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Add These 7 Places to Your "Must-See in the Smoky Mountains" List

Ghost towns, wildlife, bird's eye-views and more ideas for your Great Smoky Mountains getaway

The Vacationeer
Close up, beautiful wildflowers, hazy blue ridge mountains in distance, sunset painted skies overhead, Great Smoky Mountains.

The Great Smoky Mountains are one of America's treasures, spanning more than 500,000 acres between Tennessee and North Carolina. The region is home to charming towns peppered throughout, including lively Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and quiet areas to disconnect. The Smokies are a perfect place to find some distance — especially amid these seven stunning places to see.

Gorgeous mountain scene, horses grazing, Great Smoky Mountains.   

Cades Cove

One of the top places for travelers in the Smokies, Cades Cove was originally Cherokee hunting ground before Europeans settled in the region in the early 1800s. More than 200 people called the valley home by 1830, and many historic buildings are still standing today, including log cabins, a working grist mill and three churches. Members of the community continued to live on the land until the 1940s.

The 11-mile loop has plenty of places to stop and explore, and the visitor's center has a self-guided brochure with additional information to help you plan your adventure. You might spot deer, bears or turkeys during your visit. Active travelers who prefer to explore by bicycle will appreciate that the road closes for several days of the year for cyclists.

Elkmont Ghost Town

The community of Elkmont was settled in the 1800s by loggers from the Little River Lumber Company. It continued to grow as work opportunities increased, and by 1907, the town was a thriving community with some quaint houses, a general store, a church and a school. Tourism also came to town eventually, bringing a hotel and rental cabins.

Idyllic mountain waterfall amidst lush greenery, Great Smoky Mountains.    

One of the hotels continued to operate until the 1990s, but the buildings are mostly vacant these days. The National Register of Historic Places protects them, and plans are in place to restore those still standing by converting them into museums. The area is a short drive from Pigeon Forge.

Cataloochee Valley

Elk roam the Great Smoky Mountains throughout the year, especially in the Cataloochee area in North Carolina, which is a little over an hour from Gatlinburg. As with Cades Cove, this part of the park has many preserved buildings, including churches and cabins.

These animals have always lived in the region, but in the 1800s, their numbers dwindled greatly. A group of elk was brought to the national park from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky to restore the population, and they now thrive there.

Stunning mountain vista, elk grazing, sunset clouds overhead, Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains.    

They come here to mate during the fall; the best times to spot them are early morning and early evening. Remember that with all wildlife encounters, you should keep a safe distance from the animals and never feed them.

The Road to Nowhere

Located on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Road to Nowhere is a monument to broken promises and the area's history. After residents were forced to move in the 1930s during the creation of the Fontana Dam and the national park, the government promised to create a new road for residents to access family cemeteries. But construction halted, and the road ended six miles into the park. A long tunnel is all that remains, now covered in graffiti. It's a quirky place to visit for those looking to get off the beaten path.         

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Image, beautiful winding road on mountain's edge, Great Smoky Mountains.    

The winding Roaring Fork Motor Trail spans 5.5 miles through the park, making it one of the most scenic drives in the area. Located just south of Gatlinburg, it contains winding curves and turn-offs to see historic mills and breathtaking waterfalls. If time and space allow, park your car and wander onto one of the trails to view the stunning overlooks. The flora is most beautiful in the fall when the changing leaves are in stark contrast to the moss-covered trees.

Clingmans Dome

At the height of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. It's also the highest peak in Tennessee and along the famed Appalachian Trail, which continues for more than 2,000 miles into Maine.

Stunning shot of Clingmans Dome at sunset, Great Smoky Mountains.    

Outdoors lovers can take one of the trails or drive Newfound Gap Road to the 45-foot observation tower. Built in 1959, it has unparalleled 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains.

Tail of the Dragon

Crossing into the North Carolina line in Deals Gap is the Tail of the Dragon, another popular driving route with a namesake silver dragon marking the start. But this one is beloved by motorcyclists, who can enjoy the switchback turns on two wheels. From above, the road looks like one curled piece of spaghetti, with 318 curves in only 11 miles. Drive cautiously — accidents are common on this stretch.

Read "8 Easy Smoky Mountains Hikes" for more adventure-inspired vacation ideas. 

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The Vacationeer

The Vacationeer is a collective of Hilton Grand Vacations storytellers whose goal is to inspire travelers to go further. We're always on the lookout for new destinations to explore, useful travel tips, and unique ideas to help you plan the most memorable vacations possible.

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