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Ultimate Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary Ideas

Looking for an awesome Great Smoky Mountains itinerary to make the most of this beautiful park?

Find great recommendations to plan your Smoky Mountains road trip and plan your vacation using this article.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina is one of America’s most popular national parks.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to some of the most breath-taking views in America

The stunning natural beauty of these mountains are enough reason for anyone to visit them at least once in their lifetime. 

From hikes to horseback riding to ziplining through the trees, there’s so much to see and do in this stunning place.

Here is an ultimate guide to planning a trip to one of the country’s most visited national parks.

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How to reach the Smokies

So exactly where is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

The Great Smoky Mountains can be found in the American states of North Carolina and Tennessee. 

The Great Smoky Mountains actually form a border between the two states, so it’s easy to access from either direction.

The park has two main entrances which are used by over 90% of visitors.

The southern national park entrance – Oconaluftee entrance –  is on Newfound Gap Road, which you can reach via Bryson City or Cherokee, North Carolina.

If you are traveling from either Atlanta or Asheville or anywhere else from the east coast, you will use this entrance.

The northern entrance is the Sugarlands entrance.

This entrance is close to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Knoxville.

If you are planning a road trip from the Midwest or Southwest USA, then the Sugarlands entrance is the most convenient one.

Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Whether you’re a nature lover, history buff, or just looking to spend time outdoors with friends and family, this park has it all!

Here is an amazing Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary to make the most of your visit.

In this itinerary, we consider Gatlinburg as the base to exploring the park and the Sugarlands entrance as the main entrance.

Below, you will also find ideas to customize the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary for those coming via North Carolina entrance.

You can also find ideas to extend your trip and explore the area’s hidden gems such as Tail of the Dragon and Shadow of the Bear.

Here’s how to plan a Smoky Mountains itinerary using our travel guide to the park.

Day 1 of Smoky Mountains Itinerary – Sugarland Visitor Center and Cades Cove

Start your day in the Smokies by visiting the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Sugarlands Visitor Center is located about 15 mins and 4 miles away from downtown Gatlinburg.

Then enjoy the historic buildings and attractions in Cades Cove.

Hike the famous waterfalls in the Smokies such as Laurel Falls or Abrams Falls and spot the iconic black bears.

Sugarlands Visitor Center

Stop at the visitor center to pick up park maps, talk with rangers about trail conditions, wildlife sightings, and fill up on water.

The visitor center also has great exhibits about the park and is an excellent place to begin your trip.

After seeing the Visitor Center, drive along Fighting Creek Gap Road and Little River Gorge Road to Cades Cove.

Along the way, you will see many trailheads and overlooks.

Laurel Falls Trail

Laurel Falls is a breathtaking waterfall that plunges 80 feet into a large pool.

The trail descends, crosses the Laurel creek, and meanders through a forest before reaching the falls. 

This hike is located along Little River Road in the southern section of Cades Cove.

The roundtrip trail is 2.6 miles, of moderate difficulty, and takes about 2 hours to complete.

Most kids can complete this hike with help, making it great for families.

The Sinks Waterfall

The Sinks Waterfall is a pretty waterfall with multiple drops located right along the Little River Road. 

A small parking area is located near the waterfall.

For beginners and kids, this waterfall is an excellent place to start because of its easy accessibility.

Picnic on Little River Gorge Road

Stop on Little River Gorge Road for a picnic lunch.

There are several grassy areas along the river banks where you can park the car and enjoy nature.

After eating your meal, take a stroll along the riverbank and explore this beautiful place with family or friends. 

Meigs Fall

Meigs Fall is located right along the road and can be enjoyed from a small pullout.

You can see a small glimpse of this beautiful waterfall from the road.

This waterfall is not as wide as Laurel Falls but definitely still worth seeing during spring and summer.

It also looks beautiful when frozen in the winter.

We definitely recommend adding it to your Smoky Mountains itinerary because of easy accessibility.

On the Little River road, you can also see other waterfalls such as Cane Creek Twin Falls and White Oak flats Falls.

You can see the lesser known Townsend entrance before reaching Cades Cove.

