Whether you live locally or are just here for a visit, this is your ultimate resource for the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains. No matter your style, this mountain wonderland is the perfect place for you to create awesome family memories that will last a lifetime.
With hundreds of fun things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding cities, the fun part will be choosing where to start.
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Best Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains are comprised of both Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the adorable cities that surround it. While the park is the main attraction, millions of visitors also flock to the surrounding city attractions each year.
This guide primarily focuses on all the wonderful things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you want to explore the surrounding attractions, view our comprehensive city guides here:
Best Things to Do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With twice the annual visitors of the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire United States. Known for stunning views, fantastic hiking, educational programs, world-class camping, and an abundance of wildlife, it’s no surprise the Smokies are popular with both visitors and locals alike.
Below you’ll find ideas for where to stay, things to do, best hiking trails, and more! The best part is most of the attractions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are completely FREE!
1. Attend a Star Party
Snuggle up under the stars for a free stargazing party hosted by the Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society. SMAS will provide the telescopes and help you locate a variety of constellations in the dark mountain sky.
The parties take place periodically throughout the year at various locations, including Cades Cove, New Found Gap Overlook, and Foothills Parkway. Bring your own snacks to make the party complete!
2. Tag Monarch Butterflies
Every fall, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont offers FREE monarch butterfly tagging events. The goal of these events is to help conserve our nation’s dwindling population of monarch butterflies.
3. View the Synchronous Fireflies
In the Spring, be sure to visit the Smoky Mountain synchronous fireflies at Elkmont. This natural phenomenon, which features thousands of fireflies lighting in unison, only occurs in a few places throughout the entire world.
4. Take a Kid-Friendly Hike
Try one of the park’s best family-friendly hikes. These hikes make the list for having a shorter length and easier terrain.
5. Admire the Gorgeous Wildflowers
Marvel at the rainbow of colors on one of the Smoky Mountains many wildflower hikes. Some of the most prevalent flower varieties include Mountain Laurel, Trillium, and Rhododendron.
6. Photograph a Black Bear
Try your hand at photographing the Great Smoky Mountain black bears. The absolute best location for spotting bears in the park is Cades Cove loop road, but bears can also readily be seen along Litter River Road, New Found Gap Road, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
7. Discover a Gorgeous Waterfall
Last but not least (and perhaps everybody’s favorite), enjoy one of the Smoky Mountains’ famed waterfall hikes, including walk-behind and multi-tiered falls.
8. Step into History at Cades Cove
Explore the grist mill and various historical buildings at the Cades Cove Visitor Center, including a blacksmith shop, log buildings, and more! Free living-history demonstrations are held periodically throughout the year.
9. Hiking Cades Cove
History isn’t the only attraction along the loop. There are many popular hiking trails in Cades Cove ranging from easy to strenuous difficulty.
10. Enjoy a Scenic Drive
Some of the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains are scenic driving tours. The most popular roads include Cades Cove Loop and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
11. Get Wet and Wild
There are several Smoky Mountain lakes surrounding the national park. They are great places for swimming, camping, and a variety of water sports.
12. View the Wild Elk
The most exciting thing to do in the Oconaluftee area is viewing the famed Smoky Mountain wild elk. Elk can frequently be seen in the field adjacent to the visitors center and in the fields and rivers along New Found Gap Road.
13. Become a Junior Ranger
Your kids can become junior rangers by participating in a variety of free and educational adventure programs, including animal explorations, scientific investigations, and more. These programs are led by park rangers and are designed for kids ages 5-12.
14. Become a Not-So-Junior Ranger
For older visitors, the park also has a Not-So-Junior Ranger Program. With this program, you can earn a free souvenir badge by participating in 3 ranger-led educational programs geared towards visitors ages 13- 130!
15. Play in the Snow
In the winter months, you can enjoy a variety of frozen water features and frosted winter scenery by adventuring on one of the Smokies’ best winter hikes.
16. Stand in 2 States at Once
Take a picture of yourself in 2 states at once at the Newfound Gap Overlook. The parking area of this scenic overlook sits right on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina.
17. Climb The Highest Peak
Climb the tower at Clingman’s Dome and pack your camera because the views are stunning! Even the parking lot is an excellent spot for photography.
18. Look Rock Fire Tower
There is also a lesser-known observation tower and overlook at the end of the Look Rock trail. The trail sits along Foothills Parkway at the outer edge of the park. The tower overlooks the Smokies on one side and the Tennessee Valley on the other. Talk about amazing photos!
19. Foothills Parkway
Since you will already be on Foothills Parkway, this will be a great time to stop at a few of its gorgeous scenic overlooks. Foothills Parkway is one of the best routes for photography in the entire park.
20. Try a Stroller-Friendly Trail
If you are with someone who uses a wheelchair or stroller, don’t miss the Smokies’ only fully paved trail, the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail.
21. Sugarlands Visitor Center
Stop by The Sugarlands Visitor Center to enjoy a nature trail, a museum dedicated to local wildlife, and a 20-minute park video, which details the past, present, and future of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
22. Go Horseback Riding
You can take a trail ride through Cades Cove, or simply photograph the horses that are pastured right along the driving loop. They love people and will often come right up to the fence. Please remember not to touch them. They will bite!
23. Bike Through Cades Cove
Enjoy a scenic bike ride along the loop. On Saturday and Wednesday mornings, before 10 am the loop is reserved for bikers, and no motor vehicles are permitted. If you don’t have your own bicycle, you can rent one on-site.
24. Oconaluftee Visitors Center
Visit the interactive museum at Oconaluftee Visitors Center to learn about historic Appalachian life. This museum is indoors, so you can visit rain or shine.
25. Visit the Mountain Farm Museum
The Mountain Farm Museum is located just behind the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Here you can get a glimpse into historic Appalachian farm living. The exhibits include a log farmhouse, apple orchard, corn crib, barn, pigpen, chicken coop, and much more!
When the weather is nice, the farm will also feature live animals.
26. Explore Mingus Mill
After visiting the museum, be sure to see Mingus Mill. This working grist mill is less than a 5-minute drive from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. This is a great spot for photography. You can even purchase freshly milled flour.
27. Enjoy a Free Pickin’ Porch Concert
At these concerts, locals gather on the porch of the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center for a jammin’ bluegrass session. In addition to the typical banjos, guitars, and fiddles, you may also see musicians playing washtubs, saws, spoons, dulcimers, and more!
28. Mountain Biking
Try mountain biking on one of the Smoky Mountains’ 3 approved bike trails: the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and the Lower Deep Creek Trail.
Trout are the most popular fish in the mountain rivers and are stocked annually.
30. Bird Watching
The Smokies are home to over 240 species of birds. Favorites include the indigo bunting, goldfinch, and cardinal.
31. Go Camping
There are tons of campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including frontcountry and backcountry sites. Frontcountry campgrounds, like the ones in Cades Cove and Deep Creek, offer running water and flush toilets.
Aside from a fire ring, backcountry campgrounds don’t offer any amenities.
32. Go Glamping
Glamping is one of the newest and best things to do in the Smoky Mountains. Under Canvas offers luxury canvas tents with wood floors and king-size beds. The campsites are located just outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Which of these ideas do you think are the BEST things to do in the Smoky Mountains? Tell us about it in the comments below!