How to Beat the Summer Heat in the Smoky Mountains

Escape excessive summer heat and instead enjoy cool mountain breezes, and the even cooler waters of the Smokies. Here’s how you can beat the heat on your next summer vacation.

Discover the Highest Peaks

layers of mountain peaks in the smokiesFrom the Smoky Mountains to the Blue Ridge, Western North Carolina has the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi River. Atop these mountain ridges you’ll notice the temperature drops considerably compared to the lower valleys.

Clingmans Dome – The highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee border. At 6,644 feet in elevation, it’s the region’s second highest peak.

Black Balsam Knob – Located in Haywood County, this mountain bald can be accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 420. It’s the second highest mountain in the Great Balsam Mountains at an elevation of 6,214 feet.

Mount Mitchell — Towering at 6,684 feet above sea level, this mountain is the tallest point in the region. Here you’ll take in the 360-degree view and breathe in the scent of the spruce forest. Even though it may be summer, pack a jacket for your trip to the summit, as you may find yourself in the middle of a cloud once you get there.

Waterfall Hikes

Revel in the awe-inspiring beauty of a mountain waterfall and feel refreshed from the cooling spray. Check out this guide to area waterfalls, including the popular Cullasaja Falls.

Remember, these natural wonders are best observed from below. While some waterfall areas may have wading areas at the base of the falls, you should always obey posted signs and NEVER attempt to climb a waterfall or enter a stream above the falls. Here are some other waterfalls to check out.

waterfall in the smoky mountainsGlen Falls – A one-mile steep, rough trail brings you to this triple waterfall, each dropping about 60 feet. Located in the Nantahala National Forest.

Rufus Morgan Falls – Located near Franklin, you’ll take a short walk to these near-vertical 65-foot falls near Wayah Bald.

Yellow Creek Falls – Travel U.S. 129 North of Robbinsville. Go two miles past the Yellow Creek Road intersection and the parking area and trailhead/sign will be on the right. Walk 0.33 miles to falls.

Ice Cream & Craft Beverages

Stroll down the sidewalk in charming Franklin, Sylva, and Waynesville and you’ll find a sweet — and chilly — treat from Jack the Dipper. At Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Johnny Rockets offers their famous milkshakes.

Enjoy a cold pint of craft beer from a local brewery like Hoppy Trout Brewing Company in Andrews or Franklin’s Lazy Hiker Brewing Company. Or cool off with a cocktail or glass of wine at a local distillery, or winery.

Keep cool while you hunt for buried treasure! Plunge your mined ore into a flume of cold mountain water to sift out the gold or gems hidden inside. There are several gem mines to explore while you’re in the area. This is also a perfect rainy day adventure for the family.

Want to make this adventure even cooler? Combine gem mining with a kayaking or rafting adventure. Nantahala River Gem Mine in Bryson City and Primitive Outback in Otto are two local outfitters that offer river trips as well as gem mining in North Carolina. Kayak or go whitewater rafting and then pan for treasure.

Lakes & Rivers in the Smokies

paddler in the smokiesSplash in the refreshing waters of the many lakes and rivers that make up the Blueways trail through the Western North Carolina Smokies. Each of these offer a fun and scenic way to cool off outdoors.

Lake Santeetlah – This lake offers 76 miles of shoreline and is surrounded by the unspoiled beauty of the Nantahala National Forest.

Tuckasegee River – Most days you can enjoy a lazy float down this river on a tube, raft, canoe, or kayak. It’s also a great river for fly fishing.

Fontana Lake – Perfect for smallmouth bass fishing and boating, this lake offers access to some of the most remote areas of the Smoky Mountains National Park.

Little Tennessee River – Along the southwestern border of the the national park, this river is popular with avid fisherman and boaters. There’s also a greenway along the river bank in Franklin.

 

Best Motorcycle Routes to Explore in the Smokies

The stunning mountain views and twisting scenic byways of the North Carolina Smoky Mountains and surrounding area offer one of the best places in the world for a motorcycle adventure.

