When you book your next vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains, I have the perfect plan for a perfect trip.
In case you weren’t aware, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually the most visited national park in America. Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, its mist-covered mountains are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains.
When you visit, I’d recommend spending a few days enjoying some of the numerous fun attractions in nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and then another few days exploring the actual park.
SMOKY MOUNTAINS TRIP ITINERARY SUMMARY
|Day 1 —||Travel day|
|Day 2 —||Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge|
|Day 3 —||Dollywood Amusement Park|
|Day 4 —||Clingman’s Dome & Alum Cave|
|Day 5 —||Cades Cove & Laurel Falls|
|Day 6 —||UTV Tour in the Smokies|
|Day 7 —||The Ark Encounter|
Travel Day (Day 1)
Depending on where you’re coming from, we’ll assume this first day is a travel day, for the most part.
Explore Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge (Day 2)
Gatlinburg is a quaint, resort-like village known as the “Gateway to the Smoky Mountains.” It has a fun downtown area that you can walk and explore. There are lots of places to stay here and is an ideal location due to its proximity to the park.
Secondly, a neighboring town – only about 5 miles down the road – is Pigeon Forge, which also has tons of lodging options and is an ideal family destination.
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park is a popular place with its open-air chairlifts that take you to the top of an 1,800-foot overlook with views of the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg. In 2019, the SkyBridge opened at the top, which is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America.
Another highly recommended attraction in Gatlinburg is the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Our family especially enjoyed the color-changing jelly fish, the shark tunnel, and the cool seahorse-like creature seen below.
Alpine coasters are very popular in the area and worth the hour-long stop to experience. The Rocky Top Mountain Coaster, for example, is a great one to ride during the day, or you can ride it all lit up at night.
Thanks to a bit of luck, we have this video of one of my family’s rides. The owner of a popular rollercoaster YouTube channel happened to be there that day and asked to put a GoPro camera on the front of our coaster.
In the evening, try one of the many dinner shows offered in Pigeon Forge. These include themes with pirates, or lumberjacks, or Biblical characters, for instance. There’s also a comedy barn show, a murder mystery, and the list goes on and on.
Dollywood Amusement Park (Day 3)
Speaking of rollercoasters, if you enjoy amusement parks, you can’t miss Dollywood while you’re on this Smoky Mountains trip. It is home to one of the top-10 best rollercoasters in the country, according to USA Today. “Lighting Rod” has a top speed of 73 mph, making it the fastest wood rollercoaster in the world.
Even if you’re not a thrill seeker, I highly recommend this unique Appalachian-themed park. Besides being extremely clean, it’s very family-friendly with rides for all ages, and really exceeded my expectations.
Clingman’s Dome & Alum Cave (Day 4)
After all that fun and excitement in the two towns, head into the mountains on this day. The entrance to Great Smoky Mountain National Park is just under 2 miles from Gatlinburg, and only about 8 miles from Pigeon Forge. Fortunately, entrance to the park is free (one of the few national parks that doesn’t charge to get in).
First, drive to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and in all of Tennessee. Amazingly, some visitors have reported being able to see 100 miles from the mountaintop on clear days.
The 23-mile drive to Clingman’s Dome is very scenic and will take you about an hour from downtown Gatlinburg. From the parking area, there is a a fairly strenuous, half-mile uphill walk on a paved path to the observation tower. At the top, I imagine you’ll be saying: “Whoa, what a view!”
Next, stop for a picnic lunch to generate more energy, and then hike to Alum Cave – which really isn’t a cave, but a concaved bluff. Just 2.2 miles to the bluff, but this hike is not easy at times. Even still, this is definitely one of the most memorable hikes my family has taken. The trail starts out pretty flat and winds through beautiful, woodsy scenery alongside Alum Cave Stream.
After a few fun, narrow bridge crossings over the stream, the trail gets a bit harder about a mile in when you come to Arch Rock. A set of stairs takes you up through the arch-like rock and further up the trail.
Truly, the effort is all worth it when you reach the massive bluff and take in the amazing view.
Continuing on to Mount LeConte
For the more serious hiker, continuing on the trail for another 3+ miles to the summit of Mount LeConte is a must (a total of about 4 hours from the Alum Cave Trailhead). This second half of the trail is the steepest so many choose to stop at LeConte Lodge for lunch or a snack before returning down the mountain.
It’s the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States with no road access. Llamas are used to carry supplies on the trail to the lodge. With only a 60-guest capacity between the lodge and rustic one-room cabins, reservations are required typically a year in advance.
If you’re camping during this Smoky Mountains trip, the Elkmount Campground is a gorgeous location. It’s about 30 miles from Gatlinburg, but very central in the park. We absolutely loved our site along a peaceful, small river.
Laurel Falls & Cades Cove (Day 5)
Up next, spend this day in the park hitting two spots: Laurel Falls and Cades Cove.
For most people, the 2.6 mile hike to Laurel Falls only takes about two hours round-trip, as it’s one of very few paved trails in the park.
Cades Cove is a valley that offers the opportunity to see 18th- and 19th-century buildings along an 11-mile one-way loop. As you’ll experience, scattered along the road are three churches, a working mill, barns, log homes, and many other restored structures.
UTV Tour in the Smokies (Day 6)
In the morning, drive the Newfound Gap Road. A unique 31-mile stretch, it runs through the park’s center with many points of interest, including Mingus Mill and Mountain Farm Museum.
Highlight of our Smoky Mountains trip
For some crazy fun in the afternoon, take a UTV guided tour. Located at the Smoky Mountain Premiere RV Resort – which is also a great place to stay, by the way – is the Smoky Mountain Adventure Tours. Honestly, at just over two hours, this tour was the highlight of our entire Smoky Mountains trip!
There were some crazy steep trails on the tour at times, which created some thrilling adventure (and some screams even)!
The Ark Encounter (Day 7)
Finally, if you’re headed home by car and happen to be traveling north into Kentucky, there is an awesome attraction about four hours from Gatlinburg called The Ark Encounter. Hard to imagine, but it’s a full-sized Noah’s Ark, built according to the dimensions in the Bible. Truly, it’s something to see.
Inside, are three decks with interactive exhibits.
Also, on the property is a zoo that allows visitors to pet many of the animals that, according to scripture, Noah took on his ark!
More time on your Smoky Mountains trip?
Upon leaving The Ark, travel 43 miles north to the sister attraction: Creation Museum. It features biblical history, stunning exhibits, botanical gardens and a zoo, for example.
*Trip Tip: Buy the Ark & Creation Museum combo ticket if you’re planning to visit both.
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More ideas for a Smoky Mountains trip?
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