great smoky mountains road trip
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The dense fog that forms a visually appealing smoke over the Appalachian Mountains instantly took my breath away! While in the Smokies (common name for the Great Smoky Mountains), I soaked up all the natural beauty. It was during the Fall season and I was compelled by the beautiful fall foliage in the mountains. This Great Smoky Mountains trip doesn’t look anything like my previous outdoor adventure trips. Instead, this trip is filled with tranquility and laid-back vibes.

And although there’s not a lot of hiking involved in this trip, there are plenty of nature-loving activities, photo ops, waterfalls, and scenic driving.

fog covering the smokies

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park 3-Day Trip Itinerary

Where is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in the southeastern part of the U.S., right within the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina.

great smoky mountains street sign

Directions to get to the Smokies from Orlando, Florida

  • Option 1, via I-75N – 8hr 58 min from Orlando. Drive through Georgia–passing Atlanta and heading east through Tallulah Falls, and eventually entering the park via the southern entrance in Cherokee, NC. I took this route on my way to the park and it’s my favorite because I can make a couple of cool stops along the way!
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  • Option 2, via I-95N and I-26W – 9hr 8 min from Orlando. Drive through Savannah and into South Carolina, heading north, and eventually passing through Ashville, NC, and entering the park via the southern entrance in Cherokee, NC. This is the route I took on my way back. It’s my least favorite because it’s not as exciting and there are fewer things to see on the way.
great smoky mountains scenic drive

Why Doesn’t the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have an Entrance Fee?

In case you didn’t know, the Great Smoky Mountains has no entrance fee! It’s also the nation’s most visited national park.

Back in the 1930s, the land where the Smokies are situated was privately owned. After the state of Tennessee transferred ownership of the Newfound Gap Road to the government, they clearly stipulated that there shouldn’t ever be any fees imposed. You can read further about why this park has no entrance fees here.

Things to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains: a 3-Day Trip Itinerary Guide for Nature Lovers

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is of the most pristine natural areas in the southern part of the U.S. There is breathtaking and beautiful mountain scenery and a sense of wonder that just can’t compare.

I decided to make this itinerary very simple and easy to follow. This allows you to include your own adventures and other things you want to do while you’re visiting the Smokies.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, this trip itinerary includes minimal hiking. It’s more about enjoying the natural beauty of the park.

Day 1 at the Smokies: Explore

OCONALUFTEE VISITOR CENTER

Get your guides, brochures, and some cool items and stickers at the gift shop. I always like to do these things first because it allows me to get more info on the places I want to visit, and even to include more things to do along the way.

MOUNTAIN FARM MUSEUM

Adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you’ll see the Mountain Farm Museum. There, you will see various log structures, including a farmhouse and a barn, which are part of the museum.

mountain farm museum at the oconaluftee visitor center
mountain farm museum at the oconaluftee visitor center

ELK VIEWING

There is a large meadow right beside the Mountain Farm Museum where you can see elk! A short walk around the meadow leads you to a portion of the Oconaluftee River where you can see more elk. But before you venture out into this section of the park to catch a glimpse of these beautiful animals, there are some things you should know.

elk grazing in the meadows
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  • The best time to see elk is in the early morning or 1-2 hours before sunset.
  • Park rangers often block one of the two lanes heading northbound from the park’s entrance, in order to allow visitors to park roadside and watch elk graze and interact in the meadow.
  • It’s illegal to come within 150-feet of the elk, so please watch your distance.
  • The other areas of the park where you can view elk are Newfound Gap Road, Cataloochee Valley, and Big Cove Road.
elk crossing the river in cherokee north carolina

More things to do on your first day at the smokies

MINGUS MILL

This is actually one of the most popular spots around the park! Mingus Mill is an active water-powdered mill for grinding corn. A miller is often on-site for demonstrations of grinding the corn into cornmeal.

The views here are spectacular, making it a great spot for pictures. Therefore, it can get crowded with fellow photographers. Just be patient and wait for your turn in taking pictures.

mingus mill

APPALACHIAN TRAIL

I mean, of course, I was going to do at least a few short hikes! I hiked 1.7 miles in this historic Appalachian Trail and it felt so awe-inspiring.

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Being here will reward you with beautiful views of the Appalachian Mountains, and many photo ops. This is also the spot to be if you want to be in two places at once!

sweet heifer creek trail appalachian trail in great smoky mountains
Check out this 3-day trip itinerary to enjoy nature in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! #nationalparks #thesmokies #greatsmokymountains Click To Tweet

Day 2 at the Smokies: Waterfalls

MINGO FALLS

There are over 100 waterfalls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Good luck with choosing which ones to go to!

