As the sun peered from behind the clouds it lit a fire like glow across the mountain tops. I made my way up the steep trail, up the winding path, up to the top of Clingman’s Dome. A view which literally took my breath away, partially from the elevated hike but mostly because of the vast sea the mountains created.. What seemed like a haze of blue smokey clouds that I was sure would blow away at any moment turned out to be more mountains. They stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction I looked. It was in that moment I truly understood we why call them purple mountains majesties. And I am not exaggerating when I say that I had so many moments driving to and inside the Smokey Mountain park that filled me with such awe. Usually I’d celebrate another year of being debt free with a trip overseas but with international travel being a little questionable I decided to go on an adventure like my trip to Sedona Arizona. Instead of heading west again I decided to go south to the Smokey Mountains. It was the perfect getaway from all the chaos and a literal breathe of fresh air that I truly needed. So if you’ve ever wondered about traveling to, where to stay and things to do in the Smokey Mountains then keep reading cause this guide has you covered!
Before You Go: A Note on Traveling during the covid-19 Pandemic
Tennessee does require face coverings in all indoor spaces and in crowded areas outside even within the Smokey Mountain National Park. Please do not travel unless you’ve been tested for COVID to ensure that you don’t spread the virus. Also make sure to follow any given guidelines and try to social distance whenever you can. A lot of places did a great job enforcing the coverings as well as offering outdoor seating but if you go during a weekend where they have an event you may find many people not adhering to these rules in public spaces. Just a heads up so you can plan and protect yourself accordingly.
How to Get To the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee
ROAD TRIP!!! If you really want a dramatic build up, and to avoid crowded airplanes, then I’d recommend driving. To get to the mountains I hopped in my 2011 FWD Chevy Malibu and drove 8 hours from Michigan into Tennessee. I’d be lying if I said the whole trip was filled with spectacular views but the last few hours driving through Kentucky into Tennessee definitely opened my eyes to why people do road trips. With gas being around $2 almost everywhere it made it a much more affordable option than flying even with the cheap flight tickets. If driving isn’t your thing you can fly into Knoxville. From there you can rent a car then drive, it’s just under an hour from Gatlinburg.
The Best Time to go to the Smokey Mountains
A lot of the locals agree that the best time to avoid major crowds is actually in the spring and summer time. Most people tend to come to the Smokies in the fall. And my trip unfortunately landed on the most crowded weekend that kicks off the crazy tourist season, their annual Hot Rod Rally aka the largest car show they host in Pigeon Forge. So take it from me when I say double check that there won’t be any events happening during the time you plan to be there. Especially if the point of your trip is really to enjoy the seclusion. Though it gave me an opportunity to drive more scenic routes you probably don’t want to spend half your trip in traffic. Even if it wasn’t for the rally a lot of people like to head to the mountains as the temps cool to watch the leaves change color. It turns out that Thanksgiving and Christmas are major tourist times as well. If you’re really wanting peace and quiet then earlier in the year is definitely the best time to visit the Smokey Mountains.
Where to Stay
The big debate is always between staying in Gatlingburg versus Pigeon Forge. And to be honest unless you want to do the touristy stuff I wouldn’t stay in the heart of either. Thankfully Gatlingburg has retained its rustic allure even with all the new additions like Ripley’s and other attractions while Pigeon Forge has a Wisconsin Dells/Vegas strip feel to it. It really just depends on the type of trip you want because both have a lot of places to eat and things to do. While there are tons of hotels to stay at I splurged on a cabin through Air BnB. I really wanted a secluded place with a great view, hot tub and fireplace. I found an amazing spot minutes outside Pigeon Forge. It was minutes from the main strip but provided a getaway from all the craziness of the rally. While the usual 30 minute drive to the national park from Pigeon Forge wouldn’t have bothered me, the Hot Rod Rally traffic clogged the main rode making the trip a little over an hour. That’s why I suggest finding a place in Gatlinburg if you’re looking to do a lot of hiking. That way if there is a huge event going on you’ll be closer to the park and would only deal with traffic going to do things in the city.
