Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Mary Anne Baker

 

There are few places that quite literally have it all, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tops the list. Whether you are honeymooners seeking a secluded cabin, families on a quest to see cool animals, a retiree whose idea of heaven is a day of trout fishing, or an adrenaline junkie looking for the next rush, the answer is “Yes, we have that!”

In 1934, the government preserved 800 square miles of this enchanted land and called it the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, visitors from across the globe come to enjoy the park’s 700 miles of rivers and streams, 800 miles of hiking trails, 200,000 acres of virgin forests and a protected environment for plants and animals once in danger of extinction.

Many visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park find there just aren’t enough vacation days to do everything on your wish list. So here are some ideas to help you narrow down the choices for your ideal vacation.

Natural Wonders

Dry Falls in Highlands, NC
Dry Falls. Photo by Greg Newington and Courtesy of Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Visit Highlands, NC.

The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Visit Western North Carolina’s version of giant trees in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Park. Named in honor of the American poet best known for his poem “Trees,” the forest’s Yellow Poplars (also called Tulip Poplars) are over 20 feet in circumference, 100 feet tall and some can be 450 years old.

Read more about The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest here.

Clingman’s Dome

If it takes a lot to take your breath away, 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 on a clear day. The half-mile climb from the parking lot to the observation tower is extremely steep and also guaranteed to take your breath away.

Insider Tip: The temperature can be 10 to 20 degrees F cooler at the top, so layer well and carry a light jacket even in the summer.

Learn more about Clingman’s Dome and Other Natural Vistas.

Explore a World of Waterfalls

Discover beautiful, towering waterfalls throughout the NC Smokies. Most waterfalls can be paired with a hike, although some can be found along the roadside for easy viewing. The Waterfall Byway is a scenic drive that connects you to more than 200 waterfalls in a day. No matter where you travel in the Smokies you’ll be able to find a waterfall nearby.

Learn more about area waterfalls.

Culture and History

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

Visit Cherokee

Just prior to the U.S. government moving 14,000 members of the Cherokee Nation off their land in the North American southeast to Arkansas and Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears”, a small band of Cherokees were given permission to remain in Western North Carolina. Known as the Oconaluftee Cherokee, they were recognized as separate from the rest of the Cherokee Nation. Together with individuals who successfully hid in the mountains to avoid capture and removal, this band became known as the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

With a sovereign reservation that spreads through five western North Carolina counties, plan to spend a whole day discovering their unique heritage. The residents welcome visitors and are eager to share their stories and tradecraft. In fact, a large part of their economy relies on tourism, including hotels, casinos, shops and restaurants and they are waiting to meet you.

Learn more at Things To See and Do in Cherokee.

Gem Mining

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a rich history of prospecting and mining. There is evidence that North Carolina’s earliest residents known as “Ancients” were mining as far back as 2000 years ago and the Cherokee have been mining since 1744. In 1839, North Carolina carried out the nation’s first geological and mineralogical survey and soon non-Native Americans started mining in the 1850s.

You, too, can mine for genuine rubies, sapphires, topaz, amethysts, and emeralds at one of the Great Smoky Mountains mining companies in North Carolina. There is a variety of ways to dig for your treasure, including hands-on sifting with a screen box and a long trough of running water or hedging your bet with a “seeded” or “enriched” bucket, guaranteed to find that one-of-a-kind souvenir.

Learn more about Where To Gem Mine.

Wildlife

elk in great smoky mountains national park

Viewing Wildlife

For the best advice to enjoy our wildlife safely, Park Rangers encourage you to use binoculars, spotting scopes, or cameras with telephoto lenses. Feeding, touching, disturbing, and willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet), or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife, are illegal in the park.

However, occasionally you will cross paths unexpectantly with our abundant wildlife. If approached by an animal, you should slowly back away to put distance between the animal and yourself, creating space for them to pass. Sometimes encounters happen as a result of having your dog off leash, so that is never a good idea. You can expect to see elk, white-tail deer and black bears during your visit. It doesn’t get much more thrilling than that!

To increase your chances of spotting the once-almost-extinct and majestic elk, visit the heart of the Cataloochee Valley where elk roam the open fields. The elk are most often seen in morning and late afternoon, so plan accordingly.

Learn more about Elk Viewing and Viewing Wildlife Advice from the Park Service.

Fly Fishing

With over 2,900 miles of streams, the Great Smoky Mountain Park offers the best in fly fishing with at-capacity rivulets chock full of trout and cool-water, small-mouth bass. Fishing is permitted year-round in the Park from 30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset. The Park allows fishing in all streams; however, you should come prepared. Non-residents need to get your license before you arrive. Short-term, annual and lifetime fishing licenses are available for purchase from NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

Insider tip: A separate license is required to fish on the waters owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. You can order your license online or at one of many stores in Cherokee.

One-Of-A-Kind Drives

motorcyling in the nc smoky mountains

The Blue Ridge Parkway

Out of the Great Depression came a great vision to connect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.  That vision became the Blue Ridge Parkway.  A part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Blue Ridge Parkway paved a new future for the South, disproportionately affected by the Depression.

Today, over 75 years later, the Parkway remains a unique American treasure we can all enjoy – 469 slowly flowing miles of ridge tops, parks, tunnels, overlooks and views that are simply unmatched.

Learn more about The Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Indian Lake Scenic Byway and The Tail of the Dragon

The Great Smoky Mountains are synonymous with adventure, even when your plan for the day is a serene drive along the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway in Western North Carolina. Close to the Tennessee border, this 75-mile trip takes about 2 hours to complete, not including stops. The Byway creates a partial loop, running from Almond to Tapoca on NC 28 and then from Tapoca to Topton on US 129. It travels through the heart of the Nantahala Gorge and past the magnificent Fontana Lake and Lake Santeetlah, eventually landing you in the small town of Robbinsville, NC. Along the way, you will be charmed by the local artist community and delightful dining options, but your drive begins with heart-pounding excitement.

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. But more than just a challenging drive, the scenery lining the Tail of the Dragon is untouched by man. It is from this glorious road that the Indian Lakes Scenic Byway begins in Almond, NC.

For more information about  Visiting and Dining on the Indian Lake Scenic Byway

Outdoor Adventures

rafting the rapids on the Nantahala

From White-Water Rafting and Tubing to Mountain Biking and Ziplining, you Adrenaline Junkies will find your biggest rush in the outdoor adventure-land that is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are also plenty of outdoor activities for those of you wanting to just get out and enjoy nature on a beautiful hike or a relaxing boat ride. If you can dream it, chances are excellent that we will say, “Yes, we can do that!”

For more information, visit Outdoor Adventures.

Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open 365 days a year and entrance to the park is free of charge.  This beautiful park has over 800 miles of hiking trails, plus camping, fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and auto touring are also popular activities.

When traveling in the Smoky Mountains, do NOT trust your GPS or navigation system.  Please see below for park maps and directions.  For more information about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit www.nps.gov/grsm or select a link below: