Located on Tennessee and North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the country. It’s a popular destination for the natural beauty of the park itself and also the attractions of the surrounding towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
The park attracts more than 11 million visitors every year. By contrast, the second-most visited, the Grand Canyon, only gets around six million visitors a year.
Scenic drives are popular, like the Cades Cove Loop Road. This is an 11-mile one-way loop round. You can take in the views from your car, and on certain days you can walk or bike the loop when it’s closed to traffic.
The Tail of the Dragon is another popular roadway, particularly with motorcyclists. It’s an 11-mile section of incredibly curvy roads.
Each year the synchronous firefly festival draws many visitors. You have to enter a lottery to get tickets to the natural occurrence, which is the park’s Elkmont area. It’s in late May or early June each year.
Another popular activity is river tubing, especially in nearby Townsend, and Dollywood is, of course, a favorite in the Smoky Mountains.
Along with everything named above, hiking is also one of the big reasons people visit the park.
Some of the most popular and notable hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are detailed below.
Andrews Bald is rated as an easy hike, and it’s 3.6 miles roundtrip. It’s about 1.8 miles from the parking lot for Clingman’s Dome. Andrews Bald is open-air and beautiful, and unless it’s the height of winter, the road up to Clingman’s Dome makes it easy to access this area where you can picnic or just enjoy the scenery.
Spruce Flat Falls
Spruce Flat Falls is one of the better waterfall hikes in the National Park if your goal is to avoid some of the crowds that are inevitable during peak seasons. The hike is easy to moderate, but there is some elevation. Be careful if you’re going to attempt it after rain.
It’s two miles round trip, and you’ll find it across from the Tremont Visitors Center. There’s a small road that takes you to the back of Tremont. Where the paved road ends is where you can start to follow an uphill trail.
There are signs marked with falls, and the descent at the end of the hike is the toughest part for most people.
Spruce Falls Flat gives you a beautiful waterfall at the end, but it’s quieter than most of the other waterfall trails.
Laurel Falls is one of the most-trafficked hiking options in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Laurel Falls is 80-feet high, and you’ll find the trailhead by starting out at Sugarlands Visitor Center and turning towards Cades Cove. You then take Little River Road, and you’ll find a trailhead with parking areas.
The roundtrip distance to the waterfall is 2.6 miles, and it’s considered moderate in terms of difficulty. It takes most people around two hours to hike to the waterfall and make their way back.
If you do Laurel Falls, it’s important not to try to climb on the rocks that surround the waterfall. People have been seriously hurt and died from climbing on rocks that are slippery and then falling.
Laurel Falls Trail is the longest of the four paved trails in the park. The trail was first built so that fire crews could get access to the Cove Mountain area.
Hikers up for a challenge might opt for Chimney Tops. Chimney Tops is four miles round trip, and it’s rated as a strenuous hike.
The Chimney Tops has a summit of 4,724 feet. You can expect steep and rugged climbing to reach the top.
Chimney Tops has some of the most dramatic topography in the Smoky Mountains, and you’ll find around 1,500 feet of elevation gain.
There is an observation platform at the trail’s end.
Clingman’s Dome is the third-highest mountain in the eastern part of America. There’s a parking area that has views, but if you go up the steep, although paved trail to the top, the panoramic views waiting for you are even better. The trail is only a half-mile each way, and when it’s clear, you can see for 100 miles.
Alum Cave Trail
The Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte is around 11 miles round trip, with 2,700 feet of elevation gain. As you might imagine, it’s a trail that will take you all day.
One of the attractions along the way is the Arch Rock. You pass through a slate portal through rock stairs. At the two-mile point is Inspiration Point, and then just before the trail, the halfway point is the Alum Cave Bluff, which is a huge alcove on Peregrine Peak.
Rainbow Falls is a moderately difficult hike, which is 5.4 miles roundtrip.
When you’re doing the first mile of the hike, it’s a steady climb where you’ll go through a boulder field. Then, you’ll see LeConte Creek to your right, and there are picnic areas along this part of the trail.
As you go up the LeConte Creek valley, you’ll cross two footbridges. The second is just before you reach the 80-foot waterfall.
Rainbow Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in the Smokies, and on sunny afternoons, the mist creates a rainbow, which is where it gets its name.
Finally, another strenuous hike is Rocky Top. The hike has more than 3,600 feet of elevation gain, and it will take you all day. You’ll get views of the North Carolina side of the Smokies if you attempt it, and it’s part of the Appalachian Trail.
If you hike it in June, there’s stunning mountain laurel. The hills and meadows are covered in pink and white flowers, making it an optimal time if you don’t mind a tough hike. Thunderhead Mountain is three summits that you’ll reach, and the first summit is actually Rocky Top.