature attractions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It offers a fantastic blend of scenery (those looming mountains, those verdant fields, those groves and copses), history, and wildlife-watching. Particularly in the early morning and evening hours, the glen provides some of the best chances for seeing such Smoky Mountains fauna as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, eastern coyotes, and—if you’re lucky—a black bear, perhaps a mother with two or three tumbling cubs.
The 11-mile one-way loop road in Cades Cove passes an incredible lineup of historical structures dating from Euro-American settlement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Primitive Baptist Church, the John Oliver Cabin, and the Tipton Place.
One of the very best ways to experience Cades Cove is not from behind the wheel, but rather from the seat of a bicycle. This year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is trying out vehicle-free Wednesdays in Cades Cove: Each Wednesday between June 17 and September 30, the loop road will be closed to motorized traffic and instead open to pedestrians and cyclists all day long. This is an attempt to reduce the congestion associated with the previous system, which reserved two-morning windows a week in the summer for non-motorized traffic. Having a full day of quieter, foot- or pedal-powered sightseeing will be amazing, particularly as it may translate to more productive wildlife-viewing opportunities.
2. Climb (Some of) the Smokies’ Highest Peaks
Summer’s perfect for visiting the high country of the Great Smoky Mountains, which are one of the loftiest ranges in eastern North America. You can drive nearly to the summit of the tallest peak of them all, 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, with a short (though steep) path leading to the observation tower on top—a whopper of a view! Short strolls through high timber along the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome can bring you to two of the other highest points in the Great Smokies, 6,580-foot Mount Buckley and 6,420-foot Mount Love.
The third-tallest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains and among the most topographically impressive mountains in the East, 6,593-foot Mount LeConte, is one of the best-hiking destinations in the park: Five trails access the summit from different directions. Depending on your route, you can see other signal Smoky Mountain landmarks such as 80-foot Rainbow Falls—the park’s tallest single-drop waterfall—and the imposing overhang of Alum Cave.
Adventurous hikers can aim for more remote high peaks, including 6,621-foot Mount Guyot, the second-highest summit in the Great Smokies, and 6,417-foot Mount Chapman.
3. Marvel at the Lush Forests & Waterfalls Along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Easily reached from Gatlinburg, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a six-mile auto tour that provides one of the more immersive Smoky Mountain experiences available on wheels. Lush cove hardwood forest, whitewater cascades clustered with rhododendron, and some spectacular waterfalls—including Grotto Falls, which you can stand behind, and the evocative Place of a Thousand Drips—serve up tremendous beauty. And historical relics, including the Ephraim and Minerva Bales Cabin and the Alfred Reagan Place, transport you back to the bygone Roaring Fork community of homesteaders. Pack a picnic and take your time along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: This isn’t a drive to rush through, but rather one to try and lock into the slow, serene, and rejuvenating tempo of the mountains.
Summer Magic in the Great Smoky Mountains
There is, of course, much, much else to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the summer, from gallivanting in mountaintop balds to picnicking along foaming rivers to taking part in ranger-led activities of every description. But the above three things to do should get you started in a marvelous fashion!