If all you have is one day to spend in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, don’t sweat it. You can still see a lot (and plan a return trip as soon as you can) on a day trip.
Start the day in Gatlinburg with a stop at Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up maps and find out about special events. Follow Little River Gorge Road west toward Cades Cove. You never move too fast on this curvy road, so slow down and take your time to soak up the views.
At Cades Cove, grab a map and a driving guide for the scenic 11-mile Cades Cove Loop, one of the most popular drives in the park (so you’ll find you’re not alone). Though there may be company—crowds even—this wide, verdant valley ringed by tall peaks is the very picture of calm, rural beauty. Stop for a walk to John Oliver Place, the Methodist or Primitive Baptist Church, or one of the many cabins that showcase the history of settlement here.
At the midpoint of Cades Cove Loop, stop for a hike to Abrams Falls, a pleasant 5-mile round-trip hike to a 20-foot waterfall. The entire hike should take 3 hours or less to complete, giving you plenty of time to complete the Cades Cove Loop before returning to grab lunch in Gatlinburg.
Newfound Gap Road connects Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee, North Carolina. Follow Newfound Gap Road south up and over the Smokies. In 23 miles, you’ll reach the turnoff to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park. If the weather is good, you’ll be able to see the observation tower at the summit as you drive up Newfound Gap. After the 8-mile drive to the parking area, make the short, steep hike to the top. If the summit is shrouded in clouds (and it may well be), continue south along the crest of the Smokies.
Stop at Newfound Gap to check out the Rockefeller Memorial, the place where president Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940. As you continue east toward Cherokee, stop at any of the scenic overlooks along the way—you can’t go wrong.
You’ll draw close to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina by the end of the day. Perfect timing, as every evening elk make an appearance in a field adjacent to the visitor center and the Mountain Farm Museum. While checking out the collection of historic structures at Mountain Farm, keep an eye out for elk; they will often cross right through the middle of this re-created farmstead on their way to dinner.
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