The top 5 things to do at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A glowing vista view of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Encompassing the rugged, forested Southern Appalachian spine along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park consistently tops the list of America’s most popular national parks. 

Its scenic attractions include whitewater flows and falls through cove forests and ridgetop vantages serving highland views. And its human history is fascinating, from native Cherokee heritage and the many-standing ruins of early Euro-American settlement to the park’s conservation origin story.

Whether you’re sticking to scenic drives and visitor centers or taking multiday treks through the sizable backcountry, Great Smoky Mountains National Park remains transfixing. Here are 5 must-dos in this most-visited park in the U.S.

The viewing platform at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Take in the view from Clingmans Dome

The summit of Clingmans Dome, looming at 6,643 feet along the Smoky Mountain crest, is the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi and the highest point of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.

You can reach Clingmans Dome via the 7-mile access road—closed December to March, and during severe weather conditions—and a steep, half-mile paved path to the mountaintop observation tower. If you’re lucky enough to visit Clingmans Dome under clear skies, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view extending more than 100 miles.

A historical cabin at Cades Cove

Delve into history & wildlife on the Cades Cove Loop

The mountain valley of Cades Cove is one of Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s signature attractions. The views are reason enough to explore the 11-mile loop road, but 19th-century log cabins, churches, barns, and other pioneer relics display its incredible history. You also have access to one of the premier wildlife-viewing areas in the Great Smokies: White-tailed deer are a dime a dozen, and it’s not uncommon to spot a black bear.

In addition to auto touring, you can also rent a bicycle and pedal your way through Cades Cove. On Wednesdays and Saturdays during the summer, the loop is only open to cyclists and pedestrians until 10 a.m.

Charlies Bunion looking out on the Great Smoky Mountains

Hike to Charlies Bunion

Charlies Bunion, a craggy buttress along the iconic Appalachian Trail, delivers one of the most dazzling views in the Great Smokies. A part of the Anakeesta Formation studding the Smoky Mountain divide, travel writer Horace Kephart named it “Charlies Bunion” after his hiking companion Charlie Conner developed a bunion on a trek here.

From the picturesque crag, you’ll find some of the best views in the Smokies and waves of mountains to take in including Mount Le Conte, Mount Kephart, and Mount Guyot.

A bull elk at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Track down Smoky Mountains elk

Elks are typically associated with the wide-open heights of the Rocky Mountains, but these huge deer historically roamed the eastern U.S., including the southern Appalachians. Though the original population in the area was wiped out due to over-hunting and loss of habitat, in 2001 the National Park Service reintroduced elk to the Great Smokies in the Cataloochee Valley.

In the years since, these majestic animals have flourished in the Cataloochee, and you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing them in the early morning or evening.

Trillium wildflowers in bloom at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Go on a botanical safari

The Great Smoky Mountains are a hotspot for biodiversity, and that includes a rich plant life. The forests—which some ecologists consider temperate rainforests, given the bountiful precipitation and mild climate—account for a majority of old-growth trees remaining in the East.

In spring and early summer, Great Smoky Mountains National Park erupts in a spectacular display of wildflower blooms, best appreciated on a leisurely walk. Admire enormous tulip-trees, yellow buckeyes, and other wild flowers on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail.

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Road trip planning resources

AAA Travel alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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