Bucket listing gets wild in the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ll find epic adventures of every kind: hiking, biking, ziplining, whitewater rafting, swimming, horseback riding, kayaking, and even...zorbing (oh yes, you read that right). Zorbing is a super-fun activity where you roll downhill inside of an orb that’s made of transparent plastic. Give it a Google. You’ll totally want to try it out.
There’s also tons of fun to find off the mountain. The towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are home to many must-see spots, including: Dollywood, Ober Gatlinburg, Ripley’s Aquarium, and the Smoky Mountain Opry, just to name a few.
Quick Travel Tip: Plan to wake up early at least one morning during your trip. You won’t want to miss the “smoking” fog that gives the mountain range its infamous nickname. It puts the awe in awesome.
Mother Nature showcases some of her best work in the Great Smoky Mountains. And as far as national parks go – this one tops the charts, literally. More than 11 million people stop by to say hello to the Smokies every year, making it America’s most visited park. And it’s easy to understand why. The area’s old-growth forests, captivating wildlife, ancient mountainsides, and dynamic Southern Appalachian culture are as alluring as the iconic smoky haze that covers the mountains.
The numbers alone are inspiring. The Smokies span more than 800 square miles across Tennessee and North Carolina. They’re home to 5 forests, 140 tree species, 4,000 plant species, and 65 different animal species, including: black bears, bobcats, cottontail rabbits, coyotes, groundhogs, red fox, red wolves, river otters, and wild boar. They’re also overflowing with more than 100 waterfalls and cascades.
Here are some of the highlights and hot spots in this untamed world:
An 80-foot high waterfall? Um, check yes. Laurel Falls is one of the most popular sights in Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s an easy (2.6 mile round trip) paved-path hike — and it ends with picture-perfect views.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Stop and stroll awhile. Slow things down as you hike along the fast-flowing Roaring Fork stream. The narrow and winding Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a one way, 5.5 mile-long loop you’ll definitely enjoy exploring.
You can also make your way to the highest point in the Smokies: Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet, the views will leave you as breathless as the hike to the summit. And it’s worth every single step towards your daily FitBit goal.
Seeking a big valley with clear views of all things wild? Look out for Cades Cove. It’s a great spot to see wildlife in action –– from white-tailed deer and black bears to coyotes and groundhogs. You can drive along the Cove’s 11-mile loop to catch the sights from your car, or you can lace up your boots for a wild hike.
Looking for the best views in the Smokies? Set your sights on Skylift Park. Where the marquee attraction, the Gatlinburg SkyLift, will sweep you off your feet (literally!) and send you up 500 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain. It’s there you’ll find an 1,800-ft. overlook with epic views that exist nowhere else.
Surprise Bonus: The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America is also located in Skylift Park. It’s the Gatlinburg SkyBridge – and it delivers the stroll of a lifetime. The bridge stretches 680 feet across a deep valley and reaches a height of 140 feet at its midpoint. It even features glass-floor panels in the middle of the span. The potential to snap some serious Instagram-worthy pics is truly off the charts.
Part year-round amusement park, part seasonal ski zone, Ober Gatlinburg is a total mountain of fun. There’s tubing, skiing, ice skating, shopping, bumper cars, rock wall, mini golf, carousel, an aerial tramway, alpine slide, mountain coaster, water-raft rides, a wildlife encounter, and more. It’s a family-friendly playground that begs to be explored. Here are some of the top spots for you adventure seekers:
Ski Mountain Coaster
This wild ride zigs, zags, dips, and drops to deliver an all-ages adventure you won’t want to miss.
First, a scenic chairlift carries you up the mountain. Then two 1800-foot slides weave you down through woods and ski trails.
Bears and bobcats. Owls and otters. Skunks and snakes. Enjoy personal encounters with native wildlife in a safe environment at this extraordinary zoo.
Climbing high at 407 feet, the Gatlinburg Space Needle is the tallest structure in town. Ride glass elevators to the top of the tower, and you’ll find an outdoor observation level that delivers picture-perfect panoramic views of both downtown Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. You’ll also set your sights on free viewfinders!
Fun bonus fact: The base of the Space Needle is packed with surprises, including: an arcade, escape room, and the Impossibilities magic show theater.
Buckle up because this mountainside thrill ride screams adventure. The Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster is an epic way to wind through the woods and fly down the mountain. It’s family-friendly and features single or double-rider carts in which you control the speed. You can even opt to be a night rider – and coast down the mountain in the dark. Talk about a bright spot on your Smoky’s bucket list!
And don’t worry: If the coaster’s too crazy for your cup of tea, you can totally hop aboard the Gatlinburg Trolley. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to see the sights. There are more than 100 locations throughout the city, and you can enjoy unlimited rides for only $2.00 per day. Just look for the Street Trolley sign and pick a route. Then sit back and let the good times roll.
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