Julie United States 22 Comments

In an attempt to catch the last of the autumn colors, Tim and I went a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains in early November. We spent a weekend exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, using Gatlinburg, Tennessee as our home base.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the United States’ most visited national park. It actually receives twice the number of visitors of any other national park, which came as a surprise to us. We thought that Yellowstone, with its large size and popularity, or the Grand Canyon, one of the world’s most remarkable spots, would draw more attention than the Great Smoky Mountains.

So, why is this park so popular? You can drive right through it in less than day, pop out of your car at a few overlooks, and take in the view. However, with just a little more time and effort, you can step out of your car and explore the park. With over 800 miles of hiking trails, from half-mile easy walks to multi-day tests of your endurance, there is something here for everyone.

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Gatlinburg is a great city to stay in as it sits right at the entrance to the park on the Tennessee side. This is where we stayed. However, you can also stay in North Carolina. It takes a little over one hour to drive to the park from Asheville or you can stay in Cherokee, located just outside of the park.

If you are planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, we have ideas for how to spend your time in the park and in Gatlinburg. Let’s start with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The main things to do here are drive through the park on US-441, stopping at various overlooks along the way, and pick one or two hiking trails to explore.

During our visit in early November, the weather was less than ideal. Temperatures were unusually warm, reaching into the high 70’s, and there was a constant cloud cover that hid the mountaintops day and night. From Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, all we saw were low-lying clouds. We still enjoyed our visit even though we never got to see those sweeping views over the Smoky Mountains.

Scenic Drive

5 Things to Do in the Smoky Mountains

Clingmans Dome

This is the highest mountain in the park and in Tennessee (6,643 feet). The Appalachian Trail also crosses Clingmans Dome, making this spot the highest point on the 2,144 mile-long trail. Park your car in the large lot and climb the observation tower for spectacular views over the mountains.

Newfound Gap

This is a scenic overlook located on US-441, not far from the access road to Clingmans Dome.

Go Hiking

Take your pick from short trails to all day adventures.

We chose to hike up Mt. LeConte on the Alum Cave Trail. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park and it’s a good one, but it is long. Eleven miles in length with 2800 feet of elevation gain, it’s an almost constant climb up to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Along the way, walk through forests filled with rhododendrons, through caves, and on trails that cling to the side of the mountain. For those who want to turn this into a two-day trip, you can spend the night in a cabin at the summit of Mt. LeConte.

LEARN MORE: Hiking Mt LeConte

Alum Cave

There are many other hikes to choose from. Check out this great list of ideas on Hiking in the Smokys.

Cades Cove

This is another scenic drive where you never have to leave your car (although getting out to see the cabins here is worthwhile).

Cades Cove is an 11-mile, one-way loop through a scenic valley. Along the way, visit historic homesteads and schools. There are also hiking trails if you want to get off of the beaten path.

Cades Cove

For the best experience, get here before 9 am. After 9 am, the loop gets congested with cars. You will literally inch along at a snail’s pace. We got here at 9:30 am and the loop was already filled with cars. There is nothing fun about driving your car for 11 miles at the same pace you could walk the loop. Past 9 am, it can take up to 4 to 5 hours to drive this loop on busy days.

For us, Cades Cove was not worth it. There were too many cars and the scenery was not that spectacular. The best part, for us, was visiting the John Oliver Cabin. If you want to skip the loop, you can walk here from the Cades Cove Visitor Center. Park at the large parking lot right on Cades Cove Loop Road and walk 1.4 miles (about 30 minutes) on the Rich Mountain Loop Trailhead until you get to the cabin.

John Oliver Cabin

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

This is another scenic drive. It’s less crowded than Cades Cove and located close to Gatlinburg, so if you want to go on a scenic drive and avoid the crowds, put this one on your list. Along the way, see waterfalls, cabins, and, if you’re lucky, maybe even wildlife.

From this loop, you have access to the Grotto Falls hiking trail, a 2.6 mile round trip hike to a pretty little waterfall.

6 Things to do in Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg is a small town that totally caters to tourism. With lots of hotels and restaurants to choose from, Gatlinburg makes a great home base for exploring the Smoky Mountains.

After exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg offers a lot more to do. For families, this town is wonderful, with many of activities geared towards kids. However, there is plenty to do here for adults, as well.

Go on a Moonshine Crawl

Moonshine is all the rage in Gatlinburg. There are numerous distilleries offer tastings of flavored moonshine and whiskey. At only $5 per tasting, this is one of the cheapest and one of the most entertaining ways to spend an evening in Gatlinburg.

There are three major distilleries to visit in Gatlinburg, and we tried all three, so we can give you the run down.

Sugarlands Distilling Company

This place is awesome. They offer the most informative, most entertaining moonshine tasting in Gatlinburg. Pay $5, belly up to the bar, and be entertained as your bartender takes you through a tasting of ten different moonshine flavors. Some of these bartenders are downright hysterical (and they get funnier the more moonshine you drink).

Sugarlands Moonshine

Tasting Moonshine

Our favorite moonshine, and a favorite of many people who visit Sugarlands, is the Apple Pie Moonshine.

Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine

Ole Smoky offers two different tasting experiences in Gatlinburg.

The Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler is the spot to taste their moonshine. Again, pay $5 and your bartender will take you through a tasting of roughly ten different flavors of moonshine. It’s a fun time and the moonshine is good, but Sugarlands was our favorite.

Ole Smoky Whiskey

Just down the street is the Ole Smoky Barrelhouse. Here they have lots of flavored whiskey to sample. It’s very good, and we preferred the Ole Smoky whiskey over the moonshine.

Doc Collier Moonshine

Doc Colliers is a smaller distillery and their tasting has a more intimate feel. They have some unique flavors to set them apart from the other distilleries (such as “Naner,” aka, banana, and “Back Country Fruit Punch”). If you want a quieter, less rowdy experience, visit Doc Collier.

Doc Collier

All of these distilleries charge $5 per person for a tasting, but this fee can be applied in the gift shop if you purchase moonshine or a souvenir.

Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook

Gatlinburg November

When you drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg, it’s worth the short detour to the Gatlinburg overlook for one of the best views of the city.

Gatlinburg Sky Lift and Sky Bridge

Gatlinburg Sky Lift

There are several chairlifts offering views of Gatlinburg and the Gatlinburg Sky Lift is the best, in our opinion. It is located in the center of town and from the top, you can look out over Gatlinburg with the Great Smoky Mountains as a backdrop.

Brand new (it wasn’t here during our visit) is the Sky Bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States.

For updated pricing and hours, visit the official website.

Ride an Alpine Coaster

We have ridden on several alpine coasters around the world and the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster is one of the best we have been on (but it’s also the most expensive).

There is a newer company in town, the Rowdy Bear, which gets good reviews, as well.

Again, this is not cheap, but it’s worth it for the thrill of it, if you like this sort of thing.

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum

For something quirky and unusual, tour the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.

More For Kids

If you are here with kids, you can also visit the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, play games in the arcades, or do an Escape Room game.

Where We Ate

Taste of Italy

This restaurant is fantastic! They prepare great Italian food at a very reasonable price. It’s located a few minutes outside of the heart of Gatlinburg in a small strip mall. They do not sell beer, wine, or alcohol but you can bring your own. A few doors down from the restaurant is a liquor store. Pop in here and buy a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner.

Cherokee Grill

This is the place to go if you want steak, sandwiches, or seafood. I had the filet mignon but what I loved the most were the blue cheese grits. I know, it may sound a little gross, and I don’t even like grits, at least not until I tried these. OMG…delicious!!

Cherokee Grill

Where Not to Eat

Dick’s Last Resort. This place is terrible. We stumbled in here after several moonshine tastings and what a mistake. It’s loud, dirty, the food is mediocre, and it was just an all around bad experience.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express. It’s new, it’s clean, and it is within walking distance of the main strip of Gatlinburg.

Have you been to Gatlinburg? What is your favorite thing to do here? Comment below!

More Information for Your Trip to Tennessee and North Carolina:

NASHVILLE: For recommendations on what to do and eat, check out our article Best Things to Do in Nashville and our Nashville Restaurant Guide. For full details on Bluebird Cafe, read our article How to Visit Bluebird Cafe.

