Our visit to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachian towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge started with a shared goal of exploring Tennessee, but the reality is that Adam and I were looking for very different things from a very quick vacation. Although we love to take a week off whenever we can, many of our vacations are crammed into long weekends that don’t require using vacation time—a precious, limited commodity for us. We picked the Great Smoky Mountains because it seemed like a great compromise for us. Adam was excited to spend a few days learning about the region’s history, the people and places that contributed to the rise of a popular vacation destination. I was emerging from a few busy weeks at work and looking at a few more busy weeks ahead of me, and I needed a break: a real break, where I could truly disconnect. I needed, in the words of John Muir, to “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” I didn’t have a whole week, but I did have three days, so off to the Great Smoky Mountains we went.When it comes to deciding how you want to spend your vacation time, every corner of the United States offers a different experience. You’ll find cosmopolitan cities like Boston and San Francisco; relaxing wine escapes like Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes; and classic getaways like Las Vegas and Disney World, each with plenty to offer whether you have a few days or a whole week to explore. Our trip to the Great Smoky Mountains showed us that—surprisingly—the region combines elements of many of our favorite spots around the country. In fact, surprise is exactly the word that comes to mind when we think about the Great Smoky Mountains and our Appalachian adventure: there’s enough history, entertainment, and outdoor activities to attract the attention of even the most diverse group of travelers.
If you are thinking about a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains, here are some of the items that might draw you into the region—and some of the surprises that might make it one of your favorite vacation spots.
Why Is It Called the Smoky Mountains?
Our visit to the Smoky Mountains wouldn’t have been complete without at least a bit of a hazy view, and that same view has welcomed people for hundreds of years. Local Cherokee tribes described the land as shaconage, a word that translates to, “blue, like smoke.” On hot, humid days, a misty, naturally occurring haze can be seen rising over mountains, creating the illusion of smoke and likely inspiring the name.We’ve been to some notoriously cloudy spots in our travels, including a somewhat miserable attempt to see Quito through thick fog, but there’s an almost serenity that envelopes the Smoky Mountains when the mist rolls in. Maybe it’s because the fog is expected, and it hugs the landscape like a blanket in the mornings until the sun warms the land enough for the blanket to be tossed aside, unveiling blue skies and mountain views as far as you can see. When visiting the Smoky Mountains, embrace foggy conditions: don’t lament them, at least not right away. Build in enough time to see the mountains in the fog as well as under clearer skies and enjoy the transition between them. You may be surprised to find it’s one of the great memories that will stay with you after your Appalachian visit is over.
Smoky Mountains Outdoor Activities
You’ll have plenty of outdoor activities to choose from during your visit to the USA’s Appalachian region. Here are a few of the places we visited during our visit.
► Great Smoky Mountains National Park
No visit to the Smoky Mountains is complete without a stop in the national park bearing the same name. Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina, and it’s an unmissable stop whether you plan to spend a weekend or a week in the area.We spent a beautiful, brisk morning hiking to the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. From the parking lot, we followed a paved trail up the mountain to an observation deck. The trek is not as easy as it sounds; the walk itself is short (just half a mile), but it follows a steep gradient that starts at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet and gains more than 300 feet during the hike. We took the hike slowly, as did every other visitor in the park that day, so as not to exhaust ourselves as we climbed the steep gradient and to ensure we were not overwhelmed by the change in altitude (it may not be as high up as the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, but altitude sickness can impact some travelers at lower altitudes as well). When we made it to the top of the observation deck, we were a bit underwhelmed by the view. On a clear day it’s possible to see between 50 and 100 miles away, but our view was significantly shortened by the smoky haze that completely surrounded the observation deck. Instead of 100 miles, we struggled to see 100 feet in front of us. Still, that is a situation to expect in the Smoky Mountains, and although we left without the views we wanted we still enjoyed the hike and the experience of exploring a bit of the park.
In addition to seeking out great views, you may have some chance encounters with wildlife as well. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an estimated 1,500 black bears, which means there are roughly two bears per square mile. It may be exciting to see one, but remember not to approach them if you do: respect their space and their home, and do not interact with them or feed them.
More Information: NPS.gov/grsm
► Smoky Mountain Alpine CoasterOne of the best rides you will find in the Smoky Mountains is the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster, the longest alpine coaster in the United States. If you have never experienced an alpine coaster, this is a great introduction to the art and science of gliding along a roller coaster track through nature—and if you have enjoyed alpine coasters before, this is not one to skip! After buckling into your own personal coaster car, you’ll be pulled to the starting line before being released on a fast, thrilling journey to the finish line. Although you will be able to control the speed of the car to some extent—and brakes are available if you need them—the best way to ride is to push all the way down on the handles to maximize your speed as you barrel through the tree line and take in some unparalleled views as they rush by you.