Whether you prefer to travel with your own bike or rent one when you arrive, local shops, dealerships and guides are ready to help make your motorcycling vacation a memorable one.

motorcyling in the nc smoky mountains11 Top Motorcycle Routes in the Smoky Mountains

The mountains of Western North Carolina are home to several routes popular among motorcycle enthusiasts. Check out a few of our favorites:

  • Tail of the Dragon: One of the best-known motorcycle routes, “the Dragon” is located in Deals Gap and boasts 318 continuous curves packed into 11 miles with no intersecting roads or driveways,
  • Six Gap: Located just across the Georgia border, this figure-8 loop stretches for 77 miles, passing through six mountain gaps and intersecting the Appalachian Trail at four points along the way.
  • The Snake US421: This 37-mile route offers 489 curves across three mountains and one stunning valley in Johnson County, Tenn. and Washington County, Va.
  • Moonshiner 28: Named for the moonshine runners who once frequented the road, this route winds 103 miles south from Franklin and Highlands to end in Walhalla, S.C. Look for breathtaking vistas, waterfalls and remote mountain lakes.
  • Foothills Parkway: Trace the ridgeline of the Smoky Mountains for 33 miles from Chilhowee to Wears Valley, Tenn., and enjoy the spectacular view from several pull-off overlooks along the way.
  • Smoky Mountain Loop: This 143-mile loop connects the Foothills Parkway with US 441 through Great Smoky Mountains National park before passing through Cherokee and Bryson City and past Fontana Dam.
  • Devils Triangle: Located just north of Oak Ridge, Tenn., this 44-mile route is recommended for experienced riders, thanks to its deep gullies, steep drop-offs and tight switchbacks.
  • The Gambler: Also known as “the Rattler,” this 25-mile route follows NC 209 from Ferguson’s Market north of Waynesville over to picturesque Hot Springs, N.C.
  • The Diamondback: Tracing a 38-mile diamond-shaped loop, this route is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Asheville and Boone.
  • Cherohola Skyway: Designated as a National Scenic Byway, this 43-mile road connects Tellico Plains, Tenn. to Robbinsville, N.C. as it winds through uninterrupted forests and wraps around mountainsides. You don’t want to miss the views on this one.
  • Blue Ridge Parkway: “America’s Favorite Drive” is great for two wheels or four. Explore this 469-mile byway from its southern end in Cherokee, and enjoy stunning views of the Smokies and Blue Ridge Mountains from scenic overlooks.

Accommodations for Your Motorcycling Vacation

The N.C. Smokies are the perfect home base for your two-wheel explorations.

The Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort on the N.C./Tenn. border caters to “Dragon” riders with a motel and campground, plus a pub and grill, store and calendar of exciting events throughout the year.

Several local campgrounds welcome motorcycle travelers and groups including Moonshine Creek Campground near Sylva and The Great Outdoors RV Resort in Franklin.

Or choose from several lodging options from favorite national brand hotels to historic inns and luxury vacation rentals.

Waynesville Exploration Guide — Top Things to Do

Located in the heart of Haywood County, Waynesville is the largest North Carolina town west of Asheville (population approx. 10,000) . Waynesville’s historic downtown and Main Street invites visitors to stroll the brick sidewalks, shop in boutiques and galleries and pull up a chair at a local pub or taproom.

Waynesville offers easy access to outdoor adventures on the Blue Ridge Parkway and in the Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Situated right between Asheville and Cherokee (each is about 25 miles away), the town is a picturesque gateway to your next mountain vacation.

Things to Do in Waynesville

shops in downtown Waynesville NC
Downtown Waynesville

Historic downtown Waynesville has been welcoming guests for more than 200 years, and Main Street is lined with charming historic buildings that house art galleries, antique shops, and specialty boutiques of all kinds. Shop for a unique souvenir made by a local artist, or tak a step back in time as you visit Mast General Store for outdoor gear, nostalgic toys or barrels of candy.

When it’s time to eat, enjoy traditional Southern flavors at Fat Buddies Ribs & BBQ or sample farm-to-table fare at a downtown eatery. Visit a local brewery for a flight of craft beer, or order a tap at one of several area pubs to accompany a delicious artisan burger. And be sure to save room for dessert — Jack the Dipper scoops up old-fashioned ice cream cones, shakes and sundaes for the whole family.

Waynesville is home to Folkmoot USA, which hosts an international folk festival each July, filling venues all around town with music and dancing from Appalachian, Cherokee and worldwide traditions. If you would like to take part in some dancing for yourself, check out the weekly Mountain Street Dance held on summer Friday nights in front of the historic Haywood County Courthouse.

Outdoor Adventures for All Seasons

Whether you want to explore the N.C. Smokies on a hiking trail, on horseback, on a ski slope or by car, Waynesville is never far from your next adventure.

Elk at Cataloochee
Elk at Cataloochee

Exploring Cataloochee Valley

The Cataloochee Valley area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a favorite spot for hiking and for a self-guided tour of several historic buildings. But the most popular attractions here are the elk that graze freely through the valley’s open fields. The elk are most often seen in morning and late afternoon. Bring a camera to take photos, but keep a safe distance — as with any wildlife encounter, respecting the animals’ space is important. From Waynesville, take US Hwy 276 north about 10 miles to Cove Creek Road, which leads to the park entrance.

