Home to America’s most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains is filled with ancient natural beauty, a deep storied history and rich mountain cultures, including Southern Appalachia and the Cherokee Indians. Nicknamed “The Smokies” because of the thick morning fog that blankets its ageless peaks, the forested ridges of this mountain range straddle the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. Travelers to the area enjoy its diverse habitats and wildlife viewing with scenic drives, panoramic hikes, and water activities like rafting, swimming and fishing.
Most of America’s national parks, located predominantly in the West, were established fairly easily – by an act of Congress that carved out swathes of land already owned by the government. But the idea for a national park in the Southern Appalachians was inspired by local individuals who lived in the area that would eventually become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
With a vision for a public land preserve located in the natural beauty and fresh mountain air of the eastern US, people began to push for this dream. Because the government wasn’t allowed to buy the land, it came down to these very people to raise the funds. By 1928, a whopping $5 million had been raised, and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund matched that number. Thousands of small farms as well as timber and paper companies were displaced and were compensated to move off the land.
A large part of the park’s early developments were done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and their work still stands in many of the trails, campgrounds and stonework that fill the park. In September of 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a sanctuary for the entire world to enjoy.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its surrounding towns and communities are dedicated to protecting more than just its vast natural resources. With a rich cultural tapestry that spans thousands of years, it is crucial to preserve it for future generations. From indigenous prehistoric Paleo Indians to the Southern Appalachian mountain culture of early European settlers to modern day residents, this history is showcased in the area’s food, music, dance, arts and festivals.
The Cherokee Indians, a branch of the Iroquois nation, can trace their history in this region back more than a thousand years. Visitors can learn more about the story of the Cherokee people at impressive museums, a legendary outdoor drama and at festivals like the annual Pow Wow. All year round, travelers can visit the Museum of the Cherokee and explore its vivid displays and exciting events.
Appalachian Mountain Culture
The southern Appalachian people have lived in the mountains for centuries, and the preservation of this rich and distinctly American heritage is evident all around. Throughout the region, educational exhibits and rehabilitated log homes, schools and churches give a glimpse of the lives of these early Appalachian settlers. Explore and celebrate the mountain culture with food, music, dance and crafts in year-round festivals.
Fine Food & Country Fare
Whether it’s authentic Southern comfort food like biscuits and gravy or upscale dining, the Smoky Mountains serve up authentic and delicious local cuisine. The Peddler, a rustic, riverfront steakhouse located at the entrance to the park in Gatlinburg, has been a tradition in the area for decades. Or if a mountain beer is what you’re looking for, Asheville, NC boasts more breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S.
Moonshine, Distilleries & Breweries
Speaking of breweries - there’s no better place to taste that good old mountain dew than the Great Smoky Mountains. Moonshine is an iconic part of life in the Smokies, dating back to the Scottish and Irish immigrants who made their way to Appalachia and distilled local corn into whiskey. Sampling authentic “white lightning” is part of any true Smoky Mountain travel experience. Head to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge for some of the most popular distilleries for making moonshine. Craft breweries can be found in Asheville, as mentioned above, or head to Gatlinburg or Natanhala for classic mountain brews.
Music & Dance
Everywhere you turn there are events, festivals and street buskers paying tribute to the traditional music and dance of the Great Smoky Mountains. Join in a community square dance or watch a group of cloggers tell a story with their graceful staccato steps. Listen to the twang and soul of mountain bluegrass, get swept away by fiddlers, banjo players and Scottish ballad singers, or feel the beat as you join a drum circle on the streets of Asheville.
Arts & Crafts
Local artisans honor their mountain traditions through living, breathing tributes of arts and crafts. There is a never ending display of items that tell the history of this region in festivals, art shows, studios, galleries, and hundreds of shops. Watch carpenters, glass blowers, weavers, candle makers, leather workers and so many more artisans as they show off the skills that have been passed down through generations.
There is no shortage of things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. From historic sites to epic hikes with grand overlooks to wildlife viewing and waterfall swims, there is a daring adventure waiting around every bend. Make your Smoky Mountain travels a remarkable experience with these essential activities.
