the smoky mountains as viewed from above gatlinburg, with downtown gatlinburg visibile

the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

smoky mountain landscape cades cove
Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in early March

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. With its signature hazy-hued mountains, wildlife, and scenic trails, it’s the most visited national park in the United States.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934 and covers over 521,000 acres of pristine wilderness. It has over 800 miles of hiking trails, and plenty to do nearby. Its location, within a day’s drive of 2/3rds of the country’s population, means it’s one of the most accessible parks in the country.


The Smoky Mountains region offers a variety of charming towns that serve as gateways to the national park. They have their own unique character and attractions, but by far the most popular are Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.


the smoky mountains as viewed from above gatlinburg, with downtown gatlinburg visibile

Gatlinburg is one of the most popular places to stay, and our favorite. Sitting in a valley surrounded by mountains, it’s a scenic area with mountain-top attractions. Known for its busy downtown area, it’s filled with shops, restaurants, and attractions.

This family-friendly town is a great base for exploring the national park, close to the north entrance just a few minutes south of town.

While we spend a lot of time in Gatlinburg, it gets very busy in the summer. It’s one main road through town can slow to a crawl during busy times like summer weekends.

Pigeon Forge

The Island at Pigeon Forge

About 20 minutes north of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge is a hub for entertainment and family fun. It’s more spread out, covering a much larger area than Gatlinburg.

Home to Dollywood, Pigeon Forge has plenty of other attractions like dinner shows, go-kart tracks, and mini golf courses, and outlet malls.


townsend from the road
Townsend Tennessee

Townsend is a peaceful town west of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Much quieter, it’s known as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies”.

Townsend has a much different feel than the busy cities above. A small town sitting on the Little River, Townsend offers easy access to the national park, and river activities like tubing.

While many people (including us) love Townsend, it may be too quiet if you’re looking for lots of attractions. We love spending the day in Townsend, but for a vacation with kids we’d recommend Gatlinburg.

Attractions and Activities

Whether you’re a nature lover, an adrenaline seeker, or simply looking to relax and take in the stunning scenery, there’s something for everyone here. We spend our time split between exploring the national park and the many rides and attractions of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Scenic Drives

scenic drive through a tunnel on the way to cades cove
Tunnel on the way to Cades Cove

The Smoky Mountains are home to some great scenic drives, including Cades Cove, Little River Rd, and Newfound Gap Road, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Cades Cove (one of our favorites) is a scenic valley drive with lots of wildlife. It’s very popular though, so we usually try to visit on weekdays especially during the summer.

Hiking and Outdoor Adventures

With over 800 miles of hiking trails, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers plenty to explore on foot. There are iconic hikes like the Chimney Tops Trail, the Alum Cave Trail, and the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the park. If you’re lucky enough to book a room at LeConte Lodge, you can make the 6-mile trek up to the highest rustic lodge in the Eastern U.S.

Tubing on Townsend's Little River
Tubing on Townsend’s Little River

Beyond hiking, the Smoky Mountains offer a variety of outdoor activities, such as fishing, horseback riding, zip-lining, and whitewater rafting. One of our favorites in the summer is floating down Little River in Townsend.