It’s hard to narrow down the best places to visit in The Smoky Mountains. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is huge, spanning over 800 square miles in Tennessee. The area has endless activities and attractions, from hiking and fishing to music and history. So how do you choose what’s best? It’s simple; you don’t. You visit them all!
We’ve got you covered if you’re looking for some input. Our top picks of places to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains are based on scenery, available activities, and overall vibes.
Cataloochee valley boasts some of the best hiking trails.
1,200 farmers and fishermen originally inhabited this valley many years ago. Now, you can explore the remains of their 19th-century settlement by visiting old schoolhouses and antebellum homes. The wildlife is also flourishing with elk, turkey, black bear, and trout (Cataloochee Creek has plenty). Fishing, horseback riding, and picnicking are popular activities in the area.
If you’re hoping to visit during autumn or winter, Cataloochee Mountain is the perfect spot for a ski trip! It’s the only lift-served ski area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
2. Wears Valley
If you’re looking for a place to call home during your time in the Smokys, Wears Valley is the best option. This quiet town is only a 15-minute drive from Townsend and 30 minutes from Pigeon Forge. You can easily rent one of the Wears Valley cabins and spend your days relaxing in a cabin with all the amenities you want.
While it’s not as crowded or bustling as some other areas, Wears Valley has a lot to offer its visitors. Visit Noah “Bud” Ogle’s home and farmstead, ride go-karts at The Track, or explore the Wears Valley Zipline Adventure Park. It is the perfect spot for a family trip, as there are plenty of kid-friendly activities.
Gatlinburg is a famous mountain town that offers a wide range of activities. You can hike the trails up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in The Smokys. Or take a scenic drive along the Newfound Gap Road for incredible views of the mountains. Gatlinburg has several amusement parks like Ober Gatlinburg and Ripley’s Aquarium if you’re seeking a little more excitement. And, of course, remember to sample the moonshine!
4. Pigeon Forge
Surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge is a great place to start your Smoky Mountain adventure. This town is packed with family-friendly fun, from go-karts and laser tag to museums and live shows.
The Island in Pigeon Forge is a must-visit. This three-story complex is an entertainment power pack offering restaurants, shopping, games, and more. You can also take a scenic ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, one of the tallest observation wheels in the country.
For an authentic taste of the Smokys, head to Dollywood. It is a world-renowned theme park with thrilling rides, live entertainment, and delicious food.
5. Clingmans Dome
The 6,643-foot round-top peak, known as the highest point in Tennessee, is located at the top of the state park. To reach it by foot, drive up the scenic access road from Newfound Gap and hike a half-mile to the summit. Once you’re there, remember to take in the panoramic view from the spaceship-like observation tower on top.
The peak can get crowded quickly, so try to avoid people early in the morning. However, if you’re an experienced cross-country skier or snowshoer, wintertime might be your best opportunity for guaranteed solitude. Clingmans Dome is also a perfect place to catch a glimpse of the elusive red-spotted newt.
Elkmont is a historic area that was once a thriving community for wealthy vacationers. Now, it’s a popular spot for fishing, camping, and picnicking. The ideal time to visit is during the Elkmont Ghost Town Celebration in October, when the area comes alive with music and entertainment.
If you’re feeling brave, take a nighttime hike to the Abandoned Rails Tunnel. It’s rumored to be haunted by Elkmont’s past ghosts! We’re curious if that’s true, but it makes for an exciting story.
This small town is often referred to as “the peaceful side of the Smokys,” and it’s easy to see why. There’s a slower pace here, and the town is surrounded by natural beauty. Plus, it’s an excellent place for hiking, biking, and fishing.
One of the best things about Townsend is that it’s located near some of the best attractions in the Smokys. Cades Cove, for instance, is only a short drive away. This popular spot is known for its wildlife and scenic views.
8. Cades Cove
It is one of the most famous spots in The Smokies, and for a good reason. This gorgeous valley is home to various wildlife, from deer and bears to turkeys and coyotes. Plus, it’s great for hiking, picnicking, and camping.
And don’t forget about the views! Cades Cove is full of scenic lookouts where you can enjoy incredible mountain views. If you’re hoping to avoid crowds, the best time to explore early morning or later in the evening.
9. Fontana Lake
The 10,230-acre lake on the Tennessee-North Carolina border is surrounded by majestic mountains and offers boaters more than 240 miles of shoreline to explore. The best way to see the lake is by renting a canoe, kayak, or SUP from one of the many outfitters in the area.
Fontana Lake is also a popular spot for fishing, so remember to bring your rod! Also, take precautionary measures to avoid snake bites, as there are many water moccasins in the area. You must carry a first-aid kit with you at all times.
Overall, the Great Smoky Mountains are incredible to explore and visit. With so many astonishing things to see and do, it’s no wonder this is a popular destination for vacationers worldwide.
Besides all the must-visit places, the food is fantastic, and the people are friendly and welcoming. You can shop til’ you drop or relax and take in all the stunning scenery. And when it comes to accommodations, the options are plentiful. Whether you’re looking for a cozy cabin or a luxurious hotel, you will find the perfect place to stay in the Smokys.
So, start planning now.