One of the biggest draws to The Smokies is elk watching! In a far-corner section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park lies the beautiful Cataloochee Valley. In 2001, the eastern wild elk population, nearly wiped out by habitat loss and over-hunting, was reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley. The original elk herd of 52 has since grown to almost 200, providing plenty of opportunities for you to catch a glimpse.
Trails, Rides & Scenic Drives
There is no shortage of hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore the park and surrounding areas on trails that range from easy and kid-friendly to a much more challenging hike. Popular routes are Clingmans Dome and Chimney Top Trail. Or you could explore the area from the comfort of your vehicle. Scenic drives are perfect for a motorcycle ride or car trip. You’ll get views that are just as breathtaking as any hike on routes like Cades Cove Loop or Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail. With 318 curves, the Tail of the Dragon is popular with motorcyclists.
Life on the Water
Life on the water, both inside and outside the park, is ideal in warmer weather. Cool off in numerous swimming holes, toss a line in the water for wild Rainbow and Brook Trout, or watch the stunning nature pass by as you float lazily down a stream in a tube or raft. Waterfalls are plentiful in and around the park. Laurel Falls - a 2.3-mile round-trip hike - is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smokies. It’s an easy hiking trail that leads to an 80-foot waterfall. Soco Falls is a stunning double waterfall that flows at the edge of the Cherokee Indian Reservation between Cherokee and Maggie Valley. It can be viewed from a platform just a short walk from US Highway 19.
Beyond the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is a lot to do and plenty of areas to explore. Depending on which side of the Smoky Mountains you’re on, there are charming local towns like Maggie Valley, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, or Pigeon Forge, TN that are filled with the Smoky Mountains’ fascinating culture and history.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nearly synonymous with The Smokies, is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and with 522,247 acres to explore, there is room for travelers to spread out and enjoy the outdoors. Its natural wonders, scenic views and roaming wildlife make it the most visited national park in the US. Nature lovers enjoy hiking trails like Clingmans Dome, a 1-mile round trip that leads hikers to the highest point in the park. At 6,643 feet, the views are unbeatable. The park has excellent drivability, and scenic drives allow you to spot wildlife like elk and bear at a safe distance.
Located at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee, NC is the seat for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The area boasts year-round historical events that showcase Cherokee culture. Travelers can explore the tribal-run botanical gardens and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Outdoor activities in the area are abundant with plenty of hiking trails and river accesses. And viewing the majestic wild herd of elk in Cherokee, NC is at the top of everyone’s to-do list.
Festivals & Entertainment
Take advantage of both seasonal and year-round festivals and entertainment when you’re in the Smoky Mountains. Both music festivals and arts and craft shows abound in any local mountain town. A popular annual event every summer is the synchronous firefly festival in the Elkmont area of the park. Enjoy the music and dance of more than 8,000 international performers from 200 countries at the Folkmoot International Dance and Music Festival in Waynesville, NC. Celebrate music, moonshine and mountain living at the Hillbilly Jam in Maggie Valley, NC. Attractions like Dollywood and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino are big draws. And moonshine tastings at Ole Smoky Moonshine or Sugarlands Distilling Company (both in Gatlinburg) is a must-do.
Gatlinburg, TN entrance
From interstate highway I-40 take Exit 407 (Sevierville) to TN-66 South. At the Sevierville intersection, continue straight onto US-441 South. Follow US-441 through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge into the park.
Townsend, TN entrance
From the north: From interstate highway I-40 in Knoxville take Exit 386B to US-129 South to Alcoa/Maryville. At Maryville proceed on US-321 North/TN -73 East through Townsend. Continue straight on TN-73 into the park.
From the south: From interstate highway I-75 take Exit 376 to I-140 E towards Oak Ridge/Maryville. Merge onto I-140 E via Exit 376B towards Maryville. Turn onto US-129 South (Alcoa Highway) at Exit 11A and travel towards Alcoa. Turn onto TN-35 and follow it to US-321 North. Follow US-321 North/TN -73 East through Townsend. Continue straight on TN-73 into the park.
Cherokee, NC entrance
From the north: From interstate highway I-40, take Exit 27 to US-74 West towards Waynesville. Turn onto US-19 and proceed through Maggie Valley to Cherokee. Turn onto US-441 North at Cherokee and follow the road into the park.
From the south: Follow US-441/US-23 North. At Dillsboro merge on US-74 West/US-441 North. At Exit 74 merge onto US-441. Follow US-441 through Cherokee and into the park.
