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Best Road Trip Destinations: Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

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great smoky mountains national park
Photo: Seth Youngblood via CC

Nestled along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and stretching over 187,000 acres, you will find one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world — The Great Smoky Mountains.

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Whether you’re a hiker looking for a challenge on the Appalachian Trail or a college student wanting to spend some time in the outdoors on spring break, these mountains make the perfect destination for a road trip.


The history of the Great Smoky Mountains goes back millions of years, with the range being home to some of the oldest mountains on the planet, dating back to the last Ice Age.

The region has been inhabited for approximately 14,000 years. Native Americans likely used it for hunting as far back as 8,000-10,000 B.C., as evidenced by numerous artifacts found within the area. In more recent history, the area was home to the Cherokee Nation with settlements mostly within river valleys on the edges of the mountain range.

When Europeans explorers reached the area in the mid-18th century, they began forcefully taking land from the Native Americans in the area, and by 1805 the Cherokee people had given the land over to the U.S. government. The new settlers started the area’s logging industry, which led to the building of the Little River Railroad line.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1940. Today, Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited National Park in the country.

What you’ll see

great smoky mountains in fall
Photo: Geoff Livingston via CC

With an abundance of wildlife throughout the park and a number of hiking trails, the park offers stunning views and a breath of fresh air for anyone who needs it. You’ll see lush old-growth forests, spectacular waterfalls, and animals like birds, reptiles, and even black bears.

The towns surrounding the park, such as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, also provide a beautiful backdrop to any road trip, with chateaus dotting the mountain slopes and rustic shop fronts adding to, rather than taking away from, the natural features of the mountain range.

Where to stop

View from Cades Cove Loop Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
View from Cades Cove Loop Road
Photo: turcottes78 via CC

The Great Smoky Mountains offer a tremendous range of outdoor activities. If hiking is your thing, you have a total of 150 trails to choose from. Trails range from easy to strenuous and from short to very long. The NPS allows hikers to carry bear pepper spray to help ward off attacks from aggressive animals.

The longest and most famous trail in the park is the Appalachian Trail, which runs right through the center of the Great Smoky Mountains. The AT starts in Maine and goes all the way down to Georgia, totaling more than 2,180 miles. A total of 65.9 miles are in Tennessee, and much of that is within the park’s boundaries.

If you prefer to explore on four wheels, check out the Cades Cove Loop Road. This 11-mile loop is home to several old structures, including churches, houses, barns, and a working grist mill. Visitors often spot wildlife like white-tailed deer, turkeys, black bears, skunk, ground hog, and coyotes. Cades Cove is occasionally closed to vehicles to allow bicyclists and pedestrians to explore the area, so check before you go.

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Grotto Falls, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Grotto Falls, just off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Photo: Timothy Wildey via CC

You can also explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail from the comfort of your vehicle. This road is 5.5 miles one way and has plenty of views of waterfalls, streams, old-growth forest, and even preserved structures such as log cabins. You can find signs for the trail as you approach the park from Gatlinburg.

In Gatlinburg itself, check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which offers a glimpse at 10,000 exotic ocean fish and a lush rainforest habitat. The Village Shops have options ranging from the usual souvenirs to delicious fudge and baked goods.

Pigeon Forge is also a great place to stop in the Smoky Mountains, with Dollywood providing enough entertainment opportunities for the whole family. If that’s not enough, take a visit to the Hollywood Wax Museum, which has some of the most famous people in show business, from Elvis to John Wayne.

The Great Smoky Mountains is a fantastic destination for a short weekend break or a longer vacation, and for visitors of all ages. Make sure you add this National Park and its surrounding area to your travel bucket list (if it’s not already on there).