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4 Day Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary

USA Travel
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Looking for the perfect Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary for an upcoming trip? You’ve come to the right place! Firstly, it’s easy to see why you have chosen the the Great Smoky Mountains as your vacation destination. The sheer beauty of the national park really is impossible to describe, and it’s the most visited national park in the United States for a reason! When you arrive, you will quickly understand why it attracts more than 13 million visitors each year! There are so many great things about the Smoky Mountains that make them extra special for nature and outdoor enthusiasts. From misty mountaintop vistas to the echoes of past pioneer life, you just have to experience the Great Smoky Mountains for yourself! 

Within this post, I’ll take you on a four-day journey through the park’s most iconic hikes and landmarks. I will share breathtaking landscapes and rich cultural history, and reveal the best places to visit throughout the park and surrounding towns for a unique Smokies experience. All of these things make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a must-explore destination. If you haven’t already, you’ll definitely be booking a trip by the end of this post. Just be prepared for full days and a packed itinerary. After all, the Park offers so much to see and do! Continue reading below for the ultimate 48 hour Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary! 

Note: this post may contain affiliate links that I make a small commission from if you book an Airbnb, cabin rental, rental car, or flight through this post. This comes at no additional cost to you, and I never recommend services or experiences that I don’t think you will enjoy, too. Now, let’s get to it!n

A girl stands on a rocky outcropping. Text says "Great Smoky Mountains National Park Bucket List: Top Hikes and Sights you Cant Miss"

About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is situated on the border between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee in the southeastern region of the United States. Encompassing a vast area of over 800 square miles, it is considered one of the best places in the U.S. to take a road trip. It is renowned for its rich biodiversity, ancient mountains, and well-preserved natural beauty. The National Park is home to a diverse range of plant and animal species, including over 19,000 that have been documented. It is estimated there are tens of thousands more that are unknown!

Flora & Fauna in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The park’s lush forests, meadows, and streams provide habitats for a variety of wildlife, from black bears and elk to salamanders and fireflies. The Great Smoky Mountains are called the “Salamander Capital of the World” with 5 different families and roughly 30 species of salamanders represented! The high ranges of the Great Smoky Mountains actually meet the criteria for a temperate rain forest, helping make this park the most bio diverse in the National Park System. The park is even home to an 80-food waterfall named Rainbow Falls which I will talk about later on in this article! 

The Smoky Mountains provide some of the most beautiful mountain views in the United States. In fact, they are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world (between 200 and 300 million years old). As much as 25 percent of the Great Smoky Mountains are considered old-growth forest. There is a trail called Andrews Bald that was one of our favorite places to hike and explore as it traverses mainly through old growth forest. There are so many shades of green, it’s absolutely mesmerizing. The rounded peaks and misty atmosphere contribute to mountains’ name, as the blue haze that often envelops the mountains is created by natural compounds released by the abundant vegetation. It’s also very common to see fog clinging to the mountains. As many as 100 species of trees are native to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is just incredible! n

A girl on a trail next to lush greenery like moss and plants

Cultural History of the Great Smoky Mountains

The area that is now the Great Smoky Mountains was once inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Cherokee. These indigenous peoples had a deep connection to the land, relying on its resources for sustenance and practicing cultural traditions that shaped the character of the region. European settlers then began moving into the Smoky Mountains in the 18th century. They established homesteads, cleared land for agriculture, and adapted to the challenges of mountain living. Historic structures, including log cabins, churches, and mills, have been preserved to showcase the way of life of early settlers in the area. Cades Cove, a picturesque valley in the park, is particularly well-known for its historic structures and the opportunity to see wildlife. To learn more about the Cherokee’s way of life and their connection to the vast land of the Smokies, you can visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian which is just 35 miles from the town of Gatlinburg. Not only is it a moving and highly educational activity, the drive there makes for a scenic day trip.n

The Best Time to Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park 

The Park is beautiful any time of year and makes for the perfect outdoor adventure. However, I recommend visiting this National Park between May and October for the best weather conditions. Visiting during shoulder seasons (early spring and late fall) will mean that there will be fewer crowds. In mid-May, the weather is already fairly warm, and the lush green leaves have returned to the trees. When the weather is just right, it’s the perfect place for a great road trip. There are so many scenic overlooks to enjoy a picnic lunch, and there are plenty of mountain towns around the Park that are easy to drive to. You’ll likely encounter some rain, but that’s all part of should-season travel. I went in May, and I thought it was the perfect time to be in the park! While fall is an incredible time to visit too, it is also likely the busiest time (for good reason due to the stunning fall foliage). 

