Heads Up: New Parking Fee at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A new “Park It Forward”  program has been implemented for visitors wishing to park within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP). As of March 1, 2023, parking tags are being sold for $5 per day, $15 per week, or $40 per year per car.

Passes are for sale online at Recreation.gov or Smokiesinformation.org for either shipment or printing. They can also be purchased at the Automated Fee Machines (AFM) in the park’s parking lots, or at various businesses in nearby communities.

Parking tags are not location specific and are valid for only one vehicle with a matching license plate number. Your daily and weekly parking pass must be placed on the lower passenger-side dashboard and your annual tag must be displayed on the lower passenger-side windshield.

There are multiple ways to get your parking pass, including at physical locations and online.

Are There Any Parking Fee Exemptions?

Yes! Visitors enjoying a scenic drive through the park or those parking for fewer than 15 minutes do not need a parking pass.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and descendants of the original mountain homesteaders receive special consideration that includes no parking fees under certain circumstances. For more information on these special permits, please click Special Use Permit system.

Visitors with handicap plates or placards also are exempt from parking fees.

Front-country campers do not need a tag to park at their campsite unless they exceed the number of permitted vehicles at their site.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park participates in the National Parks Service’s fee-free days. Visitors do not need to display a parking tag on fee free days.

School groups visiting the park for educational or scientific purposes and permitted researchers while engaged in their permitted research activities may apply for a fee-waived parking permit by contacting grsm_fee_program@nps.gov.

Visitors with the America is Beautiful program’s Access Pass and Senior Pass receive a 50% discount on parking.

The Benefits

Most importantly, the monies raised through this new parking fee will remain in this 88-year-old park. The GSMNP Service is focusing on 2 priorities. The first is the maintenance of this national treasure. Management is increasing habitat rehabilitation for its denizens, protecting water quality, and increasing its educational programs.

The Park Service is responsible for the maintenance of 850 miles of trails and 384 miles of roadway in this 500,000-acre wilderness. In addition, they operate 27 different wastewater systems within the park and provide custodial services, trash removal, and emergency response.

Emergency response and law enforcement is an equally high priority. Park Rangers are the first responders to emergencies, provide traditional guidance service, and ensure compliance of park rules. They will also be the ones enforcing the new parking fees, but initially that means more education than citations while visitors are adjusting to the new Park It Forward policy.

Over the last 10 years, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has seen a 57% increase in visitors. It’s expected that these parking rates will underwrite the cost to meet the growing needs of its visitors.

Increases to Other Park Fees

In addition to new parking fees, other park rates are being raised nominally. These include backcountry sites, campgrounds, picnic pavilions, daily-use cabins, groups camps, and horse camps. The fee for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail has also been raised. The increases vary by location, amenities, and size, so please click here for the specifics on each.

Drive the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway

Every year, thousands of visitors trek to Western North Carolina to enjoy cool summers, take in stunning mountain views, and explore numerous outdoor adventures. One way to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Smokies is by taking a scenic drive along the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway in Swain County.

Also known as Newfound Gap Road, the 16.5-mile 35-minute route begins where U.S. 441 intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway near the Qualla Boundary of the eastern band of the Cherokee Reservation. It meanders north through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park all the way to the Tennessee border. Overall, the Byway ascends about 3,000 feet up into the Great Smoky Mountains!

Fontana Lake

Traveling through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

When you take a trip on the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway, you can experience nature, wildlife, and culture that you may have never seen before! No matter what season you visit, you’re sure to pass an abundance of incredible views, recreational opportunities, and even historical and cultural features!

Things to Do and See Along the Route

Starting out on the Byway, you’ll want to make your first stop at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, where a park ranger on duty can provide you with information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The visitors center also includes a bookstore and an exhibit dedicated to the Park; next door, the Mountain Farm Museum preserves pioneer buildings built throughout the Park and moved to this site.

Mingus Mill

Mingus Mill is a turbine mill built in 1886 that ground corn into cornmeal wheat for over 50 years! It is located only half a mile from the beginning of the Byway. The mill’s water wheel freezes during winter, becoming a unique ice sculpture!

Mingus Mill

Webb Overlook

Named for former North Carolina Senator Charles A. Webb, one of the most prominent voices in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Webb Overlook provides a sweeping, beautiful view of the mountains and skies. While you can take in the views from your car, you can also park and walk a short, quiet walkway to stretch your legs. From Webb Overlook, you have a great view of Clingman’s Dome, the rounded mountain that towers above the surrounding landscape. Clingman’s Dome is named for Civil War General Thomas L. Clingman, who was also one of the scientists who measured the mountains in the area to calculate the elevation.

Newfound Gap

At the highest point on the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway, Newfound Gap is a forest that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee border. It is also the site where President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially dedicated Smoky Mountain National Park in 1940. The Rockefeller Memorial now sits in Newfound Gap, memorializing the Rockefeller family, who donated $5 million to support the Park’s establishment.

Visiting The Great Smoky Mountains

North Carolina Byways are proper scenic routes, meant to be driven through slowly and enjoyed. They generally are not the shortest way from point A to point B. However, you won’t regret a second of your trip down the Smoky Mountain Scenic Byway. The best time to drive the Byway is, of course, during daylight hours when you can enjoy the scenery. If you plan it right, you might even catch an incredible sunset from one of the overlooks.

