In this part of the world, gently rolling slopes covered in old-growth forests turn fiery red and gold in autumn. Ambling black bears and vibrant salamanders comprise only a sliver of this region’s vast biodiversity. Well-preserved historic sites call back to the early days of Appalachian culture. All these beautiful things are what make the Great Smoky Mountains so stellarly unique.
These natural wonders are the reason why adventurers come from all over the world seeking outdoor things to do in Gatlinburg, a quaint Tennessean town resting on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With this comprehensive guide to backpacking the Smokies, you’ll be equipped to witness some of the most breathtaking views of East Tennessee’s mountains.
Where to Camp
The most distinctive aspect of backpacking in any region is the environmental immersion. However, camping while embraced by wilderness is particularly necessary for a genuine Great Smoky Mountain experience. Imagine sipping coffee in the morning and watching the fog unfurling off the mountainside or setting up your campfire as deer graze quietly nearby and salamanders skitter from rock to underbrush!
While there are numerous places to camp in the Smokies, there are two campgrounds that stand out for their proximity to Gatlinburg and the entrance to the national park. Camp LeConte is a family-owned campground with primitive tent sites and hookups for RVs and campers. They also have a few novel ways to camp, including luxury treehouses, safari tents and retro campers. Complete with cable, free WiFi and a swimming pool, this luxury outdoor resort is perfect for glamping without losing touch with nature.
The second camping option is for true backpacking pros who prefer something more rudimentary. There are dozens of affordable backcountry campsites scattered throughout the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You’ll just need to make advanced reservations and obtain a permit for each individual in your group. Permits are $4 per person per night and can be obtained online or at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Once you’re all set with the regulations, search the map online or venture into the woods to find your perfect spot. Settle into the tranquil birdsong and white noise of waterfalls in the distance, and you’ll revel in the disconnection from the harried outside world of technology. Make sure to check the National Park Service website for maps and more information about the regulations of backcountry camping.
If you’re the kind of adventurer who plunges headfirst into the forest without a plan or a map, then go for it! There’s nothing more freeing than letting your feet (or your pup) lead you to whatever you’re meant to discover. On the other hand, if you prefer at least a little bit of planning, or if you’re overwhelmed with all the hiking options in the Smokies, start with these three solid suggestions.
Cades Cove is one of the top hiking areas in the Smokies due to its abundance of wildlife and historic sites. The Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile one-way driving trail through a gorgeous valley formerly hunted by the Cherokee and settled by 19th century Europeans. You’re bound to encounter the restored remains of old grist mills, churches, barns and log structures dating from the early 1800s. The hiking trails vary in difficulty, from the 14-mile trail to Rocky Top on Thunderhead Mountain to the 5-mile round-trip hiking trail to Abrams Falls, to the short and easy Cades Cove Nature Trail. It’s not uncommon for folks to see black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, groundhogs, skunks and many more critters along these paths.
Ramsey Cascades Trail
Ramsey Cascades is the most impressive waterfall in the park, dropping 100 feet over picturesque layers of rocks to a small pool at the bottom where salamanders like to enjoy a spa day. The trailhead starts at the Greenbrier entrance to the park and climbs 2,000 feet in elevation across 4 miles. The trail is considered strenuous, so make sure to bring plenty of water and wear durable hiking shoes with lots of arch support. Along the way, you’ll encounter gorgeous creeks and old-growth forests of tuliptree, silverbell and yellow birch.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
If you enjoyed the drive through Cades Cove, buckle up for another adventure through historical sites and alongside bubbling streams. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 5.5-mile loop dotted with 19th-century cabins, barns and tub mills. Don’t miss the Noah “Bud” Ogle farmstead for a self-guided tour to see a working tub mill and handcrafted wooden flume plumbing system up-close. Roaring Fork also leads to two trailheads. A 5.4-mile round-trip hike takes you to the 80-foot Rainbow Falls, while the Trillium Gap Trail meanders across 3 miles to Grotto Falls, a 25-foot waterfall that you can walk behind.
Outdoor Activities in the Smokies
There’s only so much hiking you can do before your feet ache and your legs are sore. When your body has reached its limit, but you’re still up for outdoor adventure, befriend a horse! Sugarlands Riding Stables offers expertly guided tours of the woodland trails and streams — all on horseback. Suitable for beginners and seasoned riders alike, their well-trained horses will take you to see wild turkeys, black bears, graceful deer and spectacular views of the mountains. If you’re not too exhausted and want to change it up, check out the Nantahala Outdoor Center for ziplining, kayaking, tubing and whitewater rafting on any of eight rivers in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina. They also offer outdoor training programs, rustic lodging, and a store where you can stock up on all the gear and apparel you’ll need for your backpacking trip.
As the most visited national park in the entire U.S. and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park should, without a doubt, be on your travel bucket list. Gatlinburg is full of opportunities for camping, hiking, guided tours and more. As long as you know where to go, your getaway to the oldest mountain range in the world can be a cost-effective, safe, and wondrous experience.