The Ultimate Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains

Plan Your Best Vacation Ever

It’s the South’s broad-shouldered, mist-crowned jewel of a national park and a magnet for millions who thrill to its high peaks, thick forests, and cascading waters.
By Tracey Minkin
March 09, 2021
Cades Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park
Credit: Art Meripol

Park yourself in North Carolina or Tennessee

Great indeed—covering more than 800 square miles as it straddles the mountainous border between Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a sprawling, fascinating treasure of the southern Appalachians. The park is grand in every way, from its geological age (those mountains are among North America's oldest) and spectacular biodiversity to its title as the most-visited national park in the U.S. to its namesake fogs that settle like quiet, airborne creatures among its ridges and peaks. The more you think about it, the more it seems like a country—not a park but a kingdom.

To plumb the majesty of such a place, to know its secrets, requires more than a hell-bent drive over Newfound Gap. It requires a long weekend at least, a week for sure, and perhaps a lifetime. It demands the patience of a suitor, who returns day after day with fresh inquiry and admiring eyes. And so you set up camp, as it were, at one of the gateway towns just outside the park or actually camp within its embrace, and you court it. You spot salamanders, wildflowers, and yes, fireflies that synchronize their glow. You thank the pewter-bellied clouds that catch and cling to these high peaks and deliver a copious rainfall that does not ruin a day's vacation but instead nourishes thousands of species and carves a wonderland of streams and tributaries, plunging falls and rolling cascades. You inhale mountain air so fresh as to be mythic, stalk trout, and listen for birdcalls and the rustle of a brown bear cub dawdling after its mother. You thank heaven, and the National Park Service, for holding this kingdom in trust for you and all of us. And you fall into the deep slumber only the mountains can provide, just to return the next day for more.

Watch: All-Time Best Guide To The Great Smoky Mountains

Bryson City, North Carolina

Did Hollywood invent this pretty little town? Indeed, like something out of a movie, Bryson City nestles against the park's southern border and is every inch a mountain enclave: The Great Smoky Mountains rise to its north, the Cowees to the south, and the Plott Balsams to the east. Amid the splendor, the town itself, a 19th-century delight of brick buildings and broad sidewalks, hums with its own sense of local community, outdoor aspiration, and easy charm, all of which congregate along Everett Street. Beginning with its flag-festooned bridge spanning the Tuckasegee River, Everett's colorful storefronts hold a host of pleasures, including bookstores, boutiques, and breweries, which make it easy (and tempting) to pass hours in pursuit of strolling, shopping, and eating. For adventurers, Bryson City is an ideal base camp, with outfitters for biking, fly-fishing, and paddling. Adding to the fun is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which makes its home here, the high whistle of the steam locomotive calling you to the possibility of a ride.

Closest Park Entry: Deep Creek (For the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, drive to Cherokee and enter there.)

Townsend, Tennessee

Locals here like to remind the rest of us that this is the "peaceful side of the Smokies," and they have a point. Just 18 miles southwest of the hurly-burly of Pigeon Forge (23 from Gatlinburg), Townsend stretches narrowly along the serpentine banks of the Little River (and the straighter intentions of the Lamar Alexander Parkway), offering charming places to bed down, like remade RV camps and quietly luxurious resorts. You'll also find outfitters for playing in the river; old-school ice-cream spots; groovy coffee shops; a bistro spotlighting Appalachian cuisine; and the region's award-winning, colorful chainsaw sculptor Gene Webb, who can be spotted outside his store on most days. Perfect for families and for discoverers, Townsend is home to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, where a historic village and exhibits offer a wonderful introduction to Southern Appalachian culture. The park's offsite Townsend Visitor Center offers maps, advice, and more.

Park Entry: Townsend Entrance Road, which is the closest access point to Cades Cove

Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains Glamping Tent
Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains, just a stone's throw from Pigeon Forge, is a glamping resort where guests sleep on plush beds with luxe linens.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Where To Spend the Night

Luxury "Camping": Are you a nature  lover who appreciates a fabulous bed? Under Canvas Great Smoky Mountains—a breathtaking luxury glamping resort tucked among pristine hills just outside the park and a stone's throw (but a world away) from Pigeon Forge—puts dreamy beds with luxury sheets and coverlets at the center of its 40 roomy canvas tents. Private baths with rainfall showers (in Suite, Stargazer, and Deluxe tents), wood stoves for chilly nights, and atmospheric electric lanterns create the experience of your dreams. There's terrific food and drinks, a fun firepit for s'mores and campfire tales, and a concierge to book excursions into the park for hiking, fishing, white water rafting, and Jeep tours. The absence of Wi-fi seals the magic.
Rates start at $199 for Safari tents, $314 for Deluxe tents; undercanvas.com.

