One of America’s most beloved national treasures is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Spanning over 500,000 acres across Tennessee and North Carolina, this stunning landscape of forested mountains, winding rivers, and diverse wildlife provides endless opportunities for adventure and exploration. From scenic drives along Newfound Gap Road to exhilarating whitewater rafting on the Pigeon River, the Smokies offer an authentic mountain experience like no other.
To truly immerse yourself in the magic of the Smokies, follow these ten tips for an authentic Smoky Mountains vacation:
1. Hike to a Backcountry Waterfall
With over 800 miles of trails, the Smokies are a hiker’s paradise. For a taste of unspoiled wilderness, lace up your boots and trek to one of the park’s nearly 100 backcountry waterfalls. Some favorites include Ramsey Cascades, a 100-foot tall waterfall reached by an eight-mile hike through old-growth forest, and the quieter twenty-foot Indian Creek Falls, accessible via a moderate two-mile hike through rhododendron tunnels and past massive tulip trees.
Pack a picnic, take a dip in the crisp mountain pools, and breathe in the solitude. And don’t forget your camera to capture these majestic cascades set against an untouched backdrop.
2. Shop for Local Crafts
Bring home handmade treasures from the Smokies by visiting Pigeon Forge shops like the Country Barn Gift Shop, known for its variety of items like country shirts, sweats, coffee mugs, and the cuddly version of the Smoky’s popular animal, the black bear. Then there’s Pigeon River Pottery, where you don’t just buy one-of-a-kind pottery but also watch the demonstrations of turning clay into a bowl at this Pigeon Forge souvenir shop. At Lanier General Store, you can look for woven baskets, quilts, homemade jams and jellies, and scented soaps and candles made by local artisans. It’s a great way to take a piece of the Smokies home with you.
3. Ride the Roads Less Traveled
Wind through the mountains on scenic backroads like the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, the 8-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and the 25-mile Foothills Parkway West. With maximum speeds of 25-35 miles per hour, you’ll have plenty of time to spot wildlife like black bears, white-tailed deer, and wild turkeys roaming the roadsides and meadows.
You can also make stops along the way to wander historic homesteads, snap photos of distant mountain vistas, and picnic in grassy fields dotted with daisies and Indian paintbrushes. Early mornings and evenings offer your best chance of glimpsing bears and other wildlife.
4. Try Down-Home Cooking
Fill up on Southern Appalachian staples like flaky biscuits smothered in savory sawmill gravy, golden fried chicken, country ham with red-eye gravy, chicken fried steak, and tall slices of apple stack cake.
For family-style meals and generous portions, head to places like the Apple Barn in Sevierville, known for its hearty country breakfasts, Aunt Bea’s in Cherokee, famous for its giant 16-inch pancakes, and Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg, where crowds line up for the sourdough pancakes made from scratch. And don’t miss the jams, jellies, and preserves made from local berries and fruits like ramps, blackberries, and sourwood.
5. Explore Appalachian History
Explore the history of the Appalachian region by experiencing visiting the Mountain Farm Museum. Here, the past comes alive as costumed interpreters demonstrate old-time farming practices, grist milling, and other customs that were part of daily life in these mountains.
Have you ever tried churning butter or shucking corn? Or how about blacksmithing? There’s an opportunity to do it all here. And in Cades Cove, time seems to stand still. It is dotted with preserved churches. Plus, you’ll find barns and log cabins harking back to the 19th century. These buildings offer a snapshot of life in a bygone era.
6. Spend a Day in Cades Cove
Arguably the crown jewel of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing, picnicking, and simply soaking in scenic mountain vistas. Make a full day of exploring this broad valley surrounded by mountains.
You can stop at historic buildings like the Primitive Baptist Church, take the two-mile roundtrip hike to Abrams Falls, and keep your eyes peeled for black bears, deer, and wild turkeys while driving the 11-mile loop road.
7. Go Tubing on the Pigeon River
Grab an inner tube or raft and ride the rapids along the Pigeon River for a cool mountain thrill. Several local guides provide trips ranging from mild floats over gentle rapids to heart-pounding rides through Class IV whitewater with names like “Upper & Lower Mash” and “Pure Screaming Hell.” Shoot the rapids and relax during calmer stretches, perfect for taking in the scenery. No experience is necessary; just hold on tight!
8. Camp Under the Stars
Pitch a tent at a park’s front-country campgrounds or snag a backcountry permit and backpack to a remote site. Sitting around a campfire roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, stargazing from your sleeping bag, and waking to the sound of birdsong are quintessential Smoky Mountain experiences. Remember to hang your food bag to keep bears from invading your campsite.
9. Pack a Picnic
There’s no shortage of picture-perfect picnic spots in the Smokies, from grassy fields abundant with wildflowers to mossy riverbanks perfect for wading to rocky outcroppings with panoramic views.
Pack a basket with fried chicken, potato salad, fresh fruit, and a slice of pecan pie and dine al fresco surrounded by mountain scenery. For the best experience, spread out your blanket or snag one of the park’s first-come, first-served picnic tables.
10. Rise Early for Sunrise at Clingmans Dome
Make the steep half-mile hike up to the observation tower atop the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee, and watch the sea of misty mountains slowly awaken at sunrise. On a clear day, you can see over a hundred miles in every direction over the endless undulating ridges and valleys.
You’ll feel on top of the world as the first rays of the sun illuminate the majestic landscape. There may be no better place to appreciate the vastness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
With its diversity of landscapes and activities, rich cultural heritage, and abundant natural beauty, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers limitless opportunities for adventure, relaxation, and inspiration. Follow these tips to craft an authentic Smoky Mountains experience you’ll treasure for years. From scenic drives to cascading waterfalls, family-style meals to local crafts, and camping under the stars to breathtaking vistas, the magic of the Smokies is yours to discover.
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