When it comes down to it, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in an amazing location. The conditions are perfect for growing gorgeous forests, misty rolling mountains, meadows full of wildflowers and year-round waterfalls. It's actually the most visited National Park in America. But just because it's such a popular destination doesn't mean there aren't hidden gems and undiscovered places to explore all around the Smokies. While the scenery is utterly breathtaking, there's even more to The Great Smoky Mountains than just Pigeon Forge, Clingmans Dome and Blue Ridge Parkway, it's a park that's loaded with Southern Appalachian history, mountain culture, and endless fun!
Either on your way to or from the park, stop at the Apple Barn and Cider Mill. The wait at the restaurant might be long during peak season, but the free apple fritters and apple juleps are worth it. Like a lot of places here, there's plenty to look at while you're waiting on a table. There's a winery, a Christmas shop, a candle store, a candy store, an ice creamery, a bakery and a general goods shop where you can pick up cider, mixes, pickles, and souvenirs.
The Old Mill is just like the Apple Barn, but with a mill instead of an apple orchard. Instead of apple fritters, you get equally delicious corn fritters. The food here is no-frills, down-home Southern grub, and you can walk it off exploring the stores here, which include a really cool pottery shop.
There are loads of mini golf courses in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, in addition to the shows and arcades. Hillbilly Golf is a fun, kitschy option set into a hill, so you get views along with your usual obstacles and characters.
Pro tip: Get cash, go here, pick up a few donuts (especially crullers if they have them), and bring them into the park. They're the perfect reward for a hike or a traffic-logged drive.
The tasting costs a few bucks, but you're rewarded in coupons afterwards, so it's basically free if you buy something. The kids who run the tastings are a lot of fun, and you'll get to sample a lot of different stuff, from the jet fuel moonshine to the creamy coffee flavored varieties.
Cherokee Grill is a steakhouse-y place for a nicer dinner. The fried chicken is unreal, and the sides are to die for, especially the blue cheese grits.
Pancakes are kind of the Smokies' "thing". There are loads of joints that serve up big, Southern breakfasts, and Crockett's Breakfast Camp is one of the best. It's reasonably priced, the portions are huge, and they even have some meals with vegetables in them, which is a relief from the sweets and fried food found all over.
Travel tips for visiting the Smokies: -Hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and more are all fun activities within the park, but it's also one of the best parks for taking scenic drives. There are hundreds of miles of road that twist and wind through the mountains. -Additionally, the Southern terminus for the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic drive that links the Smokies with Shenandoah National Park, is found at the edge of the park. -Get to the park early in the morning to see why they're called the "Smoky" Mountains...the mist is so peaceful. -Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, two cities near the park, are loaded with all kinds of kitschy tourist fun, kids especially will appreciate the cultural attractions and shows.
The hike to this popular waterfall is a doable 2.6 miles there and back, and the trail is paved. The falls are an impressive 80 feet tall, and a bridge crosses between the upper and lower cascades, so you can get up close and personal with it. Be careful to not climb on the rocks, as they get slippery, and don't litter, as bears frequent the area.
Your first stop is Blackberry Farm, which has to be some kind of heaven on Earth. Check into this inn that's set on a 4,000 acre working farm, and stay in one of the charming, antique-furnished rooms that come with drinks, snacks, and enjoy three meals a day, from their delicious, farm-to-table, Southern cookin' restaurant. Plus, expect to be pampered like royalty.
Pack a picnic for Cades Cove, a valley meadow that has a one-lane road that's a super popular scenic route. Along the drive, you'll find little historic buildings that you can explore and gorgeous views of the surroundings. In the spring, it blooms with tons of wildflowers.
There are hundreds of miles of streams in the Smokies, but The Sinks are a notably gorgeous stretch in between Gatlinburg and the park. A short trail leads to this stretch of river where you can watch the water bubble, rush and roll over rocks and through pools. It's a great spot to stop and stretch your legs while enjoying the views.
When most people think of the Great Smoky Mountains, they usually just think of the mountains, but there are some interesting things hidden among the peaks and valleys...like a ghost town! It's called "Elkmont" and it's actually a historical district with abandoned cabins and the ruins of resort hotels, dotted throughout the town.
The Bud Ogle Cabin is an historic homestead that's a perfect example of the kind of cabins that dotted the Smokies in the 19th century, before the region was turned into a park. A cabin, tub mill and barn are still standing, and have been well-preserved with interpretive signs and tours. It's a peaceful, bucolic setting to learn a little bit about the history that has helped shape the culture of the region.
Of all the attractions and museums in Gatlinburg, the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum is the most authentic. It's the work of one family, and there's actually a ton of fascinating history behind some of the shakers. Plus, salt and pepper shakers are the perfect Smoky Mountain Souvenir.
Camping is a great way to experience the Smoky Mountains! Whether you're in an RV or a tent, or you want to book one of Camp Leconte's luxury safari tents or treehouses, for a more "glampy" stay, this place can accommodate you. Seriously, if you're a novice camper, you'll love the adorably-decorated safari tents, which even come with porch swings.
Newfound Gap is a busy but not insanely overcrowded gem. It's where Tennessee meets North Carolina, and it features a stunning scenic overlook as well as some hiking trails.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center is way more than just a visitor center, it's a full historical village and museum! Set right by the river, you can see lots of wildlife around, and if you check their calendar, you can stop by when they have a demonstration or event going on.
There are tons of waterfalls in the park, each more gorgeous than the last, but Mingo Falls are some of the park's best. They may not look it, but they're 120 feet tall, with stairs that lead up to a viewing platform. Other than the stairs, it's a pretty quick hike, and you can spend hours just soaking in the misty spray!
Clingman's Dome is the tallest mountain in the Smokies, and to make it even more impressive, it's got an observation tower built on its peak. The spiral ramp offers 360-degree views that extend up to 100 miles on a good day. If you're pressed for time, you can drive to the peak, and then take a quick, half-mile stroll to the tower.
The best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: There's no bad time to visit the Smokies: summer brings great weather, and the park is still accessible in the winter, with the added bonuses of lesser crowds and snowy vistas. Fall is far and away the most popular time to visit, thanks to the incredible foliage, but it can get very crowded. Spring is a delightfully underrated time to visit, blooming wildflowers and mild weather make it perfect.