The Great Smoky Mountains, an ancient and surprisingly diverse mountain range, has long captured the imagination of visitors, from modern-day tourists back to earlier settlers and Native Americans. Once home to pioneer outposts, farms, and logging operations, this tract of 522,000 acres has since been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and fallen under the protection of the National Park Service, preserving one of the largest chunks of land in the eastern United States from development and opening it up for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.

Today the Smokies are the most visited national park in the country, welcoming more than 11 million visitors each year. But with the exception of a few top attractions, it’s still possible to find yourself alone in these ancient forests, to learn from its pioneering history, and to take in sweeping views of mountain peaks and valley floors—and it’s all less than two hours from downtown Knoxville.

Getting Started

Before you hit the road, be sure to fuel up in Knoxville for the trip ahead. The city has plenty of worthwhile stops for coffee and food to satisfy your taste buds. A good option is to start your day sipping on artisan coffee and enjoying gourmet pastries at Old City Java. Or take your coffee to go for a stroll in Knoxville’s Old City where you’ll find quaint brick sidewalks and historic architecture. 

From Knoxville, the most direct route to the Smokies is Interstate 40 east to exit 407, a route designed to harness the influx of motorists during the summer. It will deposit you in Gatlinburg at the national park’s main western entrance. For a slightly more picturesque route, take State Route 441 out of downtown Knoxville, following winding surface roads through the towns of Seymour and Pigeon Forge before arriving at the park. Give yourself up to two hours to enjoy the drive.

Hitting the Trails

With more than 800 miles of maintained trails, there’s no shortage of things to do for a variety of skill levels once you arrive at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including biking, hiking, running, picnicking, and climbing. Some of the best bets for hikes in the park can be quite challenging, so be sure to check elevation changes, weather, and accessibility with park officials or online before setting out.

For first-time visitors, a must-stop is Cades Cove. Billed as an 11-mile driving loop, the roadway shuts down at times during the summer, making it a perfect introduction for biking or hiking on a relatively easy trail. Cruise past old homesteads in this majestic valley, though consider yourself warned—Cades Cove is one of the most popular attractions in the park and it’s not uncommon to find the parking lot packed by 8 a.m. during peak summer months. Check out the park’s tips on avoiding crowds.

More than 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail cuts through the Smokies, a challenging segment rated among the toughest hikes in the park, though it tends to get easier once you conquer the ascent to the ridgeline. A number of hikers each year set aside five to seven days for this hike, giving plenty of opportunity for side hikes to several popular peaks and overlooks. But you can easily design shorter day hikes on the AT and connecting trails. If you’re feeling adventurous, put your boots to work on this 30-mile, three-day loop that encompasses portions of the AT and Eagle Creek Trail, culminating in 360-degree views from the top of the Shuckstack Fire Tower. For day hikers, consider hiking the 3.5 miles (mostly uphill) from Fontana Dam to the fire tower. The trip up is difficult, but you’ll get incredible views and an easier trip back to complete the seven-mile round-trip hike.

If you’re looking for views, don’t pass up a chance to visit the highest peak in the park at Clingmans Dome. It’s possible to drive the seven miles to the top, or you can take advantage of several trails, including the AT, which meander up to Clingmans overlook and offer a much better route than the roadway. It’s a popular stop for good reason, as it features sweeping views of the Smokies sprawling below.

Unwind in Knoxville

You conquered the Smokies. Congrats! Now kick back and enjoy the modern conveniences of Knoxville, taking in views of lighted bridges over the Tennessee River and watching the Sunsphere glisten in evening twilight. Downtown’s Market Square, a brick-laden plaza lined with boutique shops, bars, restaurants, and entertainment, has long served as a main attraction in town. It’s worth making reservations to indulge in a burger at Stock and Barrel (you won’t regret it) and paying a late-night visit to the Peter Kern Library—a speakeasy accessible via an alleyway entrance behind the Oliver Hotel.

If you’ve still got some energy to burn, the Neyland Greenway is a great place to unwind. Stroll along the banks of the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville, with paths leading to World’s Fair Park, the University of Tennessee gardens, and downtown eateries. Calhoun’s on the River and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are accessible from the greenway.

Lastly, Knoxville has seen a microbrewery renaissance in recent years, with more than a half-dozen beer joints now crafting signature brews. Concentrated mostly on Knoxville’s downtown and northside, it’s easy to go bar-hopping to taste the diverse offerings. Crafty Bastard Brewery boasts some of the most creative concoctions, while Schulz Brau pours tastes of Bavaria by the pint.

Need a place to spend the night? Knoxville has something for every taste and budget, from big city hotels to smaller chains and extended-residency options. Traveling with your dog? Knoxville has a number of pet-friendly hotels to choose from. Find (and book) the right one for you.

No matter where you stay in Knoxville, you’re not far from some of the most beautiful trails in the country. Using Knoxville as your basecamp for a trip to the Smokies allows you to enjoy the best of both worlds—and get the most out of an unforgettable adventure. And keep in mind, you’ll find great, pet-friendly trails for all levels of adventure within Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness.

Written by RootsRated Media for Visit Knoxville.