Blue Ridge Parkway Adventures

Near Waynesville, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds through some of the highest and most breathtaking terrain of all its 469 miles. Scenic travel along “America’s Favorite Drive” is beautiful in all seasons, especially when wildflowers begin to emerge in spring and when fall foliage lights up the mountainsides in autumn.

Favorite stops along the Parkway include:

  • Richland Balsam (milepost 431.4) — the highest point on the Parkway at 6,053 feet; drive north about ⅓ mile to fine the trailhead for a 1.5-mile loop hike through spruce forests
  • Devil’s Courthouse (milepost 422.4)  — a strenuous half-mile trail to a 5,720-foot peak with panoramic views
  • Black Balsam Knob (milepost 420.2) — multiple hiking trails traverse spectacular mountain balds
  • Graveyard Fields (milepost 418.8) — a very popular loop trail featuring two waterfalls
  • Skinny Dip Falls (milepost 417) — a refreshing ¾-mile hike ends at a cool waterfall and swimming hole
  • Cold Mountain (milepost 411.9) — overlook offers a glimpse of the mountain featured in Charles Frazier’s acclaimed novel and film; those up for a strenuous adventure can make the 10.6-mile hike to the Cold Mountain summit from the trailhead at Camp Daniel Boone in Canton (25 min from Waynesville)

Ski & Snow Tubing Adventures

In winter, head to Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley for 18 ski slopes of varying difficulty levels and great views of the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Nearby, Tube World offers snow tubing fun for the whole family!

Create a new holiday tradition with a visit to Boyd Mountain Christmas Tree Farm to choose and cut your very own Fraser fir Christmas tree!

Places to Stay Near Waynesville

Lake Junaluska
Lake Junaluska

From luxury resorts to historic cabins and a working bison ranch, there are variety of accommodations options to complete your next Smoky Mountain getaway.

Enjoy the historic charm of a 100-year-old B&B at the Andon-Reid House, or plan a romantic escape amid the natural beauty of The Swag resort. Book an authentic log cabin, beautifully restored at Boyd Mountain Log Cabins or choose between historic and modern cabins at Country Cabins in nearby Maggie Valley.

Experience a unique retreat at Buffalo Creek Vacations, which features bison, donkeys and llamas alongside its log cabins, plus fishing and a family-friendly playground on the property.

And if it’s simplicity you’re after, book a room at a locally-owned hotel like Oak Park Inn or Hearth & Home Inn, or choose a trusted national brand like Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn.

Learn more about Waynesville, N.C., and begin planning your vacation today.

Our Five Favorite Spring Hikes in the NC Smokies

Spring is the perfect season to get out on the trails and immerse yourself in the scenic beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Wildflowers are in bloom, wildlife is emerging from winter dens, birds are singing from the tree branches, and waterfalls are gushing with the spring rains.

Here are five of our favorite hiking trails to explore this spring:

family hiking in the smoky mountains1. Graveyard Fields

One of the most popular stops along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Graveyard Fields (at milepost 418.8) has it all — wide open meadows that show off blue skies, two breathtaking waterfalls, and thickets of native wildflowers like flame azalea and mountain laurel that bloom in May and June. Take a short hike to the lower falls (great for cooling off on hot days!) or choose the 3.5-mile loop trail to see the whole area.

2. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Trail

Experience spring in a virgin forest along this 2-mile moderate loop trail that twists through a pristine mountain cove. The trees here are hundreds of years old, and some are more than 100 feet tall! The trail climbs gently and crosses the creek via several wooden bridges. Keep your eyes open for wildflowers on the forest floor, and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy among the trees.

waterfall in the smoky moutains3. Oconaluftee River Trail

This pet-friendly hike is located just outside Cherokee, N.C., and is easy enough for the whole family. The 1.5-mile trail follows the Oconaluftee River and begins at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which offers public restrooms and maps of the area. Look out for elk enjoying the cool water of the river or the open meadow near the visitor center.

4. Kephart Prong Trail

This trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park combines natural beauty with national history along its 4.2-mile out-and-back route. Find the trailhead located on side of the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) about 7 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Enjoy the rush of the scenic Kephart Prong creek and explore the ruins of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp that was stationed here from 1933 to 1942. The Kephart Shelter marks the turnaround point at the end of the trail.

5. Whiteside Mountain Trail

Whiteside Mountain’s sheer rock face is an iconic sight in the Nantahala National Forest near Highlands and Cashiers. A moderate, sometimes steep 2-mile loop trail leads from a parking area to the top of the 750-foot cliffs and boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding valley. Wildflowers such as false Solomons seal and white snakeroot bloom here, and keep an eye out for peregrine falcons — these endangered birds like to nest among the rock faces in spring.

 

Find more area hiking trails here.