Old-Fashioned Lodge: Perched on a hillside overlooking Bryson City and beyond to the southern flank of the Smokies, the broad, rocker-lined porch of the family-owned, circa-1923 Fryemont Inn dials up the nostalgia. The lobby, with its overstuffed sofa and chairs around a massive stone fireplace, is tailor-made for morning coffee and newspapers as well as evening board games or a hand of cards. The 37 chestnut-paneled rooms here feel like tree house hangouts with no TVs, and locals love the inn's Fireside Bar for smoked trout dip and prime-rib sandwiches.
Rates start at $185; fryemontinn.com.

Nostalgic Cabins: Wood-burning fireplaces and log construction make the Premier Cabins at Little Arrow Outdoor Resort in Townsend a trip back in time to old-school camping resorts. Everything's here and under twinkly lights: RV pull ins, Airstreams, glamping options, tent sites, little houses, and comfy cabins. There's a swimming pool and creek for the kids to splash in, plus a horseshoe pit and basketball courts. The place buzzes with family fun while also exuding a gentle hipster cool, and the honor system coffee that's offered 24-7 is delicious and plentiful.
Rates for Premier Cabins start at $155; camplittlearrow.com.

Sleep at the Top of the Park: While other big-time national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite plop their historic lodges on main roads, this one offers its rustic jewel only to those hardy enough to hike all day for it. Set in an open glade atop the peak for which it's named, LeConte Lodge puts the awe in awesome with what may be the ultimate Smokies view—commanding vistas of over 100 miles on a clear day. The highest guest lodge in the Eastern United States, LeConte is the park's only place to slumber wholly protected. To get here, prepare to climb one of five trails that range from 5 to 9.1 miles and to handle some steep elevation—up to 6,400 feet. But what awaits! Those views, plus family-style dinners in the dining room, rustic log cabins, kerosene lamps, and heavy Hudson's Bay wool blankets.
Rates start at $159 per adult and $88 per child (ages 4 to 12), which includes dinner and breakfast. Note: Reservations book far in advance, so plan ahead. lecontelodge.com

Plan Your Adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains
Credit: Getty Images

Here's where to hike, bike, paddle, tube, or dip a line

Summer in the Smokies—when the tubing is lively and the kids are on break—calls. So does fall, when the deciduous splendor of the park unveils in washes of gold, red, and umber. But with those busy seasons come the most visitors. Consider exploring in spring (when wildflowers rise up in Technicolor abundance) or early fall (when the leaves first begin to come alive). Winter may be the park's most surprising season of all, when the absence of vegetation reveals glimpses of meandering stone walls among the forests and vistas of distant peaks hidden during leafy summer.

Yes, it's fine to sit on your cabin porch and gaze up into those mountains in any season, perfectly fine. But Great Smoky Mountains National Park really does want you to come in and play. For park superintendent Cassius Cash, the very diversity of the Smokies is what makes them so extraordinary. "You'll discover the finest example of the ruggedness and scenic grandeur of the southern Appalachian Mountains, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet and 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail," he says. "You'll be immersed in one of the most biologically diverse areas in the temperate climate with over 20,000 different species. The park also protects a rich human history including the stories of those who lived in the mountains over the last 9,000 years—the Cherokee people and the European settlers."

Floating down the Little River in Townsend, TN
Float down the Little River in Townsend, Tennessee.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Play on the Water

The Great Smoky Mountains are positively threaded with creeks and rivers. Here are some of the finest ways to get a little wet.