Cades Cove Loop

The scenic Cades Cove Loop is a must on any Great Smoky Mountains itinerary.

Cades Cove is the most popular part of the park and the best place to see wildlife such as black bear, red foxes, deer, raccoon and many more.

Cades Cove Loop is located only 8 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

It passes through open fields, with a beautiful view of Mount Cammerer and the Balsam Mountains.

This 11 mile scenic route will allow you to see many historical sites and offers beautiful views of the surrounding area.

Stop by several historical sites such as John Oliver Cabin and Cades Cove Baptist Church to learn more about early pioneer life in the area.

The loop road is open all year round and driving through it is absolutely free!

It does get crowded during peak season, so come early to avoid crowds.

The 11 mile scenic loop easily takes 2 to 3 hours to drive at an easy pace and stop to see the attractions.  

Keep aside the entire day if you are planning to hike the trails.

Abrams Fall

Head over to Abrams Falls from Cades Cove Loop to cool off on a hot summer day.

Abrams Falls is a beautiful 20 feet waterfall and one of the most popular in the park.

The falls cascade down into Abrams Creek and can be accessed via the 5 mile round trip Abrams Falls Trail.

If you can hike just one trail in the park, consider this.

Abrams Falls Trail is perfect to spot bears, wildflowers, and cascading waterfalls!

John P Cable Grist Mill

The John P cable Grist Mill and Visitor Center is a highlight of driving the Cades Cove Loop Road.

It is one of the few water-powered grist mills still in operation today.

The mill was built by John P Cable, one of the early pioneers to the area.

Visitors can see the working mill grind corn flour and also take a bag of freshly milled cornmeal home as a souvenir.

Day 2 – Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap Road

On this day in the Great Smoky Mountains, take US 441 or Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome.

Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail near Newfound Gap.

Then take the steep trail to Clingmans Dome and admire sweeping views from the observation deck – a must on any Smoky Mountains itinerary.

See the elk at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

You can also see several wildlife species by driving US 441 including deer, bear, turkeys and elk.

Here are the attractions you can visit along the way on US 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Chimneys Picnic Area

The Chimneys Picnic Area is an excellent place to let the kids run free and have a picnic lunch within the park.

It offers picnic tables, a playground and restrooms.

There are several hiking trails from here that lead you to adjacent mountain peaks or along adjacent streams.  

In spring, it’s also a great place for wildflowers.

Alum Cave Bluffs Trail

Alum Cave is a 4.4 mile hike (round trip) that takes visitors to a bluff which has stunning views of Mount Leconte and Anakeesta Ridge.

We love this hike for several reasons.

Along the way, you will be walking through old growth forest and a natural rock tunnel – Arch Rock.

At the end is the bluff known as Inspiration Point.

True to its name, it has awe inspiring views of the Smoky mountains year round.

Morton Overlook

It’s a short drive from the Chimneys Picnic Area to Morton Overlook.

From the overlook, you can enjoy one of the most iconic views of the Smoky Mountains.

The natural diversity at this spot makes it a favorite for photographers for fall foliage or for the stunning smoky blue photos at dawn and dusk.

This is also a popular place for spring pictures because of the beautiful mountain laurel in bloom.

From here, you can also see an abundance of wildlife such as black bear, wild turkey, and coyotes.

Newfound Gap and Appalachian Trail

Newfound Gap is where the Appalachian Trail intersects the park road.

The Appalachian Trail is a long distance hiking trail that passes through about 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

Many visitors enjoy exploring the section of the Appalachian Trail in the park by bike or on foot. 

This section is located at an elevation of 5605 feet above sea level and is fun to see.

Visitors can take the Appalachian Trail to see the Mount Cammerer lookout tower via the Low Gap Trail.

After Newfound Gap, take Clingmans Dome Road to the parking area and trailhead.

Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the park.

From the Clingmans Dome parking area, you can hike about 1 mile round-trip to Clingmans Dome observation tower.

The trail is short but steep and has elevation gain of over 330 feet.

The views from the top are stunning, especially during the fall.