Always be sure to pay close attention to the road, as both motorcyclists and cyclists also enjoy the Byway. There is likely to be more plentiful wildlife along the route to watch out for, too.

There are plenty of other scenic byways in the area, plus lots to do and eat in the Great Smoky Mountains. Start planning your trip today!

Smoky Mountain Visitor Center – Your Travel Resource in the Smokies

Smoky Mountain Host visitor center

The sprawling North Carolina Smoky Mountains cover seven of the westernmost counties in the state, and to anyone unfamiliar with the region it may be a challenge to know where to go and what to do. For that reason it’s helpful to get guidance from one of the local experts at the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center in Franklin. The folks there are knowledgeable on all of the activities, events, history, and natural beauty the region has to offer.

The Visitor Center is located inside an NC public restroom facility, but it often surprises visitors to learn that it’s so much more than that. It’s also the best place to get suggestions on activities that meet your interest, and details on outdoor adventures that fit your fitness level. You can also pick up some keepsakes at the gift shop to remember your trip through the world’s oldest mountains.

Visitors passing through can find a comfortable picnic area and super clean bathroom facilities on site. It’s also a great place to get a sneak peak of the beauty of this region. People actually rave about this place, which is interesting for a rest area, but it’s a testament to why this place is worthy of a visit for local information as well as to see the beauty of the area where it’s located. Here are a handful of the almost 2,000 reviews received online.

☆☆☆☆☆ “One of the nicest Visitor’s Centers around. The people that work there are very friendly and could answer any questions that we had. They have items for sale in the center. Extremely clean rest rooms. It was well lit. Easy to maneuver a wheelchair. Plenty of parking. Easy to get to.” ~Jacque W.

☆☆☆☆☆ “The helper behind the counter was so gracious and kind. So friendly. We stopped for a picnic it was so beautiful. We even met others who are enjoying all this as much as we did.” ~ Mel F.

☆☆☆☆☆ “100 percent the nicest rest area I’ve ever seen. Clean, spacious and well stocked. They have a wonderful little shop with a great supply of local products as well as visitor information. Courteous and friendly staff complete a wonderful traveling experience.” ~Monte W.

☆☆☆☆☆ “This is the best Visitor’s Center I’ve ever been too! They had an amazing gift shop featuring locally made items. You get an amazing cup of locally roasted coffee, great conversation and tips for your travels from the great staff. The bathrooms are a work of art and super clean.” ~Michele M.

☆☆☆☆☆ “The visitors center is a must see!! Very educational, lots of maps for hikes, lots of gifts to take home.” ~ Lil R.


Location & Hours of Operation
4437 Georgia Rd
Franklin, NC 28734

Open Sunday-Saturday
9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Closed Christmas and Thanksgiving


Explorer’s Guide to Murphy, NC

Buckle up explorers and travelers! You’re heading to one of the most charming and peaceful, yet outrageously adventurous small towns in the NC Great Smoky Mountains – Murphy, NC!

Geographically, Murphy is located in the westernmost county of North Carolina and serves as a gateway to the Smoky Mountains. It also provides easy access to the the outdoor recreation found in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. Ready to explore? Here are some activities to add to your travel itinerary.

downtown murhpy

Murphy’s Outdoor Adventures: Hikes, Waterfalls, and Mountain Biking

Murphy River Walk

For those who like to stroll at a leisurely pace, there is no better option than the Murphy River Walk, skirting the downtown center of Murphy and meandering alongside the Hiwassee and Valley Rivers (they converge in Murphy.) Discover meadows and wetlands, thick forests and a rock cliff as you walk the trails, breathing in the fresh air in the peaceful surroundings. The trail is a little over 2 miles long if you walk its entirety, but there are several trailheads for you to pick your own distance.

Piney Knob Trails

Spreading across 700-plus acres, the Piney Knob Trail System invites hikers to explore the beauty of the Murphy Watershed. This is a great option for families who have differing skill levels on the trails.

Hanging Dog Recreation Area

Just 5 miles from downtown Murphy is the fantastically fun (if regrettably named) Hanging Dog Recreational Area. But don’t let the name fool you. The hiking trails here will fill you with nothing but joy. You can hike or bike the Ramsey Bluff Mountain Biking System, with 8 miles of moderately difficult trails or enjoy an easier hike on one of the 1-mile trails that lead from some of the best sightseeing spots on Hiwassee Lake.

The Waterfalls Byway

The famous Waterfall Byway begins (or ends, depending on which direction you’re headed) in Murphy, NC. The 98-mile route features 200-plus towering cascades along the beautiful mountain roads of these western-most towns.

Tsali Recreation Area Mountain Biking

The Tsali Recreation Area with its 40 miles of off-road biking at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains is the Mack Daddy of all-terrain riding experiences. Skirting crystal-clear Fontana Lake with 4 loops of hard-packed, single track, Tsali delivers on the thrills and is hailed internationally as a mecca for mountain biking.