Top 8 Spring Adventures in the Smoky Mountains

elk in the great smoky mountain national park

Spring is the perfect time of year to emerge from your winter hibernation and take a trip to the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. As the weather warms, wildflowers begin to peek out from the forest floor, and clear views of the Appalachian Mountains stretch on for miles.

Plan your Smoky Mountain escape—be it a romantic getaway, a family vacation or a solo expedition—with these favorite springtime adventures.

Fly fisher in Jackson County North CarolinaSmoky Mountain Blueway Trails

If you find your bliss by the water, then this system of tranquil lakes and pristine rivers is the place for you this spring. Together the Little Tennessee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee and Tuckasegee rivers flow into Fontana Lake, passing through three picturesque lakes along the way.

The Smoky Mountain Blueway Trails offer all manner of recreational water sports, from boating and tubing to stand-up paddle boarding and swimming.

Anglers love this system of waterways for its Class A trout streams, while the lakes host large- and smallmouth bass, walleye, crappie and sunfish.

Waterfalls

The waterfalls of the N.C. Smokies—naturally breathtaking in any season—are made even more magnificent following frequent spring rains. Whitewater Falls near Cashiers is the highest waterfall in the Eastern U.S. at 411 feet!

More than a dozen popular waterfalls are readily accessible on short hikes, and some can be seen right from the side of the road. Check out our guide to the top waterfalls in the North Carolina Smokies.

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam locomotive

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

The whole family will love a spring excursion on these historic steam and diesel trains that wind through the Nantahala Gorge or along the Tuckasegee River. Choose from open-air gondola cars with unencumbered views of the surrounding landscape or plush first-class seating with an included boxed lunch.

On the Nantahala Gorge route, passengers travel across an historic trellis bridge over Fontana Lake, then journey on to a layover stop at the picturesque Nantahala Outdoor Center.

All Great Smoky Mountains Railroad trips depart from the depot in charming Bryson City, N.C. Check the calendar for fun themed rides designed for the youngest passengers.

rafting the rapids on the NantahalaWhitewater Rafting & Kayaking

The N.C. Smokies are the place to find whitewater adventures, with regional rivers boasting rapids of all levels.

Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center for an unforgettable guided river tour. This Bryson City outpost welcomes top whitewater athletes from across the globe when it hosts international paddlesports competitions, but don’t let that fool you—the NOC offers trips for kids as young as 7 years old.

Outfitters on the Nantahala, Tuckasegee and Ocoee rivers offer guided and self-guided rafting expeditions. Or choose a leisurely float down the Little Tennessee River, where you can see river otters, beavers, deer and countless birds.

Scenic Drives

sunset over the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina

It’s hard to top the scenic beauty of the N.C. Smoky Mountains. If you just can’t get enough of the winding roads, stunning views, rivers, waterfalls and wildflowers of this region, then head for the hills on one of the area’s scenic byways.

Cherohala Skyway in Graham County connects the Cherokee National Forest to the Nantahala National Forest and boasts breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

To the southeast, U.S. Highway 64 earns its nickname “Waterfall Byway” by winding past 200+ distinct waterfalls on its 98-mile route. For a quick trip, check these four favorite falls in Macon County.

Find the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, known as “America’s Favorite Drive,” in Cherokee, N.C. Then follow this scenic road to the north, stopping at overlooks and hiking trails along the way.

Best Eagle Dance in Cherokee, NCExperience Cherokee

The first inhabitants of the Southern Appalachians arrived more than 11,000 years ago, when the Cherokee Nation stretched from the Ohio River to South Carolina.

The interactive Museum of the Cherokee Indian takes visitors back in time to experience the life of Western North Carolina’s indigenous people. Nearby, the Oconaluftee Indian Village offers an immersive look at what Cherokee life here was like in the 1700s, when Europeans began to settle the region.

Today Cherokee is also a destination for entertainment at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. In addition to slot machines and game tables, visitors can enjoy restaurants, shopping and a calendar of world-class performances throughout the year.

Hiking Trails

Hit the trail this spring and explore the forests and peaks of the N.C. Smokies. With easy, moderate and difficult trails available, you’re sure to find the right adventure for your visit. See beautiful mountain views, or sneak a peek at some local wildlife. Spring is an excellent season for birdwatching amid the new forest leaves. Multi-use trails also welcome mountain biking and horseback riding.

ziplining in the smoky mountains with NOCZipline Tours

See the Smokies from a whole new point of view as you soar between the mountaintops on a zipline tour. With options available for the whole family, these thrilling treetop adventures are also highly educational as knowledgeable guides share information about the region’s natural and cultural history.

Whether your destination is the river, the trail or a trip back in time, the towns and forests of the N.C. Smokies are ready to welcome your adventurous spirit.

Download your free Visitors Guide to start planning today.

3 Days to Explore the NC Smoky Mountains – An Itinerary for Travel Inspiration

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.

forest heritage scenic byway in the nc smoky mountainsPlanning 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:

  • Clngmans Dome

    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.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Blue Ridge Parkway

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.

Whitewater Adventure

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.

Bridal Veil Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Bridal Veil Falls outside of Highlands.

Waterfalls

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.

Lake Life

fishing on nantahala lake in the nc smoky mountains
Nantahala Lake

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.

Museum of Cherokee Indian group photo
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

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.

Top Smoky Mountain Spots for Spring Wildflowers

Enjoy an extended wildflower season in the Smokies.

As the days lengthen and the weather warms, colorful signs of spring begin to pop up from forest floors and trailside shrubs. Brilliant wildflowers of all shapes, sizes and colors appear across the North Carolina Smoky Mountains in waves from February through late summer, to the delight of gardeners, hikers and adventurers of all ages.

butterfly on a bloom
Butterfly Weed

A fleeting group of flowers known as spring ephemerals — including showy three-petaled trillium, lady slipper orchids, fire pink and columbine — are first on the scene beginning in late February. Bright bee balm, black-eyed susans and jewelweed take over in the summer months, alongside native shrubs such as flame azalea. As summer wanes into August and September, asters and goldenrod prelude the fall foliage display.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts more than 1,500 kinds of flowering plants, earning it the nickname of “Wildflower National Park.” Likewise, the varying elevations and habitats of the Blue Ridge Parkway make it an excellent route for flower-sighting in spring.

Look for seasonal blooms along the edges of trails, roads and rivers, or any sunny open area. To ensure there are plenty of flowers for everyone to enjoy, resist picking any blooms and keep your feet on designated trails. Be sure to bring your camera!

Here are some of the top spots in the Smoky Mountains to see spring wildflowers:

purple flowers
Mountain Bluets

Deep Creek Trail

Located north of Bryson City, this easy trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park leads past two waterfalls in a two-mile out-and-back walk, or hike the whole loop for 4.9 miles and a third waterfall!

Graveyard Fields

A favorite stop along the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 418.8, the loop trail at Graveyard Fields takes hikers past waterfalls, through open meadows and along wooded paths. Visit in May or June for a peek at pinkshell, flame azalea or mountain laurel.

Oconaluftee River Trail

trillium blooms
Trillium

This easy 1.5-mile (one way) trail begins at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and leads along the river to the outskirts of Cherokee, N.C. It’s a favorite for jogging, biking and walking pets (and one of only two Great Smoky Mountains National Park trails that allows both bikes and pets).

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

A 2-mile loop trail offers a breathtaking view of this virgin forest cove, which is a great place to spot trillium, crested iris, dutchman’s breeches and violets in spring. Take a break from your flower search to look up into the canopy of the forest’s centuries-old trees.

Winter Train Excursions in the Smoky Mountains

Santa waves at passengers on the Great Smoky Mountain RailroadNew for 2020: The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad has extended its operating season into the winter. For the first time they will host passenger excursions well into December!

The Nantahala Gorge Winter Train Trips will allow you to experience the winter season set in the Smoky Mountains, and to add more excitement to your journey they’ve added a small dash of an Old Fashioned Smoky Mountain Christmas! You’ll be able to see unobstructed mountain views from their cozy and festive train cars.

Also be on the lookout for a very special guest to hop onboard to share in the holiday spirit. Smoky Mountain Santa will be visiting each car telling tales of Western North Carolina Christmas’s from days gone by. Passengers will receive traditional Christmas sweets of oranges and peppermint sticks and the history behind it all. This new option will give you and your family the quality time we all crave during this season.

About Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Trains have connected the communities of Western North Carolina since the 1800s, and helped to increase visitation to once remote areas of the Smoky Mountains. Today they are enduring reminders of our past, and provide a unique setting to take in the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Learn about train rides through the Smoky Mountains, including routes and annual events.

Safety Precautions

They Great Smoky Mountain Railroad is operating under all current COVID-19 safety guidelines and ask that you follow all protocols. Due to COVID-19, dining options at the layover destination, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, is restricted to 50% capacity. This means your wait time will not allow for you to be served during the layover. You are advised to enjoy onboard dining by pre-purchasing a box lunch meal option along with your train tickets.

Visit here to book your excursion.

 

Four Must-See Waterfalls Near Highlands, N.C.

The Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina are home to dozens of breathtaking waterfalls cascading down slopes and rock faces.

