8 First Timer Must Do, Must See Sites in The Great Smoky Mountains

Fall colors in the Smoky Mountains

If you are heading to the Great Smoky Mountains for the first time, here are our stops for Smoky Mountain visitors: our not-to-be missed sites and things to do!

The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the blue-like smoky mist that surrounds them. These beautiful peaks make a picturesque backdrop for Pigeon Forge. In the Smoky Mountains, discover 500,000 acres of Southern Appalachian wilderness on one of the oldest uplands on earth! The mountains are 95-percent forest and home to diverse wildlife. Uncover breathtaking streams, waterfalls and flowering plants.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park stretches across more than 800 square miles of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The Park is home to amazing wildlife, breathtaking views all year long and some of the oldest mountains in the world.

hiking trails for seniors in the Smoky Mountains

1. Sugarlands Visitor Center

The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the perfect place to start your first journey into the park. You can pick up a map of the park, ask the rangers any questions you might have or check out some of the exhibits that are on display throughout the visitor center. There’s also a 20-minute movie about the park that you can watch for free. If you miss this stop before you explore the park, stop by after to visit the gift shop and pick up a souvenir.

2. Clingman’s Cove

The Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States. The crest of the Great Smokies runs in an unbroken chain of peaks that rise more than 5,000 feet for more than 36 miles. Elevations in the park range from 876 to 6,643 feet – at Clingman’s Dome, which we’ll talk about below.

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher.

“The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days, views expand more than 100 miles.” This is one of many reasons we name it #2 on our list of stops for Smoky Mountain visitors.

There’s a Webcam too! Located at high elevation on the eastern end on the park, the Clingmans Dome webcam offers views to the west.

3. SkyBridge

Number 3 on our list of stops for Smoky Mountain visitors: Billed as North America’s largest pedestrian suspension bridge – Sky Bridge is 680 feet from tower to tower. There are long-term plans for some attractions on the other side, but for now, the bridge in Gatlinburg is an experience all its own – with fantastic views.

To get to the Sky Bridge, take the Skylift up to Skylift park. The lift takes visitors up and down the mountain for spectacular 360-degree views. Visitors get off at the new Skydeck, where they can sit outside, buy a beer and do some shopping.

The SkyCenter at the SkyDeck on Crockett Mountain, overlooking Gatlinburg offers up “sweeping panoramic views” of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

4. Pancakes

Oh boy, do we love pancakes in the Smokies, and there is no shortage of places to get the sweet, fluffy breakfast cake – most any time of day, which is why this is number 4.

Atrium Pancakes, 432 Parkway, Gatlinburg, serves a baked apple pancake that is truly different. They also serve Caribbean pancakes with bananas and coconut – and much more!

Log Cabin Pancake House327 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, has 12 kinds of pancakes plus seven kinds of Crepes (French pancakes)! From old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes to wild blueberry pancakes; butterscotch chip pancakes to pigs in a blanket; and blackberry crepes to peach crepes, Log Cabin Pancake House has many flavors to offer in the restaurant with the wagon on top.

A stack of pancakes with a pat of butter on top, sitting on a white plate and a red and white tablecloth.

Pancake Pantry, 628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, was Tennessee’s first pancake house when it opened in 1960. Located in a hard-to-miss building with a majestic slate roof, gables and large windows, the pancake house continues to make everything from scratch. With 26 pancake and crepe choices on the uniquely designed menu, it could take you a while to decide! There are sweet potato pancakes, corn meal pancakes, pecan pancakes and sugar and spice pancakes among the options.

Little House of Pancakes, 807 E. Parkway, Gatlinburg, serves “all you can eat” pancakes for $8.25. They are served with whipped butter and homemade hot syrup. Fillings or toppings may be added for a charge – and there are many to choose from – strawberry, blackberry, blueberry, pecan, peach, apple, cherry, banana, chocolate chip … YUM!

Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin has three locations in Gatlinburg alone: 146 Parkway before Traffic Light 1; 956 Parkway after traffic light 8; and 478 E. Parkway, highway 321 before traffic light 1A.

Flapjack’s is home of the sticky bun pancake – Cinnamon swirled pancakes, blended with pecans and topped with cream cheese icing. Also on the menu are Reese’s peanut butter pancakes and cinnamon harvest pancakes. And of course, traditional buttermilk pancakes plane or with toppings!

5. Cades Cove


Coming in at number 5 on our list of stops for Smoky Mountain visitors, Cades Cove is a favorite destination for many people visiting the Smokies.  In fact, if Cades Cove was its own National Park, it would be the third most visited national park in the country! With more than 11 million people coming through the Smokies each year, and nearly 4 million of them choose a trip to Cades Cove. Here are six reasons YOU should visit Cades Cove on your next Smoky Mountain vacation.