NEARBY DESTINATIONS: Asheville, North Carolina makes a great weekend destination. Mammoth Cave National Park is near Tennessee and also makes a wonderful road trip destination.

KENTUCKY BOURBON TRAIL: Spend a few days exploring the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Learn about the best distilleries to visit on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and learn how to plan your itinerary, whether you have just a few days or an entire week.

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK: In our articles about Shenandoah, learn about the top experiences in Shenandoah National Park and 10 great hikes to do while you are here.

NEW RIVER GORGE NATIONAL PARK: New River Gorge National Park is located in West Virginia and it is one of the newest US national parks. Learn about the best things to do in New River Gorge National Park. We also have a detailed day-by-day itinerary and a guide to the best hikes in New River Gorge.

USA TRAVEL INSPIRATION: For more great ideas on where to go in the United States, check out our article Best USA Road Trips, which has 18 sample itineraries for your next big adventure. You can also see more travel itineraries on our Travel Itineraries page and our National Park Itineraries.

If this is part of a bigger road trip through the USA, visit our United States Travel Guide for more inspiration and travel planning tips.


Gatlinburg Great Smoky Mountains


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Comments 22

  1. Avatar for Wheelz

    Me and my husband are visiting Smoky Mt natl park in Sept. Got any ideas on an ez trail that can be done in a wheelchair? I can do natural trails…just no stairs or anything narrow.
    Planning to go riding on the Harley also… Just don’t wanna go where it’s congested with traffic..any ideas? Hard to plan hiking when in a wheelchair.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Here is the link to the sights in GSMNP that can be done from a wheelchair. Cades Cove is a nice drive but it will be congested. I recommend driving Highway 441 through the park…it’s a beautiful drive and when we did it, not too crowded. I also recommend driving the Gatlinburg Bypass to the Gatlinburgh Overlook for a nice view. Cheers, Julie

  2. Avatar for Carol

    No one mentioned Laurel Falls, which is easy 1.5 m hike, good for kids. If you leave it’s paved trail at falls, there is link uphill, over lots of tree roots to Appalachian Trail. It’s marked, but don’t get lost. We saw bear in clearing near tree roots! Past Sugarlands Visitor Ctr, on R is area of old cabins, fences to drive thru. Don’t remember name.

  3. Avatar for Robert Harris
    Robert Harris

    What an insightful article! You’ve really included all the amazing parts of the park. If you are vising during early June, watching the light show put on by the fireflies in Elkmont is a must! It is a beautiful display of nature’s beauty.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
  4. Avatar for Laura

    Cades Cove is really neat to visit in warmer months when the bears are active. But yes, I highly recommend getting there very early. Just know on Wednesdays & (I think) Sundays they only allow biking until 10 or so.

    I personally don’t care for Gatlinburg due to the congestion. However, everything is so close that you can park your car & walk most places. We usually stay in the Pigeon Forge area. It’s definitely touristy but cheap.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
    2. Avatar for Misty Porter
      Misty Porter

      I agree we did Cades Cove drive this October then hiked to Abrams Falls. It was beautiful! We encountered a black bear on the trail! That was a bit scary!

    3. Avatar for Ed

      Try staying at the Howard Johnson Gatlinburg in late April. Rates are best if the year, no congestion anywhere, all of Gatlinburg within walking distance, next to The Villages & Pancake Pantry, and no parking fees. We just got back last week & it was fabulous! Five nights (Sun-Fri) under $300. Also saw 4 bears, several elk, and a bunch of turkeys. Great time!

