Christian and I love to hike but we’re more “regular-people” hikers, we’re not hiking buffs that spend every weekend scaling mountains (though we’d like to be!) I personally love more of the walk around nature and don’t mind a steep hike now and then if there’s a waterfall at the end of it. The best thing about the Great Smoky Mountains is that it offers trails for the more adventurous hikers as well as the more novice ones. Like many of America the Beautiful’s National Parks, it’s a great place to visit, whether you prefer a short walk and a relaxed picnic or a long (even strenuous) hike and with a beautiful waterfall at the end of it.
The American National Parks are among our top three favorite aspects of living in the States. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was no exception.
We visited for 3 days over my birthday in October 2016 and got to enjoy the park in the fall in all its glory.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is known to be one of the most beautiful drives in the US and it really was – well worth the 5 hour drive from Wilmington, North Carolina. The Smoky Mountains are a great getaway via car if you’re based anywhere around – Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, even DC. We promise you, the views and trails are worth the drive.
We strongly recommend renting a car (if you fly in) to get around the different areas of the park.
We entered through the North Carolina section of the park and explored the Tennessee area as well. The Tennessee side of the park is extremely beautiful but we would recommend getting accommodation on the North Carolina side of the park as the former tends to be quite touristy. We personally preferred to stick to the trails and enjoy the more natural aspects of the park and abhorred Dollywood and the strip of restaurants, hotels, and shops on the Tennessee entrance of the park. There are plenty of low-budget hotels and motels on the North Carolina side of the park. Cabin rentals are very popular but tends to be pricey – worth it if you’re traveling in a group or intend to spend a significant period of time (more than 2 days) exploring the mountains. Camping is definitely an option, and there are plenty of campgrounds for those who’d prefer to spend the night under the stars.
Do: Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
You won’t regret it. The Blue Ridge Parkway leads you to Clingman’s Dome. The Great Smoky Mountains got that name for a reason: you’ll see an ever-moving mist over the mountains no matter when you visit and where in the mountains you are.
The tricky thing is when it settles on your drive – as it did when we went up to Clingman’s Dome. It offers spectacular views – when it’s not covered in mist as it was during our drive up.
However, the drive up itself is worth it, as you can catch some incredible views on the way itself. We were very satisfied with our decision to go up despite the mist at the top, and strongly recommend you drive up as well!
There are plenty of viewpoints for pictures – stop, and take it all in.
When it comes to the actual hikes, we tried a few different ones, as our trip was extended due to Hurricane Matthew hitting Wilmington while we were away. From the Rainbow Falls to the Cataract Falls, the trails are of easy to moderate difficulty, relatively short, and worth the beautiful walks/hikes. There are free maps given out at the National Park visitor’s centers on both North Carolina and Tennessee ends, and most of the trails are clearly marked so that you can easily take one at a whim without the maps themselves.
Do: Visit Pisgah National Forest and Cherokee National Forest
…if you’re staying for more than 2 days. We ventured out of the Smokies trails after two days and found the Pisgah and Cherokee National Park trails to be as enjoyable as those in the Smokies.
Do: Visit Asheville
We loved the vibe of this city. Nestled in the mountains, it’s a great place to grab a delicious lunch/dinner and spend a few hours exploring before you hit the hay before another day of enjoying the great outdoors! We especially recommend Strada — great food and drinks for reasonable prices and a chill ambiance.
If you do visit Asheville, visit the nearby Biltmore Estate. This is a great winery (trust me, as a veteran vino ;)) and a wonderful tour of the house and gardens of the Vanderbilts. October tends to be plagued with rain around the estate sometimes, but it’s worth the trip just into the mansion. You don’t need a audio guide to enjoy a self-guided tour through the opulent mansion and gardens. It’s worth a tour hour trip outside of your more outdoorsy itinerary, maybe before grabbing lunch in Asheville!
Most importantly, the free wine-tastings are offered in the winery.
Do: Stay at Skyline Village Inn
This is a small, inconspicuous spot that doesn’t look like much on the outside but offers great views and warm, clean, comfortable rooms.
There is an incredible restaurant just a two minute drive from the Inn that also offers incredible views over breakfast/lunch/dinner. We recommend going over breakfast – they have a great menu and the morning views over the Smokies are spectacular.
Do: Keep in mind that towns between the mountains are sparse, so if you’re looking for restaurant-type meals, plan snacks or your desired route in advance.
Do: Plan ahead for breakfast
If you’re staying at a hotel that doesn’t offer breakfast and prefer to eat it at a restaurant, there are a few (emphasis on few) restaurants close to most hotels. Lines tend to be long, especially if you’re staying at the hotels closest to the North Carolina entrance of the Smokies, so plan/arrive ahead. Make reservations if you can! (Seriously, there are one hour long lines for “famous” breakfasts that we personally don’t buy in to). You can of course buy a breakfast to go and have it on your hike, which is the more picturesque option!
Do: Remember that gas stations are few and far between
Pump gas early on, especially if you find competitive prices at a specific station. There are only a few gas stations in the towns leading into and out of the mountains.
Pack plenty of water, a sweater, and some snacks, a rain jacket/umbrella and if you have weak ankles like me, ankle and knee guards. That way you can really enjoy what this beautiful park has to offer. It can get cold the higher up you go!
Don’t: Buy into the hype about Looking Glass Falls
…unless you’ve set your heart on it. The entrance tickets are overpriced and you can catch similar views of waterfalls for free on hikes in the Smokies and Pisgah National Forest (we may also be biased having been to Niagara Falls three times!)
When visiting national parks, we always prefer to go where the road takes us as they say, and not plan out our hikes but follow the trails as we see fit. We found this to be a fantastic strategy in the Smokies given the several beautiful trails with picturesque waterfalls at the end of them.
Whether you’re a veteran hiker or just love tripping around the outdoors like I do, the Great Smoky Mountains is a must-see on your US travel itinerary!
An incredible birthday! (Significant others, take note!)
Do: Pack water, snacks, a sweater (even in the summer!), a rain jacket/umbrella and ankle/knee guards.
Do: Avoid the Tennessee entrance of the national park if you want to stick to a more natural, less touristy experience.
Do: Prepare ahead for breakfast and expect long lines if you’re eating at a restaurant.
Do: Pump gas at your nearest option, as they tend to be few and far between.
Do: Explore the parks outside of the Smokies such as the Pisgah and Cherokee National Parks
Do: Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway up to Clingman’s Dome. Stop at the viewpoints on the way to take pictures and enjoy the fresh air!
Do: Visit in the Fall when the park displays its best colors.
Do: Stay at Skyline Village Inn. Have breakfast at the restaurant two minutes away.
Do: Hike, hike, hike! Get the maps from the visitors centers and try different trails. Be careful, and enjoy the views!
Been to the Great Smoky Mountains? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!