Park Activities

Hit the trail for a stroll on a quiet walkway, an overnight trek or something in between. Take a short driving tour through forest types found from Georgia to Maine. Observe a black bear and her cubs ambling through a field, then watch a 19th-century water-powered grist mill in action. Spend the night under the stars and wake to the sound of birds bidding you ‘Good Morning.'

An endless array of recreational activities are available in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from fishing for wild native brook trout to hiking one of the Smokies’ 150 challenging trails. Wildlife watching, exploring historic buildings, auto touring, wildflower photography, horseback riding, bicycling, camping or even just settling in to watch a sunset—all these are wonderful ways to spend time in these enchanting mountains.

Auto Touring

Roaring Fork Motor Trail
Hop in your car and enter a whole new world. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences, including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon. Most are park roads are paved, and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars. Travel speeds on most of the park’s paved roads average 30 miles per hour.

Smokies Road Guide is available online and at park bookstores and is an excellent resource for exploring the park’s scenic highways and backroads. Individual booklets are available to lead you through Cades Cove Loop Road, Cataloochee Valley, Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Upper Tremont Road.

Gas stations and other related services are not available in the park. Complete services are available in Cherokee, NC, Gatlinburg, TN, and Townsend, TN. In the event of an emergency, call 911; for non-emergency calls to park headquarters, dial 423.436.1200.

Cades Cove Loop Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Rich Mountain Road are closed from sunset to sunrise. All other roads are open day and night. Several of the park’s roads are closed in winter. Others may close temporarily due to weather. Visit the national park’s website for details on road schedules.

Although the National Park Service attempts to keep Newfound Gap Road open year-round, temporary, weather-related closures do occur. If the road is closed, stop at a nearby visitor center for information on alternative routes between North Carolina and Tennessee. Little River and Cades Cove Loop roads are rarely closed by inclement weather. For road status updates follow SmokiesRoadsNPS on Twitter or call 865.436.1200 Ext. 631.

Bicycling


Many park visitors have fond memories of bicycling Cades Cove Loop Road. Making the scenic trip on bicycle is so popular, in fact, that from early May to late September the road is closed to motor traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from sunrise to 10 a.m. so that bicyclists and pedestrians may enjoy the cove’s opportunities for viewing wildlife and historic sites. Bicycles may be rented at the Cades Cove Campground store. Helmets are required for those age 16 and under and are strongly recommended for all bicyclists.

Birding


Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a large and varied landscape with a long growing season – a premier home for birds. Listen closely to the sounds of nature, and you may hear some of the more than 240 species of birds documented in the park. Those who seek birds will generally hear more than they see, especially in the Smokies where dense foliage covers most of the landscape from spring to fall. Learning the songs of the more common species will benefit birders. Birds of the Smokies features information about some of the more conspicuous species in the park, as well as a list of common mnemonics for learning songs. Traveling up Newfound Gap Road and beyond to Clingmans Dome provides opportunities to identify birds from lowland species to high elevation varieties that may be at the southernmost fringe of their range. Places like Cades Cove, Little River Road and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail are great places to explore for low elevation birding.

Camping



To prevent the spread of destructive insect pests, the National Park Service has banned outside firewood from entering the park unless it is USDA- or state-certified heat-treated wood. Campers may gather dead and down wood in the park for campfires. Certified wood may be purchased in and around the park.

Camping in the park is an immersive experience, whether in one of the Smokies’ pleasant campgrounds or at a backcountry campsite after a long day’s hike. Fall asleep under the stars and wake to the sound of birds bidding you good morning. Camping in the Smokies means you get a head start on a day of adventure.

Frontcountry Camping


The National Park Service maintains developed campgrounds at ten locations in the park. Only Cades Cove and Smokemont are open in winter. There are no showers or hookups other than circuits for special medical uses at Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont.

Backcountry Camping

Camping at a backcountry campsite or shelter can be an exciting adventure for persons properly equipped and informed. The National Park Service maintains over 800 miles of trails and more than 100 backcountry campsites and shelters throughout the park. One of the greatest challenges for backcountry campers is deciding where to go. Spring hikers should be especially aware of the danger of hypothermia—the lowering of body temperature. The combination of rain, cold and wind is especially dangerous. At the park’s higher elevations, hypothermia can be a threat even during summer. To prevent hypothermia, carry good rain gear at all times. Layer clothing that provides warmth when wet (not cotton). Be prepared for sudden weather changes, especially at the high elevations.

