Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary for 3 days
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3 day Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary for Long Weekend

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is the Number One most visited National Park in the United States and is considered one of the most beautiful National Parks! So, keep reading my long weekend getaway guide on how to spend 3 days in this gorgeous National Park and perfect Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary.

Located on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Park is home to numerous waterfalls, scenic mountain views, diverse wildlife, hiking trails, and Native American history. So, It’s popular for a good reason!

I visited this gorgeous National Park in 2021 for the first time during the fall season. Fall is one of the most popular times to see but it is beautiful in every season! After moving near Atlanta, Georgia, we made frequent trips during every season!

So you can say I am a frequent traveler to the Great Smoky Mountains and I’m your local guide!! So, I thought to share my perfect 3 days Smoky Mountains itinerary with you all including the best things to do for every type of traveler.

In this Weekend in Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary Post, I am covering where to stay, how long you need to visit, and tips to make your Smoky Mountain trip the best!

There’s something for everyone in the family here, no matter how you want to experience your 3 days in Great Smoky National Park and the surrounding area. This 3-day itinerary in the Smoky Mountains can be as adventurous as hiking the Appalachian Trail or as family-friendly as playing at amusement parks in nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Let’s first dive into what makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park so special and famous! Sharing some practical information about the National Park and how to spend a long weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains. I will also be covering where to stay, how long you need to visit, and tips to maximize the most of your time in the Smoky Mountains.


Practical Information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Why is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park so Popular?

The Great Smoky Mountains are far and away, America’s most popular national park, receiving over twelve million visitors in 2020, which is more than three times as many as the next most popular park, Yellowstone.

It is renowned for its mist-shrouded peaks, lush forests, diverse wildlife, and vibrant fall foliage, that attracts millions of visitors each year. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and encompasses over 500,000 acres of land, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. It’s also part of the International Biosphere Reserve.

The park is popular for many reasons including:

  • It’s free to visit! While other national parks have entry fees, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free to visit throughout the year. However, you will need a $5 Parking Pass during your visit. But still, it is cheap compared to entry fees.
  • The Smokies offer a wide variety of activities. You can hike, climb, bike, whitewater raft, tube, or stargazing while you’re here. 
  • There are many cultural and historical sites within the park, such as preserved homesteads and churches, which provide insight into the region’s past, particularly its Appalachian heritage.
  • There are popular tourist towns nearby. Gatlinburg is located at the base of Smoky and it offers everything you need in the tourist town, including roller coasters, homemade candy, mini-golf, moonshine tastings, etc! Pigeon Forge has Dollywood – the Dolly Parton-themed park that is Tennessee’s second most popular attraction after the Smokies!

Having all these nearby attractions makes family visits easier as there’s something for everyone. Whether you are an avid hiker or visiting with family, or kids, there are so many activities you can add to your Smoky Mountains itinerary.

how to spend 3 days in Smoky Mountains
Smoky Mountains during the Fall Foliage in October

How many days do you need for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

There is so much to explore in the Great Smoky Mountains other than Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The areas surrounding the park have lots of attractions and you could easily spend several days exploring Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Wears Valley, and beyond.

It can be overwhelming to plan your perfect trip at first with so much to explore but overall combine your days in the Great Smoky Mountains with few activities and visit nearby small towns for tourist attractions.

But overall, 3 days is a good time for the first timers visiting the Smoky Mountain National Park. You can combine the weekend by taking one PTO to explore the Park. You can still do a lot in just 2 days, especially if you’re a non-hiker.

What is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Smoky Mountains?

There’s never a wrong time to visit the Smokies, but you should consider what activities you want to do while there. But Fall is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains for the most scenic views. The leaves change colors spectacularly and the temperatures are nice and better for hiking. It’s truly one of the best places to visit in the fall in the US!

However, autumn brings the most crowds, and accommodation is more expensive and booked up quickly. That said, if you want less crowd with perfect weather, Spring is the second best time to visit the Smoky Mountains. Also, flowers start to bloom creating a beautiful scene.

The summer from June to August, is the busiest time of the year and is the most crowded to visit the Smoky Mountains. Winter can be an adventurous time to visit, especially if the mountains get fresh snow. But, check for road closures, as some areas are not accessible in the winter.