What to Do
With all that Smokies have to offer it can be overwhelming deciding what to do. I was really surprised at the variety of activities there were. While I spent all of my trip hiking, here’s what myself and friend’s of mine who’ve visited recommend you do in the Smokey Mountains:
- Scenic Drives Through the National Park. For those who want mountain views with minimal work there are a lot of scenic drives you can take through the Smokey Mountain National Park. If you pick just one drive, make it Clingman’s dome! Even if you don’t hike up to the dome you really get an appreciation of the mountains. If you’re wanting a fun drive follow the road to the Grotto falls is filled with twists and turns and Cades Cove is perfect for pictures.
- Hike in the Smokey Mountains. Earn your dinner by hiking some of the many trails in the mountains. There are tons of easy hikes like Grotto Falls and Laurel Falls that lead to cool waterfalls. Honestly if you’re up for something a little more adventurous I’d recommend Chimney Tops and the Appalachian Trails which really put the majestic mountains in perspective.
- Horseback Riding, UTVs or Zip lining. Another cool way to appreciate the sites with no effort is to go for a horseback ride, rent UTVs or ride a zip line. All of the zip lines are outside of the national park but you can take the UTVs or ride horses inside the Smokies. With UTVs you’ll have to stick to the paved roads but on horseback you can check out cool trails off the main paths.
- Spend time in downtown Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. If you want a break from the park there’s a lot to do in the city itself from theme parks to indoor ninja warrior courses and of course Ripley’s many museums as well as aquarium. With the Rally going on the sidewalks were absolutely packed so I decided to skip walking around because there were too many people too close to each other not wearing masks for my comfort. Even in the off season I suggest you check out the city earlier in the day. You can explore what there is to offer then better plan where you’d like to stop.
- Find a Dinner Show. Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinbug offer tons of dinner shows depending on your mood. While I didn’t go to any, my friend highly recommended the Hatfield and McCoy Family Feud show.
Where to Eat
There’s always a bit of a dance for me when it comes to eating out. You guys know that I eat pretty healthy but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy comfort food too! The challenge for me is always finding something that tastes good without making me feel bad about eating it afterwards. Even though there weren’t a ton of healthy options to choose from I found quite a few places I’d recommend checking out:
–Brick and Spoon. If you’re looking for a good breakfast/brunch spot this is it! Located in Pigeon Forge they had a lot of great options to choose from. I recommend the Bayou green tomatoes and the Bayou benny!
–Honeybee. While they don’t make any food themselves, they do have killer latte flavors and usually some healthier food options sourced from local eateries. If they still have their breakfast sandwich that’s what you should get because the biscuit was the flakiest most well seasoned one I had the whole trip.
–English Mountain Trout Farm. Now I’ll warn you this place is a drive, about 30 minutes from Pigeon Forge and when you pull up it looks a bit questionable BUT BUT BUT they serve made to order trout that will blow your mind! I ordered their lemon pepper trout dinner to go and it traveled surprisingly well. Also their hush puppies are to die for!
–35 Junction. What’s a trip down south if you don’t get any barbecue? While we tried a lot on their menu including dry rubbed ribs and brisket my favorite thing was their smoked wings paired with a blackberry barbecue sauce. Their traditional Tennessee barbecue sauce also was delicious with the ribs and brisket.
–Graze Burgers. A truly good burger is hard to find but this place came highly recommended by many of the locals. I loved that they offered not only classic burgers but different meats like bison and lamb as well. I’d recommend their lamb burger, it was cooked just right and the hunk of feta was the perfect combination! Also their fries and brussel sprouts are definitely a must!
What to Pack and Wear
The weather in September was definitely not what I expected. It was cloudy the first two day and sunny the other two but the whole trip it got up to the high 70’s. That being said the tree cover and elevation made it feel much colder than it was while hiking. So when deciding what to pack, think layers. Even if you don’t plan to hike all that much the mornings were very cool and midday was sweltering hot in the sun. I recommend packing at least the following:
- Rain Coat
- Long sleeves
- Biker Shorts & Leggings
- Extra socks, water proof depending on your shoes
- Tennis shoes or hiking shoes
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Hopefully this inspired you to trade in your tropical vacation to explore the sites in our own backyard in a safe way during COVID. If there’s some questions you have that I didn’t answer don’t hesitate to leave me a comment below! For those of you who’ve been to the Smokey Mountains I’d love for you to leave your recommendations in the comments as well.
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