  • Make your reservation through the backcountry office at Sugarlands Visitor Center (by phone or in person) or online at smokies permits.

For more information about backcountry camping in the Smokies, visit the national park's website.

Expert-led Activities


Great Smoky Mountains Association offers a number of member activities we call “Branch Out Events.” These expert-led programs are designed to enhance our members’ knowledge and appreciation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Check HERE for information about these Branch Out Events, and if you aren’t a GSMA member, become one today!

Fall Foliage


Yellow, gold, bronze, scarlet—these are the colors of fall in the Great Smoky Mountains. The park is home to 100 species of native trees, a variety that highlights the mountainsides with a brilliantly warm palette in autumn. Timing to view the best color is dependent on elevation, but many other variables are at play, and it is impossible to predict the exact dates in advance. Along the high ridges and mountaintops, trees begin changing in mid-September. The peak of fall color in the valleys and coves is usually in late October or early November. Sunny days and cool nights are thought to nurture the best colors. Check our seasonal field reports for updates about fall color in season. Trees of the Smokies features many of the more common trees and their fall leaf color and is available online or in park bookstores. Don't forget to check out our online Fall Foliage Report.

Fishing


The fast waters of Smokies streams are touted for their excellent fly fishing. Brook trout, rainbow trout, brown trout and smallmouth bass are all found in park streams and rivers. Fishing is permitted year-round with a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license; no trout stamp is required. Special permits are required for the Cherokee Reservation and Gatlinburg. Licenses are available in nearby towns. Fishing with bait is prohibited. A free fishing map with a complete list of all park fishing regulations is available at park visitor centers. Find a complete list of the park's fish species (Fish Checklist) and our complete list of fishing resources at our online store.

Hiking

Hiking can be one of the most rewarding activities in the Smokies. Spending time on the trail apart from worldly distractions and absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the outdoors is one of the best ways you can learn about nature. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a paradise for people who like to walk in the mountains. More than 150 different trails are maintained in the park – some 800 miles in all – offering hikers a lifetime’s worth of exploration and adventure. Among America’s national parks, only Yellowstone and Yosemite have more miles of trails. Hiking Trails of the Smokies profiles every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is a trusted resource for those wishing to hit the trail. For a selection of day hikes, Day Hikes of the Smokies offers 34 of the best.

Hikers enjoy the Smoky Mountains during all months of the year, with every season offering its own special rewards. During winter, the absence of deciduous leaves opens new vistas along trails and reveals stone walls, chimneys, foundations and other reminders of past residents. Spring provides a weekly parade of wildflowers and flowering trees, an event celebrated by hikers from across the country. In summer, walkers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. Autumn hikers have crisp, dry air to sharpen their senses and a varied palette of fall colors to enjoy.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most popular national park, and foot traffic on some trails is heavy. However, most trails receive surprisingly light use. The park’s most popular trails are: Abrams Falls, Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, Forney Ridge (to Andrews Bald) Laurel Falls (to the falls), Rainbow Falls, Ramsey Cascades, the Appalachian Trail (between Newfound Gap and Charlies Bunion) and Trillium Gap (to Grotto Falls). Most other trails offer solitude.

Historic Structures


Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most spectacular preserved tracts in the East, just happens to have one of the best collections of historic structures, as well. This collection includes the largest number of historic log buildings in the East. Frame building techniques were also employed in the Smokies, but many of those structures were removed long ago by the park once they were no longer occupied, a regrettable loss as these buildings illustrated a more complete image of how mountain families adopted new construction methods. Today, the remaining houses, barns and outbuildings depict some of the mountain farms that were once here. A few churches, schools and grist mills remain as symbols of community. To view these 19th-century treasures, visit Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee. Self-guiding tour booklets are available for each of these locations, as well as a selection of related books.

Greenbrier School

Horseback Riding


Another way to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park is from the back of a horse. Four locations within the park offer guided horseback rides: Cades Cove, Smokemont, Sugarlands and one location just inside the park near Gatlinburg. About 550 miles of park trails are open to horses, and these are indicated on the park trail map. For more information visit the national park's website.

Kids’ Activities


Exploring history and nature in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with your children encourages them to be good stewards for the future. Ranger-led programs are offered especially for children in spring, summer, and fall. Check the schedule of park programs for topics your children will enjoy. Your child can also become a Junior Ranger! This program is for children ages 5-12. Just purchase a Junior Ranger booklet (online or at park bookstores), complete the activities within, then stop by a visitor center and talk to a park ranger to take the Junior Ranger pledge and get your Junior Ranger badge.

