What a view, that’s mainly what I remember of my initial trip to the Smoky Mountains just over six years ago. We had a cabin in the trees, the sun rose as we arrived from our long night drive from Chicago and revealed a blue misty valley. It was one of the most stunning and peaceful things I’d ever seen.
We wanted to go back this time and really explore. Not just from the point of view of a warm cosy cabin, but campsites too, not just the northern Tennessee side, but the North Carolina side. We wanted to hike as much as possible and see the local towns, to really unearth what the Smoky Mountains are about.
So what did we learn? Well:
DO camp in Elkmont Campsite. It’s a wonderful campsite within the park boundaries. Cade’s Cove campsite, the only other one on this side of the border isn’t quite so beautiful. Essentially an RV park fitted with a pizza parlor and ice cream store, it’s not the natural camping spot I’d hoped for. When we moved to Elkmont Campsite we pitched our tent by a river and wished we’d headed straight there in the first place. As campsites go, its near perfect, you can sleep by the stream, have plenty of privacy, enjoy the trees and still have access to the basics such as water and firewood.
DO visit Cades Cove, it is a beautiful area of the park, visited unfortunately by a good many guests each day. You can make a circuit around the cove by bicycle or car, and enjoy the vast meadows and views from the road if that’s your thing. Not being one for looking at national park’s from tarmac, we found a hike and headed away from the crowds.
Cade’s Cove has over two million visitors a year, more than most national parks in total, so getting off the road and onto the trails is a must if you wish to find quiet. It’s the most visited section of the park due to the preserved homesteads, flower filled meadows and abundant wildlife.
We hiked a few miles from the road to Abrams Falls, and on our way got intercepted by a large black bear, it took some patience to make it to the water after the bear twice walked our way. Idiotic tourists playing too close and taking selfie’s didn’t help. One lady clearly having had her brain fall out of her head sometime recently, clearly misjudged the safe distance required to be kept between one’s self and a wild carnivore. She turned and began to make her way back towards us, but being quiet out of shape and clearly no hiker, the bear reached her in seconds. It calmly looked her over and sniffed her rear, before walking on by. I’ve never seen terror like it in a person, perhaps next time she’ll act like she’s a fully grown human woman, not an idiot. Eventually we found a lovely place to sit and observe the falls. Abrams, like many waterfalls in the Smoky’s are fairly calm and small, but beautiful and picturesque. We could have sat around them for hours, but the weather was changing fast.
DO drive the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, usually i’m the first to say ‘get of the roads!’ but in this case i’ll let it go. The nature drive is really a means to an end, it takes you to many waterfalls including the famous Grotto Falls, and then on top of that it takes you to about a million trail heads too. The road winds and weaves through lush greenery and burnt forest and I’ve seen a number of black bears whilst on the circuit. Now and then there are some lookouts to pull into or short hikes up to lookouts, which are stunning, so all in all its worth the venture. I drove the loop a couple of times, and we used it to get to the Rainbow Falls trail, which we visited on route up to Mt LeConte.
DO visit the park from the North Carolina side, it is extremely worth it. My previous visits had always been solely to the Tennessee side, but now i’ve done both i’m kicking myself. The eastern side is quieter, rustic, just as beautiful and has none of the tackiness that’s overwhelmingly forced down your throat in Gatlinburg. The best town to stay in is Bryson City, which prior to this trip I knew nothing of, but its probably the polar opposite of Gatlinburg. How does that sound? Yeah I thought so.
I suppose Gatlinburg meant well to begin with, supplying early park visitors with outdoors gear and supplies, then it got onto that slippery slope of ‘hey, maybe visitors would lap up a souvenir store,’ which was followed by another, and before you know it you have today’s Gatlinburg, with its chain of ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not’s’ and every manner or stupidity from the fifteen old fashioned photo portrait stores, to the ‘Famous Cars from Hollywood’ museum. What does Gatlinburg have to do with the mountains these days? Not a thing. It caters for the overweight tourists who want to drive into the hills for an hour, then eat candy and soak up the town’s nonsense for days on end.