Overall, fall is best for views, spring is best for fewer crowds.

How do you get to the Great Smoky Mountains?

The Smoky Mountains lie on the eastern edge of Tennessee, extending into the western edge of North Carolina. You can approach the park from either state via Highway 441. The closest interstates are I-40, connecting Knoxville to Asheville along the park’s eastern edge. From the south, Interstate 40 also connects to the park from cities like Atlanta, Georgia.

Flying into an Airport near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The nearest airports to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) in Asheville, North Carolina.

The nearest large airport is Charlotte, but it’s almost a 3.5-hour drive to the Park. But it will be worth it as ticket prices for Knoxville and Asheville will be higher as they are regional airports.

From there, you can rent a car to reach the park. You will need a vehicle to get almost anywhere in the Park. It is, however, possible to get around Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg without a car. Both have a trolley system, and Gatlinburg’s trolley offers a pick-up in Gatlinburg that drops off at the Sugarland Visitors Center and Laurel Falls trailhead.

Parking Tags for Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the reasons Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park is because it has no entrance fee. The expensive $30 national park entrance fee is not in effect here. However, from 2023 onwards, you need a parking tag for your car if parking is longer than 15 minutes.

For all vehicle types and sizes, the available parking permits are as follows:

  • $5 – daily tag
  • $15 – weekly tag
  • $40 – annual tag

You can purchase your tag at any Welcome Center or Visitor Center, plus there are a couple of automated machines in the park. But I recommend buying it from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, or if you’re traveling from South to North, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

Also, the parking tags are license plate specific so have yours handy when you Pay for it. If you have a rental car, take a quick picture of the license plate before you buy it.

Smoky Mountains National Park Entrance Stations

Several entrance stations provide access to different areas of the park. Here are the main entrance stations:

  1. Sugarlands Visitor Center: Located near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, this is one of the busiest entrance stations. The majority of people arriving at Great Smoky come through this entrance on the north side.
  2. Oconaluftee Visitor Center: Located near Cherokee, North Carolina, this entrance station is less crowded compared to Sugarlands. It provides access to the Oconaluftee River Trail and Mingus Mill. It is popular with those looking to experience the Native American side of the Great Smoky Mountains.
  3. Townsend Entrance: This entrance is less congested compared to the others and provides access to the west side of the park, including the Townsend Wye and Tremont areas. This entrance is close to the historical area of Cades Cove while still being near a town with food and hotel options. If you love a quiet place to stay, choose Wears Valley/Townsend area.

You can also come up through Bryson City, near the Deep Creek area of the park. The town is beautiful and it’s close to Deep Creek which offers a few waterfalls, hiking, and tubing.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Hours

Like most national parks, the Great Smoky Mountains are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round. However, few services and possible road closures can be expected during the winter due to snow or ice in the winter months. 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary

This Great Smoky Mountains itinerary includes a few waterfall hikes, scenic drives, and some of the best views in the national park. I’ve included a few trail options each day so you can plan outdoor adventures that match your travel style. Keep reading to the end for Smoky Mountains travel tips, like where to stay and how to avoid the crowds.

Day 1 of the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

SugarLands Visitor Center

I always Visit the Visitor Center of any National Park before starting my trip. This gives you an idea about the current road conditions in the Park. So, Visit the Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up a free park map. I love being old school, and a map is always handy when planning activities and routes!

You’ll also see some specialized maps for specific things to see in the park like waterfalls, hikes, birdwatching, or historic structures. For a dollar or two, you can purchase one. These are helpful if you want to focus on one aspect in particular, but they’re not necessary.

Inside the visitor center, learn about local plants and wildlife with their indoor exhibits.

Laurel Falls

To start exploring the park, I recommend visiting Laurel Falls first thing in the morning, because it is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Park. Laurel Falls is located west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Parking is limited and since it can get quite crowded as the day goes on, it’s best to hit this spot first. The trail is paved and is a 2.5-mile out-and-back trail with a 400-ft elevation gain. It’s an easy enough trail and takes about an hour to complete.

The waterfall itself is gorgeous and multi-tiered. There is a bridge so you can walk over it and stairs to descend closer to its base. You’ll also be able to see the surrounding mountains from the trail once you are out of the forest area.

