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The Perfect Smoky Mountains 3-Day Itinerary

We’re here to help you plan the perfect 3-Day Smoky Mountains itinerary!

You technically could spend weeks or even months exploring this stunning region, but three days is a great start, especially for first-time visitors.

In this detailed itinerary, we’ll cover everything for a 3-day itinerary in the Smokies including different options for every type of traveler, with the perfect balance of adventure and relaxation.

You’ll find tips on when to visit, important information about parking in the national park, where to stay, and, of course, a day-by-day breakdown of must-visit spots.

We even offer alternatives for folks with different interests or more time, so you can mix and match to create your perfect itinerary.

Grab your favorite planner and let’s dive into this Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary!

Visiting the Smoky Mountains

Best Time to Visit the Smoky Mountains

rhododendron blooms in the smoky mountains near clingmans dome
Credit: Kelly via Canva

Choosing the right time for your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary is important. The park is a year-round destination, but accessibility is another story.

Some major park roads, including Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome, close in the winter due to inclement weather.

With this in mind, base the timing of your trip around what you most want to do or see.

For example, if hiking to Clingmans Dome is a priority, you should avoid visiting the Smoky Mountains during winter. Likewise, if you’ve always wanted to go tubing on a river in the Smokies, then you should instead plan a summertime trip!

On the other hand, each season in the Smokies offers a unique experience.

Fall, of course, is incredibly beautiful with its vibrant foliage. It’s also one of the busiest times of year in this area, though — something else to keep in mind.

Spring brings roaring waterfalls and blooming wildflowers, while summer offers lush greenery and the opportunity to swim and fish.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Parking Tags

the great smoky mountains national park in the winter with snow on the ground
Credit: Visit Gatlinburg

First of all, a national parks pass is NOT required for entry, but a parking tag is!

You MUST have and display a parking tag if you’re going to be in the park for more than 15 minutes (and 15 minutes isn’t much time!).

This rule is enforced year-round, with the only exception being official national park fee-free days.

Where to Buy: You can buy a tag at self-serve kiosks throughout the park, park visitor centers, or online in advance. Depending on how long you plan to stay or visit the Smokies, daily, weekly, and annual passes are available.

Where to Stay in the Smokies

cozy and spacious cabin rental in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Star Dancer Cabin – Gatlinburg / Credit: Chris & Sara via VRBO

The Smokies, even just the national park itself, is a large area to explore.

With that in mind, we highly recommend staying in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary. Or, if you enjoy camping, try snagging a reservation for a campground.

These cities put you closest to the park and provide most of the fun things to do nearby, helping minimize drive time.

Sevierville cabin rentals could also be another good option, but you’ll have to drive through the main drag in Pigeon Forge going to and from the park. Let’s just say that traffic gets pretty bad!

Gatlinburg hotels and Pigeon Forge cabins both offer accommodations at all price points. You’ll find luxury cabins, budget hotels, and in-between options, like condos and glamping stays.

The Perfect Smoky Mountains 3-Day Itinerary, Day-by-Day

Remember, this Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary is just a starting point!

We included the major highlights and mostly things that appeal to anyone, but feel free to tailor it to your personal preferences.

Day 1: Explore Cades Cove and Hike Clingmans Dome

sun rays coming through the trees at cades cove loop in the smoky mountains of tennessee
Cades Cove loop road in summer

Kick off your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary with some of the most iconic areas of the national park.

For that reason, they’re both extremely busy, pretty much all the time (especially on the weekends), so you’ll want to get an EARLY start. Grab breakfast at your hotel or cabin, and pack a picnic lunch before heading out.

Explore Cades Cove

woman biking through cades cove in the smoky mountains
Biking early in the morning on Cades Cove Loop

Explore Cades Cove, a historic, wildlife-rich valley.

Drive the 11-mile loop, stopping at historic buildings and meadows to soak in the views. Look out for black bears, deer, and wild turkeys that frequent the area.

To break up the drive, get out and stretch your legs on a hike. Several fantastic trails depart from Cades Cove. Abrams Falls, a 5-mile round-trip, is one of the most popular (and for good reason!).

Want something short and sweet? The Cades Cove Nature Trail is less than a half-mile.

Alternatively, you can also bike around Cades Cove. In fact, it’s one of the most popular things to do in the park!

Biking Cades Cove deserves a spot on your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary, and you can even rent bicycles.

