Great Smoky Mountains Road Trip
With 9 million annual visitors, the Great Smoky Mountains ranks as America's most popular national park. Spend a few days driving amid the steep mountain passes, rolling valleys and swirling blue morning haze, which gave the mountains their name, and it's easy to understand why people flock here. In addition to ubiquitous breathtaking views, visitors will encounter more than 1,600 varieties of plants, trees and flowers, and perhaps even spy wildlife, including deer, elk and black bear throughout the park's half million acres.
The park's main Tennessee and North Carolina entrances are flanked by the neon light-filled, boot stomping Gatlinburg, and the peaced-out hippie enclave of Asheville. Set up camp, or check into a luxe hotel in either town, and spend your days exploring the Great Smoky Mountains' scenic overlooks, sights and 800 miles of trails accessible via the park's 270 miles of roadways.
The downside to being America's most popular national park can be the crowds on the park roadways and more popular trails. We recommend avoiding a trip during the peak months of June 15 to August 15, and the entire month of October. To further miss the hordes, start exploring the park early in the morning; most crowds arrive after 10 a.m.
Where to Stay
Asheville, North Carolina
Dating back to1913, Asheville's Grove Park Inn Resort & Spa has earned its reputation as one of the most esteemed places to stay in the South. The granite stone exterior is set against commanding views of the Smoky Mountains, as well as the Asheville skyline. The hotel's Great Hall will stop you in your tracks: the massive lobby is lined with multiple 14-foot-high fireplaces down the length of the 120-foot room creating an aura of drama -- indulge in a cocktail while relaxing on one of the comfy sofas. If your muscles are sore from hiking in the park, unwind with a treatment at the award-winning, 43,000-square-foot spa. As you lay your head to sleep in your luxuriously appointed room, rest easy knowing your hotel guest predecessors included the grand likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
If you love nature but aren't too keen on the arts-and-crafts style so prevalent in the Great Smoky Mountains’ surrounding towns, catch your breath at the Hotel Indigo, noted for its sleek, mod design. The contemporary furnishings are offset with brightly painted wall colors, funky area rugs, and intentionally mismatched chairs and ottomans. Amenities include a 24-hour fitness center, restaurant, bar and in-room Wi-Fi. The 116-room boutique hotel is located within walking distance of Asheville’s River Arts District, as well as many of Asheville's charming restaurants and shops.
The Lodge at Buckberry Creek
In the tacky mix of roadside motels and hotels that seem to define much of Gatlinburg, the Lodge at Buckberry Creek offers welcome respite. The Adirondack architecture, rustic wood porches and furnishings, and sweeping views of the Great Smoky Mountains all lend themselves to the lodge’s many charms, and its location just outside the neon-lit Parkway make it feel like a quiet oasis. The lodge's 44 luxury suites feature fireplaces, and balconies with mountain vistas, and bathtubs. A continental breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant is also included in the room rate.
Where to Eat
Get your toes ready for tapping at Jack of the Wood, Asheville's quintessentially cozy Celtic pub, where live music is a given at the weekly jam sessions featuring fiddlers playing Irish reels or bluegrass bands strumming out with mountain music. English-style ales and pub food rule the roost here, and favorites include the shepherd's pie, rabbit ragout, and fish and chips. Wet your whistle with one of the pub's handcrafted Green Man ales, like the India pale ale, porter or stout. In addition to local musicians, Jack of the Wood has also played host to bigger name acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and Flogging Molly.
Plan well in advance if you want to eat a meal at The Admiral, easily Asheville's hottest restaurant. Since it opened in 2007, the gastropub has been dishing out inventive fare like buffalo sweetbreads with blue cheese, carrots, parsley and celery, as well as a Heritage Farms pork chop with country ham grits, black-eyed peas, queso fresco, tomatillo-avocado sauce and pickled jalapenos. But don't get too attached to any one menu item; with a nod to locally sourced and seasonal ingredients mixed with sheer instinct and a bit o' genius, the menu here changes almost daily. One thing that can be counted on? Inventive and delicious eats. Book a reservation in advance.
