The Ultimate Great Smoky Mountains Bucket List

The Great Smoky Mountains. Mountains, Tall Trees, Amazing Attractions, Cold Rushing Streams, Beautiful Wildlife. It’s no wonder it’s the most visited National Park in the country! In 2020, it had 12 million visitors, while the second most visited park, Yellowstone, only had 3.8 million!

We had the most amazing time, actually extending our trip by four days because there was just so much to do! In June, the weather was amazing, and we just loved it so much! Here’s a summary of our trip, and tips for planning your own Smoky Mountain Vacation!

Where to Play in the Smoky Mountains

Pigeon Forge has EVERYTHING! From amazing museums and attractions, like the Titanic Museum (we didn’t do the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge because we had just done it in Branson, but I wish we had because it’s really amazing and we were later told that each venue has different exhibits) and the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, to shows and theme parks, such as The Island and Dollywood! And go carts, so many, many places to go cart, with fun elevated tracks!

Gatlinburg has a completely different feel than Pigeon Forge! My son refers to it as an outdoor mall, because that truly is the feeling. Your going to want to pack comfortable shoes, because it’s a park your car and walk kinda place. The roads are lined with attractions, gift shops and restaurants!

White Water Rafting The Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains has great river rafting, from easy floats to white water! White water rafting is a Summer Tradition with us, and I can’t wait! We booked a trip with Rafting in the Smokies in Hartford, which was about a 30 minute drive from Gatlinburg, and had an amazing time! It’s definitely my recommendation for your first white water trip in the Smokies! On our next visit, I definitely want to head to NOC in Gatlinburg, which also offers white water trips in Bryson City, NC and the ultimate white-water experience on the Chattooga River!

Hiking The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has AMAZING hikes! Gregory Bald’s amazing azaleas should be in bloom while we are there, and there’s Abram’s Falls 5 mile hike to see the falls! They say it’s an easy stroll to see the 80-foot waterfall at Laurel Falls! Click HERE for a great article I used for researching some of the easier hikes in the National Park.

Tennessee North Carolina State Line in the Great Smoky Mountains

Don’t miss a fun photo op and overview at the Tennessee North Carolina State Line on the way over the mountain!

Zip Lining My youngest LOVES to zip line! Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have several places, check out ClimbWorks Smoky Mountains with treetop canopy ziplines!

Trout fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains

Trout Fishing My husband loves fly fishing, and since we were there for Father’s Day, we rented a guide to take my husband fishing in the park. They had a great day. He also did some fishing in Bryson City, NC during our trip. The most popular place seems to be on the Little River near Townsend, according to this article in Roots Rated, which is a great resource for all things outdoors!

Clingman’s Dome is the tallest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,645 ft., but luckily there is a road that takes you within a 1/2 mile of the observation tower at the Summit. A paved trail takes you the remaining way to the top, where you can see a 360 degree view for 100 miles on a clear day! The drive is worth the trip, and the hike passes the highest point on the Appalachian Trail!

Swimming We swim daily during the Summer, and it wouldn’t be a vacation for us if we couldn’t! I love natural swimming holes and can’t wait to check out some of the ones in the National Park, such as Abram Falls in Cades Cove. My kids will certainly want to jump off the big boulders into the cold water at Midnight Hole!

Ride the Chondola to the Top of Anakeesta Mountain Theme Park and Firefly Village This fun chair lift takes you up to the village, where the Railrunner coaster awaits you!

Tuckaleechee Cavern Tour This amazing cavern features a 210 ft. subterranean waterfall, the tallest in the Eastern U.S. I first toured it when I was a child, and still love it!

Waterfalls I’ve already mentioned some of the waterfalls I want to hike in to see, but there are 3 that you can drive to see! Meigs Falls has a nice scenic stop along Little River Road. The Sinks is also along Little River Road, with a road side parking lot that fills up quickly. The Sinks is a great place to walk around, but the undertow from the falls makes it a dangerous place to swim. The Place of a Thousand Drips can be seen from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Downtown Gatlinburg Since Covid happened, we plan to stay away from most tourist attractions, but we will head in to Gatlinburg at least once to play at the Ripley’s Davy Crockett Mini Golf, and possibly the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the most visited aquarium in the U.S., which has a GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT TOUR of the Shark Tank!

The Island in Pigeon Forge Speaking of tourist attractions, my son is begging to ride the Great Smokey Mountain Wheel, with incredible views, at this theme park in Pigeon Forge.

Gatlinburg Space Needle A glass elevators takes you up 407′ to the observation tower for a 360 degree view of Gatlinburg and the Smokies!