On Wednesdays in the summer, Cades Cove is open only to bicycle traffic (no vehicles!).

It’s extremely popular, so make advanced reservations, especially on Wednesdays. Or, if you have your own bike, bring it! You’ll be one of the first ones on the loop if you do!

Note: Cades Cove is open year-round, including its campground.

Take in the views at Clingmans Dome

clingmans dome at sunset with trees and blue sky
Credit: Smoky Mountains

Hopefully, you saved some energy, because up next on your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary is a truly iconic hike.

Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in Tennessee (and one of the tallest in the eastern US), standing at 6,643 feet.

A short but steep half-mile hike leads to an observation tower with 360-degree views. Although the trail is paved, don’t underestimate its steepness.

With that being said, you can actually get great views from the parking lot. They’re not quite as impressive as looking out from the tower, but a great option for anyone not up for the steep hike.

Note: The road to Clingmans Dome closes in the winter, usually from December through March.

Finish Day One with a Local Brew

Gatlinburg Brewery taps with bear
Credit: Gatlinburg Brewery

Okay, you’ve had a busy first day in the mountains. What better way to celebrate than with a refreshing craft beer and some hearty pub food (nachos with jalapeño poppers, anyone)?

Head to one of our two favorite breweries in Gatlinburg, Smoky Mountain Brewery or Gatlinburg Brewing Company.

You can’t go wrong with either, and they’re just five minutes from each other, so you could even stop into both.

Day 2: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Waterfalls

Before heading into the park (nice and early again), enjoy a hearty breakfast in Gatlinburg. If you’re up for it, you can also hike part of the Gatlinburg Trail, which starts right in town.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Grotto falls in the Smoky Mountains with trail to walk behind the falls
Grotto Falls / Credit: Andrew Jackson via Alltrails

Start your Day 2 adventure of your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary with a scenic drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

This narrow, winding one-way road snakes 5.5 miles through the Smokies. Along the way, it offers pullouts with gorgeous views, historic homesteads, waterfalls, and trailheads.

Due to its right-off-the-road access, the trails and waterfalls here are some of the most popular in the park. These include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. They’re well worth seeing but be prepared for crowded trails and traffic.

Note that, like Clingmans Dome, Roaring Fork closes in the winter.

Chase Smoky Mountain Waterfalls

Baksins Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National park with downed trees and rocks
Baskins Creek Falls / Credit: Ashley Tipton via Alltrails

We already mentioned the uber-popular waterfalls off of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

While we highly recommend doing at least one of those hikes (you can walk behind Grotto Falls), there are also several less-busy, just-as-impressive waterfalls to explore.

Baskins Creek Falls is a perfect example. The trailhead is right off the motor trail, yet it’s not nearly as busy as some other waterfalls. This could be due to the fact that it’s so close to Rainbow Falls, it simply gets overlooked.

Get a Birds-Eye View of the Smokies (Without Hiking)

View of Gatlinburg TN from the Gatlinburg Sky Bridge with Blue skies and mountains in the background
View of Gatlinburg from the Gatlinburg SkyBridge

Finish Day 2 at one of Gatlinburg’s most popular—and scenic—attractions. Choose between Anakeesta, Ober Gatlinburg, or the Gatlinburg SkyPark.

Regardless of which you choose, you’ll enjoy views you can’t get anywhere else in the Smokies!

Among other things to do at each place, Anakeesta and Ober both have scenic gondola rides, and the SkyBridge at SkyPark is the longest pedestrian cable bridge in North America.

Taking in these views from a different perspective, then relaxing with dinner and drinks, is the perfect way to end the second day of your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary.

And, if you visit Gatlinburg in the winter, all of these places have special holiday themes. The entire SkyBridge is lit up with a tunnel of lights, for example, and you can ski at Ober!

Day 3: Explore a Quieter Side of the Smokies, Sample Moonshine, and Ride a Mountain Coaster

Now that you’ve seen all the highlights on your Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary, it’s time to dive a bit deeper.

We recommend choosing either Cosby or Townsend, two of the best small towns in Tennessee.

They sit on opposite sides of Gatlinburg, so although they’re both worth exploring, you realistically only have time for one on a 3-day trip.

Visit the Cherokee National Forest in Cosby

Views of the Cherokee National Forest with lake below near Cosby TN
Cherokee National Forest Views / Credit: Jenn M. via Google Photos

For a genuine off-the-beaten-path experience, head to Cosby.

