An amazing wildlife viewing experience is available in the Smoky Mountains. On any given day you can find dozens of elk in the heart of the Cataloochee Valley.
Here the elk roam 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 animal’s space is important.
A good rule of thumb is to stay 50 feet or more from the animals and to stay close to your car in case you need cover. If you get close enough to alter the elk’s behavior or make them stop what they’re doing, then you’re too close.
This is especially important in the fall during mating season, which is also known as “the rut.” This is when bulls (males), with their large rack of antlers, will let out their bugle call to get the attention of females. These bulls are incredibly territorial and you may see them butting heads to win the chance to mate. It’s this territorial aggression you’ll want to avoid.
From the Brink of Extinction
America’s elk population was decimated from over-hunting and loss of habitat in the early 1900’s. They were nearly wiped out altogether. Efforts to revitalize the species have slowly paid off and now the numbers of wild elk are beginning to grow.
In 2001, the National Forest Service introduced 25 elk into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then a year later 27 more elk were added. Now, two decades later, current estimates of the elk population are around 200.
How to Find the Elk
From Waynesville, take US Hwy 276 north about 10 miles to Cove Creek Road, which leads to the Cataloochee Valley park entrance. Here you’ll find elk grazing in their habitat and plenty of places to pull over and get a photo. In this area you’ll also find trails for hiking and you can take a self-guided tour of several historic buildings.
The Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina offers stunning natural beauty year-round, but fall is an extra special time to visit the region to see autumn’s colorful quilt covering the ridge tops. Thanks to the extreme variations in elevation, the Smoky Mountains enjoy one of the longest leaf-peeping seasons in the country. The first pops of color begin in late September along the highest elevations (over 6,000 feet) and continue through early November as color rolls down to the foothills. This means you can find stunning fall color at any point of the season.
2021 Fall Color Forecast
According to local biologists and fall foliage experts, the Smoky Mountains should experience a bright and colorful season. Warm dry days and cool nights are the recipe for stunning autumn hues, which the mountains have been experiencing since the first days of fall this year. While parts of the country experienced warmer than usual summertime temperatures, summer in the Smoky Mountains was relatively moderate so the trees aren’t as stressed as we head into leaf season. For fall leaf prognosticators, all eyes are on the La Ñina system in the Southern Hemisphere. The warmer temperatures from the system could cause a slight delay in color development.
Where to look for early fall color
During the earliest part of the season (late September – early October) you typically need to go above 4,000 feet in elevation to find fall color. Drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the higher points. Areas that tend to transition first along this scenic drive are Waterrock Knob (elevation 6,293’), the 16th highest peak in the eastern United States, Graveyard Fields (elevation 5,020’), a popular hiking spot with easy trails and multiple waterfalls, and Black Balsam Knob (elevation 6,214’), which offers near-360 views of the surrounding mountains. Another scenic drive to explore is the Cherohala Skyway near Lake Santeetlah. It spans the Great Smoky Mountains from North Carolina to Tennessee, connecting mountain peaks with elevations up to 5,390 feet at its highest point.
October is when fall color begins to accelerate across the mountains. Cooler nights and warm days provide the Smokies with the perfect weather conditions to produce peak season colors. When exploring for trees in transition, be sure to look down to find wildflowers adding their own pops of color to the season.
Typically around the second week of October is when Highlands, NC (elevation 4,117’), begins to see color emerge. Oaks, red maples, black cherries, and birches are all typically the first to turn. Blueberry bushes at the higher elevations will turn a brilliant red. A scenic drive along US Route 64 from Franklin to Highlands offers a beautiful way to see the color and some waterfalls along the way.
Top picks for mid season fall foliage
In mid-October, you’ll find fall color heading into elevations around 3,000 – 4,000 feet. During this time you should visit Cashiers (elevation 3,484’), located in the heart of Jackson County. Nearby you can hike Whiteside Mountain, a 2.2-mile hike with gorgeous long-range views.
Around the North Carolina Smoky Mountains you’ll find fall foliage appearing around small mountain towns like Andrews and Maggie Valley. This is a great time to check out the Joyce Kilmer National Forest, a popular hiking spot near Robbinsville in Graham County. The combination of towering old-growth poplars and fall color make this a sought after spot for color hunters. Nearby you’ll find Lake Santeetlah, one of the most beautiful lakes in the country, thanks in part to the Nantahala National Forest that borders it.
