Here are the top 5 things we love to see and do in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park. From taking your own steps on the historic Appalachian Trail to driving hairpin turns on the curviest road in the US, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park area has something for everyone.
1. Cruise Along Foothills Parkway & the Thrilling US 129 Tail of the Dragon
Breathtaking views of the Great Smoky Mountains to the south and Tennessee Valley to the north make the Foothills Parkway one of our favorite drives in the United States. The Parkway leads from US 129 at Chilhowee Lake to Wears Valley, with plenty of pull off spots for photos in between. The original 17 miles of the Parkway opened in 1966 followed by an additional 17 miles in 2018. The National Park Service plans to expand the Parkway by another 33 miles over the next 20 years. Be sure to head East once the Parkway dead ends at Chilhowee Lake to reach the US 129 Tail of the Dragon. The Dragon is an 11 mile stretch of US 129 containing 318 turns, making it the closest thing you can find to riding a rollercoaster in your car. It's a bucket list drive for motorcycle and sport car enthusiasts from across the globe. If you visit over the weekend, you may see photographers snapping action shots at many of the turns. You can visit their websites, such as 129photos.com, to view and purchase photos of your sweet ride.
2. Hike and Hike and Hike
Whether you want a short 1-2 hour hike or a multiday overnight trip, the Smokies provide countless options and hidden gems. Our favorites include the 2.6 mile roundtrip hike to Grotto Falls off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the remote Twentymile Area trails for 2-3 night loops and access to the Appalachian Trail. Our recent Twentymile adventure included hiking and hunkering down through 3 overlapping thunderstorms...an experience to remember, and, hopefully, not to repeat. True hikers and outdoor enthusiasts must take their own storied steps along the iconic Appalachian Trail and can reach it by car or a variety of backcountry locations depending on your fancy. Cross the AT and other sights off your list in one swoop by driving to Clingmans Dome, the highest point along the AT's journey from Georgie to Maine, or the Fontana Dam.
3. Chance Encounters with Local Critters
From snails to black bears, chance encounters with Appalachian critters are around every corner. In the backcountry we've had the honor of hearing and seeing barred owls chat up a storm, shared the trail with snails and brightly colored centipedes, and been startled by sassy chipmunks busting through the brush. Fortunately, we've only seen black bears from the road, but this isn't necessarily the best thing for them or you. Traffic quickly comes to a halt when large wildlife are spotted. We've witnessed a black bear (pictured above) enjoying a leisurely forage along the road and another in clear distress when it became trapped between a steep incline and passing cars. The later was on US 441 about 3 miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The anxious bear bluff charged passing cars, including our own, and we caught a glimpse of a ranger prepping his tranquilizer gun as we went around the bend.
4. Soak in the Charm of Bryson City, NC
The quaint mountain town you've dreamed about finding in the Smokies exists, and it's called Bryson City. The Tuckasegee River flows through this quiet, picturesque town where you can enjoy a stroll by local bookstores, arts and crafts galleries, a fly fishing museum, sweets shops, historic trains, two breweries, and more. Bryson City Outdoors offers clothing, gear, kayak rentals, and even craft beer. The Everett Hotel (pictured above) is our favorite hotel in the region and absolutely worth a stay. It features 10 guest suites, a rooftop terrace, a gourmet bistro, and personable staff. Bryson City is the perfect place to enjoy non-touristy, small town charm...and a little beer and ice cream before getting back on the trail.
5. People Watching, Window Shopping & Moonshine Sipping in Gatlinburg, TN
Gatlinburg, in all its touristy glory, can be a shock to the senses after stepping out of the Park, but it's worth a stop to enjoy some people watching, tasty treats, and moonshine. Parking lots on the main strip typically cost a flat rate of $20, but lots just a couple blocks away can be much cheaper, including the parking structure behind the aquarium which runs closer to $8. Take in some live country music at Blake Shelton's Ole Red, enjoy tastings at one of the many Ole Smoky Moonshine locations, and peruse the offerings at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.