The Perfect Day Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains: Itinerary + Travel Tips

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Wondering what the perfect one-day Smoky Mountains itinerary is? Here’s what you should do with one day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park! 

This day trip to GSMPN is best if you’re basing yourself in Tennessee, especially if you’ll be staying in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, or Sevierville. 

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The Perfect Day Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary & Travel Tips

Essential Travel Resources for 2021 & 2022

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Good to Know: This Smoky Mountains itinerary comes to us from Julie & Zach Ruhl from Ruhls of the Road as part of my series on covering how to visit every UNESCO World Heritage Site in the USA. 

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This guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes how to plan the perfect day trip and suggestions for a one-day Great Smoky Mountains itinerary. 

It inspired me so much that I added a stop in Gatlinburg on our big Southern USA road trip!

Planning a Trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most popular parks in all of the United States and with good reason. The park is enormous, and around each corner is a new and unique site to visit. 

There are tons of opportunities to see wildlife, a handful of wonderful hikes to do, and the nearby town of Gatlinburg boasts a ton of adventure on its own. In this article, we are going to design the perfect day trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Day Trip Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary Guest Post
Photo provided courtesy of Julie and Zach Ruhl. Reused with permission.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is nestled right on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina in the United States. The closes city to the park is Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

The destination is one of the few free National Parks in the United States, is full of historic sites and structures, and is home to over 400 species of animals, including over 1,500 black bears!

To get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll need a car or a tour company. The easiest way to get around, by far, is with your own car (or a rental car). You’ll have the freedom to go to the sites you want to see when you want to see them. 

See all Gatlinburg tours.

Are you ready to get started with your incredible day trip to the Great Smoky Mountains? Let’s get to it!

One Day Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Follow this one-day itinerary so you can cover as much as possible. 

Hike Mount Cammerer

To start the day, we are getting deep out into the Great Smoky Mountains. Mount Cammerer is a high peak that you can hike to the very apex of.

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The hiking trail itself is long, at 5.5 miles each way, for a total of 11 miles. The ascent is over 3,000 feet as well, so this hike is no joke. You’ll be sweating at the top, having put in an excellent workout on your hike.

The view at the top is so worth it, especially on a clear day. You’ll be able to see for miles and miles in every direction from the peak of Mount Cammerer. The Great Smoky Mountains are the crown of the Appalachian Mountains, and nowhere is that view better than atop Mount Cammerer.

Day Trip Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary Guest Post
Photo provided courtesy of Julie and Zach Ruhl. Reused with permission.

This hike also makes for a great activity to do right away in the day because you’ll get some great exercise. You can cruise through the rest of the day enjoying some yummy food and awesome entertainment as you see the rest of the sites on this itinerary!

Note: If you are not up for a hike as long as the 11 miles you’ll hike to and from Mount Cammerer, then Cascade Falls is a good option. This hike does not have the incredible views of Mount Cammerer, but it is an excellent walk through the woods and gives the chance to check out the beautiful Cascade Falls.

Drive Cades Cove

After completing your Mount Cammerer ascent, drive over to Cades Cove for the most beautiful scenic drive in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cades Cove is known for wildlife, so bring your binoculars if you have them and keep your eyes peeled.

The Cades Cove drive is an 11-mile one-way loop road. If you aren’t burnt out from the morning hike, you could even jump on a bicycle and bike the loop, however, going in a car will allow you to see everything just as close.

Entrance to Cades Cove in Great Smokey Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Cades Cove is a beautiful loop drive, full of awesome stops and scenic viewpoints. The John Oliver Cabin is the number one stop on Cades Cove, followed closely by the Primitive Baptist Church. There are many other rustic old cabins as well, such as John Cable Grist Mill and Henry Whitehead Place, if you are interested in stopping at those along the route.

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Our favorite part about taking the Cades Cove loop was all of the wonderful wildlife. We saw a few groups of deer grazing, in addition to some magnificent elk roaming the park. We saw a black bear from afar, as eagles and hawks were circling the skies in the distance. The Great Smoky Mountains make for a beautiful area to see wildlife.

