unique outdoor adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains

Appalachia is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, yet one section, in particular, is known for its extraordinary biodiversity and tranquil allure. Before European settlers arrived, the great Cherokee nation called this subrange shaconage, or “place of the blue smoke,” named for its misty peaks gracefully overlapping in silvery blue layers. Today, the name of this impressive region echoes among adventure enthusiasts around the world: the Great Smoky Mountains.

With broad valleys and tree-lined slopes, bubbling creeks hidden under autumn foliage, and ancient rivers frothing over mossy rocks, the Great Smoky Mountains are a memorable sight to behold. There is no better way to witness their magnificence up-close than to get out on the trails and rivers during a hands-on outdoor excursion. Unique adventures like ziplining, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and exploring vast caverns are more than enough to demonstrate the greatness behind this region’s name.

Pigeon Forge zipline

Pigeon Forge Ziplines

Neighboring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a collection of charming mountain towns full of family-friendly shops, lodgings, restaurants, attractions, and of course, outdoor adventures. You won’t have far to go for a hiking adventure near Gatlinburg or a chance to hop on a Pigeon Forge zipline. Still, it’s worth the quick drive to Sevierville for your first time ziplining the Smokies at these two adventure centers.

With two zipline tours, 150 acres of hiking trails through forests and pastures, a swinging bridge over the Little Pigeon River, obstacle courses, and even glamping, Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park has been rated the number one ziplining and outdoor adventure park in the Great Smoky Mountains area. A great place to start for beginners and kids, the 2-hour Waterfall Canopy zipline tour consists of seven zips flying over valleys, creeks, and the majestic Lost Mine Falls. The 2-hour Goliath Tour, on the other hand, involves five zips in total, one of which is known as the longest, fastest and highest zipline, reaching up to 55 mph!

Meanwhile, Wahoo Ziplines boasts a total of 2 miles of cabling spread across six zips, some as high as 250 feet in the air. On the fifth line, participants have the chance to zoom over treetops and valleys in tandem with a friend, family member or significant other. Don’t get too cozy, though, because the sixth line comprises two parallel lines, on which you and your partner will race to the finish. Between Wahoo Ziplines and Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park, soaring over forests, waterfalls and rivers on a Pigeon Forge zipline could be your favorite way to encounter panoramic views of these 480 million-year-old peaks.

horseback riding in Gatlinburg

Horseback Riding Near Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg neighbors the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where countless trails snake through old growth trees, over tinkling brooks and among native wildlife. In particular, one wild animal species originated in North America before spreading to other continents and becoming an integral part of human society. Today, wild horses are somewhat rare, but places like Jayell Ranch and Big Rock Dude Ranch at Ponderosa ensure their domesticated horses are well-kept, trained and loved.

Jayell Ranch provides the opportunity to ride on horseback for an hour through 4 miles of scenery, including views of Mount LeConte and Shield’s Mountain Fort. Big Rock Dude Ranch at Ponderosa also hosts a one-hour horseback riding tour covering 3.5 miles. At both ranches, the horses are chosen for their sweet temperament, and no prior riding experience is necessary. Bonding with an equine friend like the Native Americans and early Appalachian settlers once did is by far the most unique way to explore the Great Smoky Mountains.

whitewater rafting in Pigeon Forge

Whitewater Rafting in Pigeon Forge

The Little Pigeon River veers off the French Broad River to travel south through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg before dispersing into tributaries and branches through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The rushing upper river has a dozen Class III and IV rapids, perfect for an afternoon whitewater rafting in Pigeon Forge. In contrast, the calm lower river flows smoothly over Class I and II rapids, ideal for groups with small children.

At Rafting in the Smokies, the upper river rafting trip traverses 5.5 miles of rapids over about 1.5 hours, and the Scenic Family Trip tours 6 miles of the lower river for 2 hours. Every trip is accompanied by an expert rafting guide and safety gear. Rafting trips can even be combined into a package including ziplining, rock wall climbing, a ropes course and other activities.

In a similar vein, Smoky Mountain Outdoors also offers an upper river rafting trip, covering 6.5 miles of rapids, and a lower river excursion of 5.5 miles through the Pigeon River gorge. Plus, their whitewater rafting packages include other local attractions like Dollywood, Outdoor Gravity Park, Anakeesta, and Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud. Whitewater rafting in Pigeon Forge is as much a pleasant float among serene valleys and riveting wildlife as it is an exhilarating challenge to awaken your water-borne spirit!

Tuckaleechee Caverns
Photo Attribution: Bigmacthealmanac on Wikimedia Commons. No changes have been made to the original photograph.

Tuckaleechee Caverns

Hundreds of millions of years ago, a colossal landmass crashed into what is now North America, compressing layer upon layer of rock for miles across the eastern part of the continent. As a result, the Appalachian Mountains were born. Because the viscera of these mountains is mostly limestone, a remarkably soft rock, underground water eroded some sections away over time, leaving gaping rooms and tunnels we now call the Tuckaleechee Caverns. Home to the most sensitive seismic station in the world, beautiful cave formations called “cave onyx,” a big room the size of a football field, and the 210-foot underground Silver Falls, the 1.25-mile hike through the Tuckaleechee Caverns is an engaging way to learn about geological history. While geological features are most commonly appreciated from ground level or a bird’s-eye view, the underground terrain always tells its own version of these magnificent mountains’ story.


When you look up at the star-ridden sky, it’s natural to wonder what alien life must be like or what beauty must lie hidden on those far away planets. However, alien creatures and marvelous spectacles exist here on Earth in places like the Great Smoky Mountains. Perhaps humanity will set foot on those strange new worlds someday, but our feet are best suited to the sensational activities of our own outdoors. The next time you’re flying over valleys on a Pigeon Forge zipline, befriending a horse on the trails in Gatlinburg, splashing over rapids, or ducking under stalactites, you may realize with awe that the gems of this planet are far older than any name we could give them.                       

Content on this page is subject to change. Please contact the locations mentioned to see if promotions, hours, pricing, etc. are still valid.

About Nicole Miller

Nicole Miller is a native Tennessean who currently resides in Asheville, North Carolina. She loves spending time in the great outdoors, such as camping, hiking, and mountain biking. She also enjoys exploring all that the Smoky Mountains have to offer.

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