Fog surrounds the mountains

Where to Stay: The Gateway Town of Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg, a small town nestled at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains, serves as the perfect home base for exploring. Located right outside the entrance of the Park, Gatlinburg offers a range of accommodations, including hotels, cabin retreats and rentals, airbnbs, and campgrounds, catering to various preferences and budgets. This makes it an ideal base camp for those looking to stay close to the park. It also makes it a lot easier to get in and get parking in the early morning hours! Additionally, the town provides many amenities such as restaurants, shops, and entertainment options (like Sky Park and The Village Shops), so you can restock supplies and enjoy creature comforts before or after their park adventures. We enjoyed staying in an Airbnb up on the mountain just outside the city. It was very close to town and the park entrance, but far enough away to enjoy peace and quiet. We also had some bear visitors a few times during our stay. There are quite a few bears in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s very important to take EVERYTHING out of your car and lock it so you don’t have a furry friend breaking in.

A More Affordable Option: Pigeon Forge 

If you’re looking for cheaper accommodations that are still close to the park, you could look at properties in the nearby town of Pigeon Forge. Pigeon Forge has dozens of cozy mountain cabins, Airbnb rentals, and hotels to fit just about every budget. You might even be able to find hotels for under $99 on sites like Expedia during certain months! It’s a great blend of small town charm and upscale mountain vacationing. The town is easily accessible via major highways and boasts a number of world class museums, high-energy shows, wineries, and theme parks. After all, it is the home of Dolly Parton’s famous theme park, Dollywood! Even better, it’s just a short 20 minute drive to the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a 13 minutes drive from Gatlinburg.n

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary: Day 1

On your first day in the Park, you’ll want to start early to not only make the most of a full hiking day, but find a good parking spot in the park. For the best experience possible, plan out your hiking routes the night before. If you plan to complete all the below hikes it will be a long day, so make sure you have enough time to complete them. It’s also a good idea to check local weather patterns the night before to wear appropriate clothing and pack all the hiking accessories you may need!

Walk the Alum Cave Trail to Alum Cave

Alum Cave Trail is a popular trail for good reason. It’s a waterfall hike that will take you through old growth forest and the narrow Arch Rock tunnel to the Alum Cave Bluffs (approximately 2.5 miles one way). This is a fantastic (5-miles out and back) hike in itself, but continuing on will take you to Mount Leconte for absolutely breathtaking mountain views (it’s an 11-mile loop road). There are several routes to Mount Leconte, but this one is the most popular. 

A girl stands under a cavelike formation

Chase Waterfalls at Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole

You’ll find these two amazing water features on the Big Creek Trail. Located about an hour from Gatlinburg, the Big Creek Trail is a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. Midnight Hole is a pristine swimming hole that is perfect for a refreshing dip on a summer day. Continue on the trail to the beautiful Mouse Creek Falls, a good spot for a picnic lunch and also the return point (4 miles round trip). 

Taste Moonshine at Adventure Distilling Company

On the way back to Gatlinburg, stop at Adventure Distilling Company to sample some real Moonshine! Their tasting is pretty wild- for a very low price, we tried 10 different moonshines. That equated to about 2.5 shots total- yikes! They also make some fantastic mixed drinks featuring their different flavors of shine.

A girl standing in a natural swimming hole

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary: Day 2

The second day of your Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary will have you hiking waterfall trails, taking in scenic overlooks, and ending the day with a delicious meal at a local steakhouse!

Hike Charlie’s Bunion & Newfound Gap

Charlie’s Bunion may have been my favorite hike in GSMNP. The trail starts at Newfound Gap, right on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. Newfound Gap serves as a unique meeting point of states, where hikers of the Appalachian Trail can stand with one foot in North Carolina and the other in Tennessee. It’s a symbolic moment that reflects the trail’s role in connecting diverse landscapes and communities. On this hike, you’ll traverse the rocky AT out to some incredible views of the surrounding mountains from the rocky outcrop referred to as “Charlie’s Bunion” (including Mt. Leconte)! 