These four favorite waterfalls are located in Macon County, just outside of the charming town of Highlands, N.C. While three of them are visible from the roadside of US Highway 64 (also known as the Waterfall Byway), the true majesty of these falls are best viewed from their trails and observation areas.

Glen Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains
Glen Falls

Cullasaja Falls

This 250-foot cascade can be found along US Highway 64 less than 9 miles west of Highlands. If you want to snap a photo, look for a very small roadside pull-off on your left. (It’s recommended that you pull into this area from the eastbound lane, and park completely off the road.) The view of Cullasaja is lovely from the parking area, especially in winter once the trees lose their leaves. Experienced hikers can take the steep, unmarked trail down to the base of the falls for another perspective.

Bridal Veil Falls

You can’t miss this waterfall located about 2 miles west of Highlands on US Highway 64. The road was once routed behind the falls (later changed due to problems with icing in winter), but visitors today can still park the car to walk behind this beautiful natural feature.

Dry Falls

Another waterfall that invites visitors to venture behind its falling waters is Dry Falls, located close to Bridal Veil Falls, about 3 miles west of Highlands alongside US Highway 64. Look for signs to the parking area, then take in the stunning view from the accessible observation area or walk the short paved trail that takes you up to and behind the 75-foot cascade.

Glen Falls

The popular two-mile out-and-back trail at the Glen Falls Scenic Area takes hikers past three gorgeous waterfalls. The trail leads downhill via several switchbacks to connect observation areas for each falls. On your hike back up, be sure to look for the side trail leading to a birds-eye view of Overflow Creek and the surrounding valley. Parking for Glen Falls is located along NC Highway 106, about 1.7 miles from US Highway 64 in Highlands.

Before you visit these natural beauties, please keep in mind the basics of waterfall safety. Never climb rock faces, jump off waterfalls or dive into the water. Obey all posted signs, and stick to designated trails and observation platforms. Don’t play in or wade into the water above a waterfall, where strong currents can sweep you over the falls without warning. Stay safe, and enjoy!

Want more suggestions? Here’s our guide to waterfalls in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains.

Monarch Butterfly Migration in the N.C. Smokies

monarch in migrationLate September in the Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina brings early signs of fall—cooler weather, the first few brightly tinted leaves, and the fluttering orange flashes of migrating monarch butterflies.

The monarchs, with their iconic orange, black and white-patterned wings, pass through the Southern Appalachian Mountains on their way to Mexico, the destination that marks the end of a 2,000+-mile southbound migration. The butterflies that pass through Western North Carolina likely began their journey in Pennsylvania, New York or even Canada. In spring, their descendants will make their way back to the north.

Where to Find Migrating Monarchs in the Smoky Mountains

During the fall migration, monarch butterflies travel among the treetops at higher elevations, some Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks and nearby mountain balds great places to see these winged beauties in action from late September through early to mid-October.

  • Black Balsam is a popular spot for hikers and picnickers, and during migration season the mountain bald is also great for finding monarchs. Find trailhead parking on Black Balsam Road, accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 420.2. Bring a jacket (and your camera!) for the 1-mile hike to the top of the knob.
  • Nearby Waterrock Knob (at Parkway MP 451.2) is similarly known for its 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, giving visitors plenty of open space to see a migrating monarch.
  • Butterflies abound in the Cade’s Cove area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where groups gather each year to count and tag the passing butterflies. Check out the pretty pollinators in one of the area’s meadows, or head to Gregory Bald Trail for a 9-mile (round trip) hike with old growth forests and stunning views.
  • Those who are willing to venture a bit farther down the Blue Ridge Parkway may also find good butterfly-spying at Pounding Mill Overlook (MP 413.2)

7 Great Fall Adventures in the Smoky Mountains

The Smoky Mountains are one of the most beautiful places to visit during autumn, with cool mountain weather and brilliant fall foliage blanketing the slopes. From late September through early November, numerous fall adventures await leaf-peeping visitors. Check out these popular experiences, from serene mountain lakes to thrilling ziplines.

Bonus: Social distancing comes naturally for many of these outdoor activities; check with outfitters and tour companies about any special arrangements for your visit.

whitewater rafting down the nantahala river with NOC.Mountain Lakes, Rivers & Fishing Holes

The many lakes and rivers of the Smoky Mountains offer recreational opportunities of all kinds, from whitewater adventures to boating excursions and fly fishing. Book a guided kayak trip with Primitive Outback, Inc. to see local wildlife from the water, or rent a cane pole at a nearby fishing pond to catch your own trout dinner.

Ziplines

Feel the thrill of flying above the colorful forest canopy on a mountain zipline. The ridgeline-to-ridgeline course at Nantahala Outdoor Center boasts 360-degree views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala Gorge.

