Great Smoky Mountains National Park is absolutely a must-see destination for any lover of the great outdoors, and the numbers are there to prove it.
This is the most visited national park in the country, winning by a landslide, pun only slightly intended.
Knowing all this, when I was planning my road trip through the East Coast’s national parks, I didn’t even dare try to fit this all into a single day.
So, when I say that this two day Great Smoky Mountains itinerary is the absolute best of what the Great Smokies have to offer, I can say it with confidence because it’s been tested and approved.
Of course, to be fair, I left wanting more. But that’s just the sign of a great park, right?
The important thing, though, is that even though I couldn’t wait to go back, I didn’t leave feeling like I missed out on anything and if that isn’t a national park trip success, I don’t know what is!
What’s that? Success means seeing a bear, you say? Well guess what, chances are high!
Day One of Your Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary: The East Side
Wake up for sunrise at Look Rock Tower.
How else to say it? Look Rock Tower is everything you could want in a sunrise hike and more.
It’s slightly off the beaten path, which means that not many will make this journey… at least, not first thing in the early morning.
It’s also a relatively short hike (0.8 mi roundtrip) with the only real climb being the tower itself.
Speaking of which, it has a tower which definitely earns it some brownie points.
Of course, it has one of the most wide-sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains served up on a platter. What more could you ask for?
Make it dog-friendly, you say? Well, guess what, it’s your lucky day!
I’ve done this hike a couple of times because it’s one of my personal favorites (as if you couldn’t tell) and I can say with confidence that sunrise is the best time to do it.
Not only does the morning light and the potential to get some picturesque fog really make a difference, but it also tends to get a bit crowded by midday.
Take a kayak on Fontana Lake.
While the day is still young, make your way over to Fontana Lake for one of the most incredible things to do on this Great Smoky Mountains itinerary.
One of my favorite memories from my time in the park is from my time kayaking on these gorgeous waters.
The lake is so vast that even with other people paddling around you’ll feel like you have it all to yourself.
Nothing compares to the serene feeling you get from hearing nothing but the sounds of the birds chirping and water breaking with every paddle.
There are a ton of adventure companies that offer kayak rentals but many of them require a few emails back and forth before sealing the deal.
So, just to make sure your trip goes smoothly, I highly recommend that you schedule your kayak rentals as soon as you have your dates worked out.
The good news is that most companies will even bring your kayaks right to the docking location of your choice so all you have to do is show up and you’ll be all set to paddle away!
Visit a ghost town (part one).
I almost forgot the best part of your kayak adventure…
If paddling on Great Smoky Mountains’ largest lake is somehow not enough to satisfy you, what if I told you that you can paddle out to a literal ghost town?!
In less than an hour, you can paddle out to Hazel Creek, which is the most remote part of the national park and home to the Proctor Ghost Town.
Once you arrive, you’ll find the ruins of a once thriving lumber company town and the graves of its founders.
Add a layer of mist on the lake and you’re looking at a very spooky morning!
Walk and eat Around Bryson City.
The lively Bryson City is basically the Gatlinburg of North Carolina, but only in the ways that you would hope for.
It has the same rustic charm, plenty of delicious restaurants, and none of the mob-size crowds.
Upon arriving, I was honestly shocked by how laid-back it was, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The only problem I had while I was here was deciding where to eat, and that’s a great problem to have if you ask me.
After a bit of indecision, I was quickly reassured that I made the right choice when I bit into my Philly cheesesteak and was transported straight to foodie heaven.
So, when you get to town, do yourself a favor and go right to the High Test Deli Filling Station.
Just make sure you save room for dessert because Honey Bears Cupcakery is right down the street and you’ll never forgive yourself for skipping out on one of their specialty cupcakes.
Hike to the Lonesome Pine Overlook or Deep Creek Falls.
If there is one thing you should know about me, it’s that I love a hike that gives me options.
Sometimes I’ll get overly ambitious when planning and then reach the trailhead and find that I just don’t have the motivation to hike for three hours.
Or (and this is my favorite) vice versa, I get to the trailhead feeling like I could conquer the world.
So instead of having to completely scrap your hiking plans for the day, give yourself some options and make your way over to the Deep Creek Falls Trailhead.
There are three waterfalls on this loop so you can decide to stop at the first one (Juney Whank Falls, which is 0.6 mi roundtrip) and turn around, or you can keep going for the full waterfall loop (which is 2.4 mi roundtrip).
You can also make it a bigger loop by adding in Indian Creek (4.4 mi roundtrip).
Alternately, you can be extra ambitious and decide you want to hike up to the Lonesome Pine Overlook (but we’re talking 6.7 miles plus 2,300 ft of elevation gain).
No matter which route you choose, it’s certain that you’ll have an amazing time, but if you ask me, the best experience is taking the ambitious route. After all, no risk, no reward, right?
Drive the Road to Nowhere.
If you’ve spent an afternoon in Bryson City thinking and raving about how awesome the Proctor ghost town was, then you absolutely have to drive the Road to Nowhere.
Why? Well… This road was originally being built for the town of Proctor!
However, only seven miles were completed before the government gave up on the project due to safety concerns.
In a way, this failed road is the reason that Proctor became a ghost town and ultimately became a ghost itself.
My favorite part about this slightly eerie (but extremely scenic) drive is the long tunnel at the end that leads to, well, nowhere!
Enjoy a Clingman Dome sunset.
I usually try to find a less-popular place to enjoy the sunset but sometimes the crowds get it right, and nothing even compares to the sunset at Clingman Dome.
Sure, it can be a bit busy but it’s busy for a good reason!
Plus, you really don’t need to climb to the top of the observation tower for a good view so there are plenty of places to find a little corner to yourself.