Drift On: The gentle flow of the Little River as it snakes through Townsend is a great stretch for tubers of all ages. Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center offers a shuttle to the river, which is just across the street from their excellent offices and shop, and their bright red canvas tubes—with mesh bottoms to keep you from drooping into the river—are best in class.
All-day tube and shuttle back, $20 for adults and $17 for kids (ages 6 to 17); smoctn.com

Plunge Through White Water: North Carolina's Nantahala River is nearly as famous as the park, and with good reason. Its 8-mile stretch through steep-sided Nantahala Gorge, fueled by dam releases from Nantahala Lake, is a veritable playground of Class II and III rapids that provide the ideal blend of thrill and mountain scenery for even the most novice rafter. Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) is the gold standard for booking an adventure and is also a preeminent white water kayaking outfitter, for paddlers looking for an extra challenge and thrill. May, September, and October are great months with fewer crowds.
Three-hour Nantahala River Rafting excursion, from $54; noc.com

Paddle a Mountain Lake: Stretching 17 miles, snug along the park's southwestern border, dam-created Fontana Lake is the largest in western North Carolina, and its coves and islands make for fantastic waterborne exploration. Get a taste of the lake on a stand-up paddleboard or in a kayak with Bryson City Outdoors, which rents equipment and provides expert advice from its Sup Shack at Almond Boat & RV Park's marina.
Rates start at $25/hour (tandem kayaks are double the price). Call ahead to reserve. 828/342-6444; brysoncityoutdoors.com

Elk River Falls near Elk Park, North Carolina
Beautiful cascades like Elk River Falls (near Elk Park, North Carolina) are abundant in the Smokies, formed by copious rainfall and the mountains' unique geology.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Explore Waterfalls

With about 85 inches of rain falling annually on steep topography (plus a geology that combines easily erodible and resistant rock) water carves out unmatched cascades here. The Great Smoky Mountains Association publishes an excellent brochure on the waterfalls of the park (pick it up from park visitors centers). Here are a few highlights.

Quick and Gorgeous: Located just outside the park in the Qualla Boundary, Mingo Falls plunges 120 feet and is a mere 0.4-mile hike up Pigeon Creek Trail.

Triple the Pleasure: Very popular but worth a visit, Deep Creek Waterfalls Loop outside Bryson City offers three falls—Juney Whank Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Tom Branch Falls—along its moderate 2.4-mile trail.

Big, Bold, and Remote: Adventurers will consider the strenuous 8-mile round-trip hike up Ramsey Cascades Trail a gift all its own, as it follows rushing rivers and streams, rising through forestland of tulip trees, silver bells, and yellow birches. But the prize—Ramsey Cascades, with its 100-foot drop (the tallest in the park)—is a spectacular sight.

Fishing guide Eugene Shuler fly fishing the Smokies near Bryson City, North Carolina.
Fishing guide Eugene Shuler fly-fishing the Smokies near Bryson City, North Carolina.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Catch (and Release) a Trout

Eugene Shuler knows his trout. The third-generation Smokies fishing guide has spent his whole life stalking the brown, speckled Southern Appalachian brook trout native to the park and its environs. Whether you're an expert angler looking to cast for the wiliest of big browns hanging out on the deep holes or a curious newcomer to the time-honored pursuit, you'll find superb fishing in the Smokies, Shuler says. While Deep Creek outside Bryson City is his home waterway, Shuler shares other top spots for experienced anglers and the best way to get your waders wet as a beginner.

Worth the Trip: Hazel Creek
This is one of the most famous streams in the park. "It's a bucket list spot for sure," he says. Hazel Creek is a good 21-mile hike from the trailhead along the north shore of Fontana Lake. Good thing you can hire Shuler to hop you across the lake for a full day of guided fishing in areas that are open and more accessible for intermediate casters.
Look for: Rainbow and brook trout.
Peak seasons: "It's good year-round, but I've had some of the best dry fly action in any national park in spring," he says.

Big Holes and Browns: Little River
"The biggest brown trout, bar none, are on the Little River," he says. Running sinuously along State Route 73, the lower end of the river gets its share of tubers and splashing kids in the summer, Shuler says, but there are plenty of spots for excellent fishing year-round—especially from Metcalf Bottoms to what's called the Townsend Wye. "That whole stretch there is epic," he says. For pure magic, Shuler recommends heading upstream to Elkmont, an old lumber camp and trailhead inside the park. "You get a little vibe when you're up in there," he says. "You know there's something special. I've had bears come out while we're fishing, eating persimmons that fall and wash up and hunting old grapes."
Look for: Rainbow and brown trout.
Peak seasons: Fall for the lower end, spring at Elkmont.

For Families: Palmer Creek
The Cataloochee Valley, with its historic log dwellings and frequent elk visitors, is the perfect spot for a picnic, Shuler says, and Palmer and other small creeks that meander through the valley are ideal for experienced anglers.
Look for: Rainbow and brown trout.
Peak seasons: Spring and summer.

