Gatlinburg

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country – and for good reason!

At 816 square miles, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a lot to offer. And Gatlinburg, Tennessee is nestled right next to the park.

So if you’re staying in Gatlinburg for at least a day, you need to check out this national park.

But what’s inside the park that’s so great? What is there to do?  Well, read on and we’ll help you out.

1. Hike To The LeConte Lodge

Mt. LeConte is not for the faint of heart.

The famous LeConte Lodge sits on Mt. LeConte. This mountain touches the sky at 6,595 feet.

It’s the third highest mountain in the park and it overshadows Gatlinburg by more than a vertical mile.

The lodge itself was built in a beautiful glade in 1926. And it’s only accessible by hiking.

It was a tent camp for a year before being built. Guide and outdoorsman Paul Adams hosted hikers at his camp and was an advocate of the park’s establishment as a National Park.

Jack Huff replaced Adams in 1926. He built the lodge in place of the camp and lived there for 35 years with his family.

Once you reach the lodge, you can sit and rest on the porch and enjoy the views.

This lodge is rustic. And you can actually stay there if you want. Just make sure you make your reservations far in advance!

If you are in need of a snack or emergency supplies when you reach the top, you can purchase those at their gift shop.  Remember, it takes a full day to visit LeConte Lodge!

2. Ride The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

If you’re looking to see some of the mountains without having to hike, consider the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

Your ride begins in Bryson City (about an hour and a half from Gatlinburg) and runs through the Carolina Mountains.

Their several trains ride along 53 miles of track and cross 25 bridges.

You can take a short 3.5-hour trip, or you can tour all day on the train.

The Nantahala Gorge Excursion will take you on a 44 mile, 4.5 hour trip along the Tennessee and Nantahala rivers.  You may even spot scores of whitewater rafters and kayakers during the ride.

You stop for an hour at the famous Nantahala Outdoor Center and then return to Bryson City.

When you go on an excursion, you can choose from various seating options and amenities for the ride.

The Tuckasegee River Excursion is a little shorter at 32 miles round trip. It takes you along the river through meadows and rail towns of yore.

If you need a claim to fame, you can say you rode through the set of the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive.

3. Drive Newfound Gap Road From Gatlinburg

You’ll start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg and make your way to Cherokee, North Carolina.

It’s a 31 mile stretch of road.  You get to travel straight through the park’s center and see all of the grand mountains around you.

Your car will help you climb the mountains approximately 3,000 feet and you’ll pass sights such as the historic Mingus Mill and the state line at Newfound Gap.

Stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Mountain Farm Museum at mile marker 30.3  This is one of the best places to see elk in the Smokies, so get your camera ready!

Stretch your legs and stroll the Smokemont Nature Trail at marker 27.2. Or you can get some incredible photos of the largest undeveloped tract of wilderness left on the east coast at Swinging Bridge Overlook.

It will be cooler up top on this road. So bring a sweater even in the summer.

The temperature can vary as much as ten degrees.

You can also drive this road to Clingman’s Dome, which we’ll talk about next.

5. Climb Clingman’s Dome

Chris Light [CC BY-SA] from Wikimedia Commons
If you’re not too afraid of heights or want to conquer your fear of heights, Clingman’s Dome is here near Gatlinburg waiting for you.

It’s the highest point in Tennessee and third tallest east of the Mississippi.

It’s 6,643 feet tall. And it’s a popular walk in the area.

To get there, take Newfound Gap Road.  Once you see Newfound Gap, approximately 18 miles from Gatlinburg, turn right on Clingman’s Dome Road.

The road is the highest road east of the Mississippi and offers plenty of views for those who might not want to walk to the Dome once you get there.

And there are a few places to sit and a visitors center if some of your party want to stay at the base of the dome.

The walk to the summit is only half a mile. And there is an observation tower at the summit for 360-degree views.  On a good day, visibility is more than 100 miles in any direction!

The trail is paved for wheelchairs and stroller accessibility. Just be aware the trail is steeper than many are used to, and may be too steep for some electric scooters. But don’t worry. There are plenty of places to catch your breath along the way.

If you feel like hiking further, you can take the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrew’s Bald, The Appalachian Trail (yes, the famous one crosses here: It’s the highest point on the trail), or the Noland Divide Trail.

Get there early. It’s a popular destination.

The temperatures at the summit can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg. You never know what the weather will be like there. So bring a light jacket or sweater and water when you go up.

6. Visit The Sinks

You’ll find The Sinks along Little River Road, and it’s a scenic drive.

If you want to get there from Gatlinburg, just drive into the park. After passing the Sugarlands Visitor Center, turn right on Little River Road. It’s about 12 miles west after that.

Here you’ll find a waterfall and some deep pools formed by the river’s former logging past. The pools were created from dynamite, which loggers used to break up large log jams in the river.

Massive boulders sit along the river, and you can climb among them and stretch your legs a little.

It’s strongly recommended you do not try to swim here. It can be incredibly dangerous at times.

But it is a great place to stop and picnic and enjoy the views.

Again, like Clingman’s Dome, this spot is popular for hanging out and picnicking. So, if you plan on spending time there, we recommend you get there early to find a spot.

7. Return To Your Gatlinburg Cabin To Enjoy The Fireflies

Fireflies and lupine
Mike Lewinski from Tres Piedras, NM, United States [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Gatlinburg and The Smoky Mountain National Park are known for their fireflies.

There are 19 different species found in the national park alone!

So, if you’ve had a long day of hiking or chilling by the river or riding a train, get back to your cabin for a drink and a relaxing dinner.

If you enjoyed reading this, be sure to check out our other vacation guides for plenty of local tips to get the most from your Smoky Mountain vacation!

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