GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK – Visitors to Great Smoky Mountains National Park may choose between 150 trails to hike, dozens of rivers to fish, more than ten picnic areas to use, and a number of historical destinations to visit.
One could spend weeks inside the park and never see and do it all. So how do you decide what to do when you only have about three hours available?
Well, if you are near Sugarlands Visitor Center you can do a number of things in less than three hours. We decided to put together a list of eight things to do near Sugarlands Visitor Center in 2-3 hours.
Don’t let time get in the way of adventure. Take a few hours and go. You will be glad you did.
NOTE: Pets are not allowed on trails inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park Rangers may issue fines up to $5,000. See the Park Pet Policy. The only two trails allowing dogs are Gatlinburg Trail and Oconaluftee Trail.
1. Fighting Creek Nature Trail
Fighting Creek Nature Trail is located directly behind Sugarlands Visitor Center. Just past the restrooms and snack machines is a sidewalk leading to the trailhead. The trail is easy to hike and takes about an hour or so to complete.
We stopped and took photos of just about everything and did it in less than two hours, including the Cataract Falls side trail.
This trail is well traveled, but in our experience, most people stop at the footbridge and turn around. That is unfortunate, since the rest of the trail is quite beautiful.
If you turn around at the footbridge, you miss the historic cabin and other remnants of past life in the park. You also miss Cataract Falls.
Cataract Falls is a side trail that takes an additional half hour of walking to complete. The falls are not spectacular, but they are worth the walk. The trail is easy and follows the river. Follow the signs after crossing the footbridge.
Most people can complete the hike to Cataract Falls in about 30 minutes at a leisurely pace.
2. Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail
Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail is an underutilized trail just a half mile from the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The surface of the trail is paved and is wheelchair accessible.
This lollipop trail is easy to hike. We hiked it after church a couple of weeks ago and loved it. The trail is next to the river and several places along the trail allow for quick access.
Benches along the trail invite you to sit and take in your surroundings. The trail is short enough that most people will not need to use them for resting, although that is perfectly acceptable.
3. Go Horseback Riding at Sugarlands Riding Stables
Sugarlands Riding Stables is the only privately held property operating inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Carr family runs the stables. A one-to-two hour ride is perfect for a short morning or afternoon adventure.
Located just 0.7 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center, the guides lead you through mountain trails and rivers on the back of well-trained horses. Their horses are incredible creatures. Watching Kenny Carr give a demonstration of their training was remarkable.
4. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail gives you an opportunity to experience the forest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park without getting out of your car. This single lane, paved road passes by a number of historical homes and other buildings along the way.
However, we don’t want you to get the impression that you have to stay in your vehicle. We recommend that you get out and look around for the best experience. The buildings are fascinating and remind us of how mountain farm life used to be in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Several trailheads are along the nature trail if you have time for a hike. Rainbow Falls is popular, but you will need and additional four hours or more to make it to the falls and back. The Noah “Bud” Ogle Trail is a better option. You may complete this trail in just 30 minutes.
5. Clingman’s Dome
Drive 20 miles to Clingman’s Dome and walk the paved trail all the way to the highest peak in Tennessee. You can’t come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and not visit Clingman’s Dome.
The observation tower provides amazing 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. At the trailhead, restrooms and a visitor center make the hike more convenient. The round trip drive and hike to the top takes about 2.5 hours.
6. Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls Trail is only 4.0 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center. The trail is about 2.5 miles round-trip, but it has a paved surface, so it is easy on the feet. However, this trail is a moderate hike due to the increase in elevation.
The payoff is an 85 feet tall waterfall.
This is a very popular trail. More than a thousand people a day hike to Laurel Falls. Parking is limited, so arrive early in the day or late afternoon for smaller crowds.
Elkmont is another destination you must visit when you come to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This abandoned resort community is a reminder of a bygone era when the land was in private hands.
Many of the buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and restoration is in their future. A campground and picnic area are nearby, as well as hiking trails.
8. Chimneys Picnic Area
Chimneys Picnic Area is a wonderful place to have a picnic, hike a short nature trail, and see the beauty of nature. It is also common to see black bears here.
This picnic area is a bit out of the way, so fewer people use it than say, Cades Cove Picnic Area. However, it is only 4.5 miles from Sugarlands Visitor Center and is a wonderful choice.
Two features of the picnic area are the stream running next to it, and the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail. We visited just two weeks ago and I am ready to go back.
The next time you are near Sugarlands Visitor Center and short of time, check out this list and make the most of it. You will be glad you did.