Every year thousands of people build their vacations around the splendor of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is more popular than some people think; it is the most visited National Park in the United States; even more so than Yosemite or Yellowstone. We put together this mini-guide to introduce you to some of the exhilarating, astounding and awe inspiring sights, sounds and activities you can enjoy when you visit. While not an exhaustive list, our guide should help you get a feel for what you can expect to see and do on your trip. In part one we’ll take a look at two activities that will give you a great introduction to the park: Waterfalls hikes and the Volunteers in Parks (VIP) Program.
Take a Waterfall Hike
Grotto Falls, Rainbow Falls and Abrams Falls are three of the most popular falls in the park. We’ll cover their main features, the length of each trail and various other key facts to help you decide if you’d like to try one, two or all three waterfalls hikes!
This popular hike is not that long; (around 3 miles roundtrip) and can be completed easily within 2-3 hours. People like the way they can walk behind these falls. You can get to the falls by taking the trail which branches off from the Roaring Fork Nature Trail. The Rainbow Falls Trailhead is located nearby as well. The popularity of this trail is such that it’s a good idea to make the trek to these falls early in the day. Some visitors have reported that after 9:30 a.m. the parking areas and the trail are noticeably busier than at around 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. This hike is more suited to younger kids than the hike to Abrams Falls. Most visitors report that the walk up to the falls is very beautiful in itself, with many excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
If you are looking for a different challenge, and another outstanding reward at the end of the trail, you’ll want to hike to Rainbow Falls. This trail can be a bit tricky as it’s rocky and ascends 1500 ft. from beginning to end. Hikers report that there are a variety of mini falls you can enjoy before you get to Rainbow Falls itself. At around 5.5 miles roundtrip, this hike can take you a few hours to complete. The height of the falls (80 feet) and the sunshine-induced rainbow effect make this the ultimate falls viewing experience in the park. A bonus for hikers is that the summit of Mt. LeConte is located about four miles beyond Rainbow Falls. Casual hikers might have trouble completing the combo Rainbow Falls and Mt. LeConte hike, but it makes for a tremendous day communing with nature.
This hike is good for people who like a moderate hiking challenge. You’ll start at the Abrams Falls Trail in Cades Cove then progress over 5 miles (round trip) of varying terrain. This is not an easy trail for kids or those who prefer a smoother path. You’ll come up against some tree roots, portions of the trail that rise and dip and a fair amount of rocks, too. Visitors who have tackled this trail say it is not one that kids and some adults prefer. If you do take this trail you will be rewarded with an amazing sight: The water volume is incredible, but the height is relatively low; around 20 feet. Picnicking is popular here. The photo opportunities are remarkable!
Please note: The currents at Abrams Falls are very dangerous. Swimming there is very much discouraged.
Want to find out more about hiking opportunities in the park? Read our blog post that describes some of the fun you can have on the Roaring Fork Nature Trail.
Enrich Your Vacation Experience by Volunteering
Sign up for the Volunteers in Parks (VIP) Program
Many people today combine their vacations with volunteer experiences. Great Smoky National Park needs your help to keep its resources intact and to help ensure that everyone enjoys a positive experience. Please see this volunteer activity sheet that provides many flexible and negotiable volunteer opportunities for you to choose from. (Some options require a set schedule of commitments, but many are open-ended and can fit a vacationer's time constraints).
There are so many ways you can contribute! Trail maintenance, litter pick up, campsite cleaning, sowing and transplanting seedlings for park restoration projects, and much more. If you happen to live within easy driving distance of Gatlinburg and can get to the park regularly, there are even more opportunities to sign up for longer volunteer commitments.
Giving back to preserve nature is one of the greatest feelings there is! Want to know more? Take a look at all of the details about the VIP Program. If you want to know more about one day volunteer options, please see this page which provides some intriguing possibilities for summer visitors to the park.
A really good way to get your trip to the park planned perfectly is with this Smokies Trip Planner. The park provides this information to help people learn about the natural wonders that await them, and also so people can become aware of safety rules and precautions they should take. Another convenient trip planning tool is the Smokies Mobile app.
