Smoky Mountains: 25 Ways to Explore the Great Outdoors

The Smoky Mountains are home to some of the most beautiful and amazing outdoor adventures in the Southeast. But what if you’re not an “outdoorsy” person? What if you are? There are many ways to explore the great outdoors in Gatlinburg, no matter what category you fall into!


Photos here courtesy of Gatlinburg

Easy Ways to Enjoy the Outdoors from the Car (or Close to It)

Fasten your seatbelt. We’re taking a look at all of the adventures that can be done by families with young children, those who prefer to enjoy the great outdoors by car, or nature-lovers who just want to take a little easier approach to outdoor adventure.

1. Hike the Cataract Falls Trail

This trail sits inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park – and is perfect for families with young children. The trailhead is just to the left of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is only 10 minutes from downtown Gatlinburg.

This ¾-mile round-trip trail has bridges, a creek, a fun tree with a huge hollow, and it takes you to a waterfall with a  25-foot drop!

2. Visit The Sinks

Also in GSMNP, The Sinks is a waterfall that you can drive right up to. The parking area to view the falls is along Little River Road, 12 miles west of Sugarlands Visitor Center.

3. Stop by the Place of a Thousand Drips

This is a low-flow waterfall that can be seen from the comfort of your car! Due to the small amount of water that flows down, the name is perfect because the water splits over the rocks and creates many small channels. This is stop #15 on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. (The motor trail is closed in winter.)

4. Spend the Day at Herbert Holt Park

This city park in Gatlinburg has something for everyone in your group! This park has a picnic area, a playground, walking trails, a children’s fishing stream, and a handicap-accessible fishing pier.

5. Enjoy a Picnic at the Chimneys Picnic Area

Chimneys is a wonderful picnic area within the Great Smoky Mountain Park that has plenty of picnic tables for your family and friends. Climbing the rocks in the area is a favorite pastime for kids.

The National Park Service does a wonderful job maintaining their picnic areas, but please remember to Leave No Trace, so that wildlife – like black bears, for instance – are not attracted to your crumbs! (Closed in winter.)

Check out more great National Parks for kids!

6. Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

This is one trail you can do completely from the comfort of your vehicle! The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5-mile, one-way loop road that was named after one of the fastest-moving streams in the area.

Driving this narrow road allows you to observe the stream, an old-growth forest, and log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. (Closed in winter.)

And if you’d like to continue your driving adventures, Cades Cove is an 11-mile, one-way loop road, that is known as one of the best places to observe wildlife.

7. Explore Anakeesta

Anakeesta is a theme park in Gatlinburg that’s all about outdoor fun – and there’s something for every age group.

For younger families, Anakeesta offers so much. For instance, there’s the Chondola ride – which takes you up 600-feet to the top of the Anakeesta summit.

Hiking in the trees with the Tree Canopy Walk, is another fun activity. The canopy walk has 16 connected sky bridges 40-60 feet above the forest floor.

And, of course, the Children’s Treehouse Village Playground, a whimsical children’s playground filled with bridges, treehouses, and so much to explore.

8. Take a Ride on the Aerial Tramway

The aerial tramways at Ober Gatlinburg are 120-capacity cars that take you 11,000-feet above Gatlinburg, to absolutely beautiful views! The tramways leave downtown Gatlinburg and take riders up to the higher elevations of Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area.

9. Go Fish

Visit the Greenbrier area of GSMNP, and get ready to fish for trout. Trout fishing is open year-round, and anglers need either a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license. The Greenbrier entrance to the park is only 6 miles from Gatlinburg.

10. Explore the Blue Ridge Parkway

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles both North Carolina and Tennessee, so while you’re in town, you can’t miss driving on over to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway begins just inside the park entrance near Cherokee, North Carolina – a special town where you can learn about the Cherokee Indians and their way of life. This 458-mile road could take you all the way to Virginia if you wanted!

With many scenic overlooks, tunnels, trails, and picnic spots, it’s easy to see why it’s considered America’s Favorite Drive.


Beginner Adventures

Gatlinburg also offers many outdoor activities for those who may be looking for a little more adventure! Here we’ll look at  some hikes that elementary-aged children could do, adults who are not yet accustomed to long hikes, and adventures for those who are up for a little excitement.

11. Go Horseback Riding

Two places in Gatlinburg offer horseback riding – and what a wonderful way to explore the area. Smoky Mountain Stables, and Sugarlands Riding Stables are both located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and offer guided tours through the park on horseback. Saddle up!

12. Hike the Porters Creek Trail

The Porters Creek Trail is an awesome 2-mile round-trip hike in the GSMNP that takes you through the forest to a barn, springhouse, and cabin. In the 1700s, Europeans settled a community in the Greenbrier area of the park, and remnants of that community are still evident today. This hike is especially beautiful in the spring, when wildflowers are in bloom.

13. Visit Grotto Falls

Hiking the Trillium Gap Trail to Grotto Falls is a popular hike within the GSMNP. It’s a 2.6-mile round-trip hike that’s considered a moderate hike, because portions of the trail are rocky. Certainly, this is not a trail for flip flops!

The hike will take you through a beautiful old-growth hemlock forest and then it runs behind the 25-foot waterfall that is Grotto Falls. How cool is that?!

14. Race on a Dueling Zipline at Anakeesta

You can zip right next to your friends or family at the Dueling Zipline at Anakeesta! This zipline takes you high above the forest floor, and there are two challenge stations too, where you can rappel off platforms. At the end of the experience, guests take the Chondola back up to the summit.

15. Go Camping

There are many campgrounds to choose from in Gatlinburg, and within the park, for every type of camper.