Laurel Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Drive to Cades Cove Loop

The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the best national parks for scenic drives, with plenty of choices. So, continue on Laurel Creed Road to Cades Cove Loop Road. It is an 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the Cove, offering beautiful valley views with wildlife watching. It is best to drive in a counter-clockwise direction. There will be signs directing you.

There are lots of places to stop, specifically for historic structures and wildlife. You can walk to John Oliver Cabin, Elijah Oliver Place, Cable Mill, and the Primitive Baptist Church, among other spots along the loop.

It is one of the best and most popular Places in the park to see wildlife such as white-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys, and coyotes. Be safe and stay a safe distance away no matter what. Cades Cove Loop drive takes around 2-3 hours to drive, because the traffic is extremely slow, especially in the fall and summer. It’s a single-lane road so be prepared to stop and be in the car for hours!

I recommend packing your lunch and enjoying it at any pull-off with the beauty of Cades Cove.

Elkmont Ghost Town

One of the most interesting places to add to your Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary is Elkmont Ghost Town.

The area was originally settled in the 1840s and gained popularity in the early 1900s when a lumber company was formed. It was a popular vacation spot for people at that time. However, the national park was established in 1934 and by 1992 the residents’ leases expired and the town was abandoned. Now the historic structures sit there for travelers to visit.

Elkmont Ghost Town is located near Elkmont Campground so follow the signs for the campground at first. When you see a sign for the Elkmont Nature Trail turn left and you’ll find the parking lot for the ghost town.

The National Park Service decided to preserve 19 buildings in Elkmont and tear down the rest. One of the most interesting cabins that stands in Elkmont today is the Levi Trentham cabin, which was preserved in late 2017. It’s one of the oldest buildings in this region of the Smoky Mountains and was relocated from the Jakes Creek area to Elkmont. 

Get out and walk around the town to get a feel for these historic buildings. You can walk inside some of them. In the fall, it makes for an especially spooky time!

Hike to Abrams Waterfall OR Relax at Winery

If you still have time left, you can hike this moderately difficult trail to Abrams Waterfall. Located at the far west end of Cades Cove, after driving 4 miles along the loop road, you will find Abrams Waterfall trailhead. The trail is roughly 5 miles out and back and, very popular in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

After 2.5 miles, you” reach the short side trail that leads to Abrams Falls. Just turn left and cross the footbridge to reach the large “beach” area to admire this waterfall. It is only 20 ft in height but more water rushes over its sandstone cliff making it a voluminous waterfall in the Park.

Also Important Note: The National Park closes Cades Cove Loop Road to Vehicle Traffic on Wednesday mornings until 10:00 AM between early May to Late September each year, to allow cyclists and Pedestrians to enjoy the Cove.

Alternately, you can exit the Cades Cove Loop area and take a left turn towards Wears Valley. You can check out the beautiful Tennesse Mountain View Winery.

Dinner in Gatlinburg/Wears Valley

For dinner, Big Daddy’s Pizzeria has great wood-fired pizza or any of your choice restaurants in Wears Valley.

Day 2 of the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Start your day with breakfast at Log Cabin Pancake House. Their Pancakes are the best in the town and it’s best to fuel yourself full before starting your adventure-packed day ahead! Most Importantly, Pack your lunch in advance so that you don’t have to drive back.

Hike Mount Le Conte Via Alum Cave Trail

This is another one of the most popular things to do in the Smoky Mountains National Park, so by visiting first thing in the morning, you’ll get prime parking and avoid the crowds.

One of the best hikes in the park is getting up to Mount Leconte, which stands at 6,594 feet, making it one of the highest peaks in the Appalachians. The 10 miles out and back Alum Cave Trail is one of the more scenic routes to its summit. There are multiple trails that can get you to Mount Leconte

The trail itself can be hiked in different lengths depending on what you want to see. The most popular and recommended hike is the 2.3 miles to Alum Cave Bluffs. However, you can continue on for 8.7 miles to Mount Le Conte for incredible views.

It’s incredible how many times your surroundings change on this hike as you get higher and higher. You’ll see log bridges, a narrow tunnel, and a “cave” with mountains surrounding you.

