The Smoky Mountains of North Carolina are a dream destination for lovers of the great outdoors. With stunning year-round views that stretch for miles, thrilling whitewater adventure, Southern Appalachian culture and live entertainment, it can difficult to squeeze everything in to only one weekend. Here are some ideas to help you maximize your time while exploring the region.
Explore the Outdoors
It’s not a trip to the Smokies without heading outside to enjoy the scenic beauty of the mountains.
Smoky Mountain Hiking
Start your journey by visiting some of the more breathtaking vistas. In Swain County you’ll find the access to Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s said you can see seven states on a clear day from the observation platform. Just north of there, straddling the North Carolina and Tennessee state line, is Newfound Gap, which offers similarly stunning views.
Heading east into Jackson County, there’s a fantastic 2-mile loop hike called the Whiteside Mountain Trail, which features a view of the highest vertical drop in the Eastern United States (750 feet!).
In Graham County you should plan to visit the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail, which offers an incredible hike through an old-growth forest. Here, follow a two-mile loop to discover towering trees up to 100 feet tall and twenty feet in circumference. Some of these trees are over 400 years old!
Blueways and Waterfalls
The Smokies are home to hundreds of stunning waterfalls, and no trip to the mountains would be complete without visiting at least one of them. North of Robbinsville, near Lake Santeetlah, you’ll find Yellow Creek Falls. You’ll hike a short trail through a lush forest to find the falls. There’s also a swimming hole so bring a towel.
There are a couple of natural water slides to explore the in the area as well. Quarry Falls, aka Bust Your Butt Falls, is found along the Cullasaja River near Highlands. On days when the river isn’t running too high you can slide into a refreshing swimming hole. There’s also Sliding Rock located off US Highway 276 near the Blue Ridge Parkway. This 60-foot natural water slide is incredibly popular so expect lines during the summer months, and especially on the weekends.
There’s also an abundance of river and lake adventures. Take a rafting adventure down the Nantahala River with the guides of NOC, find the perfect spot for some of the best trout fishing in the US, or rent a Stand Up Paddleboard and explore our beautiful mountain lakes at your own pace.
Explore the Wild Side
See wild Elk in their natural habitat in the Cataloochee Valley. Located on the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in Haywood County, you’ll find these majestic creatures grazing in the field in large groups. The Elk had to be reintroduced the region after years of over-hunting and habitat loss. The herd has more than tripled in population since 2001. It’s possible for you to spot them across the NC Smokies, but will have a greater chance of seeing them by visiting Cataloochee Valley. One word of caution though – stay more than 150 away. Not only is it the law, but these are wild animals with large pointy antlers. Keep a safe distance and don’t do anything that disturbs the animal or makes it change its behavior.
Take A Scenic Ride
After a day of exploring on foot, take a load off those tired toes with a drive or ride on some of these scenic trips.
Travel by Car
The Smokies boast incredible vistas from along the scenic roads and byways carved throughout the mountains. Starting in Cherokee, head north along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see some of the more dramatic views of the entire 469-mile road. There are multiple overlooks where you can pull over to capture a photo. Similarly, the Cherohala Skyway is a 34-mile scenic route connecting Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. Along the way you can pull over for a picnic and explore sections of the Cherokee National Forest and the Nantahala National Forest.
Travel by Motorcycle
The winding open roads of the Smokies is a huge draw for motorcyclists. Of all the routes through the mountains, the Tale of the Dragon is one of the most popular. Starting at Deals Gap you’ll traverse 318 curves in only 11 miles! Once you’ve conquered it, there are many more to explore. Check out our guide to the best motorcycle routes to learn more.
Travel by Train
All aboard! Ride the rails with The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad. Starting in Bryson City, you’ll take an excursion through gorgeous mountain scenery to select destinations. They offer tour add-ons like canopy zipline adventures, waterfall tours, and rafting trips making it a great way to spend the day with your family. If you’re looking for an adults-only experience they offer a Carolina Shine Moonshine Experience and special events like Uncorcked where you can enjoy an exclusive sampling of cheeses and a surf and turf meal prepared fresh.
Arts, Culture and Shopping
The mountains are home to rich history, cultural adventures, and quaint small towns showcasing local wares and art.
Explore 11,000 years of history in Cherokee, North Carolina. Home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, visitors can learn about the cultural heritage of the tribe at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Discover beautiful work of Native American art for sale like pottery, baskets and beadwork at multiple shops throughout the town. When evening comes catch an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills followed by an evening of gaming at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
John C. Campbell Folk School
The nation’s oldest folk school, founded in 1925, is located in Brasstown, NC. Crafts, music, dance, and other Appalachian traditions are taught during one-week or weekend classes year-round. You can visit even if you’re not taking a class to walk the trails or buy handmade works of art at the craft shop. The Folk School is one of the many locations you’ll find by traveling the Blue Ridge Craft Trails.
Back in the 1700’s, many Scots-Irish families migrated to the Smokies and established homesteads. With them the settlers brought agriculture, music, craft, and storytelling traditions of their homeland. The influence of Scot-Irish settlers in the Southern Appalachians can still be found in local music, art, and craft. You can learn more about their history at The Scottish Tartans Museum, which contains the official registry of all publicly known Tartans. Visit the museum, and peruse the gift shop to find Scottish foods, clothing and specialty items.