The Smoky Mountains provide visitors with thousands of things to do, and for first time visitors and weekend warriors it may be daunting to figure out how to squeeze it all in to three days. Hit the highlights of this outdoor-lover’s paradise with this three-day itinerary that will help you discover some of the region’s best attractions and outdoor adventures.
Planning for your trip to the NC Smokies
Before we dive into the itinerary, here are some things you should know when planning your trip to the Smokies.
North Carolina versus the Tennessee Side of the Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park, thanks in large part to its expansive geographical footprint. It spans two states and deciding which side to visit mostly depends on the type of experience you want.
The NC side offers more outdoor adventure and fewer crowds, while TN offers popular tourist towns like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg surrounded by peaceful scenic beauty. You’ll find the crowds are mostly found at the center of the national park.
If you’re most interested in discovering scenic vistas, then exploring the hiking trails along the border of the two states are your best bet.
How to Get to the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina
By plane: The closest airport is the Asheville Regional Airport.
By car: From the north, east and west the I-40 corridor will bring you to the heart of the NC Smokies. From points south, US-23 N (accessible from I-85) and then US-441 will be the best way to get here.
Day 1 – Explore the Highest Peaks
Get a bird’s eye view of the Smokies by taking a scenic drive to some of the area’s best overlooks and hiking trails. We recommend you check out:
Clingmans Dome: From Cherokee, travel along US-441 N to this popular scenic overlook with 360-degree views of the Smokies. The 1.2-mile hike to the observation tower is paved, but it’s too steep to push a wheelchair.
- Andrews Bald: From the Clingman Dome’s Trailhead, take the Forney Ridge trail to this mountain bald. The hike is 3.6 miles roundtrip.
- Mount Cammerer: For the more ambitious hikers, this 11-mile roundtrip hike takes you to the summit of a 4,928-foot mountain. Along the way, you’ll travel a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
- Whiteside Mountain: Near the towns of Cashiers and Highlands, this moderate 2-mile loop trail has you hiking along the highest cliffs in the east.
Alternatively, you can drive North along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a route also known as America’s favorite scenic drive. Beginning in Cherokee, NC, the southern portion of this road offers spectacular vistas. Popular destinations include:
- Waterrock Knob – At 5,820-feet in elevation, this mountain peak is the highest of the Plott Mountains. Located at milepost 451.2, it’s the closest hiking trail on the Parkway when traveling from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Black Balsam Knob – At milepost 420, you can take a short hike to this stunning mountain bald. It’s the second highest mountain in the Great Balsam Mountains.
- Graveyard Fields – Located at milepost 418.8, there are multiple hiking trails including a 3.5-mile loop and two waterfalls.
Day 2 – Waterfall Hunting & Other Adventures on the Water
The Blueways of the Smoky Mountains offer a number of ways to cool off during the warmer months. Enjoy the thrill of whitewater rafting, take a lazy river excursion on a tube, or go stand-up paddle boarding in one of the numerous lakes around the region. The NC Smokies also offer amazing trout fishing opportunities and gorgeous waterfall.
For a fun, family-friendly adventure, take a guided trip with the Nantahala Outdoor Center down the Nantahala River. For the more adventurous spirit, the Cheoah River offers challenging Class IV and V rapids. Kayakers consider the Cheoah one of the best of the whitewater world.
There are hundreds of epic waterfalls to discover across Western North Carolina. No trip to the Smokies would be complete without a waterfall hunting adventure. Here are some of our favorites. Look here for more waterfall excursion.
- Whitewater Falls: Near Sapphire, NC, you’ll discover a 411-foot waterfall, the highest in the eastern United States.
- Dry Falls: Outside of Highlands you’ll find this 75-foot tall waterfall. You can view it from an observation platform or take a short trail to get a closer look.
- Cullasaja Falls – Also near Highlands it this 250-foot cascade. It’s located along US Highway 64 and can be seen from the road.
Discover some of the most tranquil lakes in the mountains. Whether you’re looking to go boating, fishing, or swimming here are some of your best bets.
- Lake Santeetlah – This lake offers 76 miles of shoreline, multiple primitive campsites and access to numerous hiking trails. A large portion of the lake’s border is the Nantahala National Forest, which provides gorgeous natural scenery from your boat.
- Fontana Lake – A popular lake with fisherman, boaters, and paddle-boarders, this lake provides access to some of the most remote areas of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s considered by locals to be the best area to find smallmouth bass.
- Lake Glenville – When you’re looking to beat the summertime heat, go for a swim in this refreshing mountain reservoir. The Pines Recreation Area offers a sandy beach and fishing pier. If you rent a boat, then you can visit one of the three waterfalls found along the river banks.
Day 3 – Small Town Exploration & Cultural Adventures
Discover numerous small towns and cultural activities to gain a stronger understanding of the people who call the Smoky Mountains their home. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Explore Cherokee – The Cherokee tribe has called the Smoky Mountains home for over 11,000 years. Learn about their rich history by visiting the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and catch an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills.
Highlands – This quaint mountain town is a perfect basecamp for outdoor adventure. Visit one of the many area waterfalls, explore scenic hiking trails, or go golfing at a nearby course. In town you’ll find fine dining and tons of great shops and galleries to peruse.
Waynesville – Located just west of Asheville, NC, this vibrant mountain town is among the largest in the NC Smoky Mountains. The vibrant, walkable downtown offers great shopping and dining experiences. Nearby, Maggie Valley serves as a gateway to the Cataloochee Valley section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, where you can hike, ride horseback, or get an up close view the elk grazing in the fields (from a safe distance of course).
Where to Stay in the Smokies
When choosing a place to stay in the NC Smoky Mountains, here is what you’ll want to consider. If you want to plan a day trip to Asheville, then areas around Sylva and Waynesville will be your best bets. If you want to be closer to the center of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then Murphy, Robbinsville, and Bryson City should be your target areas. For points south, you’ll want to choose the Highlands or Haysville/Brasstown area.
Here’s a list of various lodging options, ranging from cabin rentals to casino resorts.