More Information: SmokyMountainAlpineCoaster.com
You’ll need to leave lose items like hats, wallets, and purses safely locked in your car (if they come loose you’ll never see them again!), but mounted cameras like GoPros may be approved to make the journey with you. This video from Thrillist shows what the track looks like, and it’s a great way to consider if the experience might be fun for you. We loved our ride, and it was a truly memorable way to experience the Smoky Mountains.
Zoom through Tennessee by riding the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster. pic.twitter.com/iW0mfhH0De
— Thrillist (@Thrillist) August 12, 2019
► Gatlinburg SkyBridge
The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States is located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, right at the base of the Smoky Mountains. Stretching 680 feet wide, the suspension bridge is 140 feet above the ground and provides some of the best panoramic views of the Appalachian Mountains that you’ll find in the area. There is a chairlift that will take you to the top in order to make the walk over the bridge, which was completely packed with tourists during our visit. Still, earlier in the day before the crowds arrive, the SkyBridge is a great addition to your Smoky Mountain itinerary if great views combined with just a little bit of daredevil-ish risk sound like a fun experience.
This video from the Gatlinburg SkyBridge shares some behind the scenes footage of the construction and gives you an idea for what the experience is like.
More Information: GatlinburgSkylift.com/skybridge
Landmarks to Visit in the Smoky Mountains
If you enjoy a touch of local history and culture in your vacation plans, your Smoky Mountains itinerary won’t be complete without a stop at a few key landmarks.
► Davy Crockett Tavern MuseumThe USA is home to a few folk heroes, and chief among them is Davy Crockett. Born in 1786 in eastern Tennessee, the edge of the American frontier at the time, Crockett become widely known as an adventurous pioneer who embodied the spirit of westward expansion. If you are interested in learning about the man behind the myths—and the one under his famous “coonskin cap” made from raccoon fur—there are a few destinations that might be of interest.
The Davy Crockett Tavern Museum in Morristown, Tennessee is a great place to start your exploration of Crockett’s life. Knowledgeable volunteer docents staff the small cabin that houses plenty of memorabilia and artifacts that will transport you to a very different Tennessee. Even though he was born into poverty and lacked a formal education, he served in the Tennessee militia, became a United States Congressman, and took part in the Texas Revolution where he ultimately perished at the legendary Battle of the Alamo. You’ll have the chance to learn about these highlights, as well as lesser-known facts, during your visit to the museum. It’s a worthwhile stop as you begin your visit to the Smoky Mountains.
More Information: CrockettTavernMuseum.org
► Andrew Johnson National Historic SitePresidential history has some key ties to Appalachian Tennessee, and a visit to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site is a great way to learn about one man’s journey from the Smoky Mountains to the White House.
Andrew Johnson served as the 17th president of the United States of America, taking office after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Johnson was not born in Tennessee—he hailed from Raleigh, North Carolina, but he called Tennessee home for almost 25 years and worked in Greenville as a tailor before moving to Washington, DC for much of his political career. He served as the mayor of Greenville as well as the governor of Tennessee, so a visit to the national historic site that bears his name will also teach you some interesting facts about the state’s history as well as the country’s history. A series of buildings, including his homes and the cemetery where he is buried, are part of the visit and a nice way to spend an educational afternoon.
More Information: NPS.gov/anjo
► Bristol Sign on the State Line
Not far from the Smoky Mountains, one of our favorite stops might be recognizable to you, too! Located just off of I-81, the towns of Bristol straddle the border of Virginia and Tennessee. State Street, which runs through both Bristols, is adorned with both state flags, and it serves as the dividing line in what otherwise looks and functions as a single town. If you can imagine standing on one side of the street and jumping to the other, bouncing between Virginia and Tennessee, you may be picturing a small, green gecko who did exactly that in a famous national commercial.
The state line might draw you into Bristol, but we recommend staying for breakfast on your way to the Smoky Mountains. We stumbled upon Blackbird Bakery while searching for a cup of coffee and something to tide us over until we reached Pigeon Forge, and the pastry case was more than equipped to do the job. We picked a couple of donuts to pair with steaming mugs of fresh coffee, and while the orange frosted donut was delicious, the maple bacon donut stole the show.
