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How to Plan the Perfect Appalachian Mountains Vacation

Are you planning an Appalachian Mountains vacation? Or looking for ideas for a future trip?

Appalachia is home to endless natural beauty, outdoor activities in all four seasons, and fascinating history.

Plus, there are also some unique food and drinking scenes (we’re lookin’ at you, moonshine).

If you love activities like exploring the outdoors on a trail, spending your day learning about history, visiting historic towns, or spending the weekend in a rustic cabin — then you’ll feel right at home in the Appalachian Mountains!

Planning a Trip to the Appalachian Mountains

View of the Appalachian Montains

What Exactly is Considered the Appalachians?

If we’re going to help you plan an Appalachian Mountains vacation, we should probably make sure everyone’s on the same page about where exactly that is.

Of course, we’re focusing on the Great Smoky Mountains as that’s the part of the Appalachian Mountains that are in our beautiful state of Tennessee!

The Southern Appalachians mostly cover East Tennessee, along with western North Carolina and southern Virginia. However, that’s just a small chunk.

Officially, the Appalachian region spans 13 states, covering over 206,000 square miles between Mississippi and New York state.

The only state that lies entirely within the Appalachians is West Virginia. Many people are surprised to learn that the majority of Pennsylvania does, too.

Throughout all of the Appalachian Mountains, there are a handful of larger cities, including Pittsburgh and Knoxville. In our humble opinion, though, Appalachia is all about the small towns. There’s just something about the character and charm of a tiny, historic mountain town!

So with that in mind, here are the top five towns to base yourself for your upcoming Appalachian Mountains vacation. Bonus: they’re all just a couple hours from Knoxville, so you can enjoy some day trips and still explore the big city!

Top 5 Places to Visit on an Appalachian Mountains Vacation

Johnson City

downtown Johnson City TN with flowers and Johnson City sign
Downtown Johnson City

Just one hour from Asheville, North Carolina, Johnson City is a vibrant small town known for its plentiful outdoor recreation, American history, and great beer scene.

There’s no shortage of things to do here but we recommend you start by exploring the revitalized downtown area, with dozens of funky shops and local eateries.

Outdoor enthusiasts, explore the trails (and views!) at Buffalo Mountain Park, Roan Mountain, or Tannery Knobs Bike Park. In the summer, you can also tube down the Nolichucky River.

Where to stay in Johnson City
  • Riverhouse 52: Situated between Johnson City and Asheville, this dog-friendly 2-bedroom cabin is LITERALLY right on the Nolichucky
  • Carnegie Hotel & Spa: A replica of the original luxurious Carnegie Hotel, which burned in a fire in 1910


Historic downtown Jonesborough Tennessee
Downtown Jonesborough

Barely 15 minutes from Johnson City, you’ll find Jonesborough. As the oldest town in Tennessee, it exudes Southern charm and hospitality.

Jonesborough is also well-known as the “storytelling capital of the world.” For those who may not know, storytelling is considered an Appalachian art form with deep roots in Tennessee. The International Storytelling Center is here, and it hosts events year-round.

That alone makes it a must-stop on your Appalachian Mountains vacation!

In addition to checking out the town’s storytelling history, walk along perfectly preserved Main Street or wander through Persimmon Ridge Park. If you’re of legal age, stop into Tennessee Hills Distillery for a free tasting!

Where to stay in Jonesborough


From Tennessee’s oldest town to the second oldest! Known for its picturesque historic district, Rogersville‘s charming streets and brick sidewalks are lined with colonial and antebellum architecture.

Fun fact, especially for any history buffs out there: The grandparents of American frontiersman Davy Crockett settled Rogersville in the late 1770s.

Checking out the town’s historic buildings is a must, and one in particular — the Hale Springs Inn. A literal landmark, the inn celebrates its 200th birthday in 2024!

If you can time it right, try to catch Heritage Days in October or one of the popular monthly ‘Cruise in on The Square’ events.

Where to stay in Rogersville

Bristol TN/VA

The state sign of Bristol in two states of Tennessee and Virginia

Combining the best of both Tennessee and Virginia, Bristol is a must-visit on any Appalachian Mountains vacation itinerary.

This small town straddles the border between the states (stand in both states right downtown!) and has a deep connection to country music.

You can’t visit Bristol without stopping into the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. While you’re there, stroll around and discover the town’s antique shops and art galleries.

Bristol has another claim to fame, in addition to country music — racing! Try to time your visit to catch a race at the iconic Bristol Motor Speedway. If not, the next best thing is ‘Speedway in Lights,’ a beloved Bristol winter tradition.

Where to stay in Bristol

Bryson City, NC

Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City TN with blue skies and lake in background
Credit: Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Crossing one of Tennessee’s other borders, Bryson City in North Carolina is another quintessential Appalachian Mountain town.

This hidden gem is surrounded by the stunning Nantahala National Forest and has a whopping FIVE entrances into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Aside from exploring the park, check out Fontana Lake for fishing, boating, or paddling.

Bryson City is also a historic railroad town, so a scenic train ride on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad should also be on your list (especially around Christmas!).

Where to stay in Bryson City
  • River’s Edge tiny cabin: Modern mini cabin perched above the Tuckaseegee River and just one minute from downtown
  • Two Rivers Lodge: Laid-back, family-owned motel perfectly situated between Bryson City, Cherokee, and the railroad

8 Things to Do on Your Appalachian Mountains Vacation

layers of the Appalachian Mountains at Sunset
Appalachian Mountains at Sunset via Canva

1. Explore Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

Situated where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky all meet, what could possibly be more authentically Appalachian?

