Many visitors are puzzled by what to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the park is wild, and hiking trails rather than roads lead into every holler, corner, and cove. You can get the ultimate Smoky Mountain Trip Planner by ordering a copy of my travel guide: Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
In the meantime, here’s an idea on how to spend a week here, and to spend it well.
Newfound Gap Road
Base yourself in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where you’ll have all manner of accommodation options and tempting entertainments easily at hand. Begin your exploration of Smoky at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, a mere two miles from Gatlinburg at the northern end of Newfound Gap Road.
Drive Newfound Gap Road south through the park. Hit the trail to Alum Cave Bluffs, a steep and strenuous five-mile hike that rewards you with a view many visitors never see.
As you come to the crest of the mountains on Newfound Gap Road, take the time to visit Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park. From the viewing platform at the top (an easy walk), you’ll have an unparalleled view of the surrounding country. There’s a lovely hike to Andrews Bald nearby, a moderate 3.5-hour trek to a high mountain meadow that’s often ablaze with wildflowers.
Newfound Gap Road ends at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina. Stop here to peruse the historic structures at the Mountain Farm Museum before returning to Gatlinburg for dinner with a show at the Dixie Stampede, a sort of Southern feast combined with a live-action play with horses, gunfire, and all sorts of excitement. Afterward, hit Sugarlands Distilling for a little moonshine to calm your nerves.
In the morning, have breakfast at the Pancake Pantry, and then head for the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail for today’s hike. Depending on how adventurous you feel, this can be a half-day exploration of a waterfall or two, or a strenuous 14-mile trek to Mount LeConte and back.
Either way, start off by hiking to Rainbow Falls, an 80-foot waterfall on LeConte Creek. For a short hike, turn around and hoof it back to the trailhead. To reach the summit of Mount LeConte, continue on the trail but be ready for a long, hard day of it. Baskins Falls is a smaller waterfall—only 30 feet—but few people make the tough hike in to see it, so it’s a bit of a hidden gem.
Since you’ve earned your supper, go for some traditional, stick-to-your-ribs country cooking at Mama’s Farmhouse in Pigeon Forge.
Head east to Cosby for a night of camping at Cosby Campground, where you’ll have your choice of beautiful day hikes. Hen Wallow Falls and Albright Grove offer easy, wildflower-filled hikes. The trip to the stone fire tower at the top of Mount Cammerer is a long, tough day on the trail, but well worth it. If you’ve brought your fishing gear (and license), catch dinner in Cosby Creek.
In the morning, break camp and head north on Highway 32 for breakfast in Cosby at Janice’s Diner. From Cosby, follow Foothills Parkway east to I-40 and take the scenic route south to Mount Sterling Road, a drive of about an hour. Along Mount Sterling Road, roll down the windows, relax, and breathe deep—you’re almost at one of the most secluded areas of the park.
In Cataloochee, register at the campground (reserve a site in advance), set up your tent, and enjoy a picnic lunch before lacing up your boots and heading into the valley. Look for elk in the field across from Caldwell Place, or hike to Palmer Chapel, Little Cataloochee Church, or the Woody House. Anglers can wet a line in one of the nearby creeks and try to catch dinner.
Sunset signals time for chow and stargazing—there’s so little light pollution that the celestial show is breathtaking. Sit back and enjoy.
Today, we head west to Cades Cove, a mountain community that was one of the first places settled on the western side of the Smokies. The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop leads through the former settlement and a collection of homes and structures. Take a moderate hike to Abrams Falls, a 20-foot waterfall or follow the Rich Mountain Loop (it’s a big day hike). A scenic drive north along Rich Mountain Road winds over the mountains to Townsend, where you can easily circle your way back to Cades Cove. Pitch a tent in Cades Cove Campground (reserve in advance) for the night. Be sure to take a walk and admire the stars.
Fontana Lake and Deep Creek
The next day, follow Parsons Branch Road south out of Cades Cove to its junction with Highway 129. You’ll skirt the southern edge of the park heading east, crossing the border into North Carolina at Deals Gap.
After Deals Gap, follow Highway 28 east along Cheoah Lake and past Twentymile to Fontana Village. To stretch your legs, turn north toward Fontana Dam, at the western end of Fontana Lake, and the trailhead for Shuckstack Mountain, a strenuous hike along the Appalachian Trail.
Or stay on Highway 28 east all the way to Bryson City. Stop for lunch at the Cork & Bean Bistro before turning north for your overnight at the Deep Creek Campground. For a short hike, follow the trail to Juney Whank Falls, or head to The Road to Nowhere, an abandoned highway project that terminates with a tunnel through the mountain and hike alongside Fontana Lake.
After a long day, relax at the campground in Deep Creek, which offers a relaxing treat: tubing. Wash away the sweat and trail dust with a float trip and some splashing in the creek.
For your final day, head to Cherokee, the ancestral heart of the Cherokee Indians and home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The drive from Deep Creek is a short one, so you’ll have a full day to explore. Start by visiting the Museum of the Cherokee Indian where you’ll learn the Cherokee creation story, hear songs and legends, and discover the heartache of the Trail of Tears. Across the street at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual browse the traditional arts and crafts made by Cherokee artisans and craftspeople, then head up the hill to the Oconaluftee Indian Village to see how the tribe lived in the 1700 and 1800s.
Grab a belly-busting country buffet lunch at Granny’s Kitchen, then drive to Soco Falls for a short hike to stunning twin waterfalls. In the evening, head to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino where you can entertain yourself by dropping $20 on table games or slots before dining at one of the on-site restaurants. The casino has overnight accommodations or you can spend a quiet night at Panther Creek Cabins.
In the morning, it’s a 1.5-hour drive to the airport in Asheville and the flight home.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park.