After Clingmans Dome, you can continue along US 441 to the southern entrance or head back to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the southern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Hike the nearby trails, look at exhibits in the Visitor Center, and see wildlife including the famous elk.

You will find many elk near the Oconaluftee River as well as in the Cataloochee area.

Among other species of animals, you can spot a wild turkey here.

Day 3 – Roaring Fork Nature Trail and Gatlinburg

On this day, spend time in downtown Gatlinburg. Take a stroll and enjoy boutique shopping in the mountain town.

Then go for a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Nature Trail. This is a great attraction to avoid the crowds inside America’s most visited national park.

See wildlife, enjoy hiking trails, and have a picnic by a waterfall on the drive.

At night, enjoy an amazing dinner in the pretty restaurants and wineries on the Parkway, which is the Main Street of Gatlinburg.

Downtown Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a beautiful place to visit.

It has lush green mountains and creeks, as well as easy trails perfect for walking or jogging with the family.

Gatlinburg’s historic buildings provide an extra layer of culture and history that you won’t find in any other Tennessee city. 

Gatlinburg is home to some great attractions like Ripley’s Aquarium, The Guinness World Records Museum, and Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park.

Take a walk through downtown Gatlinburg, see the Gatlinburg Space Needle, buy souvenirs, and step inside one of the distilleries or wineries in the city.

The charming city also has excellent barbecue restaurants and looks pretty in the fall.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail

Roaring Fork Nature Trail has some of Gatlinburg’s best views, nature, and hiking trails.

There are also waterfalls, picnic areas, and a visitor center along the drive.

You can see historic log cabins built by pioneers, non working grist mills, and charming bridges on the road.

The scenic road, which meanders from Gatlinburg, Tennessee through the Great Smoky Mountains, is a great way to spend time outdoors.

The Roaring Fork Nature Trail offers something for everyone in your family–from an easy stroll along the river to challenging hike up into the mountains and waterfalls.

We definitely recommend adding the drive to your Great Smoky Mountains itinerary to enjoy the spectacular nature views.

Grotto Falls

One of the major attractions along the Roaring Fork Nature Trail is the Grotto Falls.

These stunning 25 feet tall falls are one of the top attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The waterfall can be accessed via the 3 miles round trip Trillium Gap Trail along Roaring Fork Nature Trail near downtown Gatlinburg.

Day 4 of Smoky Itinerary – Cherokee / Fontana Lake

If you have more than 3 days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then you can explore much more than the average visitor.

Use this day to either explore Cherokee and Bryson City or explore the hidden attractions of the Smokies near Fontana Lake.

Cherokee

Cherokee, North Carolina is a beautiful small town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains within the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee region of North Carolina is an area rich in history and culture. 

Located near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this mountainous landscape offers outdoor enthusiasts a wide range of activities including biking, hiking, fishing and horseback riding. 

The Cherokee Indians inhabited this land before Europeans settled here in 1775 to create a town called Salisbury. 

Today you can visit the museum located on the site of their former village or take a guided walking tour through one of America’s oldest townships. 

For those looking for more adventurous pursuits, there are plenty of opportunities to explore caves and waterfalls nearby as well as kayaking.

Bryson City

Bryson City is a beautiful mountain town in North Carolina, situated close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

It’s also home to some of the most stunning waterfalls in the state. Nature lovers will love exploring and hiking with their family or friends!

The Bryson City Museum offers visitors an opportunity to experience life as it was lived by the Cherokee people for centuries. 

Bryson city’s rich heritage includes more than 300 log cabins and other structures from the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Fontana Lake

Fontana Lake is one of the most scenic views in Western North Carolina.

It’s located about 30 minutes outside of Asheville and 10 miles north of Foothills Parkway.

The lake offers fishing, boating, hiking trails, picnic areas with grills, horseback riding, and camping.

Fontana Dam’s breathtaking views make for a great photo opportunity especially as the sun rises over nearby 12,000 foot tall peaks of Clingman’s Dome and Mount Mitchell. 

Visitors can also find boat tours on the water or take a guided tour around the scenic vistas of the area to get some breathtaking views from above!

