Table of Contents
Update July 2023
A visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be awe-inspiring. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited National Park. People seem to be drawn to these magnificent mountains. They named the Smokies for the blue mist that always seems to hover around the peaks and valleys. The Cherokee called them shah-con-ah-jey or “place of the blue smoke.” The park is easily accessed from both Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or Bryson City, North Carolina. These are some of the best places to see in the Great Smoky Mountains-Bryson City side.
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Cades Cove: A Step Back in Time
Cades Cove is a scenic valley that offers a glimpse into the region’s history and is a popular spot for wildlife viewing. You can explore the area by car, bike, or on foot, and you’ll encounter historic buildings, including churches and log cabins. Visiting Cades Cove is an absolute must-do if you’re visiting the park. It is on the Gatlinburg side of the park near Townsend.
Take Little River Road for 25-miles ending at the scenic loop road. Arrive early if you can. The one way 11-mile loop road thru Cades Cove is made better when you can get out to stretch! Stop at the beginning of the Cades Cove loop for the tour booklet for a self-guided tour of the buildings (small fee).
We did the scenic loop, but we made a slight detour to the trailhead for Abrams Falls. Abrams Falls is a superb choice for an intermediate-level waterfall hike. This 5-mile round-trip hike in Cades Cove will take you to the largest waterfall by volume in the park. Not as tall as other waterfall in the park, at only 20 feet high, it is still impressive. The trail is steep and rocky, so wear good hiking boots.
Best of the Cades Cove e Scenic Loop Road
First stop on the scenic loop is the John Oliver cabin, which is the oldest log cabin in Cades Cove. They built it in the 1820s. John and Lurany Oliver were the first to settle in this area. Next stop at the three churches- Primitive Baptist Church and Cemetery (circa 1841), Methodist Church (circa 1820), and the Missionary Baptist Church (circa 1841). Elijah Oliver was born in 1824 to John and Lurany Oliver. He built a simple cabin close to his parents’ home.
About midpoint on the loop, make a stop at the Visitor Center and watch the original grist Mill at work. Also, in the area, there was a blacksmith shop, an interesting cantilever barn, and a cable mill. John P. Cable built the water powered grist mill. Considered the crown jewel, the park service operates the mill.
The visitor center is open from mid-April through October. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, automobiles are not allowed until 10AM. The road is open for bike riders, horses and foot traffic.
NOTE: The loop road is one-way, so be sure to be courteous to other drivers to pull off at designated areas. Please do not stop in the middle of the road.
Be Respectful of Wildlife
After the visitor center, we made brief stops at the last few cabins. They built the Henry Whitehead homestead in 1898. The home was the first cabin to have a brick fireplace. The Dan Lawson home was built in 1856 and the Tipton Place that was home to the Miss Lucy and Miss Lizzie the schoolmarms are directly located across from the replica Cantilever barn. We found this fascinating. The design allowed overhang protection for outside animals and equipment. It had a center aisle between the pens large enough to accommodate a wagon and provided shelter from the elements to the stalled animals. The last cabin is the Carter Shields’ home. A wounded battlefield soldier, he lived here from 1910 to 1921.
While we were there, we saw a few wildlife jams. Please be respectful of the animals. It is against the law, to deliberately get closer than 50 yards to the park’s wildlife, especially the bears. The cove is an excellent place to see wildlife and many visitors sadly have no interest in the historic features here. Instead, they are only wanting to see wildlife.
Rich Mountain Road is a beautiful, one way gravel road that can save you some time returning to Bryson City. The road is less travelled and avoids the congestion. The road is only open during the summer months.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: A Scenic Drive through Nature’s Splendor in the Great Smoky Mountains
We suggest buckling up, roll down the windows, and embark on a drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It is a hidden gem that offers visitors a beautiful drive through some of nature’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. This fascinating trail showcases the grace of the mountains, lush forests, cascading streams, and historic structures.
Keep an eye out for historic structures that dot the trail, providing a glimpse into the region’s rich heritage. One notable highlight is the preserved homestead of the Noah “Bud” Ogle family, where we explored the historic cabin and surrounding gardens. These structures offered us insight into the lives of early settlers and their harmonious coexistence with the natural environment.
The Trillium Gap Trail, which leads to the iconic Grotto Falls, provided us with an opportunity to stretch our legs. Here you can marvel at the cascading waters and feel the mist on your face.
