Being from East Tennessee, I grew up in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. When I was a kid, I would visit Gatlinburg every year but we never ventured into the national park. We decided that needed to change this year when all of our other plans were canceled because of COVID-19.
July 18th marked our 5-year wedding anniversary and we had planned to celebrate by seeing our favorite band Phish at our favorite outdoor music venue. But, you know, COVID. So we planned a Great Smoky Mountains vacation instead and it was incredible.
This post will show you how we planned, where we stayed, and all the things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. This 7-day itinerary and guide is the perfect trip for a romantic couple’s getaway, friends retreat, or family trip.
Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
Watch the Video
Sasha is a skilled videographer and he always has a camera in his hand.
Watch the video to see everything we did on our week-long trip to the Smokies. Then keep reading for all the information you need to play your trip!
Fun Facts About the Great Smoky Mountains
First, it’s important to know a couple of things about the park.
- It’s the most visited national park
- It’s free to visit
- The Cherokee Tribe are the original inhabitants and they called the mountains “Shaconage” (Sha-Kon-O-Hey), which means the “Land of Blue Smoke.” That’s how the Smokies got their name.
- Thanks to the elevation, temperatures rarely top 80 degrees
- The Smoky Mountains are over 200 million years old, making them one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth
- Clingman’s Dome is the highest point at 6,643 feet
- The Appalachian Trail passes through the GSMNP
- There are 10 developed campgrounds
- There are more than 100 backcountry campsites, including shelters
- Over 800 miles of hiking trails
- There are over 2900 miles of streams
- Over 97 structures have been preserved by the park. These include grist mills, cabins, schools, and churches.
Planning a Great Smoky Mountains Vacation
Planning a trip to the Smokies can feel like a daunting task because it’s so massive. The park covers 522,427 acres that’s pretty evenly divided between Tennessee and North Carolina.
There are 10 developed campgrounds, over 100 backcountry campsites, over 800 miles of trails, 2900 miles of streams, and 11 picnic areas. Seeing everything the park has to offer would require a very long visit so it’s best to choose one area of the park you want to explore and focus on that for one trip.
We started planning our trip for mid-July only two and a half weeks out. Even in the summer of ‘Rona, there were still slim pickings for accommodation. In fact, three different places were snaked out from under us just as we were about to book them.
You see, we don’t really care for hotels. We’d much rather have an entire place to ourselves with a kitchen. We enjoy cooking and think you get a much bigger bang for your buck. My top priority for this trip was our accommodation being that it was for a special occasion.
Doing a Google search for Airbnb Smoky Mountains will turn up a ton of results and it can be difficult to sort through them all. But we were able to find two that were perfect for our trip.
In the end, we booked the Bear Bottoms cabin in Townsend, TN for four nights and a Glamping RV in Bryson City, NC for three nights.
Fortunately, we could be flexible with the exact dates of our visit thanks to our jobs teaching English online. It’s so nice to be able to take time off whenever you need it or even work while you’re on the road. This trip was to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary, so we decided to not work at all and have an actual Smoky Mountains vacation.
Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains
The park is open year-round with only some of the roads in higher elevations being closed in the winter. The best time of year for you to visit largely depends on what you want to do.
It’s most crowded in the summer months from June to August with July being the peak. If you want to go in the summer (which is when I like to go), I personally think that planning your visit for the end of August would be ideal as you’ll still have great swimming weather but many students in the USA will be back in school which will play a role in there being slightly fewer people.
October is the second visited month as many visitors come to see the colorful fall foliage. Hiking in the Smokies in fall is ideal as the weather is cool and dry. Bear and deer sightings are more common because they’re getting prepared for winter.
If you do plan to go in the summer or fall and your dates aren’t very flexible, be sure to make bookings well in advance to avoid disappointment.
Colder weather that brings snow and ice turn the Smokies into a winter wonderland. Some of the best hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains will have much better visibility. In doing my research for this post, I came across this list of winter hikes so you can see there’s no shortage of options.
If you love wildflowers, then Spring is the best time for you to visit. There’s even a Wildflower Pilgrimage as well as guided wildflower walks. Winter and Spring are the best times to avoid the crowds.
We visited in mid-July, the absolute busiest time of year. The crowds were quite large but we were able to get away from them fairly easily.
The busiest areas were the popular overlooks you can drive to such as Clingman’s Dome (especially on the weekends), the swimming holes and tubing, popular visitor’s centers, and picnic areas. That being said, the picnic tables are far apart enough that you can easily distance from people.
The trails were mostly empty and there were several areas where we only saw a handful of other people.
