The Great Smoky Mountains or Smokies refer to a mountain range in the United States on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. It was named “Smoky” because of the foggy weather often hanging over these mountains.
As one of the country’s most visited places, it’s a popular tourist destination for locals and foreigners. Despite several other tourist destinations in the US, the Great Smokies welcome millions of visitors each year. Its small-town charm and scenic landscapes are only the beginning of what this place offers.
If you live in the country, the drive from states like Kansas or Florida takes less than a day and fewer than 9 hours from Detroit or Tampa. On the contrary, if you’re traveling from outside the country, you must add the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to your itinerary.
Whether you’re on vacation with your children, friends, or even on a solo trip—there’ll be something to do for everyone. After all, there must be a reason why people rank these mountains as one of the top vacation spots.
Even though the Great Smokies are pleasant and beautiful, how do you make the most of your time there? To help you plan your vacation better, we list the top seven activities to make your trip memorable.
1. Climb the Clingmans Dome
Although there are plenty of things to do in the smoky mountains, climbing the Clingmans Dome should be on top of every tourist’s list. Located at the height of 6,643 feet, these domes represent the highest point in Tennessee.
The walk up the mountain involves an incline, but the views are worth the effort. You can drive up to the parking area, after which you’ll have to continue on foot to reach the observation tower. Once you reach the top, admire the breathtaking views and enjoy nature at its finest.
Temperatures at the Dome are usually lower than in lowland areas. Be prepared for cloudy conditions and occasional precipitation before you start the trail leading up to the summit.
2. Go tubing
There’s nothing more relaxing than floating down a river with beautiful landscapes and mountaintops around you. If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, be sure to go tubing on the Little Pigeon River. You’ll find plenty of outfitters and tourist guides who’ll help you choose the best spots. Some tubing companies also offer all-day passes or season memberships that can be economical and exciting for your whole family.
While a typical trip lasts 2 hours, you can extend or reduce it depending on your time and budget. If you feel slightly more adventurous, you can even take on deeper and rougher water levels to get your adrenaline pumping.
3. See waterfalls
The Great Smoky Mountains are home to several awe-inspiring waterfalls—each more impressive than the last. Due to a high altitude and ample precipitations throughout the year, rainfall trickles down the mountains and creates beautiful waterfalls. They’re incredibly stunning during the summers when the mist from the water provides coolness on hot days. You can either discover these on your hikes or drive to a waterfall of your choice and spend a few hours just taking in the view.
Some of the more popular waterfalls you must visit are:
- Laurel falls
- Mingo falls
- Grotto falls
- Rainbow falls
- Ramsey cascades
4. Spend a night stargazing
Daytime activities aren’t the only forms of entertainment you can have at the Great Smoky Mountains. Instead, come nighttime, a whole new experience opens up for tourists. When the sun sets, the stars come out in a magnificent symphony, bringing the galaxy’s entire vastness into a full panoramic view. All you need to do is snuggle in comfy chairs or blankets, lay down on a grassy patch, and look up at the starlit night sky.
Look for the best stargazing locations when making your itinerary to make the most of your experience and avoid getting affected by residual town lights. Some of these include:
- Foothills Parkway
- Newfound Gap
- Clingmans Dome
- Cades Dove
5. Enjoy a cookout
Who doesn’t love picnics and cookouts in the great outdoors? The Great Smoky Mountains have excellent spots and cookout areas where you can barbecue, build a bonfire, and enjoy an incredible day out. These places offer covered pavilions and charcoal grills, so you don’t need to worry about renting additional equipment or tools. Since they’re often present near beautiful streams and waterfalls, you can enjoy the incredible landscape while cooking.
While picnicking is a great outdoor activity for the Smokies, don’t forget to check the weather forecast before heading out with your gear. Some picnic pavilions are closed during the winter; others like Deep Creek and Metcalf Bottoms remain open throughout the year.
6. Explore wildlife
The Smokies inhabit close to 66 species of mammals, 43 species of amphibians, 60 species of fish, over 240 species of birds, and 40 species of reptiles. During warm summers, you can spot bears, turkeys, and deers around the mountain ranges. So, if you’re excited about exploring wildlife in its natural habitat, this is the place to be.
Your best chances of viewing wildlife species in the smoky mountains are during early mornings or in the evening hours. For your safety, it’s best to follow the national park’s rules and regulations and not approach or feed any animal you spot.
7. Embark on a hiking trip
With all the mountaintops, lush green coniferous trees, and gushing waterfalls around you, taking a hike and exploring the Smokies on foot is an exhilarating experience. It’s the perfect way to explore the forest in its full bloom and discover the beauty of nature the way it deserves to be.
You can choose from various hiking trails depending on your physique and enthusiasm. Some are short and simple on a paved path, most suitable for beginners or children who may get tired quickly. More experienced hikers can take on trails at higher elevations or rougher tracks if they feel up to a challenge. Rest assured, you won’t be disappointed regardless of your chosen hiking track.
One of the reasons why the Great Smoky Mountains remain a popular tourist destination year-round is because it has something to offer everyone. Whether it’s children, adults, couples, or friends—there’s no shortage of activities you can do here. And if you’re someone who loves a great outdoor adventure, this place can be the most thrilling experience you’ll ever have. From hiking and rafting to stargazing and exploring wildlife, there’s an adventure waiting for you at every corner.