Smokey Mountain Synchronous Fireflies It takes a special permit to go see these amazing fireflies, who are only found in the GSM, and you can only get a permit through a lottery. This is real Bucket List stuff, but Covid! It was cancelled for 2020.

Spend the night at Mt. Leconte The third highest mountain in the Smokies is only accessible by hiking trails. While some hikers make the hike to the Summit and back down in a day, LeConte Lodge at the Summit offers overnight accommodations for those who want to spend the night. Reservations are required, and they offer lunch and dinner. There are 5 trails to get to the Summit, and some of them are strenuous, but the Trillium Gap Trail would be my pick. With no road to the lodge, supplies are delivered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays by llama!

Dollywood I’ve never been to Dollywood, and my family loves amusement parks! They are planning to open back up to the public on June 15th, and I hope we can get a reservation! I know they will love the roller coasters!

Moonshine Thanks to our trip to the Branson in the Ozarks last year, we are now big moonshine fans! There are several distilleries in the mountains, and we definitely plan a visit to Old Smoky Moonshine Distillery and Sugarlands Distillery, and hopefully a tour!

Where to Eat in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

I like to eat, and I like to have a plan when we travel, so I ask for lots of recommendations before we go. I am pretty easy to please, I love small local restaurants, big patio restaurants and even loud and fun touristy spots! These are on my list!

Tennesee Jed’s I’m definitely planning to try the house made reuben here!

Little House of Pancakes I’ve had tons of recommendations to eat here, so we’ll see. I’m a pretty picky pancake person!

Where to Stay in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

Our tent and campsite at the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Smoky Mountain National Park

We camped in the Elkmont Campground. The camping sites were small. You think of camping in the Great Smoky Mountains and it brings up iconic images of being along with nature, then we were right on top of each other, but after my initial shock about that, we loved the campsite! While there are signs everywhere about being cautious of the bears, and don’t leave food in your tent or even soda cans out on your tables, our neighbors left out all their food and we never saw a bear, and had no qualms about sleeping out in our hammocks at night, except for the unavoidable rain showers. But as Downtown Gatlinburg had shown us, the bears are not shy and have learned that a concentration of people means easy food in the way of garbage, so you should always be aware of your surroundings. Mom warnings aside, the campsite really was dreamy, and later exploration proved that there were several campsites situated further away from people in the campground. Of course, this also means a further walk to the restroom, but our favorite was L1, so if you find it available, snag it up! Don’t hesitate to call the park, who knows more about the current state of the campsites and will help you make a more informed decision on where to stay. While our time at camp was mostly in the mornings and evenings, we did go down to the Little River each day to fish in it’s clear, cold stream!

We lucked out that Elkmont is probably the closest campground to Gatlinburg. When you’re picking a campground, it’s something to keep in mind, because some of the campsites are 30-45 minutes away, and some are over the mountain!

The Rhodedendron were blooming while we were there, and they are amazing! Huge blooms growing wild everywhere! They were all along the LeConte Creek behind our hotel, all around our campground and we drove out to but they literally lined all the roads in the National Park!

It rained every day we were in the Great Smokey Mountains. Bring your rain gear. Even the warmer temperatures, the humidity is high. We had storms every day we were there, and while we’re accustomed to those late afternoon rain storms in Colorado and South Dakota in the Summer, these are completely different. The humidity in the air always feels heavy, and occasionally it just can’t hold any more and feels like it is ringing itself out on top of you.

While we didn’t see any bears at our campground, we saw wild turkeys everywhere! It was so neat to see them walking through the campsites in the early morning, or crossing the river while we fished!

My favorite thing about Elkmont was just the feeling of being under those HUGE trees! The giant pines that tower above you are just breathtaking!

Here’s a tip, as the busiest National Park in the country, make your reservations well ahead of time! Here’s an article that I found helpful from Great Smoky Mountain National Park Trips, and another from Roots Rated, An Insider’s Guide to Camping in the Rockies.

Greenbrier Campground Completely surrounded by the Little River, we stayed here for 3 nights, and I loved it. They have a great swimming hole, plenty of places to get in the water, fishing and activities for the kids! You’re a little closer to town, and easy access into the National Park!

Pigeon Forge Jellystone A fun alternative to Back Country Camping, there’s so much to do here that you might miss some of the activities in the National Park!

The River’s Edge Inn, Gatlinburg Another great looking property that I’ve had many recommendations.

Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort and Spa, Gatlinburg This resort boast a great location, indoor waterpark and much more!

Margaritaville Island Hotel, Pigeon Forge For a full resort atmosphere with plenty to do nearby, this would be my choice from what I’ve read.

My daughter really wanted to camp, but I did venture into looking at VRBOs, of which there are quite a few in the area!

Keep Having Fun in the Texas Sun!


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