Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Jeri and I planned and executed a short 4 day/3 night vacation to Tennessee to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This National Park is considered the most popular (over 9 million visitors per year). In 2020, they approximated 12.1 million visitors. To put this in perspective, the next most visited National Park was Yellowstone with 3.8 million visitors in 2020 (NPS reference). Depending on when you go, be prepared for lot’s of hikers and some traffic jams.

What makes this National Park so popular? Location, Location, Location. This park is within a day’s drive of between 1/3 to 1/2 of the population of the United States. It doesn’t hurt that this park is completely free. And the weather is decent year round – The highs in middle of summer are in the high 70s/low 80s and the lows are in the high 50s.

Cade’s Cove. Cade’s Cove is one of the most popular places to visit in the park. It was a small community that reached it’s peak population between 1820-1850 with about 671 residents. We decided to visit early in the morning to beat the crowds. It opens at 9am. We had heard that you can get stuck for hours behind vehicles that stop to see bears on this one-way single lane loop road. It wasn’t too long before we saw our first black bear and hit a traffic jam. We love animals (Jeri especially), so she was so thrilled to see one. There are quite a few of them in the park (approx. 1500 or two bears per square mile). Luckily the park rangers showed up and got traffic moving along so the wait wasn’t bad. There are some places to pull of the road, but not everywhere.

We hiked to many of the 80 historic buildings in the park. hey definitely reminded us of a simpler time. Don’t get me wrong, these people had to work hard for everything they had. It was fun to hear about the competing churches and their believes (Primitive Baptist, Methodist, and Missionary Baptist) . Many families were split and attended different denominations. Each church had a grave and we noticed some prominent names buried at nearly all of them.

The homes were small and well built. They mostly used simply tools, the resources available to them in the cove, and a lot of hard work. Most residents had farm animals (not motorized equipment) and would plant and harvest for their food, and a source of fresh water (only one home had water piped inside the house). We wished we could just rent one out furnished and spend a few days hanging out in the area (although I’m sure that would be terribly expensive as everyone would want to do this).

Cucumber Gap and Little River Trail. After leaving Cade’s Cove, one of the fun hikes we completed was the Cucumber Gap and Little River Trail. This trail is in a beautiful area, close to a river, and wasn’t too crowded.

We found it very interesting to see these huge fireplaces and some foundations, but very few remaining homes. We read that the state purchased all of these homes and gave the families a 100 year lease. At the end of the lease, the homes were torn down but for some reason they decided to leave the fireplaces.

There are several streams and waterfalls throughout the park and on the hikes to enjoy.

Laurel Falls Trail. We tried to hike from sunrise to sunset and while this made us very tired, we made great use of our 3 day adventure. This picture was taken while on

Laurel Falls

Parrot Mountain and Gardens. In Pidgeon Forge, we decided to visit Parrot Mountain and Gardens and really enjoyed our visit. We arrived just as they opened and a small line had formed but we were able to quickly pay and enter ($21.95/adult). Many of the birds are out in the open on posts, some were behind cages. It was fun to talk to them and learn more about them, but our favorite thing was the petting/feeding area where you could interact with the birds. Most of the birds were very friendly, but watch the posts as some of the birds you aren’t supposed to touch as they might nip at you. Not sure why they have unfriendly birds in this area (maybe they’re trying to socialize them?). We loved that we could take all the pictures we wanted, but you can also pay their professional to take some of you. We highly recommend this place if you have a few hours and love animals.

Peregrine Peak via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail. This was a very nice (but very busy) hike – we arrived as a lot of people were leaving so we were able to park directly across the street from the main parking area, but there were cars parked miles down the road. We enjoyed the makeshift log bridges to cross the river at multiple points. There was a wedding party hiking up to a lookout to get family pictures. The grandma and grandpa unfortunately couldn’t make it to the top, but they made a valiant effort. There is a rock cave, called Arch Rock, that you walk through as part of the trail.

We stopped at Peregrine Peak, which is a huge cliff overhang, but the trail continues further if you want a longer hike. This was a good place to stop and rest before heading back down.

State Line – As you continue on the road up to Clingman’s Dome, take a quick break at the state line between Tennessee & North Carolina at an elevation of 5046 ft. Provo Utah has an elevation of around 4551 ft, but many of our peaks are over 11,000 ft so this elevation seemed pretty normal to us.

Clingman’s Dome. A popular thing to do is to watch the sunset from Clingman’s Dome. Because of this you may have to find a parking spot quite a ways down the road. This cement structure is a spiral that lifts you above the tree line so you have a wonderful view above the trees. We almost didn’t get there in time, Jeri let me start hiking while she looked for a parking spot (she prefers to drive in the mountains or else she’ll get motion sickness).

The rolling mountains in the background sometimes have a blue tint and are often covered with clouds. It was beautiful and just about perfect. The Appalachian trail crosses this trail so we went down it just far enough to get a picture next to the sign. One day we would like to actually hike a section of the Appalachian.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – Our GPS took us to the wrong place, so double check, before heading out. This is a one-way driving loop with hikes, old homes, and bears. We had several bear sightings in this area and we even saw a bear at the very top of a tree trying to get something to eat.

Trillium Gap to Grotto Falls – The only hike we had time to do was this trail out to a waterfall. The trail goes beyond the waterfall, but this was a quick hike that we could do and still get out to our next activity on time.

Titanic Museum. In Pigeon Forge, there are several crazy looking buildings, it reminded me a bit of some of the crazy buildings in Las Vegas. One of them is a partial replica of the Titanic. We toured the museum (must call ahead or reserve online – $31/adult), which was pretty good and educational. If you aren’t into history then you may not find this interesting. They do have several exhibits that are hands on or real to life (IE Feel the temperature of the water, see a recreation of the stairway A lot of the tour is simply reading plaques and seeing items or pictures that they recovered from the wreckage. There were also some videos and a handheld device to listen to people talk about certain aspects and real life experiences.

That about wraps it up. We drove back to the airport at Knoxville and came back home.

I think our only two minor disappointment were: 1) We expected the fall colors to be more brilliant than they were. Maybe it wasn’t yet cold enough to turn the colors, or maybe they just aren’t the right vegetation to have bright vivid colors in the fall. 2) Traffic and congestion in and out of the park was crazy. The roadways in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge didn’t seem to be well designed to allow for smooth traffic (IE trying to make a left-hand turn across traffic while not at a light was nearly impossible). Also while in the park, we were delayed by at least 30 minutes because a car parked so far on the road that cars couldn’t get by while there was traffic in the other lane. This car literally took up half the lane. So you would have to wait for oncoming traffic to break before going around this parked car in your lane.

Overall, we really enjoyed this trip and feel we only scratched the surface of the things there are to do here. Jeri definitely wants to come back.

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