Hiwassee Lake

For a true “get-away-from-it-all” experience, spend the day at Hiwassee Lake in Murphy, NC. This 22-mile-long reservoir has over 160 miles of shoreline for fishing, boating, swimming, and just enjoying the lake views. Considered a non-commercial reservoir, because only 7% of it has been developed(!), the lake will help you find absolute peace in nature. For a choice of access points, drive the loop around Hiwassee Lake (a little over 2 ½ hours) until you find what you’re looking for, whether it be boating and swimming with other day trippers or your own quiet slice of heaven. For a panoramic view of this magnificent lake, visit the Hiwassee Dam, one of 3 hydroelectric dams on the Hiwassee River that is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Next to the dam is a park with lake access, trails, public restrooms, and picnic areas.

Local Culture

Cherokee County Historical Museum

Visitors to the Cherokee County Historical Museum will be fascinated by interactive stories and displays as you uncover the 11,000-year known history of the Cherokee Indians. Settle around the holographic Cherokee storyteller at his fire to hear tales in the original oral tradition. Perhaps you’ll hear the story of Tsali, a Cherokee Indian warrior who killed a US soldier and then, to save his tribe from the Trail of Tears, turned himself in. If you are interested, you can also see the actual rifle used to execute Tsali.

Highlander Gallery

A short, 10-minute jaunt up the road to Brasstown, NC leads to the remarkable Highlander Gallery. Here you will find crafts and artwork that represent Western North Carolina in multiple mediums, each expressing the artist’s unique style while honoring their heritage. They say to bring back a special item from each of your travels to always remember the feelings and experiences of each place. Choose from one or more pieces amongst paintings, photography, wood art, basketry, jewelry, stone sculptures, marquetry (decorative patterns inserted onto a form), pottery, illustrations, and weaving and fabric art for your touchstone back to the NC Great Smoky Mountains.

Blue Ridge Craft Heritage Trail

The Smoky Mountains are home and inspiration to hundreds of artists. Across Western North Carolina, visitors can find handmade crafts at a number of studios and galleries, and now, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Trail Area, connects visitors to these cultural resources through a network of craft trails. The initiative is called the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, a series of curated driving trails throughout the region featuring 200 craft sites. Travelers can use craft trail itineraries for tips to round out their craft-hunting experiences with nearby foods, breweries, wineries, music, outdoor activities, and scenic views. Check out their suggested itinerary for the craft trail through Murphy and the neighboring town of Andrews, NC.

Joe Waldroup Woodworks in Hayesville

Where To Stay in Murphy N.C.

Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee Valley River

Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino features over 50,000 feet of gaming, over 1,000 slot machines, and your favorite table games, like blackjack, craps, and roulette! Enjoy non-stop entertainment at the Ultrastar Multi-tainment Center, which includes a bowling alley, arcade, fireside patio, and more. When you get hungry, there are numerous, well-known restaurants to choose from without ever leaving the resort. When the excitement winds down, retire to your luxury room, or perhaps stop by the spa first for the ultimate unwinding!

Murphy Peace Valley Campground

The Murphy Peace Valley Campground KOA is your peaceful retreat in the Heart of the Smoky Mountains, located one mile from Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino. They offer furnished deluxe cabins; shaded, full-hook-up RV sites with cable tv and wi-fi internet; and tent camping. Or stay at their award-winning campground, relaxing by the campfire on the peaceful Valley River. The property features a swimming pool, game room, pet play area, playground, and pavilion to enjoy when you’re not on the river fishing, swimming, or tubing.

The Valley River RV Resort

Murphy also boasts the Valley River RV Resort, a destination that features spacious RV sites, 50-amp service, a clubhouse with a kitchen, a bathhouse, and a laundry facility. Other amenities include wi-fi, cable tv, grills, an outdoor pool, a game room, and a pet washing station. With waterfront sites available, you can wake up in the morning and cast your line just feet away from where you slept!

Mountain Country Cabins

With names like “Moonlight Holler,” “Papa Bears Den,” “Owl’s Roost Hideaway,” and “Almost Heaven,” consider booking a cabin through Mountain Country Cabin Rentals to find a vacation cabin that has everything you’re looking for from a small, romantic getaway to a large-group family reunion!

Ultra Star in Murphy NC

Where to Eat and Drink


With locations in downtown Murphy and nearby Hayesville, Chevelles is a motor sports themed restaurant and bar serving up steaks, seafood, chicken, pasta, salads, & desserts. They also have live music.

River Valley Brewery

One of Murphy’s premier craft beer breweries, River Valley offers brick oven pizza, gyros, philly cheese steak sandwich, burgers,fish ,shrimp, salads, soups, appetizers and a great kids menu.

FernCrest Winery

The FernCrest Winery Tasting Room is open in downtown Andrews just over from Murphy. They have created hand-crafted wines using the best grapes from their vineyard and their vineyard partners. They offer wine tastings and wines by the bottle or by the glass. Be sure to sample some of the local cheeses and jams from the menu, and pick up some cool wine merchandise while you’re there.

Murphy’s Chophouse

Treat yourself to a nice evening on the town with some gourmet cuisine, wines and cocktails. World renowned Chef and Owner, James Reaux provides a fine dining approach and a casual comfortable atmosphere.

