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10 Amazing places to visit near Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited National Park. This perhaps unexpected champion extends for roughly 520,000 acres at the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Dreamy waterfalls, wooded trails, mountain peaks, valleys, and diverse plant and animal life define the landscape.

The word “Smoky” in its name comes from the storybook-like low-hanging mist that hugs the rolling tree-covered mountains, especially in the early morning. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of stunning adventures in and near the park to check out. 

Aside from outdoor recreation opportunities, the park's proximity to major cities in North Carolina and Tennessee means plenty of restaurants and attractions to explore in the area. Looking for ideas? Here are some suggestions for places to check out on your way in or out of the park.

1. Grotto Falls

Two people stand behind a wispy waterfall topped with greenery and surrounded by rocks.
Photo: Seth Berry

Distance: 1.83 miles
Elevation gain: 585 ft
Type: Out-and-back

The hike to Grotto Falls in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a magical spot when it buds with beautiful wildflowers during Spring. The falls are about 25 feet tall and are centered in an oasis of greenery. Visitors can walk behind the falls, which makes for a fun photo opportunity! Though a short hike, there are about four stream crossings, so be prepared with appropriate footwear.

2. Clingmans Dome

Evergreen trees fill the foreground and greenery-covered mountains fill the background. The clouds are low and grey.
Photo: Cassidy Gardner

Distance: 1.23 miles
Elevation gain: 330 ft
Type: Out-and-back

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and offers panoramic views of the Smokies and beyond. While driving to the trailhead, you’ll be mesmerized by the views of valleys and mountain ridges for as far as the eye can see. 

The trail will get your blood pumping and heart beating on the steep sections, but the 360-degree views at the top are worth it. Sunrises here are known to be spectacular, so wake up early to greet the sun and beat out the crowds on this more popular adventure!

3. RosaBees

Looking down at a bowl of ramen with a spoon and chopsticks resting on the edge.
Photo: RosaBees

Asheville, North Carolina, is a hub of lip-smacking, diverse food. If you’re looking for a new dining experience, try the savory and sweet Hawaiian cuisine at RosaBees. This Polynesian joint in a warehouse-style space serves delectable menu items, including lumpia (crispy Filipino spring rolls), spicy shrimp udon, adobo wings, and ube haupia pie. 

4. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

A wide river featuring a lot of rocks and whitewater flows through a forest.
Photo: Elyse Clark

Distance: 5.83 miles
Elevation gain: 1200 ft
Type: Point-to-point

If you need a day of rest but still want to take in the grandiose beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, this scenic drive is a go-to. This one-way road is only open to cars (no trucks or RVs) and will take you past access points for three waterfalls. Be prepared to walk if you want to explore these cascades.

Towards the end of the drive, stop at Place of a Thousand Drips, a waterfall that can be seen from the car. Aside from noteworthy natural attractions, there are also historic cabins among the gorgeous greenery along the way that’ll make you want to stop and look around.

Note: Check for seasonal closures before making the trip

5. Mt. LeConte via Alum Cave Trail

A rocky wall fills this image and a tiny person is standing near the bottom.
Photo: Jess Fischer

Distance: 10.68 miles
Elevation gain: 3982 ft
Type: Out-and-back

In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Mt. LeConte is the third-highest peak in the Smokies. This adventure features panoramic views of the mountainous terrain, making it one of the more popular hikes in the park. Get a head start in the early morning to avoid the crowds. 

The trail begins by winding beside Alum Cave Creek before reaching Arch Rock, where you’ll climb a stone staircase through the rock! Further along, you’ll arrive at Alum Cave (actually a big bluff). The final stretch to the summit will take you through a forest with steeper sections. Hold on to the steel cables bolted into the rock while on parts of the route that are exposed ridges. 

Take your time and extend your stay by making an overnight reservation at the LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S., boasting spectacular views of the vast landscape.

6. Yee Haw Brewing

Two hands clink beer glasses with the label
Photo: Yee Haw Brewing

The Yee Haw Brewing company started in Johnson City, TN, in 2015, but has since opened up in several locations, including Pigeon Forge. Stop in and try the nine original beers on tap for a cold, refreshing treat, which feels especially rewarding after a day of hiking or walking around this cute town.

Pigeon Forge is also home to Dollywood, an Appalachian-themed amusement park honoring Dolly Parton, a country music icon. Visiting shops, restaurants, rides, and country music venues in the area will keep you and your whole family busy all day!

7. Whitewater Rafting the Pigeon River

A group of paddlers in yellow helmets paddle a yellow raft through a huge whitewater set.
Photo: Lucas Bremer

More of a water enthusiast? For an adrenaline-pumping outing, try whitewater rafting along the Pigeon River, a dam-controlled river gaining fame among whitewater enthusiasts. It’s located outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and runs through North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. 

The river flows through sections of Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests, wrapping you in undeniable natural beauty. The upper portion of the Pigeon River is better suited for more experienced paddlers as there are miles of Class II-III+ rapids.

8. Deep Creek Loop

A river with whitewater flows through trees.
Photo: Brian Whitener

Distance: 5.01 miles
Elevation gain: 892 ft
Type: Loop

The Deep Creek area in Bryson City, North Carolina, is known for its free-flowing streams and waterfalls. Along this loop hike, you’ll encounter three waterfalls and a peaceful stream. Beyond this loop, there are great opportunities for horseback riding, fly fishing, camping, and even bicycling (Deep Creek and Indian Creek trails) in the area. 

On hot summer days, you can rent a tube nearby and cool off by floating down the lower half of the river. To take full advantage of these great recreational opportunities, stay a night or two at the Deep Creek Campground, open from early April until late October and featuring picnic areas and restrooms.

9. Cataloochee Valley

Two deer-like animals butt heads in a grassy area. There is a forest and an additional ungulate behind them.
Photo: Caleb Adcock

In 1910, roughly 1,200 people made their homes and lived in Cataloochee Valley, but few remained after the national park was established in 1934. Today, the area known as Waynesville hosts preserved churches, barns, homes, and schools of former residents.

With a high likelihood of encountering no crowds, you’ll have a lot of freedom to take your time exploring the old structures, but be respectful of these pieces of history. This area is also known for its abundant elk population, so be on the lookout for wildlife! The drive to Cataloochee is twisting and winding, and there’s no shortage of outstanding scenery.

10. Delauder’s BBQ

A from-above view of a white plate set on a checkered table cloth. The plate hosts various meats, greens, and eggs.
Photo: Delauder's BBQ

This rave-worthy Gatlinburg, Tennessee, spot serves Southern comfort food. (Think smoked meats, pulled pork, brisket, and ribs.) And remember to save room for sides of coleslaw, potato salad, fried mac n cheese, baked beans, and collard greens (among others!). The venue is casual, with tables adorned with checkered tablecloths. You’ll leave satisfied after enjoying tender meats and mouthfuls of flavor with each bite. And after a long day of exploring, it’s sure to hit the spot!

Cover Photo: Toney Smith

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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