Hiking Trails

Whether you’re in search of mountain top views or breathtaking waterfalls, an easy walk or a strenuous trek, there’s a Smoky Mountain hiking trail perfect for your next adventure. Check out this list of popular hikes.

Scenic Drives

Pack a picnic and hit the road for an unforgettable fall drive. By car or by motorcycle, the Blue Ridge Parkway is an excellent choice, especially in early fall when the colors arrive at popular spots like Graveyard Fields and Black Balsam Knob. Or check out US Route 64 between Franklin and Highlands to see waterfalls tucked among the brilliant trees.

scenic byway in the nc smoky mountains

Tour by Train

Bring the family and make fall memories touring the beautiful Nantahala Gorge by riding the rails. Great Smoky Mountains Railroad offers twice-daily tours (closed on Mondays) on their steam-powered trains. Choose open-air or enclosed train cars and order a boxed lunch for your excursion.

Museum of Cherokee Indian group photo
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

Cherokee History

Get to know these mountains through the stories of the people who have lived here for thousands of years. Enjoy an interactive cultural experience at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian then head over to Ococnaluftee Indian Village to immerse yourselves in the living history of the Smokies.

Horseback Riding

Enjoy the autumn forest from a new perspective as you ride along with your new equine companion. Book a horseback trail ride alongside your reservation at a local resort, or choose from a wide variety of guided tours at Chunky Gal Stables, which welcomes guests of all experience levels year-round.

 

Featured image courtesy of Adam Duff – @biodiverseavl

The Impact of COVID-19 in the Smoky Mountains

covid-19 travel information for north carolina smoky mountains

Covid-19 has impacted the way we live, and the way we travel. While you’re still safer staying at home, the great outdoors provide much needed relief from quarantine fatigue. When planning your vacation to the North Carolina Smoky Mountains remember that many businesses have had to modify hours and operations. You’ll want to call ahead to ensure you’ll be able to enjoy certain experiences.

Here, you’ll need to follow the three W’s. 1.  Expect to wait in lines to enter businesses. 2. Wear a mask when indoors and in any communities that request they be used on sidewalks. 3. Wash your hands frequently. Here’s some other information to know.

Last updated on December 11, 2020

Local State of Emergency Declarations with Travel Impacts

North Carolina has implemented new executive order effective December 11. A Stay at Home order remains in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily. All businesses are required to be closed during this time. Alcohol  sales are prohibited from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day.

Businesses are allowed to be open with limited capacity. Please note that face coverings are now required in all public indoor settings.

More information about current restrictions can be found here.

Graham County

Travel restrictions into the county have been removed, however all nonresidents must observe a 14 days self-quarantine, or for the duration of their visit if it is for less than 14 days. Be prepared to bring your own supplies and groceries to sustain the 14-day quarantine.

Swain County

Swain County is following the state’s guidelines. Restaurants, breweries and wineries are open with restrictions. Attractions are open – many are at 50% capacity. For lodging, please bring as much food, drink and supplies with you as possible. This will lessen the impact on their groceries and other stores that have been and are still experiencing shortages. Also, please help to mitigate any spread in their community by practicing proper social distancing, hand washing, hand sanitizing, and the use of protective face coverings as you enjoy our county and trails. The small businesses that have been closed are eager to welcome you!

Jackson County

Jackson County updated its Declaration of a State of Emergency to lift the ban on lodging rentals of less than 30 days, but added strong guidance regarding social distancing and mask wearing.

Macon County

The Chamber Visitor Center has reopened. The hours of operation are Monday – Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and Saturday from 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Local businesses will display signs to let visitors know if they are open.

Cherokee

On May 15, retail establishments, hotels, and campgrounds re-opened at 50 percent capacity while following strict cleaning and social distancing procedures. Several outdoor activities in Cherokee are open to the general public including the Fire Mountain Trails, Cherokee Skate Park, and the Oconaluftee Island Park. Cherokee Enterprise Waters is open for fishing for people not enrolled with the EBCI. Fishing permits may be purchased on-line at www.fishcherokee.com or from a local fishing permit vendor.

Rest Areas

All NCDOT’s 58 Rest Areas’ restroom facilities statewide remain open 24 hours per day for travelers’ relief. State Welcome Centers also remain open for restrooms 24 hours per day.

UPDATE: The Smoky Mountain Visitor Center in Franklin, NC reopened on Saturday, May 9.

Outdoor Closures & Updates

During this time of social distancing, the great outdoors at first seemed the best option to remain active. However, as people flocked to popular hiking trails, scenic lookouts, and waterfalls in droves it became clear that these too would need to be limited. While there are still ways to enjoy outdoor recreation, these more popular spots are have been closed.