If there is any one thing we can guarantee you about a stay in Gatlinburg, it's that you will never, ever want for breakfast pancakes. Plan an early morning visit to the Pancake Pantry, THE place to get breakfast in town, to put it plainly, and where you'll find yourself drooling with indecision over the 24 different types of pancakes. There are flapjack standards like blueberry, peach and buttermilk, but there are also decadent delights such as Austrian apple-walnut, complete with apple cider compote, melted butter, black walnuts, apples and sweet spices, then topped with powdered sugar and real whipped cream. Of course there are also waffles, eggs, and lunch items, but really, folks, it's all about the pancakes. Arrive early, and expect a bit of wait time; remember to bring cash, as credit cards are not accepted.
What to See and Do
Half a million acres is a lot of land to cover, but armed with your car, one of the excellent park maps offered at any of the visitor's centers, and a handful of tips on park highlights, you can get an excellent sense of the Great Smoky Mountains. The first major route you'll want to drive is the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road, which takes you around the Cades Cove valley, where you'll find a smattering of interesting 19th- and early 20th-century buildings like barns and a grist mill, as well as ample sightings of wildlife such as deer.
Next, make your way to Clingman's Dome Road, a 7-mile road that takes you to the top of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, at 6, 643 feet, and the third highest east of the Mississippi River. You'll reach the dome's observation after a steep but paved .5-mile walk from the parking lot. The 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are astonishing.
The 33-mile Newfound Gap Road is one of the park's most popular routes, used to connect Cherokee, NC, and Gatlinburg, TN. The route rewards drivers with mountain views that can be photographed from a number of scenic pullouts. The road climbs some 3,000 feet along the edge of the mountain, and passes through a stunning number of forest types including cove hardwood, pine-oak, northern hardwood, and evergreen spruce-fir.
One of the park's lesser visited spots is Cataloochee Valley. Surrounded by mountains, and blissfully quiet, Cataloochee has a rich cultural heritage, and visitors can explore a number of historic buildings, like a church, school, barn and homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Be sure to stop at some of the Smoky Mountains' waterfalls, typically accessible via short well-marked hikes. Highlights include the 80-foot-high Laurel Falls, 90-foot-high Hen Wallow Falls, Rainbow Falls, where you're almost guaranteed a rainbow sighting from the waterfall's mist on sunny days, and Indian Creek Falls, which is a short 1.6-mile hike that takes visitors past 2 waterfalls.
Mountain Farm Museum
To get a sense of what 19th-century life was once like in the splendid Smokies, head to the Mountain Farm Museum, located behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The museum is actually a cluster of original, historic 19th-century log buildings that were brought in from the Smoky Mountains region and preserved here in the park in an effort to replicate farm life from the era. Visitors can explore a working blacksmith shop, a house, barn, applehouse, springhouse and smokehouse. The museum even offers demonstrations of historic gardening and agricultural practices. Pay a visit to the John Davis house, an American chestnut log cabin, built before the chestnut blight of the 1930s and 1940s destroyed the tree entirely.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
If, for some reason, the surplus of nature's majestic wonders in the Great Smokies has left you on outdoors overload, escape to the neon-light-filled, boot-stompin' Vegas of the East, Pigeon Forge. Tucked into the mountains' foothills, the town lies just 5 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but in spirit, is a world away from the quiet respite of the park's trails. What was once a tiny mountain enclave has grown into a full-blown resort town, filled with waterparks, country music venues, an unusual number of kitschy dinner theaters, and the iconic amusement park Dollywood, the town's main attraction. In fact, there are multiple odes to the great, er, full-figured country star in Pigeon Forge: Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede Dinner and Show (yes, you'll encounter ostrich races and wild buffalo here) and Dollywood's Splash Country. You don't come to Pigeon Forge looking for an opera or symphony as your evening entertainment, but gosh dang it, you'd be a fool to miss the dinner theater performances, like the Black Bear Jamboree Dinner & Show.