Well, over the slopes on the North Carolina side, somehow the towns have resisted. Bryson City is as quaint as it gets, it has a few shops, a nice bakery and a coffee house. It house two craft breweries, its perfect. We spent days enjoying the town, the local rivers for tubing, and its thirty minute drive time to the middle of the National Park, not a bit of tack in sight.
DO stay in a cabin, its a treat. Yes, we’re campers, and by and large we see everywhere we go from a tent, but this time we’d set out do do it every way, so a few days in a cabin was on the agenda. We will do it again. Having a nice shower to come back to after a 13 mile hike turned out to be pretty appealing, as did nice glasses of wine on a deck overlooking the mountains. Strange that. More importantly it was nice to have a base so close the the park, literally on the entrance, and also be able to explore the local town and culture.
Bryson is pretty unique, and worth seeing, its working steam train is pretty cool and the shops and walks nearby are delightful. So being able to meander back to a nice comfy cabin and cook really topped it off. I wouldn’t say I prefer it to camping, but its another way of seeing the place. Waking up in a cabin and walking onto the deck with a warm coffee to see the misty slopes was amazing. If you’re looking to do the same and not break the bank, West Oak B&B and Cabins are superb. Located just south of the main street downtown, its a picturesque little hub you can call home for a few days.
We stayed three nights over the weekend and had the most peaceful and enjoyable time. A five minute walk from town, yet you feel like you’re out in the hills. Speak to Meredith Bacon who owns the place and she’ll arrange a lovely stay in one of the five or so cabins on the slope. Ours was a cute two person unit, but they come in all sizes so go ahead and enjoy it.
DO stay at the Mt LeCount Lodges, they are unique. So much so I didn’t even know about them, somehow. In my many visits to the area, I’d never heard or read of them. When we finished our 6 miles up to Mt LeConte however, they they were. Essentially they are a collection of small cabins you can rent out for a night or so and sleep up on the mountain with a roof. Bring your gear and a few snacks and you can sleep atop a peak and rest before descending the following day. When we arrived at about 4.30pm we found a whole community of travelers just hanging out on the patios chatting, the whole scene was surreal. I felt like Leonardo DiCaprio discovering ‘The Beach’ but a mountain version, a hidden community in the woods. Well, we had to turn and hike down, much to our torment, but we vowed to reserve one next time (they fill up about eight months ahead) and enjoy on our next trip out this way.
DO hike, a lot. I don’t mean to sound patronizing here but seriously, do. There are over 800 miles of trails in the park, they range from meadow walks to strenuous mountain climbs. Pick wisely but go for it. We did a few this time, the most taxing being the way up to Mt LeConte, a 13.6 mile round trip with a non stop incline up which just killed us, but man, its worth it. The feeling each day when yu come down is so exhilarating and you truly get to see areas of the park and sights you’d never set eyes on otherwise. The flowers, animals and views are crazy and aside from the odd inquisitive bear and cheeky rattlesnake they are usually quiet.
That brings me to some don’ts.
DON’T go on a major holiday. This being my third visit, I thought I knew what was coming, oooooh no. 4th of July turned the place into a monster. We made our first attempt to go to Clingmans Dome over the holiday weekend and couldn’t park within a mile of the place, cars were squeezed on the road side all the way down the mountain. Crowds crowds crowds. You strive for tranquility on a trip like this, and it looks like the bulk of the 11 million annual visitors aim for the big weekend holidays. As soon as it turned 5th of July the park emptied and returned to normal and was a thousand times better for it.
DON’T bother with Gatlinburg. Controversial? Maybe. I know a lot of people enjoy that kind of thing, even we did for the couple of hours we were first there (mainly due to getting quite drunk at Sugarlands Distilling Company, drinking ten shots of moonshine for $5), but don’t plan on hanging around. I’ve hopefully painted a pretty good picture of the place for you, and if that’s your jam then go on ahead (and question your sanity), but i’d expect most readers of this website to agree that time will be better spent elsewhere.
And thats it, our first list of do’s and don’t. If you have any suggesting to add or comments just leave them below, we’d love to hear from you guys, our travel community. We’ll have more on the Smoky Mountains soon, until then feel free to check out our other park reviews and most of all, keep traveling.
Rich & Steph
Thanks to West Oak Lodging for providing our accommodation on this trip, all opinions see here are our own.