Living in North Carolina we are blessed to have the Great Smoky Mountains within easy reach for a weekend trip. Not only is it the most visited U.S. National Park, but it’s so huge it stretches across NC and TN.
This weekend agenda for the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains only scratches the surface of this great park. You’ll need at least another full weekend to visit attractions on the Tennessee side, like Cades Cove.
Entry to the Smoky Mountains and all activities mentioned in this guide are free. However, if you’re able, please consider supporting the amazing National Park Service by dropping a donation in one of the many boxes around the park.
Day 1 - North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains
Start at Clingmans Dome
Start your weekend in the Great Smoky Mountains at the North Carolina – Tennessee border. With a 360-degree view from the highest peak in the Smokies, you can see for miles on a clear day from Clingmans Dome.
Not only are there great views, but you’ve also got a good chance of seeing a black bear. Every time we’ve been in the area, we’ve been lucky to see them.
The downside is that it’s a popular spot for both those visiting the Tennessee and North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains. Go early as there’s not much parking.
Enjoy the Overlooks of The Great Smoky Mountains
As you make your way to and from Clingmans Dome along US 441, take your time. Get out of the car and enjoy the spectacular views at the many overlooks along the drive.
Marvel in the Beauty of Mingus Mill
One of my personal favorite stops in the Great Smoky Mountains is Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, this old grist mill stands in its original location, surrounded by a gorgeous thick forest.
Fed water by a lengthy millrace, the mill is still in working order today. The park puts on demonstrations daily from mid-March through mid-November.
Wander the Oconaluftee Visitor Center & Mountain Farm Museum
Just a half-mile further is the Oconaluftee Visitor Center; a great place to pick up maps and information on the park.
Behind the visitor center, take a walk through the Mountain Farm Museum. Relocated here from all over the Smokies, these historical log buildings include a house, barn, apple house, springhouse, and smokehouse.
Keep an eye out for the local residents, many of them hang out near the visitor center. The elk that graze near the main road of the park are literally a traffic stopper as every car slows down to grab a photo.
Grab Lunch in The Town of Cherokee, NC
By now you’ve either stopped to enjoy a home packed meal in one of the park’s serene picnic areas, or you’re starving for a late lunch.
The town of Cherokee makes a nice place to grab a bite to eat.
- Sassy’s Sunflower Bakery & Cafe – This is typically our go to for sandwiches or salads. The food here has never failed us.
- BJs Diner – If it’s a good day for outdoor eating next to the river, BJs is a great place to grab a burger.
Climb the Stairs to Mingo Falls
Technically not in the Great Smoky Mountains, but you’re already so close you might as well make the short hike to Mingo Falls. This stunningly tall waterfall is easy to get to, if you don’t mind a whole heap of stairs.
Take a Drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway
If you still have more time in your day, which is doubtful, we recommend jumping on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This spectacular piece of road starts in Cherokee and runs for 469 miles all the way to up into Virginia.
Day 2 - North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains
Go Hiking and Tubing with the Waterfalls at Deep Creek
With three waterfalls, and a lazy river perfect for tubing, spending the day at Deep Creek is a fun way to get outdoors.
The hikes to all three waterfalls are short and relatively easy. Tubing takes a bit of effort, as you need to carry your tubes to the launch spots, but well worth it.
Grab Lunch in Bryson City
Just down the road from Deep Creek, Bryson City is an adorable town to grab lunch.
- High Test Deli – Our personal favorite in the area. Their sandwiches are really good. However, if the area is busy, they’ll be slammed.
- Nantahala Brewing – Honestly, it’s sometimes hit or miss with service, but when they are on their game, the food is very good.
Road To Nowhere Tunnel
After lunch, make your way up into the mountains via Lakeview Drive. The full drive from the center of Bryson City is about 8.5 miles, but it’s worth it for the views of Lake Fontana below. Bonus, this area is stunning in fall.
The “Road to Nowhere” eventually dead ends at a small parking lot. Stretch your legs and take a short walk to the tunnel. Bring a flashlight if you plan to walk through as it’s very dark.
Beyond the tunnel, the trail goes on for a while and meets up with longer trails through the Smokies, but folks typically turn around near the tunnel.
To fully appreciate this road, the Bryson City website tells the full story on the US government’s broken promise to the residents of Swain County.
If you still have time in your day, take a 45-minute drive down from Bryson City to Fontana Dam. At 480 feet high, it’s the tallest dam in the Eastern U.S. You can’t take a tour of the internal workings of the dam, but with beautiful views across Lake Fontana it’s still a sight to see.
Where To Stay for The Great Smoky Mountains
With nice accommodation options, Bryson City is one of the best areas to stay on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains.
- Calhoun House Inn & Suites includes a kitchen in every apartment and is walking distance from the Great Smoky Mountains Railway station in Bryson City.
- Looking for a bit of historical character, check out McKinley Edwards Inn.
- Sleep Inn, Bryson City is a good, clean budget option.
If you prefer to be outdoors, there are a lot of camping areas in and around the Great Smoky Mountains.
Books on The Great Smoky Mountains
Spending a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, or plan on doing a return trip? Here are a few books we use to help us plan:
- Travel Guide: Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Hike, Camp, Scenic Drives
- Hiking Trail Guide: Falcon Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- History of the park told through historical images: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park