HoppyTrout Brewing Company

Hoppy Trout Brewing is a newish microbrewery in nearby Andrews. With beer names like Hop Incident, Wicked Weed, Behold the Reaper, Allagash, and Dr. Smores Stout, it’ll be hard to decide which one to try first! Make a meal out of your visit with appetizers, salads, and a mouth-watering hand-made, brick-oven Sicilian Pizza.

Hoppy Trout

Traveling the Appalachian Folkways

Adjacent to the Oconaluftee Village in Cherokee N.C., you can step back in time to learn the history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and the early settlers of the Smoky Mountains. Places like the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill offer a glimpse into early Appalachian life. Early Scotch-Irish, German, and English immigrants settled the area in the mid-1700s, bringing their cultures and influences to the heavily forested, rocky slopes of the NC Great Smoky Mountains.

Mingus Mill

Learn the History of Early Appalachian Life at Mountain Farm Museum

To experience first-hand what life was like for these immigrants, you need to go no farther than the Mountain Farm Museum  just off the Oconaluftee River Trail at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. First, stop by the state-of-the-art Oconaluftee Visitor Center for a free map and the opportunity to ask park rangers questions and hear their insights into the displays. Wander through the exhibits and media presentations, and maybe pick up a souvenir at the gift shop and bookstore. Then step outdoors and through a hundred-plus-year time warp.

Around the 1950s, the numerous buildings at this open-air museum were moved from their original locations within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to their current location, where they can be preserved properly and seen collectively as a living display of the day-to-day activities of early farm life. Explore the authentic barn, smokehouse, spring house, apple house, and working blacksmith shop, all original structures dating back to the 1800s and 1900s. And don’t miss the historical farming and agriculture also happening on site.

Perhaps most fascinating about the museum are the log houses where actual settlers once lived. Pay special attention to the single hardwood log house, The David House, made from local Chestnut trees before a blight that later decimated their population.

Admission to the Mountain Farm Museum is free.

Insider Tip: In the early morning and early evening hours, free-range elk oftentimes can be spotted grazing in the fields next to the Visitor Center. Witness the rebirth of a population that was brought back from the brink of extinction through the successful efforts of local conservationists.

Visit Mingus Mill

A short half-mile north of the Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee Village is Mingus Mill, a historic, water-powered turbine used for grinding corn. Built in 1886, the mill was key to the survival of the immigrants who relied on the resulting cornmeal, especially in the difficult winters. Today, visitors can purchase cornmeal and other mill-related products on site.

It would be remiss to not acknowledge to impact the Cherokee People had on the survival and eventual thriving of the early settlers to these mountains. It is widely recorded that the Scots, especially, and Cherokee had an amiable relationship due to many common aspects of their cultures, including societies organized around kinship and clan instead of land ownership. They both also identified as being fiercely independent people who had been subjected to ruling aggressors. In fact, many of the Scots took Cherokee wives and lived together as one in communities. In large part, it was only through the early intervention and mentorship of the Cherokee People that early immigrants survived the harsh landscape they call home today.

Exploring Trails Near Sacred Waters

There are several other exciting, one-of-a-kind experiences to explore while in the area. The Oconaluftee River Trail, which begins at the Visitor Center, takes you on an easy, 1 ½-mile stroll (each way) to the outskirts of Cherokee, NC. The walking path can even accommodate a baby stroller. Pets and bicycles are also welcome, which is uncommon in this area. The nearby Mingus Creek Trail is a far more challenging adventure along a 5.8-mile-long route with a high degree of difficulty. But you will be well rewarded with stunning views, pristine creeks and fields of wildflowers.

Anglers from around the world also flock to these waters for some extreme Fly Fishing. The Oconaluftee River, considered to be “sacred waters” by the Cherokee and known as the “Luftee,” is a beautiful, freestone river that drops 2,000 feet over 10 miles. It flows through downtown Cherokee and Qualla Boundary, the homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and is most famous for its abundant healthy Rainbow, Brook and Brown Trout. In fact, it holds the North Carolina Record for a Brown Trout weighing in at 15.9 pounds!

When you add some cornmeal from Mingus Mill to your catch of the day (unless, of course, you are catching and releasing,) you will be eating exactly like the hearty immigrants who traveled across the world to start a new life in the Great Smoky Mountains of NC.

For more unique vacation activities while you’re here, visit must-do activities in and around Cherokee, NC.

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Featured image: “Mingus Mill” by Photomatt28 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Top 25 Things To Do in the NC Smoky Mountains

Collage of images showcasing top things to do in the Smoky Mountains of NC

Planning a vacation that delivers on thrills, romance, family fun, and relaxation while exploring unfamiliar cultures and unparalleled adventures? The NC Great Smoky Mountains is your one-stop destination to it all. Here are the Top 25 ideas for your Vacation Bucket List!


Outdoor Adventure

fly fishing in Jackson County
Photo courtesy of Jackson County TDA

1. Discover serious Fly Fishing

There is no end to the adventures you will have fly fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains! Whether you are a first-timer or seasoned pro, angling in our crystalline mountain rivers and streams will become an experience that you will repeat as often as possible.