3 days Great Smoky mountains Itinerary

Alternatively, you can check the other option. This is the least steep option, Trillium Gap Trail. The trail is under 14 miles round trip, and even though it’s longer in miles, it is commonly thought of as the most accessible trail to make the trek since it is the least steep of them all.

Chimney Tops Trail

The final to-do for today is the Chimney Tops Trail. It’s one of the most popular hikes. It gains 1400 feet in elevation in 2 miles so it’s not for the faint of heart. But, you will be rewarded with some amazing views of not only the mountains but the “chimney tops” rock pinnacles themselves!

After this hike, if you’re hungry for lunch. Drive back to Gatlinburg for the Lunch OR you can have a packed lunch at the top!

Afternoon: Roaring Fork Motor Trail

After the Hikes, it is time to relax by the stream. The 5.5-mile-long, narrow one-way, scenic Roaring Fork Nature Trail loop road is a favorite and must include in your Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary. Most cars on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail move at a walking pace! Keep this in mind and take your time to drive!

It offers rushing mountain streams, an old forest smell, several well-preserved log cabins, gristmills, and other historic buildings. Stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail, which offers a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead and surrounding hardwood forest. 

After the Ogle farmstead is the trailhead for Rainbow Falls, one of the park’s most popular waterfalls.The hike to the falls is 5.4 miles roundtrip and is considered moderately strenuous. If you don’t want to hike a long trail, continue driving and you’ll reach the Grotto Falls Trailhead.

Grotto Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains National Park and it is located along the route. The trail is 2.6 miles RT and is generally considered moderate in difficulty. It takes about 2 hours to hike to the waterfall and back. It is perfect to make the most of your time in the evening.

Note: Vehicles longer than 25 feet and passenger vehicles towing trailers are prohibited on this road.

For dinner, You can pick a spot in Gatlinburg. Alternatively, drive a little farther to Pigeon Forge, which has endless options.

Day 3 of the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Start your day 3 of the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary with breakfast at Pancake Pantry. They serve delicious American fare.

Clingman’s Dome

The first stop on your last day of the Smoky Mountains Itinerary is Clingman’s Dome. This is the highest point in the Great Smokies and features a manmade observation tower with 360° mountain views. Depending on weather and air quality, you can see up to 100 miles in all directions.

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains

You will drive through Newfound Gap road to reach the Clingman’s Dome. The trail to Clingman’s Dome is paved and only 0.5 miles, however, it is extremely steep. So even though it’s short, bring ample water and take breaks whenever possible. Also, it will be more windy and chillier at the top, so bring a jacket!

Best views in smoky mountains
Fall Foliage Views from Clingman Dome

Stop at Mingus Mill

Continue driving and stop at the 20th-century grist mill, still operational for demonstrations, showing how water power was used to fuel the industrial development of the Tennessee Valley. It’s both a history lesson and a look at how humans can harness the power of nature.

Best places to visit in Great smoky mountains in 3 days

Mountain Farm Museum

Next, stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. If you’re driving from North Carolina OR Blue Ridge Parkway, you’ll enter the Park from this Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is located in a beautiful setting by the river. You can visit the Mountain Farm Museum here.

If you are traveling with kids and interested in knowing about agriculture, this is a great spot to stop. You can get an insight into the blacksmith shop, Mill, and apple house. Also, it is a great spot to see the wildlife. I was lucky enough to spot elk here many times.

Chase the Waterfalls: Mingo Falls & Soco Falls

Continue your drive and reach Cherokee. It is just 10-15 minutes drive to reach the trailhead. Mingo Falls is a 120-foot tall waterfall and an easy trail after 160 steps on the trail. You can also reach the base of the waterfall if feeling extra adventurous!

After Visiting Mingo Falls, make your way to Soco Falls. One of the most amazing double waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains and is located in the Cherokee Indian forest. It is very close to Maggie Valley. The Parking is limited and it can be nearly missed if you’re driving fast!

It takes less than five minutes to walk to the observation deck of the waterfall. It’s an easy 0.1-mile RT trail.

After visiting the waterfalls, you can plan your Lunch in the Maggie Valley today. During the afternoon, you can visit the Lake Junaluska.

Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway

After Leaving Maggie Valley, you can join the Drive to Blue Ridge Parkway. The Blue Ridge Parkway connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

I promise that you won’t regret hopping on the Parkway and cruising along for a few hours. There’s an overlook with breathtaking views around every corner. You’ll find tons of awesome hikes along the parkway as well.

