The Smoky Mountains have always been an important part of my life. My family went on picnics there when I was a child, I worked as a waitress in restaurants in nearby Gatlinburg in summers during college, I met my husband there, I went on my honeymoon there, and we have since spent much vacation time in the area. Now that I live in a different state my ears perk up when people mention that they went to the Smoky Mountains for a vacation. Of course I eagerly ask what they did while they were there and much to my dismay they usually talk about Dollywood, water parks, go-carts, putt-putt, and shopping. Most people never even went to the mountains! Granted, nearby Pigeon Forge is a kid’s paradise of a fun (and expensive) vacation but the whole family is missing out on the wonderful, unique (and inexpensive) experience of the Smoky Mountains.
THINGS TO DO IN THE PARK
Driving through the park is great but you can’t experience the mountains unless you get out of the car. Hiking is the best way to see things you have never seen before, but please don’t start groaning. There is no law that says you have to hike to the end of the trail. My two favorite trails are the Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Bluffs. Both trails are beautiful and maybe a little challenging for small children or folks with bad knees. But hiking the short distance from the parking lot to the trailhead is easy and very rewarding. This area has bridges that cross beautiful mountain streams. It is surrounded by blooming rhododendrons and mountain laurel in spring and summer and colorful trees in autumn.
A visit to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Ranger Station is a worthwhile 30 minutes of your vacation. Besides being able to get lots of information about the mountains, there is an excellent nature exhibit of plants and animals that live in the area. There is a really nice gift shop with unique items to help you remember your visit to the mountains. My favorite part, though, is the film they show, which chronicles the mountains through the seasons. My family has begun to groan when I mention going to the Ranger Station
because they know we can’t leave until we’ve seen it.
There are two very flat walking trails that take you by mountain streams. One is just outside Gatlinburg (not far from KFC). The other is the first trail after the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and it is even handicap assessable with a paved walkway (good for baby strollers too).
|Chimney Tops Picnic Area|
The next best thing to hiking on a trail is the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail. This road begins at the end of what used to be called Airport Road in downtown Gatlinburg, but is now labeled as Historic Nature Trail Road. You can stop along this road at the trailheads for hiking trails that lead to waterfalls (Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls) or you can just enjoy the mountains from your car on a one way single lane road on which you can almost touch nature.
Some of our most memorable times were totally unplanned. Wildlife would just appear at the most unexpected time. Once we had finished up a hike that ended at the Ranger’s Station. We were sitting on a bench when two deer came prancing out into the field and started fighting with their hooves in the air. Then they stopped, walked out to the road, and I swear they looked both ways before crossing the road! We have many bear stories to remember. The best involve mother bears and their cubs which we watched from a distance. Baby bears are really good at climbing trees!
THINGS TO DO OUTSIDE THE PARK
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have just about anything you can imagine for family fun.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have just about anything you can imagine for family fun.
Dollywood in Pigeon Forge is very popular. I have never been, and don’t plan too, but I have heard others say nice things about it (especially the Christmas decorations and show).
The Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the best aquarium I have ever visited. My favorite part is the moving sidewalk through a tunnel of “ocean”. This year they have added a penguin exhibit called The Penguin Playhouse that is nice.
The Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort at the end of Ski Mountain Road has so much more than skiing. It has a very nice indoor ice skating rink, a bear exhibit, chairlifts, alpine slide and more for year round fun. You can ride the Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg to the Ski Resort or drive up Ski Mountain Road in your car.
Shopping is endless. There is everything from outlet malls to gift and souvenir shops. You won’t want to miss the Arts and Crafts Community on Glades Road just outside Gatlinburg. On this 8 mile road there are little clusters of arts and crafts shops of handcrafted items.
Ziplines are the latest super fun way to enjoy the Smoky Mountains. I am trying to work up the courage to try one!
WHERE TO STAYThere are many hotels and motels in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area. But if you want to really enjoy the mountains in a not-to-be-forgotten way, choose one of the many chalets or cabins offered by several reality companies in the area. We have always stayed in chalets off of Ski Mountain Road rented by Chalet Village Properties. In fact, we estimate that we have stayed with them over 30 times beginning with our honeymoon. They have all sizes and types of chalets at various prices. They have an excellent web site that tells you and shows you exactly what your chalet will be like. We always know what to expect before we get there and are never disappointed. My favorites are the chalets that hang off the mountain with a spectacular view of Mt. LeConte. Of course it is mandatory that the chalet have an outside hot tub which is best on cool nights (or even when there is snow!)
|View of Mt. LeConte from a Chalet|
WHERE TO EAT (Not enough days to eat at all my favorites!)
The Peddler in Gatlinburg has call-ahead seating that is really a help because they are busy. You should ask for and wait for table with a window view of the mountain stream. You begin your meal with a wonderful salad bar (smoked oysters!) and then choose your steak as it is carved at your table. There is parking in front of restaurant which is rare in Gatlinburg.
The Park Grill in Gatlinburg is a beautiful restaurant. It has a wonderful salad bar and I always choose the trout. There is parking in front and behind restaurant.
The Donut Friar is in Village shopping area of Gatlinburg. Fresh donuts and coffee can be enjoyed outside in the courtyard. Be sure to try the Bavarian Cream donuts. There is a parking area in the school parking lot behind the Village Shops when school is not in session. What a great way to make money for a school!
Pancake Pantry is on the Parkway in Gatlinburg. It has a great variety of excellent pancakes. There is usually a long waiting line outside, even in the cold in the winter. It is good if you like fancy pancakes, but not worth a 2 hour wait.
Flapjacks has several locations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. My husband recommends the Walker’s Cabin Skillet, which is basically all breakfasts foods stacked and presented in an omelet pan.
The Cheese Cupboard and Hofbrauhaus Restaurant is in the Village shopping area of Gatlinburg. We always order the World Famous Ruben Sandwiches!! You can eat in or take out for a picnic. I suggest doing both (but on different days).
Bullfish is in Pigeon Forge. There is lots of variety and excellent beer bread. The shrimp and grits are great!
Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant is in Pigeon Forge. It has excellent homestyle food and each meal begins with apple fritters. There is a cute shopping area next to restaurant that has everything you can imagine that involves apples. It is a great place to go for holiday meals because the food comes out family style. We had Christmas dinner there once.
WHICH SEASON SHOULD YOU GO?
There is not a bad season in the Smoky Mountains!
Spring is beautiful with wild flowers and budding trees. Spring happens later in the mountains because of cooler temperatures. We once woke up to snow in April.
Summer continues to have beautiful wildflowers and rhododendron blooming. The temperature is several degrees cooler in the mountains than in town. Sitting by a mountain stream is better than air condition. There is a parade at midnight on July 4.
The colors of the Fall trees are breathtaking. The trick is to be there at the peak color time which is usually around the end of October. Because of school holidays my family usually couldn’t get there until the week before Thanksgiving. Some trees would still have leaves. Just remember that University of Tennessee home football weekends are very busy.
Winter is fun in the mountains also. It is best to drive something with 4-wheel drive. November and December is all about Christmas. Everything in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is covered in beautiful lights. The Ski Resort “makes” snow as soon as it is cold enough. January through March is sometimes a little slow in town but the ski lodge is busy. When there is snow on the road they close the road that goes in to the park.
The Smoky Mountains is definitely my favorite vacation spot, and has been my entire life. There is something for people of all ages and physical abilities. College kids will love the hiking and nightlife. Families will enjoy that it doesn’t have to be a stressful vacation, and that everyone can spend time together doing a variety of activities. Retirees can still find new and fun things to do even if this isn’t their first (or thirtieth) trip. I encourage you to go!