Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains
You’ve planned time to get away. You’re looking at Vacation Guides and websites for things to do during your trip to the Smoky Mountains area. There’s so much information for planning your trip. You could fill all your time visiting fantastic theme parks such as Soaky Mountain Water Park, Sevierville’s SkyLand Ranch, Dollywood, Gatlinburg SkyPark, Anakeesta Mountain Adventure Park, or Ober Mountain. You’ll find many destinations prominently featured multiple times across multiple platforms.
The Smoky Mountain region is a mixture of destination resort cities, tucked-away cabin resorts, campgrounds, and vacation rentals by owner. Often, activities are dictated by proximity and drive time. Here are some suggested half-day itineraries from a local perspective based on region. Pick a few or combine them.
Get out on Douglas Lake. You can bring your own or rent kayaks at Douglas Dam Headwaters Campground. Douglas Dam Marina and Mountain Cove Marinas offer a variety of engine-propelled boats for rent. Enjoy the view of the surrounding mountains from the surface of this 30,400-acre, manmade lake.
Don’t miss The Apple Barn Cider Mill and General Store. This rural destination originated when the barn was built on the Mullendore farm in 1910. Surrounded by apple orchards, The Apple Barn is now the center of activity. Explore the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant and Grill, where apple fritters and cider are mainstays, the General Store, Cider House, Cider Bar, Winery, and Creamery, among other unique shops.
In historic downtown Sevierville, visit Dolly’s statue, stroll Gazebo Park, take a photo with the butterfly mural painted by local artist Pinkie Mistry, then browse newly renovated Bruce Street and the surrounding area. If you choose to spend the afternoon and evening here, consider one of the terrific eateries within walking distance and top off the evening at The Historic Pines, a locals-favorite gathering spot for gaming, lounging, conversation, and conviviality.
Pigeon Forge Region:
Tour The Old Mill – built in 1830, this hydro-powered grinding mill operates today. Situated on the Little Pigeon River The Old Mill is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and offers tours Tuesdays through Fridays from 3:00 – 7:00 every half hour, and Saturdays from 11:00 – 7:00. Purchase tickets at The Old Mill General Store in The Old Mill complex – then pick up some locally ground grits or flour to take back home. Browse the quaint and imaginative shops within walking distance of the Mill.
Across the street from The Old Mill, visit The Old Mill Winery, with its riverside deck and butterfly mural painted by local artist Pinkie Mistry. Enjoy the view of the Mill and the patio lights as the afternoon shadows grow long.
Take a scenic drive or motorcycle ride from Pigeon Forge down Wear’s Valley Road to the newly completed Foothills Parkway. This 17-mile section of the Foothills Parkway, which was begun in 1948, was completed in December 2018. It connects with the southernmost section, departing from Highway 129 to Chilhowee Lake, then along the connected series of lakes to the Tail of the Dragon, a renowned motorcyclists’ favorite featuring 318 curves in 11 miles.
Back in Pigeon Forge, spend the evening enjoying the dancing waters of The Island Show Fountain at The Island. The Island offers acres of free parking with shuttle service. This is a destination for live music, fun activities, and shopping.
Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Combine a daytime visit to the National Park with an evening in Gatlinburg, a pedestrian paradise of window shopping, amusements, galleries, and eateries.
The Sugarlands Visitor’s Center is the closest place to get oriented to all the National Park has to offer. Don’t miss the free film, and take advantage of the information desks, guidebooks, and rangers for suggestions and advice.
Consider this full-day suggestion: On Wednesdays, Cades Cove Motor Loop is closed to vehicular traffic. Start the day very early by first driving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. On Wednesdays, the LeConte Lodge Llama train departs from Grotto Falls Trailhead to carry linens and supplies up to LeConte Lodge, located on the summit of Mount LeConte and only accessible by hiking trail. They usually arrive around 6:30 AM at the trailhead to prepare for the trek. You can pull into the parking lot and meet the llamas and speak with the handler. From there, pick one of the many terrific breakfast eateries in Gatlinburg, then head into the National Park toward Cades Cove.