With your choice of Rainbow, Brown, and Brook Trout, fished from open waters or rocky torrents, either by wading or floating, and either caught and released or served for dinner, no two trips are identical.

2.Experience lake life

Enjoy swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing in our cool, crystalline mountain lakes, like Nantahala Lake and Lake Santeetlah. To really get back to nature, plan a lake-front overnight with a Fontana Lake Camping Trip. 

The 98-mile Waterfall Byway follows Rte. 64 from Rosman to Murphy, NC, with more than 200 waterfalls along the byway. For those worried about having to hike into the forest to see the falls, rest assured there are many falls that can be seen from parking areas.

3. Go Chasing Waterfalls

Yellow Falls in Graham County NCThe 98-mile Waterfall Byway follows Rte. 64 from Rosman to Murphy, NC, with more than 200 waterfalls along the byway. For those worried about having to hike into the forest to see the falls, rest assured there are many falls that can be seen from parking areas.

4.Take a hike

This area of Western North Carolina is synonymous with numerous hiking trails of varying difficulties and unparalleled beauty. Some deliver on a hard workout with knockout views from the apex. Others feature the best places to bird-watch or to surround yourself in a sea of wildflowers. Pick your favorite Hiking Trails and get yourself out into nature.

5. Mountain-bike for YEW!

If your extreme hobby is riding “knobbies,” the NC Great Smoky Mountains is fast becoming your Holy Grail! Some tracks are suitable for families and novices, but, really, this precipitous terrain is the epitome of adrenaline-pumping action that will have you questioning your sanity.

Of special note is the Tsali Recreation Area with its 40 miles of off-road biking at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains is the Mack Daddy of all-terrain riding experiences. Skirting crystal-clear Fontana Lake with 4 loops of hard-packed, single tracks, Tsali Recreation Area delivers on the thrills.

6. Celebrate 50 years of adventure at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC)

NOC’s initial niche of whitewater rafting trips has expanded to over 120 land and river-based activities, including kayaking, ziplining, mountain biking, hiking, canoeing, tubing and international trips. A home for professional adventurers as well as novices, the campus is one of the nation’s premier training sites for elite whitewater athletes, including 23 Olympians and two gold medalists.

elk in the great smoky mountain national park7. Witness the rebirth of the American Elk population

America’s elk population was decimated from over-hunting and loss of habitat in the early 1900’s. Efforts to revitalize the species have slowly paid off and now the numbers of wild elk are beginning to grow. Today, you can view elk in their natural setting in the heart of the Cataloochee Valley where the elk roam freely. They are most often seen in the 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.

8. Experience the Great Smoky Mountains on Horseback

Ride the trails through the national forests of North Carolina atop a strong, majestic horse, and take in the incredible sights, sounds, and smells of nature at a leisurely pace.

9. Go primordial in old-growth forests

One of the best examples is the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forestin Graham County, NC. Widely unknown by most, this forest, part of the Nantahala National Forest, lives under the protective watch of the US Forest Service and has remained untouched by logging and development since 1936. In fact, this land is so shielded from intrusion, all-terrain vehicles and chainsaws are not permitted, even by the forest’s keepers.

Can’t-Miss Adventures

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad steam locomotive10. Hop onboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad

Experience the landscape in motion with gorgeous views of the lovely countryside, charming local towns, mountain rivers, and more as you sit back, relax, and take in the scenery. You can even choose a special train ride with dinner and music!

11. Climb Clingman’s Dome

If it takes a lot to take your breath away, then a visit to Clingman’s Dome is in order. As the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, Clingman’s Dome sits at over 6,600 feet and offers staggering views of the Smokies that can span over 100 miles and across 7 states on a clear day.

12. Drive like a local

The steep windy roads that roll through the Great Smoky Mountains challenge even the best drivers. Out of the Great Depression came a grand vision to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia; that vision became the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway remains a unique American treasure with 469 slowly flowing miles of ridge tops, parks, tunnels, overlooks, and views that are simply unmatched.

13. Cruise like a professional on the Tail of the Dragon

Undiscovered by most casual road-trippers, the “Tail of the Dragon” describes the adrenaline-pumping thoroughfare that has become world famous to those in the know. Motorcyclists and sports car drivers come from all over the world to test their grit on this road with over 300 tight curves spanning a short 11 miles.

Nantahala Falls14. Journey along the Cherahola Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway is a 43-mile National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina in the southeastern United States. This road is perfect for a more relaxing, meandering drive with magnificent vistas.

Taste Your Way Through the Smokies

15. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

The real challenge when you’re traveling is to find the experiences that make a place unique, special, and memorable. The best way to do that is to discover what the locals love best and do as they do. When you’re considering your dining options in the NC Great Smoky Mountains, think traditional Southern Cuisine (cheesy grits and collard greens), BBQ (the North Carolina way), and authentic Cherokee cuisine (“three sisters” – corn, beans, and squash with a side of fry bread.)