Best Place to Stay in the Smoky Mountains
This largely depends on what you’re planning to do and who you’re traveling with.
Wondering if you can stay inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? The answer is yes!
You can camp at one of the 10 developed campgrounds:
- Cades Cove Campground
- Deep Creek Campground
- Elkmont Campground
- Abrams Creek Campground
- Big Creek Campground
- Balsam Mountain Campground
- Look Rock Campground
- Smokemont Campground
- Cataloochee Campground
- Cosby Campground
Click here to check the National Park Service’s website for more details and booking information.
If you enjoy more of a city vibe with lots of options for entertainment, restaurants, and tourist attractions, then you should look into Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville, Tennessee. These towns are especially great if you’re traveling in the Smoky Mountains with kids.
Gatlinburg is much closer to the entrance of the park and has a small mountain town feel. You can easily walk the downtown area. Pigeon Forge is a bit farther from the park entrance but offers incredible mountain views. Pigeon Forge is also home to my favorite theme park Dollywood and other Dolly Parton attractions. The downtown area is more spread out and you’ll need a car in Pigeon Forge.
As for our trip, I really wanted a private cabin with a hot tub to celebrate our anniversary so we looked to the gateway towns. It was a solid choice!
On the Tennessee side, we stayed in Townsend, a city of only 500 people. On the North Carolina side, we stayed in Bryson City, a city of 1,500 people.
Things to do in the Smoky Mountains
I recently came across an artist named Amber Share who created a series of old-timey travel posters for all 62 national parks but these are not just any travel posters. Oh no.
They are the most hilarious travel posters I’ve ever seen because the slogans are one-star Yelp reviews.
I die laughing every time I read one. Here are some gems…
For Yosemite National Park, the poster reads: Trees block view and there are too many gray rocks.
The poster for Joshua Tree National Park reads: The only thing to do here is walk around the desert.
The poster for the Great Smoky Mountains does not disappoint:
That’s what makes the Smoky Mountains so great! There are so many things to do in the Smoky Mountains. The downside is that it can feel overwhelming trying to figure it out. From hiking to auto touring, fishing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing there is something for all types of visitors.
Here’s a list of 5 things to do in the Smokies. These just barely scratch the surface:
Camping in the Smokies can be an incredible experience. The 10 developed campgrounds are listed in the above section.
In addition to those campgrounds, there are backcountry campgrounds for those planning on backpacking inside the park and horse camps that offer hitch racks for horses and primitive camping.
If you’re coming in an RV, Smokemont and Cades Cove Campgrounds have dump stations. They can accommodate 35-foot trailers and 40-foot motorhomes. Be aware there are no hookups.
Hiking in the Smokies
There are over 150 official hiking trails in the Smokies!
The most popular destination trails are:
- Alum Caves Bluff
- Charlies Bunion (located on the Appalachian Trail)
- Chimney Tops
- Rainbow Falls
- Andrews Bald
If you’re short on time or just want something less strenuous and time-consuming, there are plenty of smaller, lesser-known trails that are more like hidden gems. They’re also a great way to escape the crowds in the busy season. Some of them are:
- Meigs Creek Trail
- Metcalf Bottoms / Little Greenbrier School Trail
- Deep Creek Loop Trail
- Juney Whank Falls Trail
The best way to choose a hike is to decide what you want to see. Old-growth forest? Waterfalls? Views for days? Then decide on the distance. If you’re an inexperienced hiker, 5 miles roundtrip is probably a good maximum distance.
Make Your Own Auto Tour
If you’re not really into hiking or feeling lazy, you can still take in incredible scenery from the comfort of your car. The Smokies have over 384 miles of roads to choose from. Most are paved and even the gravel roads are very well maintained.
You can drive alongside mountain streams, enjoy panoramic views from various overlooks, and tour old structures. Some of the more popular roads for auto touring are:
- Cades Cove Loop
- Newfound Gap
- Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
- Cataloochee Valley
- Upper Tremont Road
Be aware that the Cades Cove Loop can get very congested in the high seasons. As of May 2020, Cades Cove Loop is closed to cars every Wednesday. Only pedestrians and cyclists are allowed. We just so happened to be there on a Wednesday and managed to get the last bike rentals. More on that in the below section with our itinerary.
Play in the Water
If you’re visiting during the warmer months, there are several places to go swimming. We visited The Sinks one afternoon and lots of people were jumping off the tall rocks into the swimming hole.
There are lots of places for tubing on the Tennessee and North Carolina side. We especially enjoyed the tubing in Deep Creek near Bryson City, NC. Head on down to the next section with our itinerary for all the details.