At the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the views are sure to amaze!
Day Two of Your Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary: The West Side
Have an epic Cades Cove sunrise.
Okay, I’ll just admit it. Cades Cove is my favorite place in the Great Smokies.
After I experienced my first sunrise here, I was immediately hooked.
I canceled all sunrise hikes and viewpoint plans for the rest of my time in the Great Smokies, just so I could have more of it.
If I could spend every morning here, there’d be no such thing as a bad day in my life, I’m sure of it.
Now I know this sounds a bit dramatic but just trust me and check it out. It won’t take you very long to see where I am coming from.
I mean, just picture it, driving through Cades Cove… the early morning mist… wildlife everywhere…. plenty of historic cabins to explore… peaceful little trails to get lost on…
You get it, right? I just can’t recommend this spot enough.
One thing I have to say up front, though, is that this is definitely not a place to rush through.
You’ll want to plan on spending all morning here, so if you can’t bear the thought of not eating breakfast until 10-11 AM, make sure to pack something to hold you over.
As you make your way through the cove, you’ll notice that it gets a bit (or, okay, a lot) more crowded as the morning goes on. This is when you’ll want to make your escape!
But fear not, the magical views and peaceful solitude can live on with this handy trick…
Take the Rich Mountain Road.
Don’t even question it.
When you see the sign pointing you in that direction, go.
I know you may feel a bit of FOMO, but I assure you that you’ve already seen all of the cove’s highlights and you’re about to discover its ultimate hidden gem.
Stuff your face at Crockett’s 1875 Breakfast Camp.
When I first got to Crockett’s, there was a line out the door and a 45-minute wait, and that’s for breakfast! Big yikes.
But you see… I had been daydreaming about the Aretha Frankenstein Pancakes for weeks and I was feeling pretty determined at this point. So we waited.
We walked around Gatlinburg and did our souvenir shopping, because two birds, one stone, right?
Within 20 minutes, our table was ready but I was getting increasingly more nervous because this massive place was fully packed, and we didn’t have all day to wait around for our food.
Those nerves went out the window when we were greeted with immediate service and within 10 minutes I had one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had sitting in front of me.
These were the thickest pancakes I have ever set my eyes on, not to mention the most delicious.
P.S. They now have an online waitlist you can join so you can start the clock before you even get there!
Visit a ghost town (part two).
Another ghost town? Absolutely! Very different from Proctor, the Elkmont was originally a wealthy resort town located at the hub of the national park.
When the Great Smokies were made into a national park, the people who lived there were allowed to stay for the rest of their lifetime.
When that time ended, the park service was left with more than 70 abandoned cabins to maintain.
Soon those buildings deteriorated and by the 1990s, Elkmont was labeled a ghost town.
What is really cool about this ghost town is that it’s not that old!
And to top it off, the NPS has preserved 19 buildings so you can experience what they looked like in their prime.
Walk down an abandoned street, and pop in and out of homes that tell the story of what it was like to live here in the early to mid-1900s.
Drive and hike on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
One thing I learned from exploring Roaring Fork is to park whenever you can.
This is a busy road that is only 5.5 miles long so if you wait for the “perfect spot”, chances are that you will finish the drive without really seeing much.
So, park whenever you can and try not to get frustrated by the minimal amount of spots available.
The nature trail is filled with waterfall hikes, mountain streams, log cabins, gristmills, and more, so I assure you that no matter where you find a spot to park, the trail will lead you to an awesome adventure.
For example, on my first trip I pulled over into the first available spot I saw and I ended up on the Baskins Creek Falls Trail.
Apparently, this is one of the less popular hikes on Roaring Fork but I couldn’t tell you why.
The hike is 3.2 miles roundtrip (prepare for an uphill journey) and takes you to my favorite waterfall in the park!
Not only did we get this waterfall all to ourselves for over an hour, but we also saw a black bear on the trail!
It is easily one of my favorite Great Smoky memories.
Work for your sunset at Chimney Tops.
There is no way around it.
At 3.5 miles roundtrip and a hefty elevation gain of 1,400 feet, Chimney Tops is a view you have to work for but the payoff is immediate and incredible.
This is a really popular hike (which means limited parking) and the ascent will probably take you longer than you think.
Give yourself some wiggle room to ensure that you make it to the top in time for sunset — and pack a headlamp for the way down.
You don’t want to be the person trying to run up slippery rocks, just to spend your time at the top trying to slow your heart rate down.
That’s no fun — it’s much better to be basking in the stunning view that you raced up there for.
Due to a terrible fire that took place in 2016, you can no longer summit to the top of Chimney but a new observation point was finished in 2017 that I think offers an even better view.
From here, you can see the park’s many famous peaks and get a close up view of the rugged Chimney pinnacles themselves.
All in all, it’s the perfect send off hike that will have you leaving the Great Smokies already planning your next trip.
Just don’t forget your headlamp!
Have dinner and beers at Smoky Mt. Brewery.
I’ve spent more time in the Smoky Mt. Brewery than I’m proud to admit, but with experience comes wisdom, so, trust me when I say to skip the calzones and go for a burger.
I know, I know. It’s not everyday that you see a calzone on the menu but seriously…skip it.
I can’t have you questioning my good reputation after having a bad experience following one of my recommendations.
The burger on the other hand, or the Philly Cheesesteak, or the wings… positively to die for.
So sit back, stuff your face with pub food and celebrate a perfect ending to your Great Smoky adventure… with a beer in hand of course!
Nicole is a freelance travel writer who loves traveling and hiking in America’s National Parks, particularly in Utah, Wyoming, and California. Her favorite place is just about anywhere where snow-peaked mountains can be seen in the distance.