Hike Abrams Falls

If you are up for it, the Abrams Falls trail is located on the Cades Cove loop and is the most beautiful waterfall in the entire National Park. The hike is 5 miles and is relatively flat, so it isn’t an extremely challenging hike.

The Abrams Falls brings you on a beautiful trail with river views, deep into the Great Smoky Mountains forest. At the end of the trail, you’ll come to Abrams Falls themselves, an enormous and powerful waterfall.

Day Trip Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary Guest Post
Photo provided courtesy of Julie and Zach Ruhl. Reused with permission.

When you reach the falls, grab a seat, put your feet up, and marvel at the falls. Waterfalls are an excellent place to sit and watch, letting yourself get lost in their natural beauty. They are similar to campfires in that way, both mesmerizing and centering at the same time.

Note: If you don’t want to hike at all and you find yourself with extra time, the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is another scenic drive that will let you enjoy the views of the Smoky Mountains without getting out too much. There are also hiking trails ranging from long to short hikes and waterfalls located on this route as well.

Visit Gatlinburg

After your scenic drive through Cades Cove, you’ll probably be ready for some yummy food. Head into Gatlinburg to explore the wonderful city and grab some dinner.

Gatlinburg is an awesome town for tourists. The town itself feels a bit like Broadway in Nashville, or Fremont Street in Las Vegas. The main street is full of wonderful restaurants, tourist activities, and even small theme parks!

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The best restaurants in Gatlinburg are Chesapeake’s Seafood and Raw Bar, Cherokee Grill and Steakhouse, and Tennessee Jed’s. There are also great touristy restaurants like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co if that is your style.

USA - Tennessee - Downtown Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is also home to many museums and exhibits. The town is even home to an aquarium from Ripley’s! All in all, anyone and everyone can find something they love to do in Gatlinburg. 

Just take a stroll down this strip of restaurants and attractions, waiting for something to catch your eye. In 10 feet or so, something will, and you’ll be off on an adventure, trust us.

Pro Tip: Don’t skip out on the Gatlinburg: Haunted Ghost Tour. It’s spooky-yet-fun, and I absolutely loved it! A great way to enjoy Gatlinburg at night! Some other great town activities like Ripley’s Aquarium are included on the Smoky Mountains: Sightseeing Flex Pass

Stargaze

One of the best reasons to visit any National Park, and especially Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is to escape the bright lights of urban areas. And one huge benefit of escaping the bright lights of the city is seeing the stars!

Light pollution in downtown environments often makes it impossible to see the stars there. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you will be far enough from the downtown areas and the lights there, that the sky will light up like a Christmas tree at night. The stargazing here is as good as it gets.

Stars in the night sky over Clingman's Dome Observation Tower in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

Take some time to stargaze during your Great Smoky Mountains adventure, especially on a clear, cloudless night. Even if you only spend 20 minutes under the stars, spend those 20 minutes. Grab a jacket or blanket if it is cold so that you can focus on the natural beauty above you rather than the weather around you.

One of our favorite activities while stargazing is to learn a new constellation in each place we visit. That way, we identify each new constellation we learn with a cool location where we learned of that beautiful grouping of stars. If you don’t know any constellations, then learn about Ursa Major at the Great Smoky Mountains.

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Costs of Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is awesome because of the landscapes, hikes, mountain views, and adventures. However, in addition to all those wonderful things, this park is great for another reason. It is basically free to visit!

The cost of visiting the Great Smoky Mountains is a bargain. The entrance fee to get into the park is absolutely free. Therefore, all of the adventures you’ll have at Mount Cammerer, Cades Cove, and Abrams Falls are one hundred percent free. You won’t pay a dime!

USA - Tennessee - Gatlinburg

The stargazing in this area is, of course, also free. Basically, the only things you’ll pay for are food, gas, and lodging! In Gatlinburg, the food is relatively inexpensive, as long as you avoid the most expensive items on the menu.