More Information: BlackbirdBakeryBristol.com
Smoky Mountains Amusement Parks, Museums, and Shops
There is plenty to learn in the Smoky Mountains, but there is also plenty to keep yourself entertained—especially if traveling with children or your family! Here are a few of our favorite places to visit if you’re looking for a few truly fun activities.
► DollywoodIf Davy Crockett is Tennessee’s King of the Wild Frontier, it’s easy to argue that Dolly Parton is the region’s queen. Born at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, Dolly Parton is a world-famous American musician, singer, actress, author, and businesswoman with a career that stretches more than 50 years. She has been nominated for Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, Golden Globes, Tony Awards, and Emmy Awards and she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. As a businesswoman, she has helped develop some of the best entertainment options you’ll find in the Great Smoky Mountains; you’ll see attractions of all sorts boasting her name, but none more prominently than Dollywood. Combining an amusement park featuring world-class rides with excellent food, shows, and a resort, a trip to Dollywood could benefit from every second of your vacation. Even a day is enough time to enjoy a visit, though, especially if your arrival is timed with popular events like the seasonal Harvest Festival in the fall or the Smoky Mountain Christmas experience with light displays and shows. If your visit coincides with warmer months, take advantage of the water park to cool off from the heat.
More Information: Dollywood.com
► ShoppingLike any good resort town, both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg offer a wide range of shopping spots that are great for locating the perfect souvenir or a surprising find or two. Many stores pop up in strip malls and along streets that function in a way similar to the boardwalks you might find in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware or Virginia Beach. If grabbing an ice cream and spending a relaxing evening enjoying some retail therapy sounds like a fun vacation night, there are plenty of spots in the Smoky Mountains that will meet your need!
We were especially happy to stumble upon The Island in Pigeon Forge, which is a destination for even more than shopping (you’ll find restaurants and entertainment, too!). Although we don’t typically spend a lot of time shopping on our vacations—unless we’re hunting for a great souvenir—we spent a couple of hours exploring some unexpectedly interesting stores, including Emery’s 5 and 10 that was memorable for its huge display of old-fashioned (and odd) sodas and candy that will remind many visitors of the stories their parents and grandparents told them about childhood treats. We also loved the Kryptonite Character Store, which sells an almost unparalleled collection of pop culture toys and memorabilia. We wandered in to check out the selection, and we both left with Funko Pops, including my Carmen Sandiego that now sits on my desk as a reminder of our trip—and to be a more responsible world traveler than she was.
► MuseumsThere are a lot of fun, family-friendly museums to explore in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and you can enjoy an entire vacation visiting each of them or incorporating them based on your interests and the time you have to spend. Some museums are unexpected, such as the Titanic Museum, which doesn’t have the strongest of ties to Appalachian lands; it is built inside of a replica of the ship. Some museums will remind you of favorites you have seen elsewhere, including the Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Some are strikingly out of place, such as WonderWorks—which is located in an upside-down building. Our favorite was the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, which reminded us a bit of the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. The museum features interactive exhibits showcasing crime fighting, crime history, and multiple artifacts related to famous criminals like John Dillinger and Al Capone. For many visitors, the highlight might just be the infamous white Ford Bronco previously owned by OJ Simpson. Yes, that very white Ford Bronco is on full display.
Smoky Mountains Restaurants, Wineries, Distilleries, and Dinner Theater
One of the best ways to experience a new place is by exploring the food and beverages that are local to a region, and you’ll find plenty of great dining and drinking options when you visit the Great Smoky Mountains. Here are a few of our favorite stops in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
► Poynor’s Pommes Frites and SpaghettieisAlthough authentic German bratwurst might not be the first thing you think of when you plan your Smoky Mountain vacation, Poynor’s Pommes Frites makes a great lunch destination. More than just tasty sausages and fries, the real attraction is a unique dessert called spaghettieis. Sharing German origins with the bratwurst, spaghettieis is created by putting ice cream through a pasta machine to create a noodle effect. After adding a generous amount of raspberry sauce, some shaved white chocolate, and a chocolate-hazelnut “meatball,” the final version looks very similar to a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Although it tastes just like an ice cream sundae, the unique presentation makes it a worthwhile addition to your itinerary and a fun, Instagram-worthy detour to The Island (just in case shopping wasn’t part of your plan!).