16. Sip local wine

Of course, food alone cannot sustain the soul. The NC Great Smoky Mountains boast an honor society of breweries and wineries. A vacation, or staycation, in the Great Smoky Mountains of NC can have you exploring the ridgetops of a mountain after lunch and then sipping a glass of distinctive, locally produced wine by dinner.

For a special experience, spend an afternoon at FernCrest Winery. They grow their own grapes on a small vineyard sloping down the mountain below.  In 2013, they produced their first wines and immediately started winning awards. For your convenience, FernCrest opened a Tasting Room in downtown Andrews, NC where you can sample different wines by the glass or order a bottle of your favorite.

In addition to award-winning wines, FernCrest also sells local cheeses from Yellow Branch Creamery; visitors rave about their Natural Rind Cheese that has been aged for at least 6 months. Pair that with 5-Spice Apple Butter from Garnet Gals Jams or Pineapple Jalapeno Jam from maams HotJam and you have yourself a delicious feast.

17. Drink a local brew or two

The western-most towns of North Carolina along the Tennessee border have become a mecca for beer drinkers. Pull up a stool at Lazy Hiker Brewing and listen to harrowing tales from hikers fresh off the nearby, iconic Appalachian Trail (lots and lots of bears!) Hoppy Trout Brewing Company, located right on the main drag of Andrews, NC in Cherokee County, is another perfect respite after a day of exploring.

Discover Local Culture, Arts, & Craft

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

18. Get cultured

As the home of the Cherokee people, early Scotch Irish settlers and countless generations of self-reliant Appalachian folk, the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina offer many opportunities to encounter the ways of the past.

19. Spend some time at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Visitors are guided visitors through 11,000-years of Cherokee history. Step into the Oconaluftee Indian Village to find yourself standing in a recreated 1700s village. Watch skilled artisans at work making traditional wares, and experience re-enactments and traditional dances.

 20. Behold “Unto These Hills”

The Cherokee story is one that shouldn’t be lost in time. These resilient people brought the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains alive with their spirit and way of life. And “Unto These Hills” keeps their stories alive.

It’s an outstanding outdoor drama that tells the story of who these people were, who they are, and how things came to be. In this 2,100-seat Mountainside Theater in Cherokee, NC, brilliant actors transport the audience into an authentic tale of Cherokee life through acting, singing and dance.

21. Visit the Scottish Tartans Museum and Heritage Center

It’s the only museum of the Scots in the entire country. Located in Franklin, NC since 1994, this museum was established to be a source of “reliable information” on traditional Highlands dress and heritage.

22. Get Crafty

The Smoky Mountains are home and inspiration to hundreds of artists. Across Western North Carolina visitors can find handmade crafts at a number of studios and galleries. Visit the Stecoah Valley Cultural Center, originally an old stone schoolhouse and now a study of the Appalachian arts. You can purchase unique local crafts and artwork and see the mountain music concert series, An Appalachian Evening.

Carmen Haynes/Pine Needles and Things in Brasstown23. Follow the trail

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is also connecting visitors to local cultural resources through a network of craft trails. The initiative is the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, a series of curated driving trails throughout the region featuring 200 craft sites. Travelers can use craft trail itineraries for tips to round out their craft-hunting experiences with nearby foods, breweries, wineries, music, outdoor activities, and scenic views.

24. Find your fortune

With locations in both Cherokee and Murphy, NC, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resorts can be likened to Disney of the Natural World. With Vegas-style games of chance, international dining options, live shows, outdoor adventure, and relaxation and luxury at your fingertips, it will be hard to leave the grounds. Book your stay at Harrah’s today.

25. Pan for precious gems

Take home memories and possibly some valuable stones when you bring your family gem mining in North Carolina. 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.

But, the most important tip for a memorable vacation is to explore the welcoming and unique small towns of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.  Choose activities that take you through the back roads of Waynesville, Maggie Valley, Bryson City, Sylva, Dillsboro, Fontana, Robbinsville, and Franklin, and so many more fascinating and colorful towns where you can catch live music in town pavilions, dine on local cuisine made with fresh local products, and explore charming antique stores. Most importantly, talk to the townspeople at every opportunity. Hear their histories and stories and ask them what’s on their personal Top Twenty-Five List of things to do. You might just discover a secret waterfall or hidden fishing hole that only a local can share with you.

Where to Get Married in the NC Smoky Mountains

If you imagine your dream wedding somewhere romantic with beautiful, scenic views, then look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains! Whether you want a small, intimate gathering or a lavish affair, there are plenty of venues, restaurants, and accommodations to choose from here in the Smokies. Here are some of our favorite wedding venues:


Located in picturesque Andrews, North Carolina, Hawkesdene is the perfect venue no matter the season! This spot has both open and covered spaces to hold your ceremony. Plus, your party will be the only one on the grounds, as they only host one gathering at a time! Hawkesdene also offers a variety of backdrops to hold your ceremony and party, like gorgeous lawns and gardens, the main house, and an open-air pavilion.

The Historic Clay County Courthouse Beal Center

In the charming downtown of Hayesville, NC sits the Historic Clay County Courthouse Beal Center. Recently renovated, this venue is the perfect spot for wedding ceremonies, receptions, and rehearsal dinners! Additionally, the Beal Center offers multiple inclusive wedding packages for you to choose from based on your price point. Find your happily ever after here!