Tail of the Dragon

Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina is a must-visit attraction for motorbike lovers.  

It is known as one of the top motorcycle roads in America!  

The Tail of the Dragon is a stretch of highway in North Carolina near Deals Gap that winds through 318 curves over 11 miles.

The road has been featured on many driving shows and channels, including Top Gear, MotorWeek and Road & Track. 

It’s one of America’s most famous roads for driving enthusiasts looking to test their skills against challenging turns and elevation changes. 

If you’re visiting this area, make sure to stop by the Tail of the Dragon for an adventure ride!

Smoky Mountains Railroad

A scenic train ride is a fun thing to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

The Smoky Mountains Railroad takes you along the beautiful landscape of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Cherokee Indian Reservation. 

The train will stop at several locations where visitors can get off the train and explore the area. 

Each of these stops offers a unique sightseeing experience with some having hiking trails, waterfalls or mountain views.

Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway is a scenic drive through the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. This drive takes you from Tellico Plains to Robbinsville.

This road winds through the Great Smoky Mountains, Cherokee National Forest and Nantahala National Forest – offering stunning views of mountain ridges, valleys and gorges along the way.

As you drive along the Cherohala Skyway, you will have opportunities to stop at historic sites and waterfalls as well as enjoy hiking trails.

This scenic road is definitely a must-do for anyone visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Shadow of the Bear, Highlands

For a unique adventure in the Smokies, see the Shadow of the Bear in Highlands, North Carolina.

During autumn evenings the mountain side makes a unique bear shaped shadow that is a favorite with visitors and locals alike.

Day 5 – Attractions near the Great Smoky Mountains

Of all attractions near the Smoky Mountains, Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most famous one.

But did you know the mountain ranges extend far beyond the national park area?

If you have more time to spend in the Great Smoky Mountains or are planning a long road trip through the area, then we have several recommendations for nearby tourist attractions from where you can enjoy equally stunning views of the mountains.

Families can enjoy a weekend in Pigeon Forge or Knoxville while couples can spend a romantic getaway in Asheville or Chattanooga.

Road trippers can explore fall colors and attractions such as Mile High Swinging Bridge along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Or city lovers can enjoy dining and nightlife in Nashville or Atlanta!

Definitely add a few of these area attractions to extend your Great Smoky Mountains itinerary to a week or 10 days.

Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge is a town in Sevier County, Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains.

It’s just five miles from Gatlinburg and it offers attractions like Dollywood, Wonderworks and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

This small tourist town makes a great stop while visiting the Smoky Mountains.

Knoxville

The city of Knoxville, Tennessee is an interesting place to visit with a lot of history.

It’s also a great get-away destination for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of their everyday life.

You’ll find plenty to do in this town, from hiking at one of its many nature preserves or spending some time at the amazing aquarium.

Plus, there are tons of great restaurants and shops that make it easy for you to enjoy your stay even more!

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic drive that leads you through the Appalachian Mountains.  

The Blue Ridge Parkway spans 469 miles, passing through Virginia and North Carolina from Shenandoah National Park to Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Along the route, there are many stops to enjoy breathtaking views of nature as well as historic houses and buildings.

The diverse landscape of the Blue Ridge Parkway ranges from forests to farmlands to mountainside cliffs, providing something for everyone who visits!

There’s even a few spots where you can stop by waterfalls or go fishing on a riverbank.

In the fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic road trips in America and a great way to extend your Smoky Mountains itinerary.

Asheville

Asheville is a picturesque mountain town.

It’s easy to see why Asheville has been named one of the best places to visit in America by National Geographic and Thrillist.

As you travel through the city, you’ll notice that it feels like something out of a fairy tale.

The forest-lined streets, rustic buildings and amazing views are what make this place so special.

The mountains provide an ever-changing backdrop for your adventures, whether you’re looking for outdoor activities or just want some time indoors with friends.

The city is also great for foodies. You will find several restaurants, cafes, wineries, and breweries in the city.

Chattanooga

The city of Chattanooga is known for its beautiful downtown, rich history, and excellent food.

It’s also a great spot to live or visit!