A girl standing on a rocky outcropping with mountains in the background

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail & Grotto Falls

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a captivating scenic drive within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Renowned for its natural beauty, historic structures, and cascading waterfalls, the Roaring Fork Motor Trail offers visitors a immersive journey through the heart of the Smoky Mountains. The motor trail begins just outside Gatlinburg, making it easily accessible for visitors. The entrance is located along Cherokee Orchard Road. Roaring Fork is a one-way loop road that winds its way through the lush forests and mountainsides. The loop is approximately 6 miles long, allowing drivers to explore at a leisurely pace. Along this road you’ll find the trailhead for Grotto Falls. The hike is approximately 3 miles round trip and leads to a beautiful waterfall that you can walk behind. It’s a great place to stretch your legs and take a break from driving. 

A girl standing next to a waterfall

Visit One of the Park’s Many Waterfalls!

GSMNP is a haven for waterfall enthusiasts, boasting stunning cascades scattered throughout its landscapes. From the iconic Laurel Falls, easily accessible via a paved trail, to the mesmerizing Rainbow Falls, each waterfall holds its own unique charm. For those seeking a more challenging trek, Ramsey Cascades rewards with its towering beauty at the end of a rigorous hike. The secluded Hen Wallow Falls, tucked away in a peaceful cove, provides a serene escape.

Abrams Falls and Rainbow Falls (that I mention above) are two of the prominent waterfalls in the park. Located in the Cades Cove area, Abrams Falls is one of the park’s most popular waterfalls. The hike to Abrams Falls is a moderate 5.2-mile round trip, making it accessible to a wide range of visitors. The highlight, however, is the 20-foot high Abrams Falls, known for its impressive volume of water cascading into a large pool. In the Roaring Fork area of the park, Rainbow Falls is renowned for its striking 80-foot drop and the rainbow-like mist that often forms on sunny days. Like Grotto Falls, the trailhead is accessible via the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This 5.4-mile round-trip hike is considered moderate to strenuous, but the reward is well worth the effort. You could visit all three of these park locations in a day most of them are driving roads. However, if you want to get a couple of short or mid-length hikes in, you should start early! 

A cascading waterfall that looks like it has tiers

Enjoy a Meal at The Peddlers Steakhouse

If you want to treat yourself to an upscale steak meal, The Peddlers Steakhouse is where you do it! After a long day of driving and hiking, a hearty plate of medium cooked steak with all the sides and fixin’s is perfection. To start, order a bowl of the French Onion Soup and an order of stuffed shrimp. For the main course, the King Cut Prime Rib with a baked potato is the best option. If you want something a bit healthier, Peddlers Steakhouse has a giant salad bar that is buffet style. It has just about everything you could want or need for a salad. For dessert, don’t pass up the Hot Blackberry Cobbler. 

A waterfall winding down to a creek surrounded by lush greenery

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary: Day 3

The third full day of your Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary will have you stopping for a few quick snaps at an old grist mill, taking on short but challenging hikes, and taking on one of the most scenic drives in the U.S.!

Stop By the Oconaluftee Visitor Center & Old Grist Mill 

About a 52 minute drive from Gatlinburg, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, North Carolina. It also includes the Mountain Farm Museum, consisting of historic farm buildings moved from places throughout the park to be preserved in a single area. The nearby Mingus Mill is a historic gristmill built in 1886 that uses a water-powered turbine to power machinery. The mill is preserved on its original site. This area of the park often gets overlooked, and I don’t think it should! If you have the time, it’s worth the stop before making your way back to Gatlinburg for the evening. It’s a great spot to start your third day in the Great Smoky Mountains. And, you can really get some great pics for the gram’ there as well. 

Hike Clingman’s Dome

The second stop on day 3 of your Great Smoky Mountains Park itinerary is Clingman’s Dome. At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail (and in the state of Tennessee). In fact, it’s the third highest point in the Eastern United States! From the parking area, it’s a short half mile walk on a paved trail to reach the Observation tower. While it is a short hike, keep in mind it is all uphill. You should also expect a temperature difference of at least 10 degrees (cooler) than lower elevations in the park. It is also very common for the tower to be surrounded by fog, so you may have to try a few times before you get a view! I also recommend hiking to Andrew’s Bald while you’re here, which is roughly 4 miles out and back through beautiful old growth forest. The views at the bald are supposedly spectacular, but I wouldn’t know because we were totally socked in!

A girl stands on a raised boardwalk path to an observation tower

Drive Newfound Gap Road

Newfound Gap Road has to be one of the most scenic drives in the United States! This 33 mile scenic drive through the heart of the park from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina takes about an hour to complete, depending on traffic and how many times you stop! I would plan for a few hours, as there are many spectacular overlooks to pull off at, including the Newfound Gap Overlook! It’s also conveniently located just 15 minutes from Clingman’s Dome, so you can easily visit one after the other.