The 11-mile, one-way road through Cades Cove makes a scenic drive through an amazing valley.  If you need to stretch your legs a bit more though, there’s no shortage of hiking trails! If you’re looking for something short and gentle for all ages in the family, check out the Cades Cove Nature Trail. This 0.8 mile walk is a loop hike gaining only 210’ in elevation.  Pass over creeks through the dense forest and get a new appreciation for the valley. For more information about Cades Cove, check out this blog before you plan your next visit: https://patriotgetaways.com/blog/6-reasons-you-should-visit-cades-cove/

6. Take a Scenic Drive

What a great way to see The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the stunning natural beauty, the cold and flowing waterfalls, and the chance to conserve natural resources! Created in 1934, this park was created with auto touring in mind, which makes this number 6.

scenic drive

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a gem of the Smokies. This road is 5.5 miles long and a one-way looped, narrowing road. You’ll notice you’re driving through the quieter time of days past when you see all the well-preserved vintage cabins and grist mills. They’re quiet snippets of history. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is open April through November.

Upper Tremont is a hidden gem. It is the road away from it all, offering you a peaceful drive. You’ll know from the gravel path that it’s the road less taken by tourists. Upper Tremont Road can be found near Wears Valley, on your way to Cades Cove.  It’s another scenic drive that allows you to really enjoy the wonders of mother nature and avoid crowds in the Smokies. This is especially true during the fall season. If you want to get out and experience the area, that option is available, too. Be sure to pick up the self-guided auto tour booklet from the start of the road.  Stop at all the waypoints and learn the rich and varied history of Tremont.

On the Upper Tremont Road, you will find several hiking trails to choose from: waterfalls, rivers, and tree-shaded parking areas. For more scenic drives, check out our blog post.

7. The Island

The Island in Pigeon Forge is filled with fun adventures as well as great shopping and happens to be number 8 on our list of stops for Smoky Mountain visitors.

For play, there’s The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel – towering at 200-feet. The wheel stands as one of the tallest attractions in the Southeast. The wheel gives riders an “an unparalleled view of the world-famous Smoky Mountains in comfortable, all-glass gondolas that seat up to 8 guests.”

More fun comes in the form of the Island Rope Course called Sky Trail Explorer Ropes Course – a three-story adventure experience with thirty different elements, two zip lines, and one simulated free fall. There’s also the Spinning Parrots Coaster and a carousel.

For those who want to stay on the ground, you can pan for gold at Island Miner’s Gems.  Then, get lost and a little woozy in the Island Mirror Maze. Compete in bumper cars, dress up for old-time photos and a lot more.

While you’re there, sit in a sweet rocking chair and watch the dancing fountain – coordinated to music all day and night.

Find The Island at 131 The Island Drive, Pigeon Forge.

8. See a Show

Dolly's Stampede

Finally, at number 8 is the arts. Among the fabulous fun in the Great Smoky Mountains towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg: dinner theaters. Singing, dancing, pirates, fights, comedy, and live animals of all sorts including buffalo, long-horn cows, piglets and horses. All while you and your family enjoy marvelous, tasty southern, home-cookin’-style meals.

Dinner theaters are some of the most family fun you can have during your mountain cabin vacation, and among the favorites are those operated by the Dolly Parton family of businesses. American Patriot Getaways has discount tickets and amazing cabins nearby for your trip.

Dolly Parton’s Stampede , Comedy Barn, Hatfield & McCoy and Smoky Mountain Opry and Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show have adventures and fun for the entire family and are located right on the Parkway.

The Stampede is located at 3849 Parkway in Pigeon Forge. (865) 453-4400.

Billed as “clean fun,” the Comedy Barn Theater is another fun-for-the-whole-family show. From Hee Haw-type skits to clogging, juggling, lots of music, animal antics, the comedy barn offers silliness for all.

Located at 2775 Parkway in Pigeon Forge. (865) 428-5222.

Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud

An all you can eat family-dinner adventure, Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud puts visitors in the middle of the longest running feud in history. Visitors are asked to help the Hatfields and McCoys try to settle their differences mountain-style.

Singing and dancing, “mighty feats of strength, jaw dropping stunts and side-splitting comedy” are all part of the fun. How about a good ol’ fashioned hoedown!

Find the theater off the Parkway at 119 Music Rd., Pigeon Forge, (800) 985 5494.

Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show

Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show is open now and filled with swashbuckling fun!

Here, you’ll join “the most famous pirate, Blackbeard, and his quarter master, Calico Jack, as they lead the Crimson and Sapphire crews in a battle on land, on deck, in water and high above full-sized pirate ships in an indoor hideaway lagoon.”

There are mermaids, tropical birds, and much more all while you enjoy a four-course feast that includes Buccaneer Biscuits, Voyager Creamy Vegetable Soup, Cracklin’ Pan-Fried Chicken, Bone-in Pork Chop, Matey’s Mac ‘n’ Cheese, Jolly Roger Sweet Potato Souffle, Walk the Plank Peach Turnover, Unlimited Coca-Cola, Tea or Coffee.

Read more about the local dinner theaters through our recent blog post.

Ready to book your adventure in the Smoky Mountains?

Black Bears and Biscuits Lodge - A Cabin in Wears Valley

Give American Patriot Getaways a call at 800-204-5169. Let our experts help you find the right cabin and all the right fun, food and entertainment for a vacation with spectacular mountain views.

Check out our Smoky Mountain Travel Guide for more adventures. We have discount tickets to many attractions in the area. You can also contact us online by searching our cabins in Gatlinburg and in Pigeon Forge.  Check out our Pinterest boards for 50% Off Cabins and budget-friendly vacation cabins.

If you need more help planning your Smoky Mountain Vacation, be sure to check out all our vacation guides, and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Instagram!

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