You could also not follow TLC’s advice and go chasing waterfalls. The Smoky Mountains are home to over 100 waterfalls scattered throughout the park. The ones you can drive to are The Sinks, Meigs Falls, and Place of a Thousand Drips.
Other waterfalls that require some walking to get to:
- Baskins Creek Falls
- Rainbow Falls
- Laurel Falls
- Juney Whank Falls
- Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls
- Mingo Falls
- Ramsey Cascades
Fishing is permitted in all streams, all year long. Avid fishers will find smallmouth bass and large trout populations as the Smokies has one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States.
Wildflowers and Wildlife Viewing
There is plenty of entertainment for anthophiles on a Great Smoky Mountains vacation. The park is home to over 1,500 types of flowering plants which is more than any other North American national park. They can be seen all year long.
Spring is the most popular time for seeing wildflowers as the park hosts a Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. Ephemerals are the first to bloom beginning in late February and more flowers continue to bloom in the summer as well as into late fall. You can check out a full list of flowers over on the National Park Service website.
It’s also highly likely that you will see some wildlife.
Elk were reintroduced to the area in 2001. You can also see black bears, deer, turkeys, and woodchucks. Be sure to follow park rules by keeping your distance from animals!
Our 7-Day Itinerary in the Smokies
Before I tell you about all the things we did on our Great Smoky Mountains vacation, there are a few things you should know about us.
First, we didn’t plan anything for our trip. It was for our 5-year wedding anniversary and we were looking for a safe getaway during the summer of COVID-19. We also wanted to relax and catch up on sleep.
Our schedules for teaching English online require us to wake up really early. We’ve adapted over the years because teaching English online is how we’re able to live the digital nomad lifestyle but we’re not morning people and we’re perfectly happy sleeping in until 11 or 12:00 pm. Then we dilly dally around while enjoying our morning coffee and browsing the internet.
So we based our plans on how we felt when we woke up. All I really wanted was a nice secluded cabin with a hot tub and we soaked up as much time as we could there. Everything else was just a bonus.
This is what we ended up doing…..
Day 1 (Tuesday): A Rocky Start
We got off to a somewhat rough start. I guess our travel skills are a bit rusty thanks to the lockdown.
First, we left town a little later than Sasha wanted to. The car almost didn’t start after grabbing some groceries in my hometown before making the 2-hour drive.
But fortunately, it did start and we made it to our cute Bear Bottoms cabin in Townsend. We were so excited to be there. Sasha immediately got out his Go Pro to record a video tour.
We stepped outside to start the tour on the porch and promptly locked ourselves out, without my phone, before either of us had connected to the WiFi or memorized the keyless entry code. Oh, and neither of us had cell phone service. The car keys were locked inside the cabin to boot.
Talk about amateur hour.
Sasha ended up having to knock on another cabin door to ask if he could connect to their WiFi and get the keyless entry code.
But before he did that, he asked a family hanging out by the pool for help. As he was walking away he heard the little boy say, “That poor man!”
Once we got back into the cabin we just chilled there for the evening and took advantage of the hot tub on the porch. We managed to get back into our travel groove and things got much better after the first day.
At least we had a private hot tub to make it all better!
Day 2 (Wednesday): Cycle Around Cades Cove
After many days of waking up early to teach English online, we took our first morning very easy. We slept in and had a nice brunch.
When we finally got around to making plans, we decided to rent bikes and cycle around Cades Cove because we realized it was car-free day. This new pilot program started mid-June and will continue until September 30th.
We learned that bike rentals are only available until 3:00 pm so we jumped in the car and rushed over. Fortunately, we managed to get the last two rentals of the day.
Usually, our habit of sleeping in and enjoying lazy mornings backfires but on this day it really worked out in our favor as we ran into very few other people. Most of the structures we stopped to see were empty. The late afternoon sun provided great light for photos and it wasn’t too hot.
Cades Cove is a one-way 11-mile loop road in a valley surrounded by mountains. Along the road are an array of historic buildings such as churches, log cabins, barns, a working grist mill, and many other restored structures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My favorite part was the Cable Mill historic area next to the Visitor’s Center.
There are also a couple of hiking trails perfect for a day hike.
I couldn’t imagine trying to bike this road with cars on it. I’ve also seen photos of lines of cars in the busiest part of the summer and fall which doesn’t look inviting either. I highly recommend coming to cycle on a Wednesday if you can.
Day 3 (Thursday): The Sinks and Hiking
On Thursday, we woke up ready to do some hiking. The only problem was that I had broken my pinky toe just two days before our trip by stubbing it really hard. So that meant a lot of long, strenuous trails weren’t an option.
