America's most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border and provides a place of solitude in the Appalachian Mountains. Here you can view a diversity of flora and fauna and wander through old log cabins to imagine what life was like in these hills in centuries past.
Top Park Attractions
Stop into Sugarlands Visitor Center to orient yourself. Displays showcase stuffed examples of some of the wildlife you might encounter in the park, and a short film tells the natural and cultural history of the Smokies. From there, head west down Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove, a valley where you will likely spot numerous deer and the occasional bear or turkey while driving the loop road. Several pull-offs along the route lead to old cabins and hiking trails to waterfalls. Take Newfound Gap Road through the heart of the park to reach Clingman's Dome. A short but steep hike leads to the observation tower with an elevation of 6,643 feet, the highest point in the park.
Lodging and Camping
You'll find no shortage of cabins, lodges, hotels and motels outside the park boundaries in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Townsend on the Tennessee side and in Cherokee on the North Carolina side. Ten campgrounds are available in the park, with spaces at most for either tents or campers and RVs. The largest are Cades Cove, Elkmont, Cosby and Smokemont. If you plan to travel in the summer, reserve in advance at recreation.gov to secure a spot since these campgrounds can sell out. You cannot collect firewood in the park, but you can buy it at Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont. Dump stations are located at Cosby, Cades Cove, Smokemont, Deep Creek and Look Rock campgrounds.
Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Cherokee serve as bases for a number of well-visited tourist attractions in the Smokies. If you're a shopper or enjoy a round of miniature golf, visit the outlet stores and various-themed courses along U.S. 441 in Pigeon Forge. The theme park Dollywood, with plenty of thrill rides and musical entertainment, is just inside the city limits. Head farther down U.S. 441 to Gatlinburg, a small town surrounded by the mountains. Top sites here include Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park, to which you can ride a tram up the slope of the mountainside. In Cherokee, enjoy any of a number of Native American craft stores or enter Harrah's Cherokee to battle one-armed bandits.
The trail to 80-foot-high Laurel Falls serves as a good introduction to the park. Near Sugarlands Visitor Center, the moderate 2.6-mile-round-trip path leads along a paved walkway through a forest of mountain laurel. Abrams Falls drops only 20 feet but features a large water volume. You will find another moderate trail, 5 round-trip miles in length, in Cades Cove. You'll get panoramic views of the park on the Chimney Tops Trail, which covers 4 miles round-trip, with an easy beginning and strenuous climb at the end. That trailhead is along Newfound Gap Road.