More Information: IslandinPigeonForge.com/poi/poynors-pommes-frites
► Dinner Theater
In Pigeon Forge, dinner theater is a big deal. Every hotel has fliers in the lobby, billboards remind you to buy tickets around every turn, and the establishments themselves are so big and over-the-top they will catch your eye as you drive past them. You’ll have a few choices if dinner and a show sounds like a fun evening, including the famous Dolly Parton’s Stampede (featuring live animals and talented stunt artists), Pirates Voyage (complete with sword fights and canons), Comedy Barn (a family-friendly choice with comedy and jugglers), Murder Mystery (a light-hearted whodunit show), and even the Bible Times Dinner Show (bringing the Bible to life while you eat).We decided to make an evening out of the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, which is loosely based on the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud that played out in the region more than a century ago. After arriving, we were ushered to a table for two with a great view of the stage on the Hatfield side of the theater—our first indication that the dinner theater experience would be, at least in part, immersive for guests! After being served a really tasty assortment of Southern dinner favorites like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet tea, corn on the cob, and a creamy vegetable soup, we sat back to watch what became a surprise highlight of our trip to the Smoky Mountains. With some theatrical elements from shows we’ve seen in places like New York and Las Vegas combined with a fun storyline, the evening flew by—and we were genuinely entertained.
Dinner theater experiences tend to be a bit pricey, often stretching past $50 per person, but the price point often include an all-you-can-eat meal and a theater experience, which may make it seem like a good value for the money. We enjoyed the evening, and whether you watch the Hatfields and McCoys duke it out or find yourself more inclined to enjoy one of the other dinner theater experiences in the area, don’t overlook it as a way to experience nightlife in the Smoky Mountains.
More Information: HatfieldMcCoyDinnerFeud.com
► Smoky Mountain Winery
Wine is not something you might be seeking out when visiting the Smoky Mountains, but because we’re always curious about how winemaking traditions are influenced by the places we visit, we stopped into Smoky Mountain Winery in Gatlinburg for a tasting during our vacation. Established in 1981, Smoky Mountain Winery is the oldest winery in east Tennessee, and it’s a great place to learn about the kinds of grapes that grow well in the region. Especially known for the sweet muscadine grape, which grows well in the USA’s southern states, the tasting menu is surprisingly extensive and fun to sample. Tastings are provided free of charge, and bottles are well-priced, so taking home a bottle of your favorite is a good idea.
More Information: SmokyMountainWinery.net
► Ole Smoky MoonshineIn the USA’s southern states, moonshine has a bit of a storied past. The term itself conjures images of people creating their own alcohol in secret, which is precisely what made moonshine famous. Although moonshine is or has been produced around the world, it was prominently associated with the USA during prohibition, when it was illegal to purchase and consume alcohol and people around the country turned to desperate measures to safeguard or produce it. From smuggling wine grapes across state lines for “communion wine,” as was the case for Virginia’s native Norton grape, to producing spirits at home in bathtubs, many people were willing to get creative in order to enjoy a drink or two. These days, moonshine more accurately refers to an unaged whiskey that comes in a variety of flavors—and a variety of proofs.
In the Smoky Mountains, there is no better place to try moonshine than Ole Smoky Moonshine, a distillery that specializes in all manner of moonshine. For just five dollars, we sampled ten different flavors ranging from light and fruity to creamy and sweet, and from strong to, well, very strong. A few flavors were standouts for us, including the refreshing sweet tea moonshine and sweet blackberry moonshine; we also liked the mountain java moonshine, which would make a delicious after dinner drink. To taste real moonshine, though, be sure to try White Lightnin’, which is great for mixing but a little much to drink on its own. Of course, if you want to go a notch above, Blue Flame is 128 proof and guaranteed to burn a bit as it goes down.
More Information: OleSmoky.com
Hotels in the Smoky Mountains
From humble motels to luxurious resorts, there are plenty of places to stay when visiting the Smoky Mountains. We based ourselves in Pigeon Forge at the Clarion Inn, which provided us with a nice, clean, and centrally located room that made our activities easy to plan. From the fresh-baked cookies at night to the comfortable room, we were excited that the hotel met our needs for our weekend trip.
More Information: Booking.com/hotel-waldens-main-street
We found the Clarion Inn on Booking.com, which we use to compare hotel amenities and locations during our travel planning. Check out Booking.com to see if they have a room at a hotel that will work well for your Smoky Mountains vacation!
Enjoy the Smoky Mountains!
There was a period of time during our hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park when my cell phone lost service, and I found myself doing exactly what John Muir prescribed: “Break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain.” I had needed a break, a chance for true rest and relaxation, and I found exactly what I was searching for during our trip to the Smoky Mountains. From the peaceful moments off the grid to the thrills of hurtling down the mountain on an alpine coaster, all of our experiences added up to a truly fulfilling vacation. If you are planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains, and specifically to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, we know you’ll return home as we did: rested, relaxed, and ready to plan another trip!
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