Things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Itineraries for Your Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park locals share their perfect days.
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3 Days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for First Timers

Curated by Jacqueline Kehoea travel writer who specializes in US national parks.

Visiting America’s most popular national park is practically a rite of passage—and it’s a great spot for families, avid hikers, leaf chasers, wildlife lovers, and more. My first time here, I was struck by the gentility of it all: In contrast with so many parks in the American West, Great Smoky flaunts its vivid greens, rolling streams, wrinkled mountains, wild meadows, and foggy skies. This is not a park where you focus on speed, agility, or great feats of mountaineering. Instead, this is a place that’s all about simply existing in nature and enjoying the scenery. Here’s how to spend three days here on your first visit.

Prepare for heat, haze, and humidity in summer, plus regular afternoon rains.

If you only have time for one thing, make it an early morning sojourn in Cades Cove.

Day 1

On your first morning, head straight to the Cades Cove Loop. You’ll avoid the Gatlinburg crunch, see Townsend—the local’s preferred side—and hit Cades Cove before everyone else. Take the 11-mile (18 kilometer) loop through one of the most beautiful areas of the park, a 4-hour, one-way road that passes pioneer buildings, wildflower meadows, and lush forests.

In the afternoon, enjoy the area’s great hiking trails. There’s a 2.6-mile (4-kilometer) trip to Laurel Falls, 5-mile (8-kilometer) hike to Abrams Falls (which is usually a little less crowded) and the 8.5-mile (13.5-kilometer) Rich Mountain Loop, which offers spectacular views over the Smokies.

Day 2

If you’re here in the fall, hop on a leaf-peeping tour—ideally led by a biologist or ecologist—and spend the morning admiring the park’s oranges, reds, and golds. There are over 100 species of trees here, and most of them are deciduous, which creates a kaleidoscope of colorful views.

Alternatively, head toward the Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can get your passport stamped, talk to rangers, and learn all about this biodiverse area. Then drive up to Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak at 6,643 feet, or take the ultra-scenic Newfound Gap Road, the lowest pass through these ancient mountains.

Day 3

Don’t leave the park without hitting a section of the Appalachian Trail—71 miles (114 kilometers) of the famous trail crosses through the park. The 8-mile (13-kilometer) round-trip trek from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion is a panoramic delight. Alternatively, see your mountain views while ziplining. Options abound in nearby Gatlinburg.

Last but not least, celebrate your journey with a pint—the area around Bryson City, NC, has a fantastic craft-beer scene. A tour will let you sample all the best spots, and some also take you to some beautiful areas in and around the park between sips.

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