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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Three Things You Shouldn't Miss

BY: Jorie Larsen | Apr 5, 2017

Passing through the gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is like journeying back to a time before the American wilderness was tamed. The park is home to dense old-growth forests in shocking shades of green, waterfalls that trickle over moss-covered rocks, and ancient rolling mountains shrouded in the haze that gives the Smokies their name.

Straddling the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws nearly 9 million tourists each year, making it the most visited national park in the country. Whether you come for an extended stay or a quick taste of the great outdoors, you're gonna wanna hit the highlights. Here are the three best things to do in the Smoky Mountains.

1. Rent a bicycle and take the 11-mile loop around Cades Cove.

This large, grassy meadow is dotted with some of the oldest log cabins of the Smoky Mountains, a working grist mill, and churches erected in the 19th century. The one-way loop is reserved for bicyclists and foot traffic only until 10 a.m. every Saturday and Wednesday morning from May through September (cars are allowed at all other times).

It's one of the best places to catch a glimpse of the park's resident wildlife, including black bears (there are an estimated 1,500 of them in the park), white-tailed deer, coyotes, turkeys, and groundhogs. Be sure to look up—bears can often be seen hanging out in the trees.

2. Catch a sunset at Clingmans Dome.

At the highest point in the park—6,643 feet above sea level—you'll find an observation tower offering fantastic, far-reaching views. On a clear day, visibility stretches more than 100 miles over the undulating mountains. Legend has it that the site inspired the folk song "On Top of Old Smoky."

3. Hike to a waterfall.

Among the most popular is the 80-foot Laurel Falls, reachable via a 2.6-mile round-trip trek. Another appealing option is the 1.5-mile route to Grotto Falls. It takes you along the Trillium Gap Trail, passing a series of waterfalls before ducking behind Grotto Falls, making for a cool photo op.