Kids can get off to a great start supporting this park by becoming Acorn members of Great Smoky Mountains Association. We call it “Getting Rooted in the Smokies,” and there is no better time to cultivate an appreciation for our treasured places than while our children are young.

Picnicking


There is just something memorable about picnics in the park. Picnic areas at Big Creek, Chimneys, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms and Twin Creeks occupy some of the prettiest locales in the Smokies. Cades Cove, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, and Metcalf Bottoms are open year-round. The remaining picnic areas are seasonal. All picnic areas have charcoal grills for cooking and restrooms. For information about reserving a picnic pavilion, visit the national park's website.

Waterfalls


Waterfalls are focal points that draw people to nature. Here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 200,000 visitors a year traipse well-worn trails to behold Grotto, Laurel, Abrams, Indian Creek, Rainbow and other popular falls. The Great Smoky Mountains abound with the two ingredients essential for waterfalls –water and an elevation gradient. In the Smokies high country, some 85 inches of rain falls on average each year. Besides water and topography, it’s geology that brings Smoky Mountain waterfalls into existence. Waterfalls generally occur at the interface of easily erodable and more resistant rock. In the Smokies, most waterfalls are underlain by ledges of a resistant rock called Thunderhead Sandstone. Over eons, the softer rock wears away downstream, creating the drop and the drama that transforms a quiet mountain stream into an enchanting destination. Hikes to waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains vary in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Learn more about the park’s waterfalls in Waterfalls of the Smokies and from Land of Falling Water.

Wildflowers


A walk in the Smokies in springtime is enough to get most people hooked. Small though they may be, wildflowers in their collective profusion draw nature lovers back to the park year after year. Gracing sun-dappled coves and clinging to steep slopes, fanciful and curious forms of white, pink, yellow, red, purple and blue capture the imagination. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is renowned for our diversity of wildflowers – some 1,500 kinds of flowering plants are found in the park. In spring, the best displays start at low elevations and creep uphill as the days warm and lengthen. Spring ephemerals like trillium, phacelia and lady’s slipper take advantage of the brief period before deciduous trees completely leaf out. Continuing into summer, wildflower colors grow increasingly vibrant with brilliant red cardinal flowers and bee balms, pink turtleheads, blue lobelias and orange Turk’s cap lilies of impressive height followed by tall ironweeds, goldenrods, Joe Pye weeds and coneflowers in late summer. Flowering trees and shrubs bloom throughout the year, adding to the procession of color. Learn about wildflowers, trees and shrubs in our field guide series. We also have a handy Wildflower Report online to share what types of wildflowers can be seen on the trail at any given time.

Wildlife Viewing


Wildlife Viewing

Even if you’ve been to the Smokies more times than you can count, catching a glimpse of a bear may be one of the most exciting experiences you can have in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because most of the park is covered by dense forest. Open areas like Cataloochee and Cades Cove offer some of the best opportunities to see white-tailed deer, black bear, raccoon, Wild Turkey, woodchuck and other animals. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail encourages motorists to travel at a leisurely pace and sometimes yields sightings of bear and other wildlife. During winter, wildlife is more visible because deciduous trees have lost their leaves. Because many animals are most active at night, it can be advantageous to look for wildlife during the morning and evening. It’s also a good idea to carry binoculars. Some people like to sit quietly beside a trail to see what wildlife will come out of hiding. And don’t forget to scan the trees – many animals spend their days among the branches. Numerous books about park wildlife, including bears, elk and birds, are available at our online store.

A special note about bears: Visitors should be prepared for how to safely observe bears without disturbing them. Please take necessary precautions while in bear country, including hiking in groups of two or more, carrying bear spray, complying with all backcountry closures, properly storing food regulations and remaining at a safe viewing distance from bears at all times. Feeding, touching, disturbing or willfully approaching wildlife within 50 yards (150 feet) or any distance that disturbs or displaces wildlife is illegal.

If approached by a black bear, park officials recommend slowly backing away to put distance between yourself and the animal, creating space for it to pass. If the bear continues to approach, you should NOT run. Hikers should make themselves look large, stand their ground as a group, and throw rocks or sticks at the bear. If attacked by a black bear, rangers strongly recommend fighting back with any object available and remember that the bear may view you as prey. Though rare, attacks on humans do occur, causing injuries or death.

For more information on what to do if you encounter a bear while hiking, please visit the park website. To report a bear incident in the park, please call 865.436.1230.

Viewing Wildlife Safely