- 2 Days
Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over two days gives you ample time to take in some of the park's highlights, including historical sights, great views and pretty waterfalls.
Start off at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and check out its small museum of wildlife exhibits. Next head to Cades Cove, where you can explore austere farmers’ cottages and dilapidated family cemeteries on the 11-mile driving loop surrounding the historic 19th-century mountain settlement. Cap the day with a hike to Abrams Falls, a lovely cascade that spills into a scenic natural pool.
The next morning, drive to the top of the park’s highest peak, Clingmans Dome, where an observation tower offers jaw-dropping, 360-degree views of the mist-shrouded mountains. Before returning to your car, make a hike out to the mountain meadow of Andrews Bald for yet more magnificent views. Afterwards, drive back down and make a stop at the Rockefeller Memorial, which straddles two states. From there, head towards the Cherokee entrance and stop at the Mingus Mill and the Mountain Farm Museum for a bit of 19th-century history. Finish with a stroll along the picturesque and easy Oconaluftee River Trail.
- 4 Days
The north side of the park has some of the Great Smoky Mountains' most famous sites, with picturesque drives, rushing rivers, enchanting hikes and homesteads dating back to the settler days.
Go early to Cades Cove for the best chance to spy wildlife. If it's Wednesday or Saturday hop on a bike and cycle the loop road, which closes to traffic before 10am. Afterwards, make the challenging hike up Gregory Ridge for a stunning panorama.
On day two, follow the scenic park road west, stopping for waterfall views at the Sinks, and picnicking at Metcalf Bottoms. Afterwards, take a stroll around the abandoned resort village at Elkmont Historic District. In the late afternoon, hike up to Laurel Falls, one of the park's most popular waterfalls.
On the next day head off for another great waterfall hike, either to Rainbow Falls or the less challenging Grotto Falls. Afterwards, take your time enjoying the beautiful scenery and historic attractions along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
For your last day, head out for some waterside adventure. The Pigeon River is a fantastic spot for white-water rafting. Cap the day with souvenir shopping in Gatlinburg, followed by a meal of mountain trout in the atmospheric Peddler Steakhouse.
The Complete Smoky Mountains
- 1 Week
Spending a week inside one of America's best-loved national parks gives you time to escape the crowds and explore far-flung corners of the magnificent wilderness.
On day two, head to Deep Creek, where you can explore some photogenic waterfalls. Afterwards, make the drive to the end of the Road to Nowhere and explore the wild scenery that lies beyond the tunnel. Alternatively, take a memorable ride on the old-fashioned Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Cap the day with a meal and a microbrew at Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City.
Day three starts with a drive to Cherokee for a visit to the excellent Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Continue into the park and stop in the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which has exhibitions on the early settlers. Afterwards, go out back to the Mountain Farm Museum for a look at a fine assortment of log structures (and farm animals in the summer). End with a stroll along the Oconaluftee River Trail.
On day four, it's time to hit the trails for one of the park's most rewarding hikes up to Alum Cave Bluffs. If you've arranged far in advance, spend the night at the lodge atop Mt LeConte. If not, come back down for a scenic afternoon drive along the Little River Road.
For your fifth day, make a hike out to Rainbow Falls or, for something less crowded, check out the Baskins Creek Trail. Afterwards drive to the Cataloochee Valley for an afternoon wander checking out an old schoolhouse, chapel and split-log dwellings. Look for elk in the fields around dusk.
On day six make the hike up Big Creek, one of the loveliest streams in the Smokies. You'll find great picnic spots overlooking rushing falls, massive boulders and deep pools. Afterwards, go rafting on the Little Pigeon River.
On your last day in the mountains, make one last mountaintop hike and get a taste of the legendary Appalachian Trail along the way. Head either to Cosby, where you can head up to the Mt Cammerer Lookout Tower, or to Newfound Gap, for the hike to the rocky outcropping of Charlies Bunion.