With that in mind, we packed a lunch and went to The Sinks first.
The Sinks is a cascading waterfall that was created by a dynamite blast in order to free a log jam back when the logging industry was exploding in the Smokies. The blast rerouted the river and created a deep hole where visitors can go swimming.
The Sinks is one of the few waterfalls you can access by car in the Smokies. It was a bit crowded when we were there. We thought this might be the case so our backup plan was to hike Meigs Creek Trail as the trailhead starts next to the parking area. So we ate our packed lunch while enjoying the view of the waterfalls and then hit the trail. We saw only two other people.
The trail is 3.5 miles and leads to the Meigs Creek Waterfall. Normally, I would have been all for hiking to the waterfall but my broken toe made that difficult. So we went about halfway and turned around.
Next, we jumped in the car to enjoy the scenic drive on Little River Road and found the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.
We noticed a sign for the Greenbrier School Trail trailhead. It was only half a mile so we went for it.
The trail led us to the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse. It’s one of the many restored structures in the Smoky Mountains so you could go inside and feel what it was like to be a student there.
Being teachers, that was an exciting find for us. We learned that some students traveled as far as nine miles to attend class, a long way to go in a covered wagon or on a horse.
Day 4 (Friday): Shopping Day
After staying up late putting together our new Phish scrapbook, we were feeling really lazy so we decided to jump in the car and make our own auto tour.
We came across a little shopping area in Wears Valley with a general store called Mountain Brothers General Store and decided to stop and take a look.
Shopping isn’t normally our thing but since it was our Great Smoky Mountains vacation, we thought it would be fun to look around.
We walked away with some homemade avocado tomatillo salsa, Hippie Chippies (I mean, we had to get those!), three pieces of the most delicious fudge, flavored coffee, and some gifts for my mom and stepdad for hosting us during the pandemic.
Then we walked across the street to the Mountain View Winery and did a little wine tasting. We left with three bottles of wine. Yum!
Next, we took the road from Wears Valley that lead into the park and found ourselves back at the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the water and taking photos.
Day 5 (Saturday): Our Anniversary!
The next day was our 5th wedding anniversary but it was also moving day. I don’t think most people would plan to move locations on their anniversary but that’s how it worked out for us as we only planned our trip two and a half weeks before.
Check out time for Bear Bottoms was 10:00 am which meant we had to get up and out, no slothing around. It was the perfect excuse to spend the day driving through the Smoky Mountains to the North Carolina side.
Our first stop was the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend.
This museum’s mission is to preserve the history and culture of the Great Smoky Mountains and East Tennessee.
The Historical Village has 13 buildings such as a Post Office, General Store, and log cabin all of which are furnished based on when they were built. There was even a moonshine still on our visit.
Next, we jumped in the car and headed towards our next destination – Bryson City, NC. Along the way, we stopped at the Chimneys Picnic Area for lunch, several different overlooks, and the Alum Caves Trail.
This is one of the most popular trails in the park so it’s no surprise it was the most crowded trail we encountered on our trip. But not so crowded that we felt unsafe.
Unfortunately, we had to scrap some of our plans. We wanted to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and several of the overlooks. But they were so crowded. The parking lots were overflowing with cars and it didn’t feel very safe. So we kept going.
We made it to Bryson City in the late afternoon and checked into the RV in Big Bears RV Park. The location was perfect as it was only a 2-minute drive from the entrance to the Deep Creek area of the Smokies.
After getting settled in, we went out for the first time during the trip and had some beers at Mountain Layers Brewery. There was also a food truck called the Rice Wagon with a tasty sounding menu outside.
It was so nice to enjoy a craft beer on the roof. That combined with the sunset made it a really awesome anniversary <3
Day 6 (Sunday): Tubing Day
After a morning slothing about and enjoying a nice brunch and our 5-year-old wedding cookies, it was time to go tubing! The Homer Simpson of water sports.
I’ve been tubing many times in my life but tubing in the Smoky Mountains in Deep Creek was a totally new experience.
First, you rent your tubes. There are several tube rental places in Deep Creek. We went with the Deep Creek Tube Center. It’s only $6 per person for the whole day.
Then, they tie the tubes to your car. Vendors are not allowed in the Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side so you have to drive yourself in and then walk your tube about a half-mile to the starting point, of which there are two. The upper starting point has more rapids with somewhat steep drop-offs, perfect for adventure lovers. If you’re a bit more risk-averse, the lower point is more chilled out.
