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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

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.