Laurel Falls: Nature’s Cascading Gem for a Family-Friendly Adventure
Families looking for outdoor exploration and a taste of the park’s beauty will find Laurel Falls a captivating natural wonder. The paved trail, approximately 2.6 miles round trip, provides a comfortable and manageable hike for children and adults alike. Along the way, enjoy the gentle inclines and well-maintained pathways, allowing for a pleasant and leisurely trek through the serene mountainous landscape.
As we approach Laurel Falls, nothing prepared as were mesmerized by the sheer beauty of this cascading gem. The waterfall is composed of two tiers, creating a striking visual display as the water gracefully descends over 80 feet.
Newfound Gap Road: A Scenic Drive to Remember
This is an unforgettable journey through the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This scenic drive, spanning 33 miles from Tennessee to North Carolina. Numerous overlooks provide sweeping views of the misty mountains, verdant valleys, and sprawling forests that make up this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Traverse the road, you’ll encounter historical markers and interpretive signage that tell the stories of the area’s past. Stopping at each location, we learn about the indigenous Cherokee people, early European settlers, and the significance of the road itself, which served as an important transportation route connecting Tennessee and North Carolina.
Exploring Nature’s Playground: Hiking Deep Creek Trails in the Smoky Mountains National Park
Tucked away in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Deep Creek area beckons hikers and outdoor enthusiasts with its scenic beauty and captivating trails. From cascading waterfalls to serene forests, Deep Creek offers a playground for nature lovers to immerse themselves in the wonders of the great outdoors. It’s easily accessible from Bryson City. Deep Creek area has a large picnic area with grills and tables and a covered picnic pavilion. There are also restrooms and changing rooms for swimmers and tubers.
Three waterfalls that are easily accessible from the Deep Creek parking area. All are within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Start at the Deep Creek Trailhead and follow the trail as it meanders alongside Deep Creek, leading you to Juney Whank Falls, a picturesque 80-foot waterfall. Continue your journey to Indian Creek Falls, a serene spot with a 25-foot waterfall surrounded by lush greenery. Finally, marvel at the grandeur of Tom Branch Falls, a 60-foot beauty nestled among the enchanting forest. This loop offers a perfect blend of natural beauty and a rewarding hiking experience. There is a large trail map at the trailhead that details the distances to each of the falls.
Exploring the Deep Creek Loop Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Deep Creek Loop Trail is a moderate 4.4 loop hike good for just about any skill level. The path is steep in a few places, but mostly a peaceful walk along a gravel forest road alongside the babbling creek. Lace up your hiking boots and get ready to experience the wonders that await.
Sturdy footbridges span the rushing waters, allowing us to safely navigate the creek. We took a few moments to pause on these bridges and admire the crystal-clear waters flowing beneath. I must say, it offered us a refreshing respite from the surrounding forest. Tom Branch falls is the closest less than a 1/3 of a mile on a fairly level trail. A picturesque 60-foot waterfall that captivates with its natural beauty. The sight and sound of these cascades made for unforgettable moments along the trail.
The Majestic Beauty of Indian Creek Fall
About 0.1 miles up the trail, you come upon the steps down to the viewing platform for Indian Creek Falls. The falls are about 45-feet high and there is a seating bench to enjoy the sounds of the falling water. Indian Creek Falls presents photographers with a stunning subject to capture in all its natural glory. Whether you’re a professional photographer or simply enjoy capturing beautiful moments, the falls offer a picturesque scene with its cascading waters and lush green backdrop.
If you choose to trek on and do the full Deep Creek Falls Loop, this is a little more of an actual hike; with some steeper inclines and declines. The entire loop is approximately 4-miles, so pack some water, snacks, and use a pair of decent hiking boots. The trail to Juney Whank Falls is a bit steeper, although for only a short distance. Once at the falls, make your way down some steps and across the footbridge. The waterfall cascades down rocks in front of the footbridge and passes under the bridge. It is difficult to photograph the entire falls.
Relax & Enjoy Tubing the Deep River
This creek is known for its inviting waters, making it a popular destination for tubing and swimming. Grab an inner tube and float along the gentle currents of Deep Creek, surrounded by lush forests and the soothing sounds of nature. Alternatively, cool off by taking a refreshing dip in one of the swimming holes. These water activities provide a delightful way to relax and appreciate the beauty of Deep Creek from a unique perspective.
In the summer months, I can imagine how refreshing the tubing ride in the river could be. Visitors can easily rent tubes from one of the many tubing vendors along the road into the park (there are no tube rentals in the park). For as little as $3.00, you can try your hand at tubing. You can start tubing in many places along the creek. For the more adventurous soul, the top reaches of the creek provide some whitewater action. The middle section is a little milder for the younger kids. There are many swimming holes as you float downstream to enjoy.
Gateway to Cherokee’s Natural and Cultural Treasures the Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Located just outside Cherokee, NC, on Hwy 441, it is the gateway to the park. Oconaluftee Visitor Center is one of the three visitors’ centers within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The center is relatively new. As we stepped inside the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, friendly park rangers greeted us eager to share their knowledge and help us make the most of our visit. It has many interpretive displays that highlight the interesting history of the early settlers who helped to establish the park. Inside the center is a detailed 3-D map of the park. There is a small gift shop and a seating area with a fireplace.
Outside are rocking chairs in the shade for resting and relaxing. The main kiosk has a wealth of information from park maps and brochures. There are Park Rangers on-site who can answer questions such as the weather forecast, current road, and trail conditions. The parking area fills about midmorning, so go early. It’s definitely worth stopping for a stretch break or a time-out. The center is a pet-friendly area.
The Historic Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee
Adjacent to the visitor center, you’ll find the Mountain Farm Museum. At the entrance to the Museum, there is an educational sign about the farm museum just outside the old wooden fence. There is also a bin here where you can purchase a booklet ($1.00 donation recommended) about the self-guided tour.
This living museum transports you back in time, showcasing the daily lives of early Appalachian settlers through a collection of preserved historic structures and artifacts. We spent an hour wandering through the authentic log structures that have been painstakingly preserved to reflect the early Appalachian farming community. These structures include a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, applehouse, corn crib, and springhouse. Each building offers a unique insight into the daily routines and challenges faced by these resilient settlers. They showcase the ingenuity and resilience of the early settlers in the region.
Note: They do not allow dogs on the museum trail.
The Log Farmhouse: Stepping into History at the Historic Mountain Farm Museum
The museum provides a window into the agricultural practices of the past, highlighting the importance of farming in sustaining early Appalachian communities. Knowledgeable interpreters demonstrated traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, weaving, and woodworking. Informative signage throughout the museum offers historical context and educational information, enhancing our understanding of the daily lives of the settlers. My favorite activity was watching the pigs clowning in their pen. It was interesting looking at history and how farm life was over 100 years ago.
There’s also a good chance you may see elk. They frequent the adjacent fields, especially in the early morning or evenings. “Park Rangers encourage visitors to use binoculars, spotting scopes, or cameras with telephoto lenses to best enjoy wildlife. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, is illegal in the park. If approached by an elk, visitors should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and themselves, creating space for the animal to pass. If elk are near the roadways, remain in or next to your vehicle at a safe distance from the animal.” (NPS website)
A Riverside Retreat the Oconaluftee River Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This trail starts at the Visitor Center and follows the river through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Qualla Boundary of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Much of the 3.2-miles of the trail along the river is shaded, although its dirt it is pet friendly. The trail winds through lush forests, open meadows, and riverside clearings, providing ever-changing scenery that is a delight to behold.
The trail follows the banks of the Oconaluftee River, offering a peaceful and accessible hiking experience for visitors of all ages and skill levels. There are several informational kiosks along the way, providing historical information about the Cherokee people. The Oconaluftee River is a haven for fishing enthusiasts. Grab your fishing gear and cast a line into the cool waters of the river. We know the area for its trout population, as it provided us an excellent opportunity to try our hand at catching a prized fish.
Unveiling the Charm of Mingus Mill: A Glimpse into the Past
A hidden gem lies within the tranquil landscapes of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering a captivating glimpse into the history of the region. Mingus Mill, a beautifully preserved historic mill, stands as a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the early settlers. Mingus Mill, a beautifully preserved historic mill, stands as a testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the early settlers. The Mill is located just off the Main Park Road (Hwy 441), just a few miles north of the visitor center. Starting at the parking lot, walk the 100 yards up the trail over the bridge to the old mill building. The creek is a great picture spot! As you explore this historic gem in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll be transported to a bygone era, gaining a deeper appreciation for the mill’s significance
Dating back to the early 19th century, Mingus Mill played a vital role in the lives of the mountain communities. Constructed by the Mingus family in 1886, the mill served as a hub for grinding corn and wheat into flour, providing sustenance for the local inhabitants. Its impressive water-powered mechanism and meticulous construction make it a cherished piece of Appalachian history.
