7 of the Best Spots in the Smoky Mountains for First-Time Visitors
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to so many gorgeous sights. When you visit for the first time, you’ll have what feels like countless options for places to go and things to see inside the park. To help you decide where you should go first, we’ve made a list of 7 of the best spots in the Smoky Mountains for first-time visitors.
1. Cades Cove
Cades Cove is one of the most popular areas in the Smoky Mountains. When you explore Cades Cove, you’ll see historic structures, gorgeous scenery, wildlife and more. We recommend going for a drive along the Cades Cove Loop Road. This 11-mile, one-way loop takes you on a scenic journey through the cove. Along the way, you’ll have the opportunity to see old cabins and homesteads, wildlife and more from the comfort of your car. There are also pull-offs where you can park and explore by foot!
Note: The only road used to get to Cades Cove will be closed from Jan. 3, 2020 through the end of February, so this area will not be accessible during that time.
2. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Another popular spot to visit in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This trail allows you to slow down and take in the forest views and historic buildings in the area. It’s a 5.5-mile, one-way loop, along which you can see mountain streams, an old-growth forest, log cabins, grist mills and more. If you’re visiting during the winter, keep in mind that this road will be closed. But, spring, summer and fall are all great times to drive along this road!
3. Laurel Falls
If you’d rather explore the Smoky Mountains on foot, we’ve got the perfect hike for you. Laurel Falls is one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies, and it’s great for families. This 2.6-mile roundtrip hike offers gorgeous views on an 80-foot waterfall! Laurel Falls has both an upper and lower section, which is divided by a walkway at the base of the upper falls. Visitors love being able to walk across right by the waterfall! Keep in mind that this trail gets busy on weekends and on weekdays during the summer, so parking at the trailhead may be limited.
4. Sugarlands Visitor Center
If you’ve never been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before, the Sugarlands Visitor Center is the perfect place to start! You can pick up a map of the park, ask the rangers any questions you might have or check out some of the exhibits that are on display throughout the visitor center. There’s also a 20-minute movie about the park that you can watch for free! If you miss this stop before you explore the park, stop by after to visit the gift shop and pick up a souvenir.
5. Clingmans Dome
For panoramic views of the Smoky Mountains, visit Clingmans Dome. Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! From the observation tower, you’ll have 360-degree views of the area. On clear days, views stretch more than 100 miles! To get to the tower, you’ll hike .5 miles from the parking area. The trail is paved, yet steep, but it’s worth every step. Keep in mind if you’re visiting in the winter that the road leading to it is closed to motorists from December through March 31.
6. Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap is another one of the best spots in the Smoky Mountains for you to visit. This road is the lowest drivable pass in the park, with an elevation of 5,046 feet. You can travel on this road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, all the way into Cherokee, North Carolina. Newfound Gap Road is 31 miles and is the only fully paved road in the park that travels through its center! The road takes you through woodlands and includes sights like Mingus Mill, Mountain Farm Museum and the Web Overlook. Be sure to park and enjoy some of the scenic overlooks along the road!
7. Alum Cave Trail
If you loved your hike to Laurel Falls and feel up for another one, hike the Alum Cave Trail to the bluffs! This hike is 4.4 miles roundtrip and is great during any season. Along the trail you’ll see Arch Rock, Anakeesta Ridge, Inspiration Point and more. There are plenty of gorgeous sights to see before you even reach the bluffs. Commonly called Alum Cave, this concaved bluff is about 80 feet in height and 500 feet in length. If you visit during the summer, you can see water dripping off the ledges above. If you visit during the winter, you can see the water droplets form large icicles!
Get Your National Park Parking Tag
In early 2023, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park introduced its parking tag requirement. If you plan on exploring these gorgeous spots in the Smokies and parking for more than 15 minutes, you’ll want to be sure you get your parking tag! Parking tags can be purchased online ahead of time, or throughout the park and the Gatlinburg area. Daily parking tags are available for only $5. Learn more about how to get your Smoky Mountain parking tag and be prepared for your visit!
About the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Once you visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll understand why it’s the most visited national park in the country! Eleven million people come each year to explore everything it has to offer, from hikes, to scenic drives, to wildlife. Now that you know about some of the best spots in the Smoky Mountains you should see on your first visit, you’re ready to start planning your trip. Find out some of the best things to do in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg for first time visitors so you know what you should do and see!
Learn more about the Smoky Mountains before you come, and get excited to explore the Smokies!