Bang for Your Buck: Oconaluftee River
Shuler's guides are on this river daily because it's right off U.S. 441 inside the park. It combines great fishing with frequent wildlife sightings. "Elk will be out there in the water with you sometimes, and I've seen bears crossing the creeks," he says. In the town of Cherokee outside the park, what's called the "trophy section" of the river has lifetime brown catches, Shuler says, and any ambitious angler will not want to miss a chance at that.
Look for: Rainbow, brown, and brook trout.
Peak seasons: October through May.

Want to Try Your Hand at Casting?
"The Smokies are a great place to learn," says Shuler, who takes new anglers of every age (from 8 to 98) on half-day trips that focus on mastering the basics in areas that are easy to access. For more information on guided excursions of every kind (or to visit either of his Fly Fishing the Smokies locations in Bryson City and Gatlinburg), go to flyfishingthesmokies.net.

The Carter Shields Cabin on Cades Cove Loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Carter Shields Cabin was built in the 1800s and is just one of the historic buildings, including cabins and churches, on the wildly popular Cades Cove Loop.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Hit the Classics (Not the Crowds)

It's hard to visit the Smokies and not pay homage to the park's favorite sites. The fact is, though, that hundreds—maybe even thousands—of people may have the exact same plan, which means traffic on the roads and pressure on the sites themselves. What's the best way to see these? Avoid peak-season months of July and October in general, and consider the following strategies when you visit.

Cades Cove: This section of the park is its most popular, and for good reason. The 11-mile, one-way loop road travels through the fields, meadows, and preserved buildings of a historic farming community, so the viewing is rich (including traffic-halting brown bear sightings). The best way to see Cades Cove is to avoid cars altogether and visit on cyclists-only days (currently Wednesdays). If a four-wheeled vehicle is your preferred mode, consider other weekdays and late in the day (between 5 and 8 p.m.), when many visitors are already on their way out.

Clingmans Dome: With a modernist tower at the end of a paved, half-mile trail offering panoramic views, this high peak (6,643 feet) draws huge traffic all day. If you can visit midweek, you'll have an advantage. An early morning trip, while a wise move, might come with that divine "smoke" of clouds that will block some of your views. Late in the day is another great option, particularly in summer, when it's light until nearly 9 p.m.

Alum Cave Trail: This moderate hike of 4.4 miles round trip is so popular that two parking lots along Newfound Gap Road often fill up early on summer weekends. It's understandable: The trail passes stunning rock formations, a lovely creek, and loads of rhododendrons in late spring. Along the way, it offers big views at Inspiration Point (about 2 miles in) and, a little farther on, at Alum Cave Bluffs. The best way to enjoy this classic? Other than going midweek and getting an early-morning start, consider hiking on past it: Alum Cave Trail keeps rising for several more miles up to Mount Le Conte. You don't have to go all the way to the summit to leave massive crowds behind and get a taste of real Smokies wilderness.

Bring Old-Fashioned Maps

The deep secret of the Smokies is this: There is little, if any, cell service. Not in the park or in some areas outside of it. In other words, expect to have four bars in Gatlinburg and none within a mile into the park. Prepare to have your GPS grid turn white into terra incognita as you head south from Newfound Gap and to be unable to Google other hiking ideas when you run into packed parking lots at Clingmans Dome. In other words, be ready to turn back the clocks, stock up on (paper!) maps, and get ready for a joyously old-fashioned vacation. Order up some road maps of the area, and make sure to stop by visitors centers for park maps when you get to town. Post a navigator in the passenger seat, like we did in the old days, and embrace the joys of route finding. You may never talk to Siri again.

Stack of road maps
Credit: Getty Images

Become a Birder

For Southern bird lovers, there's magic in these mountains. The cooler temperatures and plentiful rainfall here offer habitat to high-elevation species generally found in northern boreal ecosystems, says Keith Watson, a former biologist with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who now leads birding hikes throughout the area. "People from all over the South travel to the Smokies to find these creatures," he says, "It saves them a trip to the northern United States!" Here Watson shares four species to spot, what to look and listen for, and where best to find them.

Black-capped chickadees, which look much like the Carolina chickadees Southerners see at their feeders, have a much deeper, slower-paced song and call. These occur almost anywhere at elevations above 4,000 feet and are fairly easy to find.

Red-breasted nuthatches are often in the same habitat and patch of forest as black-capped chickadee; just listen for this nuthatch's toy trumpet sound.

