So I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving last week!
I meant to get this up a few days ago, I also meant to unpack our bags, catch upon laundry and go to the grocery store. Instead I spent the past couple of days falling asleep way too early, and fighting off some sort of cold that I know is going to take me any day now.
This past weekend was our second annual hiking trip to the Smoky Mountains. I have had a few fine folks reach out asking for suggestions, recommendations, and tips on visiting the Smoky Mountains, so buckle up as we head on down to Tennessee!
Fun Fact: There is no entrance fee to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The now National Park land was once privately owned, and Newfound Gap Road (US 441) was paid for by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as some local communities. When the state had given ownership of the land to the Federal Government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.
This, along with the park’s close proximity to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg means that it can get very, very, VERY crowded. With over 11 million visitors per year, it is the most visited National Park in the US. We have found that late November,and early December tend to be the best time to visit. The weather is generally mild, between 50 to 60 degrees, which is perfect for hiking, and I have yet to see anyone who does Christmas Cheer better than Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Working for Marriott, I usually try to find hotels in the area that will let me use my associate discount. In my hotel hunts, I have found that the hotels closer to the park are super expensive, even late in the season. I have had the most luck with hotels a little further away, in the Knoxville area. This year we found a wonderful TownePlace Suites in West Knoxville, only about 40 minutes from Pigeon Forge, and only about 8 hours from our house. So Thursday afternoon,with stomachs full of turkey, great music, and plenty of Red Bull, we hit the road.
Fast forward to 3 hours into our drive, when Jason turns to me with that “deer in headlights” look, and says that he forgot his boots at home. Guys he forgot his HIKING BOOTS for our HIKING TRIP! This is where my “Embrace the Detours” post comes in handy. I kept my cool, let him know everything was fine, and we would just find a less technical hike that he could do in his sneakers. Now don’t get me wrong, in my head I was all “See, I told you that you should have packed sooner, but you never listen to me!” So from the passenger seat, I started planning for a new hike the next day.
Last year we had hiked the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte and it was beautiful! The hike is about 10.5 miles round trip, with around 3,000 feet of elevation gain. At the peak of Mount LeConte is the LeConte lodge, where you can stay in one of the primitive cabins for the night. We had done this hike in the off season, so the lodges resembled an abandoned mountaintop village, and the llama pack had stopped their supply runs for the year. We loved this hike so much, that we had planned on doing it again this year, and running into our llama pack this time.
I guess it was a blessing in disguise, because our alternative hike was incredible! We ended up waking up the next morning and heading out to hike Mount Sterling via the Mount Sterling Trail. This hike was about 5.5 miles round trip with a total elevation gain of about 2000 feet. Besides my brutal period cramps, like I’m talking “ovaries at war” kind of cramps, the hike was great! At the summit we came across the 60 foot fire tower that I had been reading about. Let me start this by saying I am not afraid of heights. I am, however, afraid of falling to my death because I was stupid enough to follow Jason up a very sketchy looking fire tower. Guys, this thing was terrifying. I followed him up the stairs and at the top it literally looked like someone had just thrown random wood scraps over the holes in the floor. To make things worse, the wind picked up at the top and the whole tower was shaking, the glass in the windows was rattling, and I lost feeling in my fingers while taking pictures. It was freezing!!! After I had enough, I shamelessly came down the stairs like a toddler learning to walk, which wasn’t as bad as going down on my butt, although believe me the thought crossed my mind.
After hiking we headed back to the hotel to clean up, put on some better smelling clothes, and got ready to head back into Pigeon Forge for dinner. Guys, Pigeon Forge is by far the most ~extra~ place I have ever been in my life, in the most perfect way. This place is LIT around Christmas time, but really though, Christmas lights everywhere! We always head to The Island in Pigeon Forge for dinner, and some moonshine sampling at Ole Smoky Moonshine. The Island can be best described as an outdoor entertainment complex. It has everything from retail shops and restaurants, to the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, show fountains, and rope obstacle courses. After grabbing a bite to eat at the Mellow Mushroom, we headed over to Ole Smoky for another moonshine tasting. We got lucky with our timing this year and got to take advantage of the Black Friday deals, because come on, how can you say no to 6 bottles for the price of 4!!! The staff here is hysterical! They have absolutely no filter and will have you cracking up the entire time you are there. Just don’t laugh too hard while taking a shot, this stuff burns! After our tasting, I am not going to lie, I was pretty buzzed. I dragged Jason out of the store and right across the way to the show fountains. Let’s be real, who would not want to sit in a cozy rocking chair, and watch water fountains dance to “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”?!?
Fun Fact: At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is also the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Our last stop on our Tennessee adventure was Clingmans Dome. This overlook can only be reached via Clingmans Dome road, which is closed from December 1st through March 31st, and we missed our chance to check it out last year by one day! So this year we were not missing it! After following the GPS into the park for nearly 2 hours, we reached that dreaded Road Closed sign right at the beginning of Newfound Gap Road. After throwing a tiny temper tantrum, we decided to wait behind the row of hopeful cars lining up for the road to open back up. Turns out there was a bad storm that blew through the night before, (probably the crazy winds we felt at the top of the tower) that had knocked down a few trees. After only 5 minutes of waiting, the road opened back up and we were in route to Clingmans Dome Road. Guys we were so pumped! After driving through the beautiful mountains for about another 45 minutes, we got to the turn off for Clingmans Dome Road, and wouldn’t ya know it, another road closed sign! This time, it was closed from snow and ice buildup from the previous night’s storm. At this point I just took it as a sign that maybe we were just not meant to visit the overlook that day. We’ll get it next year!
My last recommendation is to break up that drive home! The drive there is easy, you are excited and have so much to look forward to! The drive home on the other hand, ugh! We left through the east end of the park this year, which was actually pretty cool! We ended up driving through a very large Cherokee Reservation and seeing all of the road signs in Cherokee was something I had never seen before. After about 3 hours of driving though, I started to crash, hard. We ended up stopping in Asheville, Tennessee to check out the art district and give ourselves a little break. Guys, Asheville is adorable! We will definitely be setting aside more time next year to explore a little more, and maybe even tour the Biltmore Estate!
I hope this post helps, but if you have any questions that I did not cover, don’t be a stranger!
Below are some links to help out if you are planning a similar trip;