When you reach the end of the route, you can go back up and do it all over again as many times as you like! You just need to return the tubes still inflated by 7 pm.
We went down twice but then Sasha was so cold his teeth were chattering. So we returned the tubes and went back to the RV to change.
Then we came back into the park to do an evening hike on the Juney Whank Falls Trail. It was perfect at first because we were the only people there. But then dark clouds and thunder started to roll in.
We thought we had some time before the rain came so we went and sat by the empty river. But then the clouds opened up and we got soaked running to the car. Oops!
We ended the day watching the most amazing sunset.
Day 7 (Monday): Auto Tour to Clingmans Dome and Cherokee, NC
This was another lazy day so we made our own auto tour of the North Carolina side.
We thought that it being Monday would mean fewer people inside the park so we drove up to Clingmans Dome. The first time we went there, it was super cloudy and you couldn’t see anything. So we felt like we needed redemption.
The weather was great but it was still crowded. We did our best to enjoy the views while keeping our distance from people but it wasn’t easy.
The Appalachian Trail goes right by Clingmans Dome and connects the observation tower to the parking area so we took that instead of the main walkway to get back to the car.
It was mostly empty and that was the theme for all the trails we hiked except for the Alum Cave Trail.
Once again, we had packed a lunch and the overlook where we stopped to eat was completely empty. Talk about lunch with a view!
On the way back to Bryson City, we stopped in the town of Cherokee to take photos of the river and have some ice cream.
That evening, we met up with our fellow travel blogging friends from Roaming Around the World at the same brewery from our first night in Bryson City.
Day 8 (Tuesday): Exploring Deep Creek and downtown Bryson City
On our last day, we wanted to do one last hike and wander around downtown.
After checking out of the RV, we hiked the Deep Creek Loop Trail.
Then we went into town and went out for only the third time during our Great Smoky Mountains vacation. There’s an awesome looking Sonic-style drive-in at the edge of town that looks like the perfect place for a socially distant meal but it was storming when we arrived and it knocked out their power.
We ate at the Barbeque Wagon instead. They have outdoor seating with a view of the river. I highly recommend it if you enjoy southern-style barbeque!
Finally, we wrapped up our Great Smoky Mountains vacation wandering around downtown Bryson City checking out all the cute little shops and taking photos.
The Artsy Olive caught our eye so we went in to check it out. Their specialty is infused balsamic and olive oils but they have so much more. They have samples of everything so you don’t need to guess about the things you’ll like. We walked out with some Blue Crab salsa, bleu cheese stuffed olives, black garlic hot sauce, some Moscow Mule mix, and some awesome Bloody Mary mix.
If you find yourself in downtown Bryson City, do not miss the Artsy Olive! Be sure and tell them we sent you 🙂
Bryson City is also famous for the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad so you won’t find a shortage of murals and old railway cars.
Total Cost for a Week-Long Great Smoky Mountains Vacation
We typically keep a close eye on our spending when we travel. We’re not super frugal but we don’t normally go all out on shopping and multiple vacation rentals.
But this was our Great Smoky Mountains vacation and it was for a special occasion so we went all out. I have to say, it wasn’t as expensive as I thought.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Bear Bottoms Cabin – $659 / 4 nights (this may not be the same for you as Airbnb prices fluctuate)
- Glamping RV – $264 / 3 nights
- Gas – $50
- Food & Drinks – $321
- Entertainment (entrance + rental fees) – $65
- Shopping – $197
- Tips (wine tasting + cleaners) – $25
Total cost for one week in the Smoky Mountains- $1,581
A few things to note:
We didn’t go out to eat at all in Townsend because we had such a nice kitchen. Plus we enjoy cooking and we didn’t want to risk contracting the virus.
We only went out twice in Bryson City to the same brewery because they had a rooftop deck + a food truck and masks were required to enter.
Time to Plan Your Own Great Smoky Mountains Vacation
In conclusion, I just have a few more tips to make your trip to the Smokies as awesome as possible:
- Pack a lunch and some snacks if you plan to be out all afternoon.
- Bring enough water. Even if you’re just driving between various short trails, it’s a good idea to keep at least an extra gallon jug of water in the car.
- Have an idea of the things you want to do but be flexible. Always have a backup plan in case certain places are too crowded.
- Pack warm clothing if you plan to do a longer hike at higher elevations.
- Be prepared for rain.
- Bring sunscreen.
- Leave no trace! Always take your trash with you.
And that’s it!
I hope this helps you plan a similar trip.
Feel free to contact me or leave a comment if you have any questions or just want to say hi 🙂