In and around the city, you can choose from the Twin Creek RV Resort, Camping in the Smokies, Adventure Bound Camping Resorts, or the Camp LeConte Luxury Outdoor Resort.

And within the park, there are 10 frontcountry campgrounds to choose from. Frontcountry campgrounds have restrooms with cold running water, and flush toilets, and each site has a fire ring and picnic table, and are available for both tent and RV campers!

16. Visit Clingman’s Dome

Want to visit the highest point in Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Sure, you do!

The drive from downtown Gatlinburg to the parking area at Clingman’s Dome takes about an hour, but it is so worth it. Once you arrive, there’s a visitor’s center, and a half-mile, paved trail up to the man-made observation tower.

Even though this trail is fairly short and paved, it is steep. Like, really steep. So much so, park officials do not recommend bringing strollers.

The actual dome – which refers to the mountaintop – lies within both Tennessee and North Carolina. On a clear day, it’s said that visitors can see Fontana Lake, nearly a mile below, or as far away as 100 miles. It’s a definite must-do.

17. Hike the Forney Ridge Trail to Andrews Bald

After visiting Clingman’s Dome, you’re still ready to hike some more? Enter the Forney Ridge Trail.

This moderate trail is a 3.6-mile round-trip hike to Andrews Bald, and some absolutely stunning views. The trailhead is at the end of the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, and travels through forests, before you pop out to the majestic views of the bald.

A bald is a high elevation area that has a grassy meadow, and there are many located throughout the southern Appalachian mountain area. But Andrews Bald is the highest bald in the mountain range.

Insider tip: Hike this is June or July when the azaleas and rhododendron are in bloom.

18. Explore the Alum Cave Trail

This trail is popular, and for great reason. The Alum Cave Trail is a moderate, 4.4-mile round-trip hike of pure beauty.

The hike sometimes travels beside a creek, and you get to see Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and the Alum Cave – which isn’t really a cave, but it’s still awesome. This is absolutely a must-do hike.

Insider tip: The parking lots for this trailhead fill up early and fast, especially during the peak season. For instance, 9:30 a.m. would be too late to find a spot in the fall. Get there early!


Advanced Expeditions

Okay, thrill seekers – we’re talking to you! Ready to go fast, get wet, or hike far? Gatlinburg has a ton of activities you’ll love!

19. Experience Rowdy Bear Mountain

Rowdy Bear Mountain is located in downtown Gatlinburg, and offers two amazing thrill rides that you’re guaranteed to love.

The Rowdy Bear Mountain Glider is a single-rail coaster that is a combination of free falling and hang gliding! Get that heart rate up – it reaches speeds up to 35 mph while racing through the forest!

20. Go Whitewater Rafting

The Big Pigeon River has 12 Class-III and Class-IV rapids, and it flows near the GSMNP and the Cherokee National Forest, near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Gatlinburg has several whitewater rafting companies that guide you through the waters, such as Smoky Mountain Outdoors, Nantahala Outdoor Center, and Rafting in the Smokies. Great ready to get wet!

21. Stay at LeConte Lodge

LeConte Lodge is the highest lodge in the eastern United States, and guess what? You can only get there by hiking to it!

Located inside the Great Smoky Mountains Park, the lodge is located just below the summit of Mt. LeConte.

The lodge is the only permanent sleeping accommodations located within the park. And although there are no roads, there are five different hiking trails to choose from that will take you there, and they range from 5.5 miles to 8 miles, one-way. But those views? They’re spectacular!

22. Hike the Chimney Tops Trail

This is a popular 3.3-mile round-trip hike, so why am I putting it in this section? Because the second mile towards the summit has an elevation gain of 960-feet. That is a super steep mile, so make sure you’re up for the challenge!

A new observation lookout has been recently built, and beautiful views abound!

23. Visit Charlies Bunion

Charlies Bunion is a rock outcropping with mountain views that can be reached by hiking this 8-mile out-and-back trail. The trailhead can be found at the Newfound Gap parking lot, just 13 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.

24. Campout in the Backcountry

There are many backcountry trails for camping in the GSMNP. Some of the more popular include the Spence Field Loop, the Albright Grove Loop, and the Appalachian Trail, of course. Reservations and permits are required for all backcountry camping.

25. Hike to the Tallest Waterfall in the GSMNP

An 8-mile out-and-back hike will take you to Ramsey Cascades. The water falls 100 feet! A word of caution about this hike: This trail gains over 2,000 feet in elevation in its 4 miles to the falls!

Pin This Post

The Smoky Mountains are home to some of the most beautiful and amazing outdoor adventures in the Southeast. But what if you're not an "outdoorsy" person? What if you are? There are many ways to explore the great outdoors in Gatlinburg, no matter what category you fall into!


Disclosure: Thank you to Gatlinburg for partnering with us on this post. It’s one of our favorite family vacay spots, and we are honored to help you find a way to make it special for your family, too. 


Kate Kelsthorpe

Kate Gelsthorpe is a former TV news writer, and a born and raised Georgia girl who grew up camping with her family at state parks around central and south Georgia. After 18 years in Atlanta, her family recently moved to Athens, and in their spare time you can find them exploring their new hometown. She and her husband, Kevin, are the proud parents of an 8-year-old dinosaur expert, and a 6-year-old outdoor-loving fashionista.

1 Comment on "Smoky Mountains: 25 Ways to Explore the Great Outdoors"

  1. majisa boyd | 02/14/2019 at 9:24 pm | Reply

    Love the ideas for this summer; Some beautiful sights to take in.. I’m looking forward.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.