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5 Water Activities in the Great Smoky Mountains

What’s summer-like in the Smoky Mountains? The weather is hot, and the water is fine. Summertime temperatures can hit the 90s with high humidity, which makes the 65-degree water all the more refreshing. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, a wonder of diversity and enchantment. Its name comes from the mists and fogs that rise daily from the forests and frequently return as rain. I have gathered some of the best water activities to do in the Great Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountains

These ancient mountains that look so soft can also be rugged. You’ll want to practice good water safety as well as trail sense. Wear water shoes when swimming or wading. Strap on a flotation vest when you’re out on a boat. Be cautious in all waters; the current can surge without warning from mountain runoff accumulating just around the next bend.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the water sports available in the Smoky Mountains:

Water Activities to do in the Great Smoky Mountains


With over 800 miles of hiking trails, the national park offers multiple riverside walks, as well as many waterfalls with pools, and paddling is irresistible. But swimming is generally cautioned against, given how rocky and treacherous the streams can be. One of the exceptions is Metcalf Bottoms. This is relatively shallow, just 3 or 4 feet deep. It’s a good place to get your feet wet or relax with younger kids. You’ll be next to a grassy picnic area and an easy hike.

Outside the park are plenty more swimming holes and rivers you can dip into including Cherokee, on the North Carolina side, with multiple deep swimming holes in Cherokee Rapids. There’s also a more peaceful swimming beach at nearby Oconaluftee Islands Park.

Just outside the park, Townsend, TN, is where the two branches of the Little River meet and form a wide, deep pool. You’ll find large rocks and a beach area that you can sun on.

Some vacation cabin resorts in the area offer swimming pools. These may come in different depths, with a kid-safe shallow pool and deeper zones for diving. Well-appointed cabins may even have an indoor pool, offering you maximum privacy.

On that note, the area offers countless fully appointed rental cabins in the hills with amenities such as hot tubs, games, and entertainment. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg cabins are a favorite way to stay in the Smokies, in the midst of it all yet based out of a home away from home.


In the national park itself, try tubing in the Deep Creek area. The lower stretch is serene and scenic. There’s a slightly more adventurous upper section that runs from Indian Creek through Deep Creek Gorge. Hike a mile from the Deep Creek Trailhead; the put-in point is fairly obvious.

Outside of the park, you can find numerous put-in spots and outfitters. On the Tennessee side, good options include the Little Pigeon River near Seville and the Little River by Townsend. Note that the Little River can get shallow in dry months. The rocks may endanger your tube, so check the river depth before hitting the water.

What about in North Carolina? The Oconaluftee River near Cherokee offers tubing down rapids and through swimming holes. The water can get a little rough, so this is most suitable for older kids and more experienced tubers. Needless to say, any fun in the water of any kind is made safer when you get swimming lessons for your kids at an early age.

White Water Rafting and Kayaking

The Pigeon River is a very popular destination for whitewater rafting and kayaking. You’ll see multiple outfitters along its bank, especially right at the state line.

The Upper Pigeon River offers a more adrenaline-charged adventure. There are six miles of Class III to Class IV rapids to navigate, putting your whitewater skills to the test.

For a laid-back experience, the Lower Pigeon River offers mostly Class I and the occasional Class II rapids. It’s a scenic area with a lot to appreciate during the relaxing ride.

In nearby Bryson City, the Nantahala River also offers rafting and kayaking experiences. Olympic Kayaking teams have trained on these Class II and Class III rapids.


Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 2,900 miles of streams! You can fish for:

  • Brook Trout, the only fish species native to the Smokies
  • Rainbow and Brown Trout
  • Smallmouth and Rock Bass

Fishing is permitted daily and throughout the park. You can fish on either a North Carolina or a Tennessee fishing license or permit. Outside of the National Park, you’ll need a license from the appropriate state. Gatlinburg and Cherokee also require special permits.

This part of the Appalachians has fishing opportunities almost anywhere you go. A few highlights include:

  • Dedicated children’s fishing areas in North Gatlinburg Park and Mynatt Park
  • Lakeside fishing at Fontana Lake and Douglas Lake (see ‘boating’ below)
  • Fishing throughout Gatlinburg. The town runs its own trout farm and stocks the local river with thousands of fish. Certain restrictions apply so check with the Gatlinburg recreation department.

Boating and Beyond

There are two major lakes where you can rent out watercraft and equipment such as canoes, kayaks, pontoon boats, jet skis, and stand-up paddleboards.

Fontana Lake, south of the park, is 29 miles long and has 240 miles of shoreline. The lake’s mostly undeveloped since it’s sandwiched between the Smokies and Nantahala National Forest. Fontana Dam is the highest dam east of the Rockies and offers a great view. There’s a nice spot where you can park and swim near the dam.

Douglas Lake to the north is larger, at 60 miles long. It boasts 550 miles of shoreline, many of which includes sandy, inviting beaches. Although this reservoir attracts 1.7 million visitors a year, its size and winding character means you can strike out on the water and find a quiet spot all your own.

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