In late October, fall color will encompass areas below 3,000 feet in elevation. You’ll find beautiful foliage throughout many of the mountain towns around the Smokies including Sylva and Franklin. Make a trip to Cataloochee Valley to see the majestic elk roaming the pastures to graze in the evening. As with any wildlife experience, keep a safe distance from the elk. You can also find elk at Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee.
End of season autumn hues
Once November rolls around, you’ll find fall color creeping below 2,000 feet in elevation. This is the time to visit areas like Chatuge Lake in Haysville and Fire Creek Falls near Murphy. In Dillsboro, climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad and get a scenic tour of fall color.
In Cherokee take a quick out and back hike to Mingo Falls, offering a stunning 120-high foot waterfall.
The Waterfall Byway begins just north of Brevard, NC, famous for its music center and white squirrels and nicknamed the “Land of Waterfalls.” The 98-mile drive follows Rte. 64 from Rosman to Murphy, NC, with more than 200 waterfalls along the byway. Here’s what to expect as you take this journey to see some of the Smoky Mountains’ most beautiful natural wonders.
Ironically, the first waterfall you come to on the Waterfall Byway, Toxaway Falls, is the only one not created without human intervention, be it accidental. When 24 inches of rain fell over a few days in 1916, the man-made dam holding back nearby Lake Toxaway was breached and over five billion gallons of water tore the once verdant and lush gorge floor down to its stunning striped bedrock.
At the falls, there is a gravel-covered pullout that serves as the parking area and can fit 3 to 4 cars. If coming from the opposite direction, you’ll have to pass over the falls and turn around to park. You must then cross several lanes of roadway on foot and press against the far side of the bridge, under which flows the 150-foot waterfall. Considering the need to cross a busy road and no defined look-out point, this may be one for the more agile adults.
Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls
Farther on in Sapphire, NC, you will come to a trio of stunning falls in the Gorges State Park: Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls, and Hidden Falls. The three share a state-of-the-art visitors center with immaculate restrooms, a gift shop and a small museum.
Several trails of varying length and difficulty snake through the grounds from the visitor’s center to the trailheads, allowing you the option of a longer hike. But, if you are interested in saving time and energy, you can also drive to the trailhead. There you will find a spacious parking lot, sheltered picnic tables with charcoal grills and more restrooms. Camping is also allowed on the grounds.
The trail to Rainbow Falls is 1.5 miles long, sometimes through a smallish creek. The cascade, named for the rainbow you can sometimes spot in the mist, stands at a majestic 150 feet. Getting there takes less time, as it is mostly downhill, but you still have to hike your way back out.
To reach Turtleback Falls, you continue on the Rainbow Falls trail an additional quarter of a mile. With a more gradual slope reminiscent of a turtle shell, these falls were once a popular place to go sliding. However, with an increase in injuries and even fatalities, visitors are cautioned not to attempt it. It is definitely not safe for children. However, just a few feet from the trail is Hidden Falls. With a small 10-foot-tall waterfall and a calm swimming hole, this is the perfect place for the whole family to enjoy.
Back on the road, you will pass through Cashiers (pronounced “Cashers” by the locals). The road becomes narrow with tight curves and uneven pavement here. Eighteen-wheelers are prohibited and buses and RVs are strongly discouraged on this part of the drive.
Now would be an ideal time to swing into Sugar Cloud Baking Company for gourmet donuts made fresh daily. You can practically smell them from the road! Once you’ve replenished your energy, you will continue on Rte. 64 until you reach Highlands, a well-heeled tourist community with rows of shops, boutiques and restaurants. Wild Thyme restaurant, with an impressive wine list and four full walls of wine, has a vibrant outdoor patio that is pet friendly.
Bridal Veil Falls
Once you are back on the road, you will travel a short 2.6 miles to Bridal Veil Falls. Situated literally along the side of the road, these falls are unique amongst the rest. There is off-road parking and no walking required. Named for the way in which the falls lightly cascade off the rock formation overhead, these falls allow you to stand behind them and stay dry. This is a really cool place to take selfies and family photos.
About a mile ahead on the Waterfall Byway, your next destination is Dry Falls, which offers a well-tended parking lot with restrooms, and the trek to see the falls is less than a quarter mile. However, there are dozens of stairs, often at relatively steep inclines, that may prove difficult for those who get winded easily.
The stepped walkway runs alongside the waterfall, so you are enjoying its beauty the entire time you approach. Once at the base, there is plenty of room in the large cave-like area behind the cascade. The falls are magnificent as they thunder overhead, creating an echo chamber that delights the kiddos.
The optimistically named Dry Falls spits and drips enough on you behind the falls to cool you down for the climb back out. For those who can’t venture down, there is a wheelchair-accessible ramp that leads to an overlook with views just as breathtaking.