Red crossbills are nomadic in their feeding and nesting habits and a bit harder to locate. They prefer seeds from red spruce cones so be sure to look on trees with good crops. See if you can spot their upper and lower mandibles actually crossing (hence their name). 

Northern saw-whet owls are nocturnal, so you're going to want to listen more than look for them. Find a clip of their call online to learn what it sounds like.

Where to Look: Two great spots for all four species are Newfound Gap and all along Clingmans Dome Road—even the paved path to the dome.

Book a Hike: Watson leads excursions with Ventures Birding Tours and the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park superintendent Cassius Cash
For tips and advice, visitors look to pros like park superintendent Cassius Cash.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Hike Off the Beaten Path

"With over 800 miles of trails and 380 miles of scenic roadways, there are ample opportunities for people to get out and explore the Smokies," says superintendent Cassius Cash, adding that congestion at the park's most popular areas offers a real incentive to spread out. Here are Cash's recommendations.

Little River Trail out of Elkmont is "an awesome place to hike for people of all skill levels," Cash says. "It's relatively flat and follows a beautiful river through a historic district."

Hemphill Bald Trail out of Balsam Mountain is a "high-elevation option that follows the boundary of the park with nice mountain views."

Kephart Prong Trail above the Smokemont area "follows the river to a great backcountry camping shelter."

Little Bottoms Trail out of Abrams Creek, Cash says, is an ideal way to reach Abrams Falls without starting in highly trafficked Cades Cove.

Quiet Walkways along Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road are "hidden treasures for those who just want to take a short stroll along the water to experience the Smokies," Cash says.

Cash's Advice: Plan ahead, and have at least three options in mind for your experience. That way, once you're in the park, you can pivot easily to plan B or C if weather, traffic, or crowded conditions demand it.

Go Wild for Flowers

The park blooms year-round with over 1,500 species of wildflowers—more than any national park in North America. Just about any time is flower time here, but if you want to hit the peak, April's the month when you can spy everything from white trillium and Dutchman's britches to wild geranium, crested dwarf iris, and wild ginger. Bloom fanatics should consider the park's annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage near the end of the month, which features a bursting bouquet of guided walks and programs.

Elk grazing in field in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Credit: Andy Anderson

Hang with the Elk

This was their land for millennia, but overhunting and loss of habitat wiped elk from the landscape. Twenty years ago, 25 elk were released in the Cataloochee Valley with hopes of reintroducing the species to its former habitat. In 2002, the park brought in 27 more. It worked, and visitors who drive the winding gravel road can enjoy watching some of the park's 200 elk in the fields here.
Peak seasons: Early summer is best for spotting calves, while fall (September and October) is mating season, when you'll see the bulls gather cows into large herds.
Peak times: Optimize your sightings by visiting at dawn or dusk, and bring your binoculars. Elk are sensitive to contact, so the best way to love them is from a distance.

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc.
Credit: Andy Anderson

Native Americans are part of the fabric of the Smokies

It's easy to spy the imprint of European settlers in historic sections—Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley—inside the park, but the deepest, most complex, and most vital story of human habitation in the Smokies is much older. The Cherokee people can trace roots in the southern Appalachians to the Paleolithic Period 13,000 years ago—marking the beginning of a timeline that charts an ascendant culture first threatened by European contact and disease in the 1500s and then ravaged by a forced removal of thousands of men, women, and children in 1838 to federal lands in what is now Oklahoma. This tragic American injustice along the Trail of Tears may be well known, but what is lesser known is that a band of Cherokee evaded removal and endured in the mountains and valleys of the Smokies. Now, 11,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) inhabit and oversee the Qualla Boundary, the tribe's 57,000 acres that includes the town of Cherokee as well as mountains and forests that border the national park.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Credit: Andy Anderson

Visit Cherokee today and you'll not only take in the quiet splendor of the Oconaluftee River winding pastorally through town past archaic-looking tourist outposts, but you'll see the stunning syllabary of the tribe's written language—created by Sequoyah in the early 1820s—on buildings and banners. You'll discover galleries, a museum, a historic village, and performing arts that summon the cultural heft of the EBCI people. How best to learn about and engage with Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary? Begin here: "You're visiting a sovereign nation," says Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an EBCI author of the 2020 novel, Even as We Breathe, who lives with her family in Cherokee. "It's culturally unique within the southeastern United States. We were the first to encounter Europeans, and I think that's important because you can better appreciate the community. We've survived in our place of origin for tens of thousands of years." Clapsaddle, who says she loves playing tour guide for her home, shares her must-sees.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Credit: Andy Anderson

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Start with this small but powerful destination, Clapsaddle says, to learn the long reach of EBCI culture and history, from prehistoric artifacts to exhibits on the development of the written language, the roots of the game of lacrosse, a flourishing of art and craft, and the disturbing and emotionally moving tale of federal betrayal.
cherokeemuseum.com

Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc.