Mingo Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Southern Appalachia. But let me tell you that Mingo Falls is not for the weary. The trail leading to this stunning 120-ft tall waterfall is very steep.

From a distance point of view, it’s a short 1/4 mile hike. But as far as difficulty goes, the 150 steps in the trail can easily feel like your hiking quite the miles. The steps are very slippery, so watch your step and hike your way without any rush.

Difficulty: moderate to difficult

mingo falls great smoky mountains
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JUNEY WHANK FALLS

By the time we got to this waterfall, it was pouring! Therefore, this marks the first time I’ve ever hiked under pouring rain.

Although the trail leading to Juney Whank Falls is also about 1/4 mile, it is a steep 190-ft climb to get to the bridge of the waterfalls. Add to that some pouring rain, a bed of leaves covering the trails, and you got yourself one very slippery trail.

Regardless, it wasn’t hard and very much worth it. This beautiful waterfall with a 90-feet drop is definitely a must-see in the Smokies.

Difficulty: easy

SIT BY THE RIVER

You can park roadside and enjoy the river flowing through the rocks and listen to the incredible soothing sound of the water.

Sitting by the river is also a great opportunity for pictures and to really enjoy the experience of being at one of the most beautiful national parks in the nation.

great smoky mountains river

Day 3 in the Smokies: Soak in the Views

EXPLORE AROUND THE CHEROKEE VILLAGE

I personally would’ve loved to see and explore the Cherokee village before COVID happened. The aftermath of the global pandemic can easily be seen with many of the shops closed, giving Cherokee a somewhat ghost-village scenario.

Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful place to visit with tons to do and many incredible things to see.

I stopped at the Cherokee Welcome Center and was treated very kindly by their staff and they answered all of my questions with dedication and attention.

It’s definitely a very special place that you should take the time to visit. Hopefully, when everything goes back to normal, so will this village.

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SCENIC DRIVING ON BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

This is just one of those experiences that you just have to do when visiting the Smokies. Blue Ridge Parkway runs from Virginia all the way to Cherokee, NC.

Blue Ridge Parkway is also often referred to as one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the nation.

cherokee blue ridge parkway entrance

We did the scenic drive last because it was also our chosen route to leave from the park–which in fact, was the saddest feeling ever.

Throughout this scenic drive on Blue Ridge Parkway, there are many overlooks where you can stop for pictures. You’ll also drive through a lot of beautiful tunnels!

blue ridge parkway tunnels

What would you enjoy doing the most in the Great Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments below!


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Great Smoky Mountains National Park 3-Day Trip Itinerary

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Outdoor travel blogger, photographer, and Vampire Diaries obsessed. I'm passionate about hiking, and exploring the outdoors is an essential part of my life. I also love the ocean and warm sunny days.

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38 Comments

  1. It’ll be a while before I get back state side but when I do Smokey Mountains are 100% on my list! The colours, the scenery it all looks stunning!

  2. America is a very beautiful country. There are so many activities you can do there. I love all things nature, and these views are calling my name!

  3. Ive been wanting to go here, but haven’t had the chance yet. Your pictures have convinced me though, they’re gorgeous! Also love that there is no entrance fee! haha

  4. I live about 4 hours away from the Smokies and somehow never really go there. It is absolutely beautiful but hasn’t been on my radar screen. But now you energized me. I hope to go this fall and your 3-day itinerary looks perfect!

  5. I so want to go hiking at Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Love this three-day itinerary designed for nature lovers like me! Gorgeous pics!

  6. Oh this is so beautiful! Truly a paradise for nature lovers and no wonder why it’s the most visited national park in the US. Would love to visit someday 🙂

  7. I really want my mom and dad to take a trip here. They live in MD and love to go to national parks! Are there cabins for people to spend the night nearby?

  8. Those are some real picturesque views! And I can’t believe those elks are just traipsing by so close – it must feel so surreal!

  9. I drove the Blue Ridge Parkway back in 2016 but didn’t manage to see any more of the Smokies on that visit. Definitely calls for a repeat – would love to hike a little of the Appalachian Trail.

  10. This is such a magical place. And you’ve captured it beautifully! I haven’t been in years, but next time I’m back in North Carolina, this makes me want to swing by…and stay.

  11. I really really appreciate that this guide is not super “hike heavy”. We love the outodors, but are lazy lol. The fact that there are over 100 waterfalls really is amazing! Fall does seem like the best time as I suspect winters would be extremely cold. Thank you for the great guide!

  12. Beautiful blog on the Great Smokies, really enjoyed reading it.There is so much to do and explore especially in the city of Gatlinburg!
    Its really nature at its best.

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