Lodging costs on a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains will vary depending on what you are looking for. In Gatlinburg, there are a few great hotel options, which will likely be the most expensive option you’ll have. Vacation rentals are also great options in this area, where you can find full house rentals for a similar price as a hotel room.

Finally, you could select our favorite and recommended option: camping. Camping in the National Park is the least expensive option and offers the chance to have an authentic nature experience. Setting up a tent will allow you maximum stargazing time, maximum hiking time, and will give you the maximum amount of time exploring and immersing yourself in the National Park.

All in all, you can expect to spend about $100-$200 per day exploring the park. That cost includes food, gas, and lodging each night, and will vary depending on where you stay and what you decide to eat during your adventure. 

Other Things You Can Do Nearby

One must-visit destination while in the Great Smoky Mountains area is Dollywood. Dolly Parton’s childhood home is in these mountains (She was born in Sevierville), and she built her very own theme park right outside of Gatlinburg in Pigeon Forge

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We are HUGE Dolly Parton fans, she is an excellent singer, writer, entertainer, and all-around performer. She has succeeded in everything she’s done, including Dollywood. This enormous theme park is a full day’s adventure all on its own, you’ll have a blast exploring the theme park riding all of the fun rides, and seeing the attractions.

USA - Tennessee - Gatlinburg

The Appalachian Mountains are known for their moonshine, and Gatlinburg has a few great places to try some homegrown alcohol. Ole Smoky Moonshine, Sugarlands Distilling Company, and Doc Collier Moonshine are 3 places right on Gatlinburg’s main street that offer moonshine tastings. This can be a great pre-dinner activity or a fun stop for a nightcap before heading home for the night.

The Anakeesta is another must-visit tourist destination in Gatlinburg. Anakeesta is a gondola that takes you right up the mountainside above Gatlinburg, This excursion is an excellent way to get a bird’s eye view of the Great Smoky Mountains area, especially if you aren’t going to be hiking the Mount Cammerer Trail. The Anakeesta gondola isn’t free, however, it sure is fun!

Are the Great Smoky Mountains Worth Visiting?

All in all, a Great Smoky Mountains adventure has so many fun activities for people of all ages. If you are a nature-lover, you’ll have the time of your life exploring Abrams Falls and Mount Cammerer. History Buffs will have a blast exploring the relics of Cades Cove and the museums in Gatlinburg.

People who love animals will love seeing animals throughout the park. Everyone loves the stars, and the stargazing in the Great Smoky Mountains is as good as it is anywhere in the United States.

USA - Tennessee - Gatlinburg
A homestead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Without a doubt, you will make an unforgettable memory while exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The attractions in Gatlinburg, the hikes in the National Park, and the adventures you have will stay with you and your family for years. Enjoy! 

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Hi! We are Julie & Zach Ruhl, the creators of Ruhls of the Road. We quit our jobs for a life traveling full time in 2018, and haven’t looked back. We love life on the road, hiking National Parks, and exploring all of the beautiful nooks and crannies all over the world.

Great Smoky Mountains Travel Guide

If this is your first time going on a Smoky Mountain vacation, have no fear! Julie and Zach gave a great overview, and I want to share what I learned from my own trip to Gatlinburg and the GSMNP. 

The area is large and planning a visit here can be overwhelming. There’s so much to do here that deciding what to put on and what to leave off your trip itinerary can be a bit daunting. 

More Tennessee Travel Resources

Need more travel planning help? Here are all of my Tennessee travel resources!

Statewide

The best national parks in Tennessee (and National Park Service Sites)

Nashville

How to Plan a Trip to Nashville + Travel Tips

What to buy in Nashville for souvenirs and gifts. 

Looking for Instagram captions or Nashville inspiration? Here are the best quotes about Nashville.

Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tips for planning a trip to Gatlinburg.

How to spend one day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Included in these Round-Ups

The best scenic drives in America

The most charming historic towns in the USA

The prettiest waterfalls in the US

Pin this One-Day Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary for Your Trip to Tennessee!

The Perfect Day Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary & Travel Tips

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