America the Beautiful. That name exists for a reason. There are so many stunning places right here in the US and in this National Park Series I am going to share some of our favorite parks and experiences in our own backyard. This week I wrote about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and about the charming town right outside the entrance.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The main objective of our road trip through the South was to drive the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. We planned the whole trip around achieving this goal, and while we were not able to drive the whole way, we were able to see quite a lot of it.
We started in Roanoke, Virginia, passed through Boone, North Carolina – where we stopped for the night – and ended just outside of Asheville, North Carolina. In hindsight I regret that we did not wander into Asheville, as I have since found out that it is one of the coolest towns in the south. Alas, we had our hearts and eyes set on making it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We entered the park near Asheville and meandered our way through until we got to our campground (Elkmont). After setting up camp we headed into town on an innocent firewood run. We were completely shocked when we got to Gatlinburg and saw how touristy and busy it was. We found the town strangely charming and we ended up unexpectedly spending time wandering (or stumbling…) around town for some of our time in the Smokies.
In the Park
It rained two of the three days while we were in the park, which made the already humid air even wetter and we were treated to truly “smoky” mountains. We did a couple of hikes, including the hike to Clingman’s Dome, which had a view point at the top and crosses the Appalachian Trail. It was too foggy to see much, but we did see a black bear, which the park is famous for. This trail was very crowded and we saw every type of person, in every type of clothing. I think the park’s proximity to slightly glitzy Gatlinburg means that there are visitors who are sometimes not “typical” to National Parks. AKA, people who think high heels and dresses are appropriate hiking attire.
We also did a short hike to a waterfall (there are so many to choose from!) but our hiking options were limited because of the rainy weather, so we spent some time driving around the park to the old settlements that existed before the park was established. There are old buildings and churches and cemeteries to explore, and these parts of the park seem to be less visited than other parts of the park.
In actuality we spent an embarrassing amount of time in Gatlinburg. The town is super touristy and kitschy, but oddly charming and definitely fun. We did a moonshine tasting, and a wine tasting, and a whiskey tasting… After all these tastings we realized there was no way we could get behind the wheel so to sober up we hit up the Ripley’s Aquarium. It was very expensive and pretty mediocre, but we had a blast anyway. It could have had something to do with all the tastings…
When we camp we usually cook at our campsite, but Gatlinburg drew us in with all it’s dining options. One night we ate at a very fancy restaurant with fancy cocktails. Another night we got two pounds of crawfish. Nom nom.
Recently Gatlinburg experienced a tragic fire that destroyed over 2,400 structures and acres and acres of the surrounding forest. The main tourist structures are largely unharmed and while Gatlinburg may not look like it did when we visited, and as a town that relies on tourism, your dollars would help rebuild some of what they have lost.
Dollars and Sense
Entrance: FREE, this is one of the few parks that is free. You can find out why on their website.
Camping: $20/ night (standard for National Park campgrounds)
We stayed at Elkmont campground, which was beautiful and green, but not very secluded. We loved the location close to the entrance where we could easily get in and out of town. If camping isn’t for you, Gatlinburg is very close to the entrance of the park.
Weather: Can be an issue in Spring, as it was for us. This park is green and beautiful because it rains so much so be prepared for the possibility, or probability depending on the time of year, that you may get wet. As is the case with most National Parks, summer is the most crowded time of year, so book accommodation well ahead of time.
For more information check out the NPS website.