Our first installment of this guide took a look at several fun activities you can enjoy at the National Park. The park offers dozens of ways to get some exercise while discovering nature’s wonders. Let’s conclude this mini-guide with three more fun ways to get the most out of your visit to the National Park.
The trout fishing is spectacular in the park and you'll be able to enjoy one of the best wild trout habitats in the eastern U.S. This fishing in the park FAQ page will help you learn more about some of the fishing opportunities in the park, and also acquaint you with various regulations and historical information.
One key point that anglers must keep in mind is that bait is not allowed when fishing in the park. It's the park's duty to ensure that no non-native species are introduced into the waters, as they can spread and interfere with native fish. With over 2,000 miles of streams to fish and an average of 2,000 - 3,000 trout per mile, you're sure to find a great number of opportunities to catch your daily limit.
It's important to follow all park fishing regulations that will help everyone have a pleasant fishing experience and allow the fish and their habitat to remain as protected as possible. Fishing is a superb activity that families across the nation have enjoyed for generations. It's a great low-cost activity that most anyone can participate in. The bonding that takes place over a day out fishing can create memories that last a lifetime.
Plan your fishing trip by visiting this website http://www.takemefishing.org/state/TN/. You can see where the fish are biting and much more. Their 'Fishing with the Family' page offers games, activities and links to 'how to fish' for kids. These tips can help set your new anglers up for success!
Biking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a popular pastime that can be enjoyed by visitors of all ages. The most popular bike trail in the park is the Cades Cove Loop Road. Trip Advisor ranks this road highly and the biking is great on this 11 mile one-way road. Wildlife viewing is definitely part of the experience; you can see and hear dozens of birds along the way, and there are lots of places to pull over and observe deer, bears, butterflies, beaver, foxes, red wolves, turkeys, skunks and many more creatures. It cannot be stressed enough that feeding park animals is against regulations and can be dangerous for you and the animals, which are wild creatures. Bears for example, can get into a frenzy over the smell of food and a dangerous situation can be avoided if you don't try to feed bears or approach them.
Cades Cove also affords bicyclists the opportunity to see old cemeteries and historical homestead buildings such as the John Oliver Cabin. The John Oliver cabin is special because it still stands, nearly 180 years after the Olivers first settled in Cades Cove. They nearly didn't make it during their first winter, but friendly Cherokee provided them with food.
At Cades Cove you can certainly drive the Loop Road, but biking it is fun especially when it is closed to cars on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10: 00 am. During these times you can avoid competing with motorists who often stop in the middle of the road when they see wildlife. Peaceful mornings on a bike in Cades Cove, the most popular destination in the park, draw visitors back to Gatlinburg year after year.
Take a break from the attractions in town and come out to the park for something completely different -- some beautiful moments astride a horse! Enjoy guided trail rides in the park from several stables that have created these rides for people who love to spend time with an equine friend. It's a whole different viewpoint when you see the park's sights on the back of a good trail horse. All ages can enjoy riding as the horses are well-trained. They travel at a walking pace so you won't have to worry about going too fast. People of every ability level will enjoy riding in the park as there's always something new to explore. You'll see a variety of wildlife; including deer, turkeys, raccoons, foxes, bears and more. All of these are wild creatures, but the bears pose the greatest potential threat to humans. Their relentless search for food can make them dangerous, as they will upset containers and do whatever they can to obtain human food.
There’s nothing quite like a scenic ride through Gatlinburg on horseback. The great thing about riding is you can set it up to last as long as you wish. Some rides last 45 minutes; others are an hour or even longer. It's important to plan ahead to avoid crowds. You can inquire of the stables when the best time is to ride. The riding stables have schedules that change throughout the year. Be sure to call ahead to discover when a stable is open so you'll know when to go. Usually reservations aren't necessary so you could literally show up on the spur of the moment for a fun trail rode.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our two part series on exploring the most popular activities for visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Reserve your Gatlinburg cabin now and get ready to try all of these National Park adventures for yourself!