A waterfall cascades down a tall mountain peak

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary: Day 4

For the final day of your 4 day Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary, you’ll enjoy a more leisurely pace, but still enjoy plenty of beautiful sights! You’ll witness stunning waterfalls, otherworldly rock formations, (and if you’re lucky) maybe even a black bear!

Mingo Falls

Near the Oconaluftee area just outside the park sits the beautiful Mingo Falls. The short .4-mile hike is mostly stairs leading to a stunning 95-foot waterfall! If you’re on the North Carolina side, this quick hike is a must! It’s about an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg, so if you want enough time to fit this short hike into your last day in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s best to complete this hike first!

A large waterfall pours over rock

Cades Cove Loop Road

The Cades Cove Loop is a very popular area on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cades Cove Loop is a scenic 11-mile loop road that can be accomplished by vehicle, bicycle, or on foot. However, if you choose to do it on foot, be sure to check the days and times when the loop is closed to cars. The big draw to Cades Cove is the high likelihood of seeing wildlife — like black bears — as well as the many historic buildings. If you do encounter wildlife, be sure to give them plenty of space! Your camera has zoom, ya know!

An adult bear and a cub on the edge of the woods

Explore The Chimneys

The Chimneys are situated in the Newfound Gap area of the park, accessible via the Chimney Tops Trailhead. The Chimneys consist of two prominent rock outcroppings that rise dramatically from the surrounding landscape. These formations, shaped by erosion and weathering over millions of years, create a striking sight. The Chimney Tops Trail, known for its panoramic views, was historically a popular trail leading to the Chimney Tops peaks. However, due to significant rockslide damage, hikers are now discouraged from climbing to the peaks. This is a great spot to end your adventures for the day, as The Chimney’s are just a short 15 minute drive from Gatlinburg. 

Eat Dinner at The Greenbrier Restaurant

For your final night in Gatlinburg, head to The Greenbrier Restaurant. Serving up some of Tennessee’s most delicious Southern grub, it’s upscale but unfussy enough to maintain a chill mountain vibe. After all that hiking and exploring you’ll be starving, after all! Some of their most popular menu items include their Spoon Bread,  Bone-In Ribeye, and the Duck Egg Rolls. The menu does change periodically, so be sure to check their current offerings ahead of your arrival. If you fancy a cocktail, The Greenbrier has a great selection of handcrafted cocktails too! The most famous cocktail is called The Dylan. In fact, it was named” Gatlinburg’s Most Famous Cocktail.” It involves raw pecans being lit on fire, followed by black cherry ice spheres and a generous amount of bourbon. Yes, please. 

 

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Travel & Safety Tipsn

Parking in GSMNP

While entry to the park is free, you do need to purchase a pass if you plan to leave your vehicle at parking lot inside the Park. It’s only $15 for a week and can be purchased online or in person. If online, you do need to print it out. On that note, go in the early morning to find the best parking spots, as lots fill up fast. It also helps to look for off the beaten path trails which are usually further away from Gatlinburg. 

Wildlife Safety and Leave No Trace

When you spot wildlife, it can be tempting to try to get as close as possible. Please refrain from doing so! It is so very important to keep a respectful distance from wildlife for your safety and theirs! Animal interactions with humans are NEVER good for the animal. This alters their regular behavior, which can lead to dangerous consequences for them and you. Please also help leave the park better than you found it. Make sure to take all trash with you and dispose of it properly. Even food scraps must be picked up. Leaving any food behind attracts animals, and that is not good for the reasons I mentioned above! Lastly, do your best to stay on the established trails. The plant life off trail is incredibly sensitive, taking years and even decades to recover once it is stepped on.

Conclusion: Great Smoky Mountain National Park Itinerary

If you follow the above travel and safety tips, respect wildlife, stay on marked trails, and practice Leave No Trace, you will surely have an amazing and unforgettable trip to the Smokies. I hope this 4 day Great Smoky Mountains National Park itinerary provided some helpful insight to make your vacation as stress free as possible. If you plan to make your own trip to the Smokies, you could research available budget rentals on VRBO, or save on last minute getaways on Hotels.com like I did! If you did a hike or dined at a restaurant I recommended, I would love to hear how your experience was! Email me at krismariawanders@gmail.com

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