Water-Powered Ingenuity: Working Mingus Mill
One of the most fascinating aspects of Mingus Mill is its water-powered system. A millrace diverts water from a nearby stream, channeling it to a large waterwheel that provides the energy to turn the grinding stones. Witnessing this ingenious mechanism in action is a testament to the resourcefulness and engineering prowess of the early settlers.
You can hike the millrace to where it intersects with the creek. The creek is a great picture spot! Inside the Mill, there are some informational signs detailing the operation of the mill. The volunteers inside were eager to talk, very knowledgeable about the inner workings of the working mill. Cornmeal and other mill-related items are available for purchase, with proceeds going to help maintain the building. We purchased a bag for 6 dollars. Mingus Mill was a very fun and educational stop for everyone.
Clingmans Dome: Touching the Sky in the Great Smoky Mountains
Nestled amidst the awe-inspiring Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies a place where you can truly feel like you’re touching the sky—Clingmans Dome. Rising 6,643 feet above sea level, Clingmans Dome stands as the highest peak in the park and offers a breathtaking experience that will leave you in awe.
Even in summer, the temperatures on top of Clingmans Dome can be windy and cool, so bring a hooded fleece jacket. We had no issues with traffic or parking either of the two days we ventured to the dome. The parking lot fills about midmorning. It’s a short but invigorating half-mile hike. The paved pathway leads to the observation tower, offering panoramic vistas that seem to stretch to infinity. The misty mountains, rolling hills, and sprawling forests are a sight to behold, especially during sunrise or sunset.
Before we started up the paved trail, we put on our hiking shoes, a hat, and brought along our refillable water bottle. The trail was a very intense incline, and the elevation gain was difficult for both of us. We followed the paved path. There are many benches along the way. We would stop often-sitting on rocks in between the benches just to catch my breath. Most people along the trail seemed to huff and puff, stopping frequently to catch their breath.
Panoramic Vistas from the Observation Tower
Reaching the summit, we are greeted by the iconic Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. This architectural marvel stands tall, beckoning us to climb its spiraling ramp to reach the 54-foot pinnacle. As we ascend, the views become more expansive, with each step bringing us closer to the sky. The anticipation builds, and we can hardly wait to witness the panoramic vistas awaiting us. The first trip it was rainy and foggy. This gave us a unique perspective on being in the clouds. The second trip, luckily, we had bluebird skies.
Standing on the observation tower provides stunning 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. It is breathtaking!The mist-shrouded peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains stretch as far as the eye can see, creating a surreal and ethereal atmosphere. On clear days, the views extend for over 100 miles, offering a glimpse of neighboring mountain ranges and the picturesque valleys below. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a casual nature enthusiast, the journey to Clingmans Dome promises to be a memorable and uplifting adventure. So, don’t miss the chance to touch.
For those seeking a more immersive experience, Clingmans Dome serves as a starting point for several hiking trails. The nearby Forney Ridge Trail and the Appalachian Trail offer opportunities to explore the park further and discover hidden gems along the way.Lace up your hiking boots and embark on an adventure that will take you deeper into the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Mingo Falls: Discovering Cherokee’s Majestic Cascade
The Falls are on the Cherokee Nation Reservation. From Hwy 441 in Cherokee, turn onto “Big Cove Road” and travel about 4.5-miles to the Big Cove Campgrounds; turn right and go across the bridge and you will see a parking area next to a steep set of concrete stairs. There are quite a few steps (150) to climb at the start of this 0.4-mile trail. There’s a bench on the side about halfway up if you need to rest.
The top portion of the trail requires some caution as you are walking over wet rocks, dirt, and tree roots. Near the end of the trail, is a wooden observation bridge. As you approach Mingo Falls, the sound of rushing water grows louder, building anticipation for the breathtaking sight that awaits you. And then, there it is—a magnificent 120-foot cascade plunging into a crystal-clear pool below. The sheer force and beauty of Mingo Falls will leave you in awe, offering a perfect backdrop for photography or simply taking in the mesmerizing scene. I was concerned that Mingo Falls would not live up to its reputation. But that was not the case at all. It is beautiful and worth the journey.
Discover the Rich Heritage and Natural Beauty of Cherokee, North Carolina
Cherokee, North Carolina, offers a multitude of adventures and attractions beyond Mingo Falls. Enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of downtown Cherokee, with its shops, restaurants, and cultural experiences.
