Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the eastern United States. There are many ways to enjoy the park — an auto tour, bicycling, hiking, horseback rides — and take in the panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.
My name is Rob Decker and I’m a photographer and graphic artist with a single great passion for America’s National Parks! I’ve been to 48 of our 61 National Parks — and Great Smoky Mountains is one well worth the visit. I have explored many areas of the park — so I’m ready to help! If this is your first time to the park, or your returning after many years, here are some of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
There are 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved, and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars. Travel speeds on most of the park’s paved roads average 35 miles per hour.
Here are some of the more popular routes:
- Cades Cove Loop Road
- Cataloochee Valley
- Newfound Gap Road
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Upper Tremont Road
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 2,900 miles of streams within its boundaries. Approximately 600 miles of stream contain fish, providing for an abundance of angling opportunities from high elevation trout streams to cool water low elevation streams.
Rainbow trout, brown trout, and the native brook trout are the fish that are primarily targeted by fisherman inside the park. However, the streams of the Great Smoky Mountains do offer other angling opportunities. Smallmouth bass are another native game fish species that can be found in a number of the large lower elevation streams in the national park.
Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year with every season offering is own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations, and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy.
Hiking with children? Kid-friendly hikes are an excellent way to learn and enjoy the outdoors. Check at the Visitor Center for your best options.
Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Rides on scenic park trails are offered lasting from 45 minutes to several hours. All rides proceed at a walking pace.
Cades Cove Riding Stables offers a 1.5 – 2 hour hayride around the Cades Cove Loop Road. Passengers sit on a bed of hay in a trailer pulled by a truck and enjoy an open air view of the scenery of Cades Cove.
Ranger-led hayrides are also offered on some evenings on a first-come, first-served basis. See the Schedule of Events for scheduled ranger-led hayrides.
Carriage and Wagon Rides
Carriage or wagon rides are offered at two of the horseback riding stables in the park. These rides provide an opportunity to experience a 20-30 minute horse-drawn carriage or wagon ride on a park trail.
Carriage Ride – Cades Cove, near Townsend, TN
Wagon Ride – Smokemont, near Cherokee, NC
Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks.
The picnic areas at Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms remain open year-round. The remaining picnic areas are closed during the winter.
Picnic pavilions are available at Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks, Pavilions can be reserved for groups one year in advance.
Every year over 200,000 visitors hike well-worn trails to view Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Rainbow, and other popular waterfalls in the park. Large waterfalls attract the crowds, but smaller cascades and falls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park.
The Great Smoky Mountains abound with the two ingredients essential for waterfalls-ample rainfall and an elevation gradient. In the Smokies high country, over 85″ of rain falls on average each year. During wet years, peaks like Mt. Le Conte and Clingmans Dome receive over eight feet of rain. This abundant rainfall trickles and rushes down the mountain sides, from high elevation to low, sometimes dropping more than a mile in elevation from the high peaks to the foothills at the park’s boundary.
Waterfalls You Can Drive To
The pulloff to view Meigs Falls is along Little River Road, 13 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center (7 miles east of Townsend). The falls is tucked away on the far side of Little River and can be easily missed while driving.
This waterfall is short in stature, but its volume includes the entire flow of Little River. The parking area to view the falls is along Little River Road, 12 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Place of a Thousand Drips
During wet periods, this waterfall is dramatic as the flow of water splits into numerous small channels cascading around rocks and creating “a thousand drips.”
Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloocheeand Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, elk, black bear, raccoon, turkeys, woodchucks, and other animals. The narrow, winding road of Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bears and other wildlife. During winter wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves.
Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees—many animals spend their days among the branches.
So, if you’ve never been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — put it on you bucket list! If you have been, you might enjoy my WPA-style poster for Great Smoky Mountains National Park to celebrate your adventures!
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!