What to Do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

gettyimages-504872148-5e7c3c90-fad8-4ce3-bd12-58497459d6a7
 JTBaskinphoto / Getty Images

There's no getting past it: The Smokies are popular. It's the nation's most touristed park, with about 10 million visitors annually. But for good reason. At 522,000 acres, it's a massive hardwood wilderness with rippling mountain views and a seemingly endless labyrinth of creeks and waterfalls to explore — all only a few hours from some of the Southeast's biggest metro areas. The key is getting away from the gawkers by veering toward the park's less-traveled corners, like its northeastern border, home to some of the Appalachians' more technical whitewater. "There are some for-real, no-joke Class V runs," says Charles Conner, of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. For more casual paddlers, the nearby Sinks has Class II and III rapids. As for the park's renowned hiking, seek out the more strenuous climbs, which weed out the majority of parkgoers. "The 3,000-foot climb up Mount Cammerer is remote, and the views are some of the best in the park," says Jeff Doran of hikinginthesmokys.com. A successful elk-reintroduction program can make sections feel more Rockies than Smokies, but in summer there is no mistaking you're in the South when fireflies congregate in a select few meadows, all blinking at night. It's the Smokies version of a disco ball and, yes, it will make you want to dance.

Paddle and Camp on Fontana Lake

The southwestern region of the park sees the fewest visitors and is home to one of the serenest overnight experiences in the East: camping on the remote shores of Fontana Lake. To do it, you'll need to rent a canoe or kayak (or even a standup paddleboard) from Bryson City Outdoors, then put in to Fontana Lake. (The easily accessible Cable Cove launch point is best and only 30 minutes away.) From there it's a 3.5-mile paddle north to the mouth of Hazel Creek, a small stream brimming with trout. "Once you get into the creek from the lake, the gorge skinnies up, the sides get steep, and the scenery gets stunning," says Conner. Want more solitude? Beach your kayak and hike upstream. "The higher you get, the more you'll feel out in the middle of nowhere," he says. When you've had your fill of fishing, head back to the lake and find your home for the night at one of the backcountry sites along Hazel Creek Trail, or paddle to island campsite 87, which is accessible only by water.

Hike to LeConte Lodge

Perched on several rock outcroppings at 6,300 feet, LeConte Lodge is a hike-in-only cabin with meals included ($140 per person). "You have to book a few months out, but it's totally worth it," says Conner. There are easier ways to get there, but the most rewarding option is a 34-mile, multiday trek starting at Big Creek trailhead. Over a mile in, you can stop to cliff jump into the water at Midnight Hole. Farther on you'll connect with the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the highest ridgeline in the park and is full of the epic views the Smokies are known for. The final leg of the hike is a short ascent — with rails and a rope-aided traverse to keep things from getting too interesting — before arriving at the lodge, where, for $11, an endless wine pour awaits.

Smokies at a Glance

Miles of Hiking Trails: 900

Backcountry Campsites: 100

Number of Elk: 200