There are various lodging, dining, and entertainment options. Visitors often trek to Harrah’s Casino, but there are many outdoor options to choose from, such as fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and golf. Along the Hwy 441 corridor are plenty of gift shops, most of these feature touristy souvenirs made in China. Although purchasing these may help the local vendors, I prefer to purchase authentically made gifts. Here’s a glimpse into what you can explore and enjoy in Cherokee:
Museum of the Cherokee Indian: Immerse yourself in the history and culture of the Cherokee people at this renowned museum. Discover fascinating exhibits, artifacts, and interactive displays that tell the story of the Cherokee Nation, from ancient times to the present day.
Oconaluftee Indian Village: Step back in time and explore a living history village that recreates an 18th-century Cherokee community. Interact with costumed interpreters, witness traditional crafts, and gain insights into the Cherokee way of life.
Unto These Hills Outdoor Drama: Witness a powerful outdoor drama that tells the story of the Cherokee people from their perspective. This live performance takes place in an amphitheater and offers a captivating experience that sheds light on Cherokee history and culture.
Authentic Crafts – Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual
We found the best shopping at Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual: this cooperative sells Cherokee Indian crafts, such as clay pots and handmade clothes. The gallery displays beautiful woven baskets, and carvings made by many Cherokee elders and current artists. They have included written histories of some of these artists, often alongside their beautiful black and white portraits. Some carvings and baskets are museum-worthy. Reading the histories of each crafter gives you a glimpse into their lives. They do have top quality, expensive pieces for sale, the workmanship is exquisite. They also have affordable items. I purchased a small wooden carved bear and a beaded turtle key chain for my niece’s graduation. Turtle is Barry’s clan animal.
The artist usually signs the piece, and they provide the purchaser with information on the artist. The sales staff are very hospitable and knowledgeable about both their merchandise and the city of Cherokee. I found them to be very helpful in providing information on activities in and around the Cherokee area. Avoid the tourist traps on the right side of Hwy 441.
Great Breakfast!! Peters Pancakes & Waffles
Stopped here for breakfast because of the excellent reviews on TripAdvisor®. This is super close to Smoky Mountain National Park on Hwy 441. The service was efficient and friendly. If you are lucky, you will get a table with a view of the creek. The menu has all the traditional favorites and is reasonably priced. The bacon was the best…crispy and delicious. And, of course, the pancakes…fluffy pecan pancakes. Delicious coffee that was always refilled quickly. All reasonably priced. This is a great place to fuel up before exploring the Park. If you are in Cherokee, definitely try this restaurant.
Planning Resources for the Great Smoky Mountains
Remember, the most important principle is to be prepared by planning ahead. Knowing what to expect when hiking, note the weather forecast, what you need to pack, and how a trail matches your skill ability level goes a long way to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip for everyone. The Smokies are a large place with many “wild” areas, so help is not always readily available.
Local Tourism Websites:
Map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park–A great resource to plan your trip and calculate the distances you need to travel.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Official Site–Plan your visit, get updates on road conditions and general information.
Free Smoky Mountains National Park Planner–free trip planning guide, a digital version is available.
Dining Options in Smoky Mountains-Looking for places to get a good meal. Visit the website to see what options are available. There are many picnic areas throughout the park.
Lodging in the Smoky Mountains– We stayed at the Riverside Cabin through Vacasa. However, there are many options for staying outside the park.
Camping in the Smoky Mountains – the park has many campsites that can be reserved in advance, there are also campgrounds in the surrounding towns that can be reserved.
LeConte Lodge® is the only lodge accommodation inside the National Park. It is accessible only by hiking.
Riverside Cottage: we spent a week in this beautiful cabin that is dog-friendly. They can provide other accommodations outside the park by various vendors near Bryson City.
Final Thoughts The Best Places to See in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a remarkable destination that never fails to enchant visitors with its breathtaking beauty and abundant natural wonders. From misty valleys to cascading waterfalls, from historic sites to scenic drives, the park offers a diverse array of experiences for every nature lover and adventurer. Whether you’re a hiker seeking exhilarating trails, a wildlife enthusiast eager to spot unique creatures, or simply someone yearning to reconnect with nature, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has something to offer you.
The Smoky Mountains are unlike any other national park on the east coast. Congaree and Shenandoah are vastly different. “Great Smoky Mountains is the most biodiverse park in the national park system,” according to the National Park Service. This park is near the top, as one of our favorites!
What did you like most in the Smoky Mountains? Where did you stay? Gatlinburg or Bryson City? Let us know what adventures you did in the comments below!