There are amazing things to see and do down there – from enjoying a beautiful view from the Walnut Street Bridge to visiting the excellent aquarium in Downtown Chattanooga.

The city is built on a series of hills and levels overlooking the Tennessee river.  

There are several pedestrian walkways in place for people to enjoy stunning views from the hilltops.

The scenic Cherohala Skyway can easily take you from the Great Smoky Mountains to Chattanooga.

Atlanta

Atlanta is a city of Southern charm and culture. It’s a diverse city with something for everyone.

The charming Atlanta Botanical Garden has over 50 acres of beautiful gardens, trails, and greenhouses to explore. 

Families will love a trip to Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

The museum features various exhibits on wildlife and natural sciences as well as IMAX films in the planetarium.

For something fun, head to the World of Coca Cola.

From its interactive museums and parks to the foodie spot, you’ll be sure to have an amazing time in Atlanta!

Also Read: Atlanta to Smoky Mountains Road Trip

Nashville

If you are planning a Tennessee road trip to see the Smokies, then don’t miss Nashville!

Nashville is a city of music, food and culture.

There are several things to do in the city from live music to a visit to the legendary “Honky Tonks” where country legends such as Willie Nelson used to perform.  

There are also several places around Nashville that serve delicious food like hot chicken and barbecue.

Helen

Helen, located in Northwest Georgia, is a small mountain town.

It has beautiful Bavarian architecture and is charming to visit.

Helen Main Street is home to many shops and restaurants.

There are many attractions including river tubing, hikes, Oktoberfest, craft shopping, and festivals in Helen.

Helen offers many outdoor activities such as camping.

There are also many waterfalls to visit within the area.

Best Time to Visit Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountain road trip itineraries are always fun.

Visitors can get outdoors and explore nature here throughout the year.

So what is the best time to plan your Smoky Mountain trip?

Fall and summer are the peak seasons in the park.

In summer, the mountainside is blooming with wildflowers and rhododendrons and the waterfalls are running full.

In fall, you can see fiery colors all over the hillside. There are splashes of red, orange, and yellow wherever you go.

In fact, Smokies in Tennessee is one of our favorite national parks to visit in the fall.

Be sure to visit early in the morning to avoid the traffic jams that you can get in the high season.

In winter, the peaceful tranquility of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great place for skiing or snowshoeing.

It’s also a nice time to see it without all the crowds.

Some roads such as the Clingmans Dome Road and parts of Newfound Gap Road may be closed due to snow.

Spring is another great time to visit for low crowds, moderate temperatures, and wildlife.

Where to stay near the Smoky Mountains

There are several scenic cabins, vacation rentals, romantic hotels, and lodges near the Great Smoky Mountains.

Most major sites offer vacation rentals throughout the Smokies, including cabins in Gatlinburg.

You can also stay at a quaint bed and breakfast with gorgeous views of the Smoky Mountains for a romantic weekend.  

Some hotels even have indoor pools and waterslides for kids!

Things to know before visiting the Smoky Mountains

No matter your age, you will find something to love about the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Here are some things to remember before you visit the Great Smoky Mountains park.

Wear long pants and sleeves if you go hiking in the summer.

Carry enough water as the summer days can be hot.

If you go hiking, pay attention to the signs. Some trails may have been closed due to bear activity (especially in spring).

Bring a raincoat or umbrella even if it’s sunny. The weather is unpredictable here and it could rain at any time.  

Arrive early during peak season and for popular events like the summer music festivals.

If you have a dog, keep it on a leash at all times as there are several instances of coyotes attacking the pets.

Do not feed the wildlife including the bears! It’s illegal and they can become aggressive.

Keep a clean campground by packing out all your trash and keeping food in bear-proof containers.

If you are backpacking in the backcountry, remember to practice ‘leave no trace’ by packing out all of your trash.

With its rich history and beautiful scenery, there is always a new adventure waiting for you in the Smokies. 

From scenic drives through the mountains to relaxing hikes on nature’s trails, you are sure to have an unforgettable experience in one of America’s best national parks! 

We hope you liked our Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary ideas for spending anywhere from a weekend to a week in the Smokies.

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