From the museum, it's a quick trip to this remarkable institution, in fact the nation's oldest Native American cooperative (since 1946). With an entire room devoted to the history and evolution of the EBCI's famed river cane, white oak, and honeysuckle basketry, there's plenty to see. Visiting here is like hitting a second museum. Further, the co-op's large showroom has a stunning variety of baskets along with carvings, pottery, silversmithing, and other crafts for sale, all from only EBCI artists. If you invest in one souvenir while in the Smokies, this may be the finest choice there is.
quallaartsandcrafts.com

Fire Mountain Trails

For Clapsaddle, this newly opened ecotourism park with 10.5 miles of paths for mountain biking, running, and hiking is a glowing achievement and the "epitome of where we're headed," she says. "It rests on Cherokee cultural values: preserving the environment and interactions across generations in nature." Clapsaddle has become a mountain biking fanatic (she rides regularly with her two young sons) since Fire Mountain opened, and she encounters riders coming from all over the region because the trails are so good.
visitcherokeenc.com

Oconaluftee Indian Village

It's great for families, of course, but it's truly for any visitor hoping to better understand Cherokee life in the 1700s. This re-creation of a historic village is staffed by cultural guides. It's another of Clapsaddle's favorites, if for no other reason than to dismantle myths. "So many people think we lived in teepees," she says. "We built cabins."
Open May through early November, $20 for adults and $10 for kids (ages 6 to 12); cherokeehistorical.org 

Unto These Hills

This seasonal outdoor drama that tells the story of the Cherokee people from 1780 to the present debuted in 1950, and in recent years, the Cherokee Historical Association has thoughtfully updated it with culturally appropriate language and narrative, Clapsaddle says. While the 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19, keep an eye on its scheduled reopening this May.
Adults starting at $28 and kids (ages 6 to 12) starting at $18; cherokeehistorical.org

Saunooke’s Mill in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Shop for stone-ground goods at Saunooke's Mill in Cherokee, North Carolina.
| Credit: Andy Anderson

Shop Local

It's hard to know, when taking in Cherokee's assemblage of traditional shops for tourists, which ones may offer products actually made by EBCI artists and craftspeople (as opposed to being imported imitations). In addition to Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, Inc., Clapsaddle recommends the shop at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian; Qualla Creations, which focuses on contemporary EBCI artists (and has great toys for kids); and the shops at Saunooke Village, including Saunooke Mill (formerly owned by her father, Charles Saunooke), which features stone-ground corn, some crafts, and gift boxes.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Think Outside the Park

One way to love the area is to give it a rest while others enjoy it, says Dana Soehn, park spokesperson. If you're spending more than a few days in the Smokies, consider a visit to one of the amazing National Park Service sites in the area, she says, all of which see much less traffic and have lots to offer: Log more hiking miles at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area or Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, both located north of the Smokies. If you're a history buff, head for Manhattan Project National Historical Park and Andrew Johnson National Historic Site near Knoxville. Honor America's great poet with a visit to the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site south of Asheville, North Carolina.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area covers miles of northern Tennessee. | Credit: Cary Jobe
Great Smoky Mountain Vacation Eat, Drink, and Shop
Credit: Getty Images

Travelers do not live on adventure alone, and the gateway towns and environs of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are full of spoils. Find your pleasure points at these destinations

Taste The Smokies

Breakfast: Gatlinburg's Pancake Pantry is like seven-day-a-week church in these parts, so lean in and go all the way. Considered the first specialty pancake restaurant in Tennessee, this landmark opens at 7 a.m. for those who want to avoid the lines and is a pilgrimage worth getting up early for.

Old-School Treats: You're parked in Gatlinburg, so stay put for a can't-miss visit to the original Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen. These folks have been sweetening lives here since the early 1950s, and the taffy recipe hasn't changed a whit. Don't miss the Milk Chocolate Brown Bears, which are delicious. The box design, with its cheery brown bear chefs, is worth framing.