Must-See Places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With more than 800 square miles of mountainous terrain, old-growth forests, and a wide variety of plant and animal life, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some of the most exciting sights for your Smoky Mountain vacation. But the sheer amount of things to do and places to see can be overwhelming for any family traveling to East Tennessee.

Where should I start? What should I make sure to see? Where are the best places to take my family? These are the questions we have tried to answer for you so you can make the most of your time in the Smokies. Of course, you can’t go wrong simply exploring the park for yourself and going wherever your curiosity leads you. But if you want a little direction, check out our answers to frequently asked questions below.

Q: Where is the best place to take my family for a picnic?
A: Cades Cove! Although there are several great places to enjoy a perfect picnic in the park, Cades Cove is our recommended destination because of the number of options it provides. You can choose from 81 different picnic spots, and after lunch, enjoy a horseback ride through the Smokies or a hike to a centuries-old farm. The 11-mile loop road through Cades Cove affords you with so many possibilities for your day in the park that your family picnic may become an all-day affair!

Q: What is the best waterfall hike in the park?
A: Rainbow Falls is a great one! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 16 different waterfalls you can hike to and explore, but Rainbow Falls is truly unique because of its stunning height—it’s 80 feet tall! It’s also a favorite hike in the Smokies because of the feature that gives the falls its name: the beautiful rainbow created by the mist on sunny afternoons. Even in the winter, this waterfall shows off beautiful ice formations that you won’t want to miss.

Q: What is the best hike for a family in the park?

A: Gatlinburg Trail! This hike is one of only two where you can walk dogs and bicycle. You can also use a stroller on this trail, which is only 3.8 miles roundtrip. The trail begins at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and runs to the outskirts of the city of Gatlinburg. It is relatively flat and follows the Little Pigeon River, so your kids can take off their shoes and splash in the water whenever they need a short break. You’ll also enjoy seeing foundations and chimneys of several old homesites along this trail. But be sure to review our family hiking tips before you head out!

Q: Where is the best place to see wildlife in the park?
A: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail! Like the name implies, this narrow, winding road is meant to be driven. Take it slow along the 5.5-mile loop road, which affords beautiful views of mountain streams and historic buildings. Even better, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail will give you the chance to see all kinds of wildlife, including chipmunks, raccoons, and even the symbol of the Smokies—the American Black Bear! Their habitats are maintained in areas along the road.

Q: What is the best hike to view historic buildings and homesteads?

A: Oconaluftee! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to more than 90 historic structures, including houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills. But Oconaluftee is our favorite place to visit because it offers both a visitors’ center and the Mountain Farm Museum. At the museum, you’ll get to view a variety of centuries-old buildings that are all preserved in the same location. This includes a house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, and smokehouse.

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