The drive to Cades Cove will be about 45 minutes to an hour along Little River Road. Rent a bike at the Cades Cove Campground and spend the day peddling the 11-mile loop. If the distance or effort is too great, cut through at Sparks Lane for a much shorter ride. Enjoy the fields, views, historic buildings, visitor center, and grist mill of Cades Cove from your bicycle with no motor traffic. This will be a full, moderately strenuous day, so plan for hydration and nutrition needs.
Alternatively, enjoy a leisurely morning and lunch, then pack a picnic dinner and head to the Chimneys Picnic Area on Newfound Gap Road. Many markets and restaurants will create a to-go meal for you. Plan to arrive around 5:00 – 6:00. This streamside picnic area is open until 8:00 PM. Enjoy the riverside view and keep an eye out for bears who poke around at dusk hoping for leftover crumbs. Keep your distance – never, ever feed bears - and move on to your next stop – sunset at the Clingman’s Dome parking area. This is an especially appealing option if the skies are clear. The view is stunning from this vantage point at the highest drive-to elevation in the National Park.
For guided fun in and around the National Park, consider a guided hike with A Walk in The Woods. They offer a variety of interpreter-assisted trips, shuttles, and other services associated with hiking. There’s more than meets the eye on the trail, and a guide can make things interested by providing a backstory.
See the mountains from where only boats can go! Go rafting on the Pigeon River, located 45 minutes East of Gatlinburg. Eleven operators in Hartford, TN offer guided whitewater and scenic river trips on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The largest of these outfitters, award-winning Smoky Mountain Outdoors (SMO) Rafting is celebrating 30 years of safely rafting the Pigeon during the 2023 season. Reservations are highly recommended, and no previous experience is necessary. The drive from Gatlinburg is scenic in the extreme. Ignore initial GPS directions and point your navigator to the Foothills Parkway to get to Hartford. The views are spectacular.
The 35-mile drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, NC, across the highest peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a drive back in time – and one with amazing views.
The Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center sits at the southern border of the National Park. Here, the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill provide an opportunity to explore historic buildings and learn how European settlers may have lived 100 years ago. This is an excellent location for viewing a herd of Elk, the result of a successful restoration program launched in 2002. Enjoy from a distance – they are protected wildlife and are unpredictable.
At Oconaluftee Indian Village, the Cherokee lifestyle of the mid-18th century comes alive as native guides escort you through traditional dwellings, work areas, and sacred ritual sites. The Village is open from May 1 through mid-October.
Named “One of the top ten native sites east of the Mississippi,” the artifacts and displays of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian tell the story of accomplishments, suffering, and triumphs of the Cherokee people, from Paleo to modern times.
Next door, The Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual is a cooperative gallery and shop for over 350 native artisans featuring handmade, traditional pieces. Take home a piece of history!
In the evening, sit under the stars and experience the outdoor drama “Unto These Hills” in the newly renovated Mountainside Theatre. Native actors in authentic regalia dance, sing and tell the story of the legacy of the Cherokee people from May to August.
Alternatively, experience traditional storytelling and dancing at the Cherokee Bonfire event which runs throughout the summer months. Gather by the fire at Oconaluftee Islands Park for a cultural experience drawing from a rich oral tradition. Go to VisitCherokeeNC.com for a schedule of this and other special events, such as the annual Indian Fair, Open Air Art market, or Talking Trees Children’s Trout Derby.
For those who prefer an over-21 indoor experience, try your luck or catch a world-class concert at Harrah’s Cherokee Resort Event Center and Casino. Visit https://www.caesars.com/harrahs-cherokee/shows for the 2023 Entertainment line-up.
Generations of families cherish vacation memories from the Great Smoky Mountains region. There’s so much to do, it can’t be done in one trip. Take your time, enjoy the surroundings and each other, and come back often!
Please note: As of 2023, parking permits are required in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for anyone parked more than 15 minutes at a time. Learn more at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fees.htm