  5. Avatar for Karen Adams
    Karen Adams

    Hi Julie,
    Thanks for the great trip report. I know that if you have posted about your travels then it’s a worthwhile destination! My husband and I are going to visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the end of October for a few days, planning to stay in Gatlinburg. Then we’re going to drive over to Asheville. I hear mixed things about staying in Cherokee but was thinking that for one night after our last full day in the park it would make more sense to stay there than drive back to Gatlinburg or to drive all the way to Asheville just to end up south at the Biltmore or Dupont Forest. Are you familiar with Cherokee at all? What do you think? Thanks for any input.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Karen. We went through Cherokee on the drive from Asheville to Smoky Mountain NP. It’s a small town with some hotels and restaurants. It’s fine and it will work well for you to stay here…it definitely makes more sense for you to stay here than to drive back to Gatlinburg. If you want to see what the town looks like, you can use Street View on Google Maps. I don’t have any hotel recommendations but you can check Booking.com or Trip Advisor. Cheers, Julie

      1. Avatar for Karen Adams
        Karen Adams

        Thanks so much Julie. That’s what I thought but figured a second opinion couldn’t hurt. I’m looking forward to our trip. Hope you have something fun planned soon too.

      2. Avatar for Sherri

        Go to catalouchu to see the elk.! Also Maggie valley isnt to far from Cherokee. We are in servilile tn now till Thursday morning then to Cherokee nc. What did u hear about staying in Cherokee? I have never stayed there before either.

    2. Avatar for Mary

      Cherokee is AWESOME. I stay at the Newfound Lodge EVERY TIME. Your balcony is private and looks overtop of the Anacalaufte River. Ask for an upper room if possible but all rooms have same view. Then walk rt down rd to eat at the Indian owned restaurant and ask for the trout. It’s wonderful. Make sure you tip the natives when they dance n sing on streets. This is the ONLY time they can earn cash money.

  6. Avatar for Robert Harris
    Robert Harris

    Great read Julie! Smoky Mountains National Park is truly fantastic. Although Cades Cove does get congested, there’s another excellent way of covering this trail. You could rent a bike! Cycling is fun here, with nature, wildlife and architectural attractions to see on the way.

    1. Avatar for Julie Post
  7. Avatar for Doug

    I really enjoyed reading your blog about the Great Smoky Mountains. I have hiked the Alum Cave Trail to the summit of Mt. LeConte, and we were hiking with a local who was able to tell us and show us many things along the trail we would have never known about without him. I wish your trip to Cades Cove had been better. I have taken my family there multiple times – trying to avoid busy days/times. We usually park the car for a while and take a hike or two (sometimes not on trails), and we have been blessed to see lots of wildlife, including many black bear, deer, wild boar, and occasionally elk that wander off from the Cataloochee Valley or Cherokee area. For those who are able, and have the time, there are also some outstanding hikes to mountain balds, waterfalls, and caves in Cades Cove (I can’t recall any of the specific names right now). And I’m in total agreement with you about the chairlift in Gatlinburg (expensive, but great view and great for the kids), Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap are awesome, and I have no idea why anyone would want to eat at Dick’s in Gatlinburg. I am looking forward to reading about some more of your trips!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Hello Doug. What a beautiful area. We loved the Le Conte hike. We have to do it again so we can see the view from the top! It was so cloudy and rainy during our visit. And it would have been great to see some wildlife at Cades Cove. We knew it would be crowded, especially on a beautiful autumn weekend, but that’s just how our timing worked out. I think it would be a lot better on a weekday or earlier in the morning. And I blame our visit to Dick’s Last Resort on too much moonshine. 🙂 Cheers, Julie

  8. Avatar for Mary Derkowski
    Mary Derkowski

    We have enjoyed discovering the parks in TN. We visited 5 different national parks while our son was at Camp Electric in Nashville last year. We did some hiking to beautiful waterfalls, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Can’t wait to go back this May! Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler is my husband’s favorite! : )

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      It’s fun exploring the National Parks in the US…there’s so much variety. Have fun in Gatlinburg…it’s a fun place!

  9. Avatar for Megan D
    Megan D

    Love the blog!! Currently living in Italy and only have 4 days left here for my study abroad semester before returning home to Maryland as well. Also a student at the University of Maryland, from AACo. Crazy how I stumbled across this site. I’m considering the Ironman 70.3 in Cambridge, I’ve done 4 full marathons and I think that is my next adventure!

    1. Avatar for Julie Post

      Wow, we have a lot in common. Have you seen our post on racing Eagleman? It’s a great race and Tim and I have each done it a bunch of times. Enjoy your last few days in Italy and then welcome back to Maryland! Cheers, Julie

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