McGuire’s Millrace Farm

Established in 1878, McGuire’s Millrace Farm is located in the beautiful Appalachian Mountain town of Murphy, NC. This historic, private 100+ acre estate is a premier wedding destination during any season! If you’re looking for a rustic yet modernly updated barn to hold your wedding, McGuire’s is the place for you!

Hackney Warehouse wedding venue
The Hackney Warehouse

The Hackney Warehouse

Located in Murphy, NC, The Hackney Warehouse is a gorgeous venue specializing in unique weddings, offering many different inclusive packages for wedding parties. If you love rustic, boho, chic vintage accommodations, the Hackney Warehouse may be the perfect fit for your special day!

The Wedding Venue at Moonlight Spa and Retreat

Surrounded by the stunning backdrop of Sylva, NC, The Wedding Venue at Moonlight Spa and Retreat offers an intimate venue for small wedding parties. The private chapel can hold up to 40 guests, and the Moonlight Arbor, which sits on a grassy hillside that overlooks the Tuckasegee River, is the perfect outdoor wedding setting. This venue offers various wedding day packages and can include rest and relaxation at the onsite spa!

BONUS: Sky Valley Country Club (in nearby Georgia)

Nestled in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, the Sky Valley Country Club in Sky Valley, GA, is a world-class venue for weddings and events! Not only is Sky Valley Country Club surrounded by the beauty of the mountains, but the Clubhouse itself is architecturally marvelous, offering an ambiance of rustic yet refined elegance. This venue provides special packages for weddings, including discounted golfing!

Other Ways to Celebrate Your Special Day in the Great Smoky Mountains

Each delightful town located in the Great Smoky Mountain region of Western North Carolina offers something unique for your wedding party and guests.

Where to Stay

Find accommodations for everyone in your wedding party and all of your guests! There are countless hotels, cottages, and cabins available for everyone involved in your special day!

What to Eat

From local breweries and wineries to exceptional restaurants, there are plenty of dining options here in the Smokies! We especially recommend taking a look at Baxley’s Chocolates for treats on your wedding day!

How to Play

Your weddings guests will have plenty to do when not attending your ceremony! From outdoor excursions to cultural experiences, there is so much to do and see in the Smokies. Make sure you plan to enjoy the unique experiences the area has to offer, too!

Ways To Celebrate Valentine’s Day in the Smokies

Spending time with your loved one in the Great Smoky Mountains is sweet – at Valentine’s Day, or any time of the year! Whether you choose to celebrate in cozy accommodations (think hot tub with a mountain view), or choose to take a romantic hike for two in the beautiful forests of North Carolina, you’re sure to have a lovely date with your sweetheart!

Couple in the Smoky Mountains

Fall in Love with the Smoky Mountains

There’s nothing more romantic than spending time together in the great outdoors! Plus, you don’t need reservations to enjoy the hundreds of hiking trails and waterfalls found throughout the North Carolina Smokies.

  • Observe unobstructed panoramic views from sunrise to sunset – perhaps the perfect spot for a proposal!
  • Hike to some of our most famous waterfalls, but take care not to climb up on the wet/frozen rocks!
  • Indian Creek Falls is an easy one-mile hike from Deep Creek Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that brings you to a gorgeous 60-foot waterfall.
  • Mingo Falls is a 200-foot scenic waterfall; only a five-minute walk from the Mingo Falls Campground on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
  • Whitewater Falls is a 411-foot wonder, the highest waterfall in the Eastern US!
  • Need more ideas? Take a look at some of the best hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains here.

For the snowbirds out there that love excitement and adventure, take to the slopes!

  • Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center offers 2-3 ski slopes, plus ice-skating, tubing, and dry tubing.
  • Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley offers 18 slopes for a variety of levels. With elevations of 5,400, Cataloochee has some of the best views from the top!


Where to Take Your Date in the Smokies

From Harrah’s Casinos to museums and cultural experiences, there is no shortage of things to do with your sweetheart here in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Head to local galleries and museums to discover incredible artwork by regional artists!


Get a Little More Cozy

Winter in the Great Smoky Mountains is pretty spectacular, both inside and out! There are so many ways to stay cozy, warm, and relaxed with your loved one!

  • Plan a spa date for the ultimate relaxation for two. Be sure to book in advance! Find out more about the spa options here!
  • This Valentine’s Day, book a small cabin for an intimate retreat. Many options here feature decks to enjoy the mountain scenery, hot tubs, fireplaces, and plenty of privacy. You can find our cabin rental recommendations here!

Valentine’s Day will be here before you know it! Start planning your romantic Smoky Mountain getaway today!

A Winter Escape to Highlands

Ice Skating in Highlands, NC

If you’re looking to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the season – from work, responsibilities, and tackling never-ending to-do lists – then a winter getaway to Highlands, North Carolina, is exactly what you need.

Things To Do In Highlands During The Winter

In Highlands, you can ice-skate on Main Street, snow-tube down Scaly Mountain, and even walk underneath a waterfall! Sure, the temperatures are a little cooler in the winter, but get outside anyway! There’s so much to do, see, and experience in this area – and the winter views around the mountains are phenomenal!


