We were fortunate enough to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park just weeks before the park closed due to the deadly fires that have claimed several lives. We feel so lucky to have seen the Smokies before they were devastated by these fires — which, tragically, were caused by a man-made fire on the Chimney Tops trail. As we write this, many park facilities, roads, and trails remain closed — and we’re so sad to think about those idyllic woods and mountains being charred and destroyed. If you’re one of the millions of people who have visited and loved Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encourage you to donate to relief efforts through Friends of the Smokies.
Before we’d visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we’d heard the stats: It’s the most visited national park by a pretty sizeable amount. What we hadn’t heard was why that was the case. And that made for some pretty amazing discoveries when we arrived!
We’re both East Coast kids who have traveled and explored up and down the east coast our whole lives, and we thought we’d pretty much seen it all. Boy, were we wrong. We found gorgeous, lush woods, with species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else. We found mountains taller and more beautiful than any others in the East — I had no idea we had mountains that gorgeous! And we found a well-organized park with beautiful drives, campgrounds, and views, and cheerful, knowledgeable rangers.
We ended up staying outside the park, at a very nice KOA in Pigeon Forge. It was a bit more RV-parky than we usually stay in, but none of the open campgrounds in the park had full hookups or showers, so we ended up there, and they had tremendous amenities.
As we normally do, we decided to start exploring by vehicle. Per usual, we headed straight to one of the visitor centers to get the lay of the land. We took the parkway south from Pigeon Forge, going through Gatlinburg on our way to Sugarlands Visitor Center. It was one of the biggest and nicest NPS visitor centers we’ve visited, with a tremendous wildlife exhibit that we enjoyed, and an excellent video about the park. We grabbed some maps, a sticker for our cartop carrier, and hit the road.
We hadn’t hit the road until the afternoon, so we didn’t go far, but we followed the Little River Road down to Route 73, and looped north on 321 back towards Pigeon Forge. It was almost dark, and we hadn’t done a Wal-Mart run in a while, so we splurged on some TGI Fridays for dinner.
The next day, we hit the road again, ready to explore. We headed back through Gatlinburg, then hit the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one-way, partially dirt and gravel road, and closes in the winter. It was a gorgeous drive through the woods, slowly working our way up into the foothills, around deep ravines, and over streams.
We saw several old homesteads and farms, and stopped at a number of beautiful overlooks, taking pictures and enjoying the muh cooler weather in the mountains. It’d been climbing into the 90s when we left Gatlinburg, but it was in the low 70s up in the mountains, and at one point, got as cold as 50 degrees! I was in heaven.
After we finished the loop, we headed over to Newfound Gap road, and headed toward Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. On the way, we found an overlook with a beautiful plaque where we learned something new — John D. Rockefeller had actually paid for fully half of the creation of the park! Not only that, it’d done it in honor and memory of his wife Laura. What a way to remember someone!
We continued on towards Clingmans Dome, constantly climbing as we drove. The views became more and more vast and breathtaking with every turn.
Finally, we reached the parking lot, and headed up the short trail. While somewhat steep, it was very smoothly paved, and we joined people of all ages, from children to grandparents, working their way up to the overlook. It was a gorgeous clear day on this side of the mountain, but as we neared the top …
Fog began pouring over the mountaintop, and the trail led straight into it!
It turned out the ridge of the mountain was separating a bright and sunny day from a dark and cloudy one, and the overlook tower was right on the border! It made for some awesome pictures.
We hiked up to the top of the tower, enjoying the nearly-panoramic views, and reading the displays about the different mountains in the distance. After a quick hike back down (in which I realized I missed my roller blades for the first time since high school), we continued our drive south, checking out the town of Cherokee, and then jumping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
My hope was to have time to drive Balsam Mountain Road, a dirt and gravel loop through the mountains that promised great views, but when we arrived, we only had about 90 minutes of sunset left — and about four hours of backcountry driving. Not willing to risk getting stuck in the mountains overnight unprepared, we sadly turned around and headed back to Pigeon Forge. Next time you’re mine, Balsam Mountain Road!
The next day was planned to be our last day in the park before moving on, so we decided to take another recommended drive — this one to Cades Cove on the west side of the park. A number of friends, both personal and online, had told us we HAD to make it there, and it was every bit as lovely as promised.
We saw a number of rural churches (some still in operation!) and farmhouses, and were able to get out and visit a few as well. We enjoyed some tremendous vistas, many of which reminded me (as a huge Lord of the Rings fan) of where the fields of Rohan back up to Fanghorn forest in Peter Jackson’s movies. Nerd or not, the scenery was gorgeous. There was quite a bit of wildlife, as well — we saw both deer and elk.
After spending a few hours slowly touring the loop, we headed back towards Pigeon Forge, stopping off to visit the Sinks, a waterfall that runs directly under Little River Road. The falls, while small, were quite pretty, and we enjoyed lounging in the sun for a while.
It seemed like an ideal time for a selfie.
Back on the road, we got to see some more wildlife — a full-grown black bear was hanging out right on the side of the road! Rebecca especially loves bears, and was very happy to see one.
We left the next morning, having loved our visit, and rather sad we hadn’t had time to do more hiking and exploring. But that just means next time we go, there will be plenty to do!
Have you been to the Smokies? What did you love? Did you have any favorites? Let us know in the comments!