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Next up in my Things to do that Aren’t Hiking series is Great Smoky Mountains! There are about a million things to do in the Smokies because it has over 900 miles of hiking trails, but that’s not what we’re here for today.
Today is all about the great things to do in Great Smoky Mountains that aren’t hiking. This includes drives, walks, historic sites, wildlife, and more. If there are any walks/hikes, they will be no more than one mile round-trip and considered easy by the NPS website.
While I still haven’t done as much in GSMNP as I would like, it’s just more reason to go back, next time when it’s not as busy. We’ve only visited in the fall, which is the busiest time of year, but for good reason. Fall in the smokies is gorgeous.
But don’t worry, these are activities that can be done year-round unless otherwise specified. Summer and fall will be those most accesible times of year to visit, but visiting in the winter is still worth it. So, now the good stuff!
Drive Cades Cove
This is an eleven-mile loop and one of the best things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National park. If you don’t want to hike, you don’t have to but there are opportunities for it all along the way. It’s definitely a national park bucket list activity.
This is also one of the best places to easily enjoy historic buildings and burial sites. AND it’s great for seeing bears! We’ve seen like, five or six here. They can be hard to spot but there will almost always be people there already, just don’t stop in the middle of the road to take pictures or wait for someone to get in and out.
Enjoy a Quiet Walkway
One of my favorite things to do in GSMNP is to walk the Quiet Walkways. There aren’t very many and they can be hard to spot, but on Highway 441 through the park, on the Gatlinburg end, are a couple of them. We only saw one or two people on these. They aren’t the stunning views or scenery but they are great for escaping the crowds, especially in the fall.
Visit the Farmstead at Oconaluftee
If you got to the park via the Blue Ridge Parkway from North Carolina then you’ll be right by the Oconaluftee visitor center and farmstead! Pop into the visitor center then take a nice walk through the farmstead and learn all about life there. You might also see elk in the field here, just keep your distance if you do.
Drive Cataloochee Valley
If you want a nice drive to see historic buildings and possibly wildlife, Cataloochee Valley is perfect! There is also camping and fishing down here if you want to spend the night here. The road to get to this road is very wind-y, narrow, and dirt so drive with caution. There is also horse traffic here, so watch out for that, too.
To get to Cataloochee Valley from I-40, take exit #20 in North Carolina and go 0.2 miles on route 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road then drive about 11 miles (there are signs) to the valley.
To get there from Oconaluftee or Cherokee, hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway and take it to Highway 19. Follow Highway 19 toward Asheville through Maggie Valley and turn left onto Highway 276 north. Just before the on-ramp to I-40, but past the gas station, turn left and follow the signs the 11 miles to the valley.
Head up to Clingmans Dome
This is one of the best views in the park (and the highest point in the park) and can be driven to! Once you’re up there you can walk around to enjoy the views or head up the observation tower. It’s only a half mile walk up but it is steep. I haven’t done that yet so I’m not sure how difficult or steep it really is but it is paved.
See Meigs Falls
This is along the Little River Road, seven miles east of Townsend and thirteen miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. It’s tucked away on the far side of Little River but can be easy to miss so keep your eyes peeled for it. Make note of mileage on your odometer so you know when to look for it.
Drive the Foothills Parkway
This seems to be a mini-Blue Ridge Parkway connecting I-40 by the Pigeon River to US 129. It’s a 72ish mile drive in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ll cross some high ridges with wonderful views of the mountains around you.
To get there from Gatlinburg, head towards the park and at traffic light #10 turn right onto Little River Road by the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Follow that for about 9.5 miles then turn right onto Wear Cove Gap Road then right on Wears Valley Road where the Foothills Parkway will be on the left.
Bike Cades Cove
As an alternative to driving Cades Cove, you can bike it! This is a great way to get out there and see it but be out of the car if you need a break from that. It’s a fairly flat road so it shouldn’t be terribly tough biking.
It is an eleven mile loop but there are two short cuts that take off 2-5 miles of the loop, so if you want something shorter, you can take those. If you want to do more mountain biking, the national forests nearby are great for that.
Here is the page about biking in the park with safety information, too. It’s a busy park and biking on the busy roads in the park can be dangerous, so be careful if you decide to bike, wear a helmet, and stay aware of the cars around you.
Check out The Sinks
The Sinks is another roadside waterfall you can enjoy without any hiking. This one is short but includes the entire volume of the Little River. This is twelve miles west of the Sugarlands Visitor Center, so close to Meigs Falls and perfect to see together.
See the park cemeteries
It may seem a bit grim and weird to visit cemeteries, but there are a shocking number of burial sites in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some of the easiest ones to see are near the churches in Cades Cove but they’re all over the park. You can find a whole map here. This is another great activity for history buffs.
Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This is a 5.5 mile loop road (one-way) that’s perfect for enjoying the forest, wildflower spotting, and historic buildings. It’s a park favorite for good reason. It is closed in the winter, though. There is a self-guiding nature trail at the road entrance, too.
To get to the Roaring Fork Motor Trail from Gatlinburg, turn off at traffic light #8. Follow the Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the park. Just past the Rainbow Falls trailhead is the one-way road entrance. Buses, trailers, and motor homes are not allowed on here.
See Place of A Thousand Drips
This is a dramatic roadside waterfall when it’s wet out and one the stops along Roaring Fork Motor Trail. It’s stop #15 along the trail. Want to see more waterfalls in the park? Check out the Waterfalls of the Smokies book!
Look for wildlife
There are tons of wildlife view opportunities in the park including bears, elk, deer, raccoons, woodchucks, and more. Some of the best places to find this wildlife is Cades Cove (especially for bears), Cataloochee, and the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Open areas are easiest to see wildlife (like Cataloochee) but keep your eyes peeled around the rest of the park, too.
Visit the historic buildings
Great Smoky Mountains is a great park for history buffs and hikers alike. There are tons of historic buildings around the park that don’t require any hiking to see.
You can find some of them in Cataloochee, Cades Cove, along Roaring Fork Motor Trail, and Oconoluftee. There is a whole map of them right here. Some you can go into, others you can’t but they’re still cool to see!
Try horseback riding
While I’m not a horse person in any sense of the term, I know it’s a great way to explore the parks and Great Smoky Mountains is no different. Horseback rides are offered March-November from four licensed concessionaires and will vary in price, time, and activity.
You can find the list of companies here. Don’t want to ride a horse yourself? You can do carriage and wagon rides or hayrides through Cades Cove, too!
Have you done any of these things? What is your favorite thing to do in the Smokies that isn’t hiking?