Experience Mother Nature up close and personal by camping inside the park. Advance reservations are required, so be sure to get a permit and make arrangements before you go.
Backpacking and Backcountry Camping: Perfect for folks who are hiking through the park, you can pitch your tent or just sleep under the stars.
Frontcountry: If you don’t want to hike to your camping destination, hang a little closer to your vehicle at 10 different spots through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Group campgrounds: If you’re traveling in a group of 7 or more, there are multiple group campgrounds available.
Horse Camps: Try a different kind of camping experience with a horse camp. There are 5 options for drive-in camps with access to backcountry trails inside the park.
Roadside Motels: There are hundreds of classic roadside motels to choose from across the Smoky Mountains. Blend together the nostalgia of a road trip with the beauty of the Smoky Mountains in spots like the Meadowlark Motel in Maggie Valley, NC.
Bed & Breakfast: Experience hometown Southern hospitality when you stay at a cozy bed and breakfast. Andon Reid Bed and Breakfast Inn is a quintessential mountain hideaway in Waynesville, NC. Or get your mountain style on at award-winning Gracehill Bed and Breakfast in Townsend, TN.
Historic Inns: Whether you’re looking for low key or upscale, a historic inn is a great lodging option. The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC blends the perfect touches of rustic and elegance. Or book a room at the Fryemont Inn in Bryson City, TN for classic mountain charm.
Mountain Top retreats: For an authentic Smoky Mountain experience, surround yourself with spectacular mountaintop views at secluded private hotels like The Swag, which covers 250 acres in Waynesville, NC.
Resorts: If you’re looking for an all-inclusive stay in the Smokies, a resort might be what you need. Mountain spots like The Lodge at Buckberry Creek in Gatlinburg offer rooms with kitchenettes and full-size appliances. Luxury resort, Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN is a romantic escape from hectic modern life.
Classic Hotels: Some people like the comfort of the familiar or want to use their reward memberships at their favorite hotel. These options are plentiful throughout the Smoky Mountains. You can find well-known chains like Hilton and Marriott in any of the popular mountain towns.
Maggie Valley: Maggie Valley is known for its scenic location and friendly, small-town charm. It has a warm, laid-back vibe with vintage motels, exciting festivals, car and motorcycle rallies, plenty of mountain arts and craft shops for browsing and a wide variety of outdoor activities for nature lovers.
Waynesville: The county seat of Haywood County, Waynesville is the largest town in Western North Carolina and is just a short drive from Asheville. It welcomes travelers with its distinctive Appalachian culture and proximity to the great outdoors.
Cherokee: More than just a gateway town, Cherokee is the seat of the Cherokee Indian tribe in western North Carolina. Here you’ll experience the historic indigenous culture of the Cherokee and enjoy a basecamp for exploring the Great Smoky Mountains and its wild herd of elk.
Hot Springs: Best known for its hot mineral springs, Hot Springs sits at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and the French Broad River. (The trail actually goes straight through downtown!) It’s a haven for those seeking outdoor adventure or a relaxing getaway.
Bryson City: Sitting along the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Bryson City is one of the less touristy towns with smaller crowds. It’s main thoroughfares are charmingly walkable and lined with bookstores, museums, breweries and galleries with working artisans.
Townsend: Townsend sits on what’s known as the Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” where you’ll find an incredible diversity of plant and wildlife, the impeccable preservation of Southern Appalachian culture, and exciting trails perfect for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Gatlinburg: One of the most popular tourist destinations for the Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg is a common base for families exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It draws travelers who are looking for both an outdoor adventure in nature as well as entertainment at popular amusement attractions.
Pigeon Forge: A close neighbor to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the Appalachian themed amusement park founded by country music singer Dolly Parton. Once you’ve got your thrills on the rides, there are spots to enjoy country music performances and plenty of restaurants that serve up Southern fare.
Sevierville: Sevierville is not only Dolly Parton’s hometown, but it’s a great home base for families to explore the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Discover the underground network of caverns where moonshiners used to run their stash, go shopping at the Tanger Outlets, or head out for a day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Charlotte, NC (151 miles to the park)
Atlanta, GA (135 miles to the park)
Nashville, TN (190 miles to the park)