Western North Carolina is home to thousands and thousands of miles of hiking trails – and some of the best winter hikes can be found in Highlands!

  • Whiteside Mountain is a moderate two-mile loop that offers incredible views from the top of the mountain.
  • For those that want a more difficult journey, the Bartram Trail to Osage Overlook is two miles one way that offers spectacular views of Blue Valley to the South and Tessentee Valley to the North.
  • Sunset Rock is located right off of Main Street in Highlands, and it is a moderate 0.7-mile (one way) hike. At the top, you can enjoy gorgeous sunsets from the natural cliff-side amphitheater.
Dry Falls in Highlands, NC
Dry Falls. Photo by Greg Newington and Courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.


Did you know that Highlands is a national waterfall destination? Here are a few that you must check out when you visit.

  • Dry Falls is the waterfall you can walk behind! Flowing from the Cullasaja River through the Nantahala National Forest, Dry Falls flows over an overhanging bluff, allowing visitors to follow the trail behind the waterfall without getting wet.
  • Bridal Veil Falls is an unusual and highly popular 120-foot waterfall. When you visit in the winter, you may see the waterfall frozen at the base!
  • Silver Run Falls is a 30-foot waterfall that pours into a pool, making it a popular destination on warm days. In the winter, it is still a sight to behold!
snow tubing in Highlands
Photo by Greg Newington and Courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.

Snow Tubing

Scaly Mountain Outdoor Center offers excitement in the form of snow tubing! Snow is provided by both mother nature and on-site equipment, so any time the temperature is below 35º, you’re sure to have an absolute blast!

Ice Skating

Highlands offers an ice rink right on Main Street – an easy walk from any of the downtown hotels. You can rent skates for a fun, holiday-themed adventure!

Winter and holiday shopping in Highlands NC
Photo courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.


Quaint shops line both sides of Main Street, and you can find everything from clothing for the whole family to home decor. Check out antique shops to find a one-of-a-kind treasure to take home and remember your trip by!

No matter what type of adventure you are looking for, when you visit Highlands in the winter, you’re sure to find exactly what you need to escape “real life” and immerse yourself in nature and a picturesque, small-town atmosphere.


Header photo by Cynthia Strain and Courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.

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

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.

Discover Handmade Craft in the NC Smokies

Carmen Haynes/Pine Needles and Things in Brasstown

The Smoky Mountains are home and inspiration to hundreds of artists. Across Western North Carolina visitors can find handmade crafts at a number of studios and galleries, and now the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is connecting visitors to these cultural resources through a network of craft trails.

The initiative is called the Blue Ridge Craft Trails, a series of curated driving trails throughout the region featuring 200 craft sites. Travelers can use craft trail itineraries for tips to round out their craft-hunting experiences with nearby foods, breweries, wineries, music, outdoor activities, and scenic views.

Handmade Craft in the Smoky Mountains

The Craft Trails highlight artists across a wide variety of mediums including ceramic arts, weaving, glass blowing, jewelry making, bead work, and fabric arts. All crafts featured are handmade by artists who live in Western North Carolina.

Travel Along the Blue Ridge Craft Trails

Weaving at John C. Campbell Folk School
Photo courtesy of John C. Campbell Folk School.

Information on the Craft Trails can be found on the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area’s website. It includes filters to help you explore the craft mediums that interest you the most, or you can see all of the craft opportunities in a given region or town. New towns and experiences are being added to the trails system and by 2021 it will connect 25 counties that make up Western North Carolina.

Here are some curated itineraries to get you started.

About the Blue Ridge Heritage Area

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, designated by Congress in November 2003, works to protect, preserve, interpret, and develop the unique natural, historical, and cultural resources of Western North Carolina for the benefit of present and future generations. National Heritage Areas  encourage residents, non-profit groups, government agencies, and private partners to work together in planning and implementing programs that preserve and celebrate America’s defining landscapes.

Look here for other arts and crafts adventures in the Smoky Mountains.

Featured image: Joe Waldroup Woodworks in Hayesville.

Top image: Carmen Haynes at Pine Needles and Things in Brasstown.

The Friendliest Stop Along the Appalachian Trail – Be a Lazy Hiker Awhile!

Although Franklin sparkles with its gems, I was impressed to see the way this town cares for the dirty and grungy (and I mean that in the best possible way!). You see, Franklin sits just 10 miles off the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail that hundreds hike through from Maine to Georgia each year. It was the first town designated as an A.T. Community, and hikers are treated with admiration and respect at the local shops, churches, and restaurants, and the town even offers a shuttle service from the trail into town.
The vibes that the A.T. adds to this town make it so unique. Downtown offers Rockin Rollie Pollie’s eatery and Lazy Hiker Brewery where stories are swapped with thru-hikers about what’s going on in ‘civilization’ and what’s going on along the trail. I enjoyed my own short hike intersecting with the A.T. at Wayah Bald Lookout Tower. I took the advice of others and went at sunset for a 360-degree view of pristine mountains and lakes from the top of a restored fire-tower that was originally built by the CCC in 1937.