This hidden gem is nestled in the northeastern corner of the park, but still a short drive from Gatlinburg. It’s also just over one hour from Asheville, so there are tons of other options for exploring Western North Carolina.

Secluded Cosby offers a more intimate connection with both nature and history. Start your day with a visit to the Cherokee National Forest offering over 700 miles of trails.

One especially unique thing to do in Cosby is go for a guided hike…with a llama. Smoky Mountain Llama Treks allows you to do exactly that!

Continue your adventure with a visit to Carver’s Orchard and Applehouse Restaurant. Grab some apples (there are nearly 100 varieties), fresh hot fried apple pies, and bring home some goodies like jam or cider. If the restaurant side is open, you won’t find a better chicken pot pie anywhere.

If you’re into moonshining, head to Adventure Distilling Co. Cosby started as a haven for bootleggers, so the legendary stories here are epic.

Finally, the Cosby Campground is one of the best and quietest in the park. It’s open from late April through October, but you can access the adjacent picnic area year-round.

And if you’re adventurous enough to camp in the off-season, nearby Roamstead is always open. Plus, they have glamping options including yurts and tiny cabins.


People on a hot air balloon at the great smoky mountain hot air balloon festival
Credit: Great Smoky Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival

Known as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies,” charming Townsend offers a serene alternative to more touristy areas.

Stroll along the Little River and stop into the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center to delve into the region’s rich history and culture.

The 1.8-mile hike to Spruce Flats Falls is also well worth the effort, especially because you very well may enjoy the trail all to yourself!

For a more adventurous experience, book a tubing or fly-fishing trip, or explore Tuckaleechee Caverns (open March-November).

Indulge in a fantastic farm-to-table brunch or lunch at Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. If you happen to be here in August, Townsend hosts the annual Great Smoky Mountain Hot Air Balloon Festival.


ole smoky moonshine pickle moonshine in gatlinburg tn
Pickle Moonshine at Ole Smoky Moonshine

You’ve probably heard that moonshine was once a pretty big deal in Appalachia. Heck, it still is!

Discover what exactly it is and what the hype is all about by visiting some of the local distilleries.

They all have slightly different specialties. Some make cream-based ‘shine, AKA “Appalachian sippin’ cream,” while others make a full range of spirits. However, they ALL offer samples (many free), and some give tours.

It’s a unique and tasty way to learn about distilling. Plus, you can literally take home a taste of Tennessee.

Ride a Mountain Coaster

Alpine Mountain Coaster going up the track surrounded by trees
Riding the Alpine Mountain Coaster

You simply can’t finish up a Smoky Mountains 3-day itinerary without riding at least one mountain coaster.

There are at least seven in the area, and it seems a new one pops up every couple of years. It’s safe to say they’re very much a ‘thing’ in the Smokies!

For anyone who may not be familiar, the rider (you) actually controls your own speed on a mountain coaster. They’re sort of a miniature, self-controlled version of a roller coaster.

Which one you choose is mostly a personal preference, but some do have features that set them apart. For example, the Wild Stallion Mountain Coaster at SkyLand Ranch in Sevierville is the longest one in the Southeast.

For the ultimate adrenaline rush, ride the Rail Runner at Anakeesta. It’s fast and nerve-wracking, because it’s “the only single rail mountain coaster in the US!

Other Things to Do on Your 3-Day Smoky Mountains Itinerary

If you have more time to explore or want to swap out an activity, here are some other awesome things to do in the Smokies:

  • Float Deep Creek: During the summer, this is one of the only places anywhere you can go tubing inside a national park
  • Visit Dollywood: Experience the magic Dollywood! As one of the best things to do in Pigeon Forge a visit is essentially required! Make sure to dig into the food as the rides.
  • Summit Mount LeConte: Avid hikers may want to embark on this challenging 11-mile trek up Mount LeConte, gaining nearly 2,800 feet of elevation gain
  • Smoky Mountain Knife Works: The largest knife ‘showplace’ in the world, there’s a shocking amount to see here, including a whole floor of ancient relics and artifacts
  • Splash in a waterpark: Like mountain coasters, waterparks are a big deal in the Smokies come summertime

What do you think you’ll do on your 3-Day Smoky Mountain getaway? Let us know in the comments below! 👇