Named because it forms “a natural corridor between the mountains,” ‘The Gap’ has been heavily traveled for centuries. It played a critical role in American history, specifically in the Native American fur trade. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett also did a lot of pioneering in this region.

Today, people come from all over the world to explore 85 miles of trails and countless underground caves and tunnels. Of course, standing in all three states at once is a big draw, too.

To add that to your resume, take the 2.2-mile Tri-State Peak Trail. Not only will you get to stand in all three states simultaneously, but you’ll also hike through each of them.

2. Take in the Views From the Highest Point in the Appalachians

No Appalachian Mountains vacation is complete without a trip up to Clingman’s Dome inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Perched at 6,643 feet, this is the highest point in the Appalachians and one of the tallest mountains east of the Mississippi River.

You’ll have to work for the incredible 360-degree view, but luckily, it’s a short half-mile hike. Still, don’t underestimate Clingmans Dome — it’s so steep that the park doesn’t allow pets or bicycles on the trail.

At the end of that trail is the iconic observation tower, sitting at the top of a spiral walkway. On somewhat rare clear days (they are called the Smoky Mountains, after all), you can see up to 100 miles and into neighboring states.

3. Summit Charlies Bunion

If you’re up for a longer trail, Charlies Bunion is one of the best day hikes in the Appalachians. It’s right on the Appalachian Trail and inside the national park, yet is much lesser-known than other trails.

The trail is four miles each way, and it gains 1,600 feet in elevation. For context, as steep as Clingmans Dome is, it gains less than 350 feet.

Your efforts are richly rewarded, however. This isn’t one of those hikes where you don’t enjoy the fruits of your labor until the very end. Instead, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of both Tennessee and North Carolina not even one mile in. And at several points, you’ll get fantastic views of Mount LeConte.

Curious about how Charlies Bunion got its name? As the Appalachian legend goes, Horace Kephart, an early advocate of making the Smokies a national park, went hiking with a man named Charlie Conner.

Fun Fact: The men took a rest on the rocky outcropping and when Charlie took his boots off, he revealed a bunion that looked mighty similar to the surrounding rocks. Kephart promised he would one day “get this place put on a government map” for Charlie, and of course, he did.

4. Take a Scenic Drive

The Appalachians, and certainly their southern end, have several jaw-dropping scenic drives. Regardless of the season, planning at least a short road trip should be part of your Appalachian Mountains vacation.

In the fall, changing foliage makes the entire area seem even more dreamy. In the spring and summer, colorful wildflowers blanket every hillside. And all year, resident wildlife makes frequent appearances (watch the road!).

Start with the Foothills Parkway, inside the national park. It technically still isn’t finished, after nearly 60 years under construction, but visitors can still drive a spectacular 33-mile stretch between Sevier County and Chilhowee Lake.

The Tail of the Dragon near Deals Gap is another iconic drive. It isn’t for the faint of heart, though: this winding road has a staggering 318 curves in just 11 miles!

5. Go on a Distillery Tour

White Lightnin’. Shine. Appalachian sippin’ cream. Firewater.

Whatever you call it, moonshine (and distilling in general) has a centuries-long history in Appalachia. Particularly in southern Appalachia — the legendary Jack Daniel perfected his recipe and pioneered the industry right here in Tennessee.

If you’re into history or like to enjoy the occasional adult beverage, include at least one distillery tour in your Appalachian Mountains vacation.

There are more than 60 distilleries throughout the state, each one offering something unique in terms of both spirits and process. Most have retail shops and offer tastings, and many also offer tours.

Before you visit any, check out the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. You can map out your route, learn more about the distilleries, and even earn some prizes.

6. Explore the Deep Creek Area

Few areas in the Great Smoky Mountains are true hidden gems, but Deep Creek comes pretty close.

Close to Bryson City, Deep Creek is home to several of the park’s best waterfalls and streams. Because of that, it gets a little busier on hot summer days, but nothing compared to other areas.

You can access three gorgeous waterfalls on a relatively short 2.4-mile hike: Indian Creek, Juney Whank, and Tom Branch. Best of all, you may actually enjoy the trail (mostly) to yourself.

Even better than the hikes? Tubing. Deep Creek is one of the only areas in any US national park where you can float in an inner tube. Rent one right near the Deep Creek park entrance.

7. Embrace the Museum Travel Trend

With such fascinating history and culture, it should come as no surprise that there are several incredible museums throughout southern Appalachia.

You can find one based on where you’re staying or visiting, or base your entire trip around a specific museum (museum travel!). The topics and niches vary a ton, so it’s easy to find at least one perfect for any Appalachian Mountains vacation. Here are a few of our personal recommendations:

8. Go Fishing

Much like distilling and storytelling, fishing is woven into the very fabric of Appalachia. It’s been a way of life in these parts for as long as anyone can remember.

Luckily, you can fish many Appalachian streams year-round. Winter and spring are especially good for trout in the Hiwassee River, Little Pigeon River, and Big Creek.

If it’s bass you’re after, early summer into fall is the season.

Douglas and Fontana lakes are paradise for bass fishermen, and you may want to plan a trip around early June, for the annual Smallmouth King Bass Tournament.

What do you plan on doing during your Appalachian Vacation? Let us know in the comments below!