At over 800 square miles in size, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that straddles the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina is a huge place to explore.
So how do you decide what places to go to in the Smoky Mountains? To help you get the most out of your visit, we've made this handy guide for building your ultimate Smoky Mountain itinerary.
Check out these 5 best places to see in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! If you only have a limited time to explore the Smokies, we recommend seeing at least one of these sights during your trip!
1. Cades Cove
Located in the southwestern part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove is easily the most popular site in the Smokies.
Before this scenic valley was part of the national park, it was home to an old mountain community that lived off the land. Today, you can drive the scenic, 11-mile loop road that offers a beautiful tour of this valley with stunning mountain views, historic cabins, and lots of opportunities to see wildlife like deer, bears, and turkey.
If you'd like a great waterfall hike, you can take the 5-mile round-trip hike to Abrams Falls, the highest volume waterfall in the park. You'll find the trailhead for the falls just before the visitor center at the far end of the cove. Some of the finest historic sights in Cades Cove are the John Oliver Cabin and the Primitive Baptist Church that both date from the early 1800s.
To reach the Cove, from Gatlinburg drive to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and take a right onto Fighting Creek Gap Rd. Then follow these road 21 miles until you reach the Cades Cove Entrance.
2. Newfound Gap
If you love scenic mountain views, you won't want to miss seeing Newfound Gap.
In the Appalachian vernacular, a gap is a term for a low-point on a mountain ridge. In the case of Newfound Gap, it was actually a more recently discovered route for passing through the Smokies. When the national park was proposed, this "newly found gap" was selected as the route for a road through the mountains: The Newfound Gap Rd.
This gorgeous route begins in Gatlinburg, TN and climbs around 3,000 feet into the mountains until you reach the parking area at Newfound Gap on its way to Cherokee, TN.
At an elevation of 5,049 feet, Newfound Gap offers gorgeous views of both the Tennessee and North Carolina Mountains. Please note that the weather is also cooler when you're high up in the mountains, so be sure to pack a jacket for your visit.
There are several points of interest at the gap. This stop rests on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina and it is also an access point for the famed Appalachian Trail.
In fact, you can hike on the Appalachian Trail to highlights like The Jump Off and Charlie's Bunion offer some of the most stunning vistas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Newfound Gap is also home to the Rockefeller Memorial, the platform from which Franklin Delano Roosevelt formally dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1937.
Newfound Gap is occasionally closed after winter weather events, but the park service works to keep this route through the mountains open.
3. Clingmans Dome
As the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the tallest peak in Tennessee at 6,643 Ft above sea level, Clingmans Dome is a sight that delivers a lot of "wow factor."
By taking a 0.5 mile hike to the tower on top of Clingmans Dome, you'll be treated to panoramic views of the entire national park, so be sure to bring a camera.
To reach Clingmans Dome, you'll get to take Newfound Gap Road (US 441) to Newfound Gap and continue along the Clingmans Dome Road.
If you'd like a short rewarding hike, Andrews Bald on the Forney Ridge Trail is the perfect excursion. This 3.5 mile, round-trip hike proceeds through gorgeous, high elevation Fraser Fir forests that make you feel like you're walking in another realm.
Clingmans Dome is closed from December 1st to March 31st due to icy winter conditions.
4. Mt. LeConte
Though Mt. LeConte is the 3rd tallest peak in the Smokies, it's often regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the park.
Pick any of the 5 trails up Mt. LeConte and you'll be in for a real treat.
From the Roaring Fork Motor Trail, you can reach the trailheads for 3 of the routes up Mt. LeConte: The Rainbow Falls Trail (6.9 Miles), The Bullhead Trail (7.2 Miles), or the Trillium Gap Trail (6.95 Miles).
The most popular route to the top of Mt. LeConte is also the shortest: The Alum Cave Trail (5.5 Miles). This beautiful hike passes by some incredible sights like Arch Rock and the 80 Ft tall Alum Cave Bluffs. Lastly, the longest and most challenging route to Mt. LeConte is to start at Newfound Gap and hike the Boulevard Trail a 7.8 mile one-way hike.
At the top, stop by the historic lodge mountain-top lodge and tour around this unique stop in the mountains. When the lodge is opened, you can purchase a bagged lunch for $10 if you need more food on your hike.
Then continue up the mountain a bit further to the Cliff Tops Overlook that offers sweeping views of Clingmans Dome and the Newfound Gap Rd.
The Myrtle Point Overlook can be found near the end of the Boulevard Trail at the summit. This point offers sweeping views of the north side of the park, Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome.
Located only a short drive from Gatlinburg, Elkmont is a historic town that's a fascinating place to visit in the national park.
In its day, Elkmont was a haven to local elites to escape hot summer weather when they couldn't count on air conditioning. Before the formation of the national park, this exclusive community was home to loftily named neighborhoods like Society Hill and Millionaire's Row.
Today, many of the historic buildings in Elkmont are no longer maintained, so this destination the perfect place to see what happens when humans allow nature to take its course. Elkmont is also home to several historic structures like the Avent Cabin and the Levi Tentham Cabin.
The Little River and numerous streams wind through this verdant part of the Smokies. To explore, take a hike on the Little River Trail that begins in Elkmont and follows the river to Huskey Branch Falls.
Map Of Places To Visit
For your next trip to the Smokies, be sure to visit these essential stops in the Great Smoky Mountains to get the most out of your experience!
We'd love to know, have you been to any of these places in the Smokies? Which was your favorite? What is your "must visit" place in the Smoky Mountains?
Written by Hayden Brown