There's no better spot for making unforgettable memories than a National Park. Everyone should experience as many of America's most awe-inspiring landscapes as possible in their lifetime... and there's no better place to start than with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As one of America's most-visited parks, you know it's bound to impress. But visiting a National Park requires a bit of planning: Knowing which hikes are worth the hype, where to find a good scenic drive, and what lesser-known spots to explore can make the difference between a great trip and a life-changing adventure. Plus, with both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (both wildly popular tourist cities) nearby, there are so many options for accommodation, food, and fun that sorting through everything can be almost daunting. Here's our guide for beginners looking to experience the wonder and majesty of the Smokies.
Ah, the Smokies! There are tons of reasons why this park is so popular. For starters, it's beautiful year-round, with wildflowers in the spring, fall foliage in autumn, and a special snowy peace in the winter. Summer is probably the best time to visit, despite the crowds; the weather is consistently nice, there's no risk of roads or spots being closed, and quite frankly, the lush forest greenery is a good look for the park. Another reason the Smokies are beloved by all? It's free to visit! Plus, there are easy hikes, harder hikes, scenic drives, historic sites, waterfalls, mountains... it's basically got everything you could ever want, all in one amazing place. There are lots of visitor centers, bathroom facilities, and roads as well, making it easy to get around. Basically, the Great Smoky Mountains are perfect.
Tip: Make a point to arrive at the park early at least one morning. It'll be less crowded, and you'll get to see why they're called the "smoky" mountains.
An easy stop not too far from Gatlinburg, The Sinks are a waterfall that is pretty easy to get to, and it makes for a great place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain air, the sound of water babbling down the rocky falls, and some peace and serenity. There are lots of boulders for fun rock scrambling or simply sitting and enjoying the scenery. It's more of a hidden gem near the park, so come here if you want a relative escape from the hustle and bustle of the Smokies.
Tip: There are signs posted discouraging people from swimming, even though some people do. It's very rocky and the water is very strong!
One of the coolest spots in the park has to be Elkmont, the Smokies' ghost town! An abandoned former resort and community set back in the forest, it's an absolutely mesmerizing, and slightly creepy spot to visit. Poke around the rows of ramshackle cabins, walk around the remains of the railroad tracks, even explore Elkmont's former city hall building and the old clubhouse, with its stone fireplaces still intact. It's a photographer's dream, and an experience that will definitely stick with you during your adventure through the park.
For the best view in the whole park, head to the observation tower atop Clingmans Dome, the tallest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. On top of the mountain is a 375-foot spiral ramp that leads to a covered deck, which means you get 365-degree panoramic views of the mountains. On a bad day, you can see 20 miles into the distance... and on a good day, the view can stretch for 100 miles! Also be sure to check out the visitor center at the top for even more great info.
Tip: The hike all the way up the mountain is a little intense, but you can drive to the top... it's a short walk from the parking lot to the observation tower!
If you're short on time, or want a break from hiking around, the scenic loop around Cades Cove is super relaxing. The little meadow valley has a one lane road looping around the cove, and along the way, there are chapels, cabins, and trails you can pull off to see. You might even see bears, deer, and wild turkeys along the way!
Tip: One lane means traffic can get kind of slow. Arrive early in the morning, enjoy the scenery, take advantage of the stops, and maybe grab some snacks from the store at the campground.
There's no better way to get that classic Smoky Mountains experience than by staying in a cabin. The Townsend / Great Smokies KOA Holiday has plenty of cabins, including Deluxe Cabin options, that you can rent. They also have tent and RV sites for those looking to rough it. All the sites come with campfire rings, so remember to pack s'mores ingredients or pick some up in their camp store! It's an especially great stop for anyone traveling with kids since they have a pool, a playground, an arcade, cable and wifi. Swimming, tubing, and fishing on the river are added bonuses.
Tip: This KOA has a killer fudge shop on site.
Alpine coasters are a great way to experience the thrill of the mountains. The Smoky Mountain Alpine coaster is the longest in America, at over a mile, and the downhill track takes 7-8 adrenaline-pumping minutes to complete. Since you're on a sled, you get to feel the air rushing in your hair and take in the natural setting as you fly along the track on your sled at 27 miles per hour. Grab a friend and hop on for the rush of a lifetime!
Pigeon Forge is a kitschy town that has tons of fun (and sometimes slightly ridiculous, in the best way possible) restaurants and attractions. Goats on the Roof is a little place that is most famous for (you guessed it) the goats that live on the roof. You can buy a little can of goat feed, then use their "goat cycle" to haul it to the top, where the animals chow down on the snack. You can also mine for semi-precious gems, snack on homemade ice cream and fudge while relaxing on their porch swings, ride on their "goat coaster" (their little alpine coaster), and, of course, pick up some fun, goofy souvenirs.
Another option for accommodations on the far side of the park is the Cherokee / Great Smokies KOA. It's in a quieter location in Cherokee, North Carolina, and offers loads of amenities. Indoor and outdoor pools, a hot tub, a waterslide, mini golf, fishing, a bouncy pillow, an outdoor cinema for family movie nights, and tons more mean an exciting stay filled with fun. They can accomodate RVs and big rigs up to 136 feet long, and have hundreds of tent sites and loads of cabins... some of the cabins have spots right on the river, and there's even a designated "quiet cabin" in a more secluded spot.
Tip: They have a pet walk, which is perfect for anyone who wants to travel with their furry friend!
Gatlinburg is another town where you'll find plenty of fun and food. One of the most popular places in a town filled with restaurants has to be Pancake Pantry. The breakfast/brunch/lunch joint specializes in (what else?) pancakes, serving up 24 different flavors of flapjack. Buckwheat, cornmeal, Swiss chocolate chip, blintzes, silver dollar-sized, Swedish, Austrian, crepes, and pigs in a blanket are just a small sample of the kinds of pancakes you could order here. They also have omelets, burgers, sandwiches, and waffles are offered as well (including a mouthwatering bacon waffle)... but no matter what you order, you're sure to enjoy the friendly service and down-home cookin'.
Tip: The huge menu might be overwhelming, so allow us to make a suggestion: Sweet potato pancakes. 'Nuff said.
With so many things you can see and do, a visit to the Smokies can be overwhelming. Finding the campgrounds that best fit your budget and needs, the restaurants that match your flavor, the spots that will be the most fun for you, and the spots in the park that get you the most excited mean you can make the very most of a trip, and travel without regrets. Exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the opportunity of a lifetime, and something that we might not have forever, so go all in and make it count!