Drift Falls (Bust Yer Butt Falls)
Three miles after Dry Falls you will discover Drift Falls, situated on the Waterfall Byway but on privately owned land. Most locals and visitors know these falls and sliding rocks as “Bust Yer Butt Falls” and do not seem to make the distinction that the land is not publicly owned. There is room for about 10 cars parked on both sides of the road, and there also seems to be more parking opportunities in front of some of the boarded-up buildings flanking the trailhead.
Your next waterfall destination is Cullasaja Falls where your endurance will be put to the test. There is no official trail to speak of, but waterfallers brave the almost-vertical climb in and out to visit the breathtaking cascade. With a small pullout with room for no more than 4 cars on the shoulder of Rte. 64, it gets a little dicey navigating the edge of the narrow two-lane road.
Glen Falls is your final waterfall destination and a very short drive off of Rte. 64. When you leave the main road, you will take an immediate right down a hard-packed dirt road to the trailhead. The sign is visible, but you may question if you’re going the right way. You are.
A beautiful hike through the fragrant forest, the trail is about 1 mile each way and one of the most popular waterfalls on the Waterfall Byway.
When the Waterfall Hunt is Over
When you emerge from the final trek to Glen Falls, you will be ready for a tall cold beer, and just a short way up the road, Franklin’s Lazy Hiker Brewery hits the spot. Situated on Rte. 64 and just off of the world-famous Appalachian Trail, this stop is very popular with waterfallers, visitors and thru-hikers on the trail.
The brewery boasts a 15-barrel brewhouse, a disc golf course, an outdoor music venue, outdoor seating and a healthy number of beer taps named for sites you recognize, such as Bridal Veil Pale Ale and Dry Falls Doppleback.
On the wall at Lazy Hiker is a board inviting thru-hikers on the world-famous Appalachian Trail to leave a message for other hikers. It’s a very cool read. And the ceiling is hung with the hiking boots of those who were injured or defeated and quit the Appalachian Trail.
Parked just outside, the Hiker’s Kitchen food truck is a popular destination in its own right, and the owner, Joe P., is always happy to show you how he rolls whole potatoes with the skin on to make his perfectly seasoned, hand-cut fries.
Even with stopping to explore all of the cascades along the way, this road trip can be accomplished in a day. You can tailor your personal experience to your interests, activity level, adventurous spirit, and abilities. But even those who just take the drive and admire the waterfalls from the roadside, lookouts and parking lots will appreciate the wonder and beauty of this mesmerizing land and enjoy the full experience of the Waterfall Byway.
Part of the charm of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains is found in the small towns tucked into the mountain landscape. Sylva is one such town, located in the heart of Jackson County (population approximately 2,500). It’s central location in Western North Carolina makes it a perfect base camp to explore the region, but you don’t have to travel far to be immersed in natural wonders.
Top Things To Do In Sylva
Sylva has a walkable downtown area that includes a collection of delicious eateries, breweries, and shops. Visit the historic Jackson County Courthouse and take a stroll through Freedom Park, all with a beautiful mountain backdrop.
Enjoy antique shopping excursions at any of the five antique shops in town, plus you can find all you need to read at one of the three bookshops.
Dining options in Sylva are eclectic and delicious! Visit Lulu’s on Main, named Southern Living’s Favorite Restaurant in the Region, for an edgy, retro flare and fabulous cuisine. Guadalupe Cafe seats visitors from across the country at their unique farm-to-table restaurant.
Thanks in part to the quality of the mineral-rich, soft water flowing through the Smoky Mountains, this region has become a hot spot for craft breweries. Grab a pint, or a flight, at one of the breweries in town. There are four to choose from – with plenty of locally crafted brews on tap!
Lazy Hiker Taproom
Balsam Falls Brewing
Check out the Jackson County Ale Trail if you want to explore more breweries in the region. If beer isn’t your thing, then there’s also wine and cocktails bars available.
Sylva’s Outdoor Adventures
The mountains surrounding Sylva are full of opportunities for outdoor exploration. Take a stroll through the town’s Tree Walk, which features more than 50 different tree species, or explore some of the more adventurous trails throughout the mountains.
Popular Hiking Spot
For the adventurous spirit, Pinnacle Park has hikers climb over 3,000 feet in elevation along a 7-mile hike. It’s a long journey, but worth it to find amazing panoramic views of the Smokies. Pack a picnic and plenty of water for this hike.