No matter how many times I drive the southern portion of the parkway, it never gets old. Here are a few of my favorite overlooks in the area: Woolyback Overlook, Waterrock Knob Overlook, and Thunder Struck Ridge Overlook.

I highly recommend ending your 3 day Smoky Mountains National Park Itinerary with Sunset at Waterrock Knob. Waterrock Knob Visitor Center is the Highest Visitor center on the Parkway, located at 5,820 feet in elevation.

I recommend a 1.2-mile RT moderate hike to the waterrock knob summit trail at sunset. There are more great views along the way. At the top, there are several vantage points for distant views. On a clear day, you have 50-mile views, including the highest peaks in the Smokies!

Due to almost No light pollution, Waterrock Knob is also a great place to stargaze on a clear night for a glimpse of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Alternative for Day 3 of the Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

If you are not into hiking the trails, I recommend spending your time in Gatlinburg OR Piegen Forge. There are plenty of things to do in Gatlinburg and you can easily spend a day or two exploring the town.

Gatlinburg skylift park
Views from Gatlinburg Skylift Park in December

One of the most popular attractions in Gatlinburg is Skylift Park which has the longest Pedestrian Cable bridge called SkyBridge and a Ski Lift that you can ride for scenic views. It is most beautiful during the fall, trust me! It is expensive to ride but worth every penny!

Beautiful Gatlinburg Downtown

My favorite thing to do in Gatlinburg is to stroll Downtown. You can check out the cute shops, restaurants, and boutiques. The Village Shoppe is charming and you can spend your time just people-watching!

There are also a few museums like Ripley’s Odditorium, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, and even a Salt Pepper Shaker Museum.

Where to Stay When Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

To be closest to the park, I prefer staying in Gatlinburg. This is one of the most touristy mountain towns with lots of attractions, shops, and things to do for everyone through every season. However, it can get crowded since it is closest to the Smokies.

On that same note, Pigeon Forge is another option, just 25 minutes from the park so check for accommodation there as well. We preferred staying in the Airbnb near the river during our last visit.

Tips For Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Here are a few tips to make your Great Smoky Mountain National Park Trip more safe and memorable.

  • There are NO GAS STATIONS inside the Park, so don’t drive when the tank is near to empty.
  • Being an outdoor adventure destination, bring some snacks and food from the nearest grocery store for your Lunch. It’s a hassle to drive back to Gatlinburg for Lunch.
  • You will be near wildlife, bring Bear Spray. You can’t bring it in your carry-on or Checked Bags if you’re flying. Buy it from a nearby store once you reach the main town.
  • Don’t forget to pack your Sunscreen and First aid kit while hiking.

FAQs for Great Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Is Smoky Mountain National Park Free?

Yes, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free to visit. That doesn’t mean everything inside the park is free, though. There are fees for camping, reservations, and certain activities within the park, such as guided tours or special events. Also, Parking Tags are required within the boundary of GSMP.

Is April a Good Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains?

April is Peak wildflower season in the Smokies and the weather remains mild. Spring rains and melting snow make waterfalls and streams flow vigorously, creating spectacular sights. It is an off-peak season, and the Park is less crowded, allowing for a more serene experience.

What is the main attraction in Smoky Mountain National Park?

Almost all areas in Smoky Mountains National Park are beautiful with lots of hiking trails, wildlife watching, and waterfalls. But Cades Cove Road and Clingman’s Dome are the main attractions in Smoky Mountain National Park. Cades Cove is definitely, one of the most visited Places in the Smoky Mountains.

Is it better to stay in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg?

If you’re traveling with a family and looking for kid-friendly things to do, Pigeon Forge may be your ideal choice. But if you prefer a more relaxed and quiet escape, surrounded by the mountains and river with the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, then Gatlinburg is the perfect place to stay in the Smoky Mountains.

Is Roaring Fork or Cades Cove better?

Roaring Fork Motor Nature allows driving through the forest and hiking the best waterfalls in Smoky like Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Cades Cove also offers spectacular views of the valley but it is ideal for wildlife viewing. If you love hiking and history both places offer similar experiences.

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