The Great Smokey Mountains

The Great Smokey Mountains

We love the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It’s great for an extended weekend when we are lucky to get one. Located in Southeastern Tennessee, the GSMNP is one of the most visited parks in the country. Within a few hours of a large swath of the United States, the Smokies offer unparalleled views and great hiking. Couple this with horse riding, auto touring, wildlife viewing, and camping and you have something outdoors for anyone. Being serviced by a large tourist town that extends from its northern entrance starting in Gatlinburg, TN and sprawling north through Pigeon Forge and Sevierville anyone will find something to do. Best yet, most of it is affordable and family friendly.

Typically we skip Gatlinburg during peak season by taking the bypass when we visit the national park. Traffic in the area can be pretty gnarly, but given that we were visiting in the winter, we decided to go into town and visit a few attractions and give it a second look.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies

One of the best attractions in Gatlinburg is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which is one of the most popular aquariums in the nation. We have been told by friends that the venue gets very crowded, but since we were there on a slow Monday in December we had the place to ourselves. We took our time poking through the exhibits, some of which I shot video and posted on my Instagram account. Beyond the main draw of the central tank and all of its sharks and schools of tropical fish, you can also witness a few rare species like the Leafy Seadragon, as well as let your child wander an impressive play area that my son loved.

My take on Gatlinburg itself

After Ripley’s we poked around town a little bit and ate lunch. We did some shopping but there’s not a lot I’d say is worth purchasing. I’m not really in the market for a Confederate belt buckle, or glass dragon, or Chinese throwing star, or bong, or any of the other weird things hillbillies love to collect. There was also a surprising number of “moonshine” distilleries, beef jerky kiosks, and fudge shops. Don’t get me wrong, I like all of these things, but it seems like there were 5 or 6 product categories and 3 or 4 iterations is too much. Couple that with the tourist trap indoor putt putt courses, museums that don’t really exhibit anything other than goofy gimmicks, and you’re just better off skipping town. I’d suggest eating a big breakfast in Pigeon Forge at a pancake house (they’re all roughly the same, although some offer free breakfast for kids 3 and under), hit the aquarium and then go into the mountains for some nature.

Trip to the Park

The Smoky Moutains are incredible. My favorite thing to do is get into the park early in the morning and drive up to Newfound Gap to witness the heavy clouds of moisture rolling across the mountain tops, which is where the park derives its name. I also like getting a big hike in, with Charlie’s Bunion and Mt Leconte via the Alum Cave Bluffs being strenuous but very rewarding options. Other favorites include having a picnic at Smokemont, driving around Cades Cove, and visiting the interpretive centers to see pioneer life. With this being winter, we decided to poke around via the car. Since the leaves are off the trees, you can get better views at some of the turnoffs as you head over the divide.

Left over damage from the fires

One of the saddest moments of this visit was seeing the fire line that started at Chimney Tops and worked its way into Gatlinburg. If you watched the news that week, stories of much damage and loss of life were prominent. Sadly, this forest still has a lot of down timber that could really benefit from a controlled burn. Although the conditions that carried the last fire into town were fairly rare, there’s nothing to say that another bad drought year won’t cause equal destruction. The National Park Service probably needs to consider letting nature take its course and burn a few acres here and there so a conflagration in the future is less probable.

As far as future visits, I’d like to come back to the Smokies to knock a few things from my list. I’d like to try horseback riding as I’ve never rode a horse before. I’d also like to take advantage of the traffic closing during summer at Cades Cove that enables bicycles to tour the area without fear of being run over by a car. I’d also like to do a few more big hikes, paddle up Fontana lake for some backcountry trout fishing, and see some more of the waterfalls. There are also a few roads that travel through it I’ve never been on, including Roaring Fork, which is a pretty popular drive. So much to do, so little time.

If you want to visit the Smokies, I’d suggest any time of year. If you want the prettiest time to go and crowds and traffic aren’t an issue, go in the fall for some leaf peeping (just make your room or camping reservations well in advance). If you can stand cold weather the winter can be amazing. Of course, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge team with swimming pools and there are a few tubing rental places on the lower side of the park so summer can be a lot of fun too. My suggestion is to go in the winter and couple it with a trip to Dollywood for their Christmas Celebration, which is very well done. But more on that later.

View from Newfound Gap
View of Mt. Leconte
An unusually traffic free Gatlinburg
Ripley’s Aquarium Front Entrance.