Less than 48 hours after we landed in Ohio and unloaded all of our luggage at my childhood home, we were headed back out of the state on a road trip. My parents invited us tag along with them and my mom’s sister for a week-long get away to Tennessee. The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
We made it into Gatlinburg around dinner time on Saturday and we were met by the suffocating crowds for Labor Day weekend. (*Tip: If you are driving from Ohio into Tennessee, DO NOT go through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. My parents found a back way into Gatlinburg a few years ago and it saves you a good hour of sitting in traffic and saves your sanity.*) Since we didn’t feel like forcing our way through throngs of sweaty tourists down on the main strip, we laid low until mid-afternoon on Monday. After that there was plenty of room to explore and breathe without feeling claustrophobic.
Gatlinburg is not without the run-of-the-mill tourist traps. Think weird Ripley’s attractions and gift shops with the name “Blades and Gifts.” However, there are plenty of other great activities and attractions that make this area of the Smoky Mountains a worthwhile vacation destination for couples and families. Here are some our favorite things to do in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.
If you go to the mountains and do not at least go on one hike, then you need to get your priorities in check! Growing up in a flat area of Ohio, and then living on the sandbar also known as Florida, the mountains were an amazing change of scenery for both of us. Trekking up to a mountain lookout, listening to the river rush over the rocks and boulders, and walking among the trees and breathing in the crisp, clean mountain air was a refreshing and revitalizing experience. I can’t wait to go back some day in October and visit when the leaves are changing and the mountains are bursting with the colors of fall.
There is an expansive trail system around the Gatlinburg area within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mainly as self-guided trails. Along many of these trails you can explore historical cabins, farmhouses, millhouses, churches, and schoolhouses left by the people who settled in the area. The Appalachian Trail does traverse through the National Park, but be careful because parts of the AP Trail are not as well kept as the smaller, more frequented trails.
If the weather isn’t the greatest for hiking on foot, there are a few one-way driving loops that make a decent plan B. Not too far from where we were staying was a loop called the Roaring Fork. Unfortunately, we did this loop on Sunday when the Labor Day weekend tourists were still out in record numbers. This loop is a one-way driving loop with plenty of sights to see along the way, or scenic waterfalls and short trails to explore if you want to pull off and park. With the crowds, parking was pretty much impossible and many people had decided to make their own parking spots along the narrow road. Not cool. This is a loop I would like to go back and give it a re-do since we didn’t have the opportunity to get out and explore more of it, but the view from our vehicle was still worth the trip.
Another driving loop worth checking out is Cades Cove. This isolated valley was settled by Europeans back in 1819 and many of their farmsteads and churches are still there. The driving loop is 11 miles and one-way. We recommend doing this one later in the evening right before sunset for a couple reasons. First, the traffic is less likely to be heavy during this time of day. Traffic is something you want to avoid because if someone sees so much as a squirrel everybody’s brain falls out and they go full-blown tourist mode. Secondly, you have a better chance of seeing some wildlife in the low light of evening. We saw some white-tail deer and a coyote while in Cades Cove. On occasion, you can see elk in the area. We didn’t see any this trip, but we did see tons of wild turkey. When you combine one-way traffic with the possibility of seeing some cool wildlife, you end up with some pretty dumb drivers. If a black bear has been sighted, a “bear jam” is the result and the park rangers have to come and keep people from doing dumb stuff…like throwing rocks at the bears to get them to look at the camera. Yep, it’s happened before.
This activity was so nice that we did it twice! At least my aunt Tina and I did…we were able to talk my parents into joining us on the second trip while Michael decided to opt out. There are a few stables near or within the National Park and plenty of trails if you wanted to take your own horses to ride. On both riding excursions we went to the Smoky Mountain Stables. Their prices were affordable, their guides were super-friendly and knowledgeable, and their horses were well cared for and well-behaved. The guides told us that they usually see at least one black bear a day out on the trails, but my aunt and I only saw some big wild turkeys scratching around for breakfast.
If you want an authentic GSM souvenir, this is the place to get it. The artists in Gatlinburg are plentiful and you can find pottery, wood carvings, paintings, antiques, authentic Native American art, and much more. This 8 mile loop is located just outside of downtown Gatlinburg and features over 120 shops, studios, and galleries for those who like to collect one-of-a-kind artwork. Plus then are some great mom & pop style restaurants tucked away on this loop if you get hungry. Speaking of food….
You will not run out of options for good food in Gatlinburg. We didn’t eat out every meal, but we did enjoy some good eats while on vacation. Would it really be a vacation if we didn’t? There are literally over 80 restaurants to choose from in the Gatlinburg area. Among the few we dined at included: Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Log Cabin Pancake House (I had waffles!), The Alamo Steakhouse & Saloon, and the amazing buffet at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino (technically in North Carolina).
Great smoky mountain railroad
On Monday we drove south to Bryson City for a scenic ride through the mountains on a steam engine. Tours started up again this summer after restoring the #1702 steam engine. You can read more about the restoration here.
There were different train cars to choose from when purchasing your tickets. You could choose from open air car or enclosed car and had the option to buy a boxed lunch. We decided on the enclosed car since it can be a little chilly in the morning mountain air and passed on the boxed lunch. There are not many healthy options in their dining car unfortunately, but we weren’t there for the food. Our ride was through the Nantahala Gorge and took about 4.5 hours total. Michael and I were scoping out some of the houseboats on Fontana Lake. That would be an interesting way to live!
Once the train came back to the station in Bryson City, the engineers demonstrated how they turn the train around. By using a giant turntable on some hefty ball bearings, they were able to turn the train around….by hand! Michael was one of the few who volunteered and really enjoyed it. It was really interesting to learn about from the engineers and conductor…never stop learning! If you want to find out more about the different train rides, click here to check out the website.
Ripley’s aquarium of the smokies
Ok, I know what I said about tourist traps and weird Ripley’s exhibits. But the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is the only exception. My parents have visited this aquarium before on previous trips and said it was even better than the Newport Aquarium (which is nationally ranked). This place has such a diversity and their exhibits are very well maintained.
Our favorite was the Shark exhibit with the underwater tunnels. You felt like you could reach out and touch them. If you know me well enough, you know how much I love sharks! There is also a Pearl Harbor exhibit that is very educational and interactive. If you want to find out more about this amazing aquarium, click here.
Gatlinburg can get a little expensive if you don’t plan ahead your activities and meals. During the planning stages of this trip, we discussed our top interests and budget with our parents and that helped narrow down which things we would see and do. We only ate out about 30% of the time during this trip, the rest was meals we made ourselves back at the resort. It’s always better to plan ahead and have an idea of what you want to spend instead of just flying by the seat of your pants the whole trip!
Have you been to Gatlinburg or The Great Smoky Mountains? What were some of you favorite things to see or do?