We’ll update these as we learn more.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Beginning on Saturday, May 9, the park will begin reopening in phases. Exercise caution while exploring the park, and be sure to read the announcement from the National Park Service before visiting as not all trails will be open.

These roads are currently open:

Abrams Creek Campground Road
Balsam Mountain Road
Big Creek Road
Cades Cove Loop Road (Road will open daily at 8:00 a.m. Closed to motor vehicles on Wednesdays from June 17 to September 30, 2020 for bicylces and pedestrians only.)
Cataloochee Road (To Palmer Chapel only due to road washout.)
Cherokee Orchard Road
Clingmans Dome Road
Cosby Road
Deep Creek Road
Elkmont Road
Foothills Parkway
Forge Creek Road
Gatlinburg Bypass
Greenbrier Road (Due to roadwork, open to Ramsey Cascades Trailhead only.)
Heintooga Round Bottom Road
Highway 284
Lakeview Drive
Laurel Creek Road
Little Greenbrier Road
Little River Road
Newfound Gap Road/Highway 441
Rich Mountain Road
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Straight Fork Road
Tom Branch Road
Tow String Road
Tremont Road
Twentymile Road
Upper Tremont Road
Wear Cove Gap Road

Restrooms: Clingmans Dome, Sugarlands Visitor Center, Newfound Gap, Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Cades Cove Cable Mill, Abram Falls Trailhead, Rainbow Falls Trailhead, Alum Cavem and picnic areas 

Picnic Areas: Big Creek, Chimney Tops, Collins Creek and Pavilion, Metcalf Bottoms, Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier (pavilion is closed), Metcalf Bottoms and Pavilion, Twin Creeks Pavilion. **Note that pavilions must be reserved through Recreation.gov

Horse Camps: Anthony Creek Horse Camp, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, Tow String

Visitor Centers: Cable Mill in Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Mingus Mill near Oconaluftee, Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Sugarlands Visitor Center

Campgrounds: Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek*, Cades Cove*, Cataloochee*, Cosby*, Deep Creek*, Elkmont*, Smokemont*

*The Following Campgrounds Remain Closed:
Group Campgrounds: Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, and Smokemont. Horse Camps: Big Creek, Cataloochee, Round Bottom, and Tow String.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Campgrounds, Visitor Centers, and Picnic Areas are now closed for the winter. Most sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway, including the southern section through the Smoky Mountains are closed for the winter. Hikers and cyclists can still access the Parkway at road closure points to enjoy mountain views without traffic.

Areas that remain open to vehicles are from mile marker 389 to mile marker 402 as well as mile marker 385 to 376. Points of interest along these open sections include the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center, the Folk Art Center, and the North Carolina Arboretum.

Cherohala Skyway

The Skyway is open.

Cataloochee Valley

Roads into Cataloochee Valley have recently reopened. This is a great place to park and watch as wild elk graze in the fields.

Cherokee

Outdoor recreation areas including Mingo Falls, Soco Falls, picnic areas, and tribal backroads are open.

The Appalachian Trail

The Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in North Carolina have reopened trailhead and access points to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, but restroom facilities remain unavailable. Shelters will remain closed at this time. These include the following popular spots. See the full list here.

  • Wayah Bald – Nantahala National Forest
  • Cheoah Bald – Nantahala National Forest
  • Hampton and Dennis Cove Trailheads (Laurel Falls) – Cherokee National Forest
  • Osborne Farm – Cherokee National Forest
  • Max Patch – Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests
  • Roan Mountain/Carvers Gap – Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests
  • Lovers Leap – Pisgah National Forest

National Forests

The National Forest Service has closed shelters and restrooms. As winter weather begins there will be road closures. Before traveling into the Nantahala National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, or Grandfather Ranger District, be sure to look here for alerts about road closures.

More information on roads and recreation facilities can be found here.

 

Smoky Mountain Attractions

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

Harrah’s Cherokee as officially reopened. They’ve rearranged the casino floor to provide more space between the games. In addition to their social distancing strategies, there are other protocols in place including mandatory masks for all guests. You can find the full list of safety requirements here.

Nantahala Outdoor Center

Nantahala Outdoor Center resumed operations this year with new safety protocols. See the video below for full details. The season has ended for whitewater adventures, but they do offer winter activities like survival classes.

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Passenger train operations have resumed with 50% capacity. Please be sure to review their full safety guidelines prior to your trip. New this year, they have extended their schedule with new winter season train rides into the Nantahala Gorge.

Other attractions:

  • Swain County Visitors Center and Heritage Museum – Now Open
  • The Fly Fishing Museum of the Southern Appalachians – Now Open at 50% Capacity
  • The Museum of the Cherokee Indian – Open

For the latest information on COVID-19, please check the website for the North Carolina Department of Health.