For an easier challenge take a hike at Bear Pen Gap, located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 427.6. Here you can take a 2.5 mile out-and-back trail to a mountain bald. From Sylva, head north on US-74 to Balsam, and then head north on the Parkway. You’ll find parking at the overlook and the trailhead is on the furthest left hand side.
Fishing and Boating Expeditions
If you’re looking for a more relaxing activity, fishing is Sylva is second to none! Jackson County is designated as North Carolina’s Trout Capital, and Sylva is a large part of the Western North Carolina Fly Fishing Trail. Reel in trout on Scott Creek, which runs right through downtown Sylva!
In nearby Tuckasegee you’ll find Wolf Lake, which is popular with anglers and boaters.
Tuckasegee River is another popular spot for fishing, swimming, and tubing. It’s mostly a lazy river, but does have some class II rapids, which are fairly easy to navigate – even for the younger ones.
In Sylva, you’re only a short drive away from nearby towns like Dillsboro, Waynesville, Cashiers, all of which make exciting day trips for you and your family.
Additionally, Cullowhee, home of Western Carolina University, is only a ten-minute drive from downtown Sylva. Enjoy a basketball, football, or baseball game at WCU and cheer on the Catamounts!
Book Your Stay in Sylva
The Laurel Bush Riverfront Cabins in Sylva feature rustic cabins for families of all sizes! Laurel Bush cabins offer the perfect vacation getaway plus a small-town feel that you can’t find anywhere else.
If you prefer to stay at a campground, Moonshine Creek Campground is exactly where you want to be. Enjoy the great outdoors in this cool, secluded, traditional campground!
Of course, there are also plenty of hotels nearby where you and your family can kick back and enjoy modern conveniences!
Header image of Sylva mural courtesy of Jackson County TDA.
Make the most of the last days of summer! From hiking and biking to ziplining and rafting, there are plenty of ways to take advantage of the beautiful mountain weather during the final weeks of the warmest season.
Below you’ll find some of the top ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out our complete listing of family attractions in the Smokies.
Rafting at the Nantahala Outdoor Center
Whitewater adventure awaits! Take a rafting trip with the crew at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) where you’ll wind through a beautiful gorge on the Nantahala River. This rafting adventure offers some fun class II and III rapids you’ll ride along the way, making it the perfect river trip for families with kids over 7 (and over 60 pounds). The NOC offers other outdoor adventures including guided trips on other rivers throughout the region, ziplines, tubing and kayayaking.
Want a bird’s eye view of the Smoky Mountains? Ziplining will take you up in the tree tops where you’ll then fly through the forest canopy. This thrilling experience provides breathtaking views of the mountains and is a safe and daring adventure the whole family can enjoy. Highlands Aerial Park offers special courses courses for kids ages 4-10 that include zip lines, suspension bridges, balance beams and other safe challenges. Wildwater Rafting also offers zipline tours for kids ages 8 and up as long as they’re at least 60 pounds. They boast the longest zipline course in Nantahala.
Grab your your swimsuit, sunscreen, and a dry bag, and then head out for a relaxing day on the river on a tubing excursion. Get paddling on some of the area’s best spots for a float including Tuckasegee River. Check out Deep Creek Tubing & Campground in Bryson City for a fun day on the water followed by sleeping under the stars. You can also float down the gently flowing Oconaluftee River in Cherokee with Smoky Mountain Tube & Raft.
Search for treasure while enjoying a unique experience in the beautiful Smoky Mountains. Come gem mining in North Carolina, and you’ll have some good clean fun in the dirt. Your kids will love searching for treasure and getting to take home a unique piece of the Great Smoky Mountains. With outdoor and indoor flumes, Gold City Gem Mine is a great spot to treasure hunt no matter what the weather is outside. With a covered outdoor gem hlume along the Little Tennessee River, Primitive Outback Kayaking and Gem Mine is a place to discover many different gemstones and fossils including topaz, rubies, amethyst, and emeralds.
While there are hundreds of waterfall hikes to choose from in the Great Smoky Mountains, there are a few that are easier and shorter for those with small kids. If your kids are older and can handle a bigger hike, then check out this page for more ideas!
Mingo Falls: a 200-foot scenic waterfall, and only a five-minute walk from the Mingo Falls Campground on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
Tom Branch Falls: only a quarter of a mile from Deep Creek Campground.
Big Laurel Falls: an easy half-mile trail brings you to this 30-foot cascading waterfall that tumbles into a small, placid pool.
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.
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
From 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.
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.
Glen 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.
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
Splash 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.
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.
11 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.
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
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
3. 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.