Great Smoky Mountains 3-day Itinerary for Nature Lovers

The dense fog that forms a visually appealing smoke over the Appalachian Mountains instantly took my breath away! While exploring around in the Smokies (a common name for the Great Smoky Mountains), I soaked up all its natural beauty, bit by bit.

It was during the Fall season when I was first compelled by the beautiful fall foliage in the mountains. The bright red and orange colors that took over the landscape were utterly magical.

Appalachian mountains in the fall season

Looking back, I realize that this Great Smoky Mountains trip does not look anything like my previous outdoor adventure trips.

Once you’re here, you realize it’s an incomparable experience to submerge in the mountain views, crisp air, and refreshing sound of the waterfalls.

And although I didn’t include a lot of hiking on this itinerary, just know that apart from the incredible photo ops, scenic driving, and activities for nature lovers, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore.

RECOMMENDED TOUR: Dive deep into the history of the Great Smoky Mountains from the comfort of your car on this narrated scenic driving tour!

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great smoky mountains national park entrance in cherokee nc

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

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most pristine natural areas in the southern part of the U.S. There is breathtaking 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 adventures and other things you want to do while you’re visiting the Smokies.

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

great smoky mountains in north carolina

Day 1 at the Smokies: Explore

1. Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Get your guides, brochures, and some cool items and stickers at the gift shop.

Stopping by the Visitor’s Center allows you to get more info on the activities you want to do during your visit, and even what else to include along the way.

oconaluftee visitor center

RECOMMENDED TOUR: Discover the beauty of the Smokies in this self-guided tour!

2. 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

3. 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.

elk grazing in the meadows

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.

  • Park rangers often block one of the two lanes heading northbound from the park’s entrance, 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 great smoky mountains

More Things to Do in The Great Smoky Mountains

4. Mingus Mill

This is 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 to take pictures.

mingus mill great smoky mountains

5. Appalachian Trail

Even if you don’t plan on a hike, you should at least walk along the Appalachian Trail for a little bit. This historic trail is perfect and awe-inspiring for any nature and outdoor lover.

Being here will reward you with beautiful views of the Appalachian Mountains, and an incredible amount of photo ops!

great smoky mountains appalachian trail

This is also where you want to make a stop if you want to be in “two places at once” since this is where you’ll find the North Carolina and Tennessee state border line inside the Smokies.

Day 2 at the Smokies: Waterfalls

1. 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 can be considered steep for some.

mingo falls great smoky mountains

From a distance point of view, it’s a short 1/4 mile hike. But as far as difficulty goes, the 150 steps on the trail can easily feel like a workout!

The steps leading to the falls are very slippery, so watch your step and hike your way without any rush.

Mingo Falls is a 1/4 mile hike | Difficulty: moderate

2. Juney Whank Falls

By the time I 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.

juney whank falls

Add to that some pouring rain, and a bed of leaves covering the trails, and you got yourself one very slippery trail.

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

Juney Whank Falls is a 1/4 mile hike | Difficulty: easy

3. 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 enjoy the experience of being at one of the most beautiful national parks in the nation.

river in the smokies

Day 3 in the Smokies: Soak in the Views

1. Explore the Cherokee Village

Walking around and visiting the shops and museums at the Cherokee Village is one of the many great things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

It’s a beautiful place to visit any time of the year. In the center of the village, you will find the visitor’s center where you can grab your maps of the waterfalls and hiking trails around the area, as well as the best places to eat in Cherokee Village. 

cherokee village shops

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

view of the smokies from the cherokee village

2. 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 to Cherokee, NC.

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

blue ridge parkway tunnels

RECOMMENDED TOUR: Discover the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway in this self-guided driving audio tour!

I did the scenic drive last because it was also my chosen route to leave 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!

lickstone ridge overlook in blue ridge parkway

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.

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!

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.

Planning Your Visit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not have an entrance fee! Additionally, it’s also the nation’s most visited national park, which is why planning accordingly is essential for a pleasant visit to the smokies.

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 stipulated that there shouldn’t ever be any fees imposed.

You can read further about why this park has no entrance fees here.

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 itinerary
Yanitza Ninett
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Yanitza is an avid adventurer with 15+ years of hiking experience and outdoor travel. As a PADI-certified scuba diver, she's also passionate about ocean conservation. When she's not exploring the great outdoors, Yanitza obsesses over The Vampire Diaries and dreams of traveling to Mallorca, Spain.

40 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains 3-day Itinerary for Nature Lovers”

  1. Visited North Carolina last Fall and have some pretty similar photos. It is such a beautiful place for hiking, sightseeing, and taking photos.

    Reply
  2. 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.

    Reply
  3. 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!

    Reply
  4. 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.

    Reply

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