Summer is a great time of the year to get away from the city, recharge your batteries, and come back refreshed. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great place for an outdoor weekend adventure. The Great Smoky Mountains are located on the Tennessee – North Carolina border and are a part of the Appalachian mountain range. On top of great scenery with plenty of hiking and camping available in the park, there’s a richness of wildlife which makes this place even more special. Here are some of my favorite outdoor activities to engage in the Great Smoky Mountains.
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Top outdoors things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains
Drive the Cades Cove Loop
If you’d like to experience wildlife of the Smokies, I highly recommend taking a ride on the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop. It is a very picturesque drive through the valley, surrounded by mountain peaks. Note, however, that the road is a one-way street, and you should be prepared to stop frequently. I managed to meet quite a few black bears crossing the street right in front of me (!) and wandering in the woods or hanging out in the trees. Cades Cove is a great place to spot the park’s rich wildlife including deer, coyote, black bears, elks, and foxes. Depending on the season and crowds, you might spend a few hours here.
Visit the Clingman’s Dome
Another great spot to visit is the Clingman’s Dome. This highest point in the Smokies offers the best views of the mountains. It is a great place for sunsets and sunrises — assuming you get clear skies. I was not so lucky when I tried to photograph a sunrise there.
The drive to the dome is enjoyable and offers fantastic views of valleys and ridges with plenty of pullouts along the way to stop and admire the scenery. The road itself is 7 miles long. Just follow the road until you reach the parking. From there, you need to hike an additional half a mile to reach the observation tower. You may also stop by the Visitors’ Center located right in the parking lot.
There’s plenty of hiking available in the Smokies. I devoted half of my stay in the Smoky Mountains to hiking. Here’s a couple trails that I enjoyed.
Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
I recommend this popular and scenic 11-mile trail to anyone who only has a day to hike. Depending on your physical condition, hiking pace, and frequency of stops, this hike might take most of your day. You will pass bridges and streams, mostly walking through shaded area. Once you get the top, you will have a panoramic view of the Smokies. LeConte Lodge, located near the peak, is a good place to stop for lunch and explore the peak before descending.
Abram Falls Trail
It is a shorter trail that will only take a few hours of your time. This 5-mile (total) hike will take you to a beautiful 20-foot waterfall. Rated at moderately difficult, it is a great hike for hot weather since you can get your feet wet in the water when you reach the waterfall. The trail offers a few scenic overlooks and since it is in the Cades Cove area, you might spot wildlife.
The Smoky Mountains National Park offers quite a few camping spots depending on your needs. I chose Elkmont campground which is for tents and RVs. It is one of the largest camping sites. It is a peaceful and relaxing spot right by the Little River. This site has restrooms, but no showers nor electrical outlets. However, showers are accessible by a short drive just outside the park. Each site comes with a fire grate and a picnic table. There’s also a general store where you can buy firewood and ice. Because of proximity to wildlife, you are required to put away your food when you aren’t around, as it tends to attract wildlife and feeding wildlife is strictly prohibited.
To me, one of the fun aspects of outdoor adventures is sleeping in the woods, listening to the sound of nature and relaxing by the fire. If camping isn’t your thing, there are plenty of cabins available with great views. Make sure you always book in advance, especially if you plan to come in summer, late fall or around holidays.
My whole experience in the Smokies was fantastic and left me yearning for more. I hope you’ll find this guide to outdoor weekend at the Great Smoky Mountains helpful in planning your next trip.