Our last post was about where we stayed during our week in Sevier County just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, if you haven’t read that already check it out here – Part 1. We also covered which activities we enjoyed outside of the park. This post will focus on what to do inside the park.
Things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular National Park in the United States. It’s popularity is helped by it’s location, it’s easy to get to for well over half of the population of the US, to add to that it’s also free, there is no entrance fee!
To really enjoy the park, as with most of the National Parks, you need to love being in the outdoors. If you do love the outdoors you will definitely love it here.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork is a large mountain stream inside the National Park and it gives its name to this trail. This particular trail is suitable for all of the family and all fitness types as it is a motor trail – you travel along in your own car.
The trail is one way and when we were trying to find it our satnav took us to the end of the trail. The start of the trail is off the parkway in Gatlinburg, you need to turn off at traffic light number 8 and follow the Historic Nature Trail Road which will take you straight to the entrance, you will know you’re in the right place as there is likely to be a queue at the start.
There is a lot to see on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, expect to spend a couple of hours here even if you don’t plan to do any of the hikes, but there are several good hikes off this trail you probably will want to do – if you can find a parking space. We had planned to do the Grotto Falls hike which is just 3 miles round trip but classed as moderate. However, we could not park anywhere near the trail head in May and it will only get busier through the summer! So there is a certain degree of luck required or an early start if you want to do this.
We did still have a fantastic time driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail as there is plenty to see just sticking to the driving route. There are many old farmsteads and old pioneers houses on the route which have been kept pretty well. They are open and you are free to explore around the grounds as well as inside the buildings which gives you an idea what conditions the first immigrants to this area would have lived in. We spent some time exploring Ephraim Bales Cabin which is about half way around the trail.
As well as the old farmsteads there is a lot of natural scenery along the trail. Some parts look like scenes straight from Jurassic Park like an area right off the road called The Place of a Thousand Drips.
Here is a map of the loop from where you turn off and rejoin the Gatlinburg Parkway. The route is anti-clockwise so you start at the entrance shown to the south on the map;
One of my must sees while in the Great Smoky Mountains was the local wildlife, I really wanted to see the bears. Your best chance to see bears is early morning or during the evening which is when they’re looking for food. One of the best places to see wildlife is in Cades Cove which has a driving route within the National Park. During the season the road is closed to cars on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10am, this is a popular time for cycling the route.
There have been various reports of close encounters with bears in the towns outside of the National Park as the expansion of the built up areas encroach on bear habitat. The bears are getting into garbage and getting a taste for human foods that can give them a quick and easy meal, in turn they are teaching their cubs to find food this way. If bears continually approach and enter the towns and become a threat they are killed. A saying in this area to remember is that a fed bear is a dead bear – do not leave food out and don’t feed the local wildlife.
In spring you might be lucky enough to not just see bears but to see them with their cubs. Our first sighting of bears came with what is known as a bear jam. If there are bears in the area chances are that you will see lots of cars parked up on the side of the road before you see the bears. We joined some other people viewing the bears from a distance staying near our cars. You must not approach the bears or go within 50 yards (150 feet) at any time, this is for your safety, these are wild animals.
Further around the route we seen another bear and this time there were only a couple of cars already parked up. This one was on its own and we think it might have been a male bear. The mother bears with cubs stay away from them to protect the cubs – so we’ve heard from the wildlife programmes we’ve watched.
It was really exciting to see black bears in the wild but if you do this remember to follow the park rules and don’t forget;
A fed bear is a dead bear
There are lots of amazing waterfalls to see in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of these is Laurel Falls which is a short out and back hike of 2.6miles total, it’s classed as a moderate hike.
You can park at the trail head and parking here doesn’t seem to fill quite as fast as some of the other trails. Most people take around 2 hours to do the hike which also means there is a fairly good turnaround at the car park with people coming and going more often than they do at the parking for longer hikes.
To get to the waterfall it’s uphill most of the way but the path is solid, we seen a couple pushing a twin pushchair up the trail so even if you have a very young family you can do this trail. The worst condition the trail gets is what it looks like in this photo;
Something to be aware of is that the edge of the trail has a steep drop off for most of its length. There are signs along the way to remind you of this and to watch your footing.
At the end of the trail the waterfalls are a welcome sight and well worth the hike up. They are popular though so you won’t have them to yourself but there is enough room there that everyone has enough space. This is a fun hike that doesn’t take a lot of time so no matter how long you have in the area you should have enough time to do this one.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, there is a short hike to the top but it’s a tough one with the elevation gain when you’re already at a high altitude anyway. There are benches to catch your breath on on the way up the trail, most people take their time to get to the top of this trail.
At 6,643 feet the views from Clingmans Dome are fantastic, a full 360 degree view of the mountains. It’s just a mile walk out and back to the top of Clingmans Dome where a large viewing platform in located.
It was overcast for most of the day that we were in this area but it added to the atmosphere and we felt that we got to see the real Smoky Mountains with the mist and clouds creating the smoky effect. While you’re here you might bump into some people hiking the Appalachian Trail which is intersected by the Clingmans Dome trail.
The views from the top of Clingmans Dome are awesome and well worth the energy spent getting up there. You can see for miles across the mountains.
Oconaluftee River Trail
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Oconaluftee River Trail is on the North Carolina side of the park.
The trail is a 3 miles round trip, out and back, starting from Oconaluftee Visitor Centre to Cherokee. It’s ideal if you don’t like the elevation gain of some of the popular trails in the park, this trail is mostly flat and follows the river so although you won’t get mountain views they’re still pretty nice.
If you’re travelling with your dog it’s worth knowing that this trail is one of only two where you can walk dogs in the park. The National Park Service website has more details on this, you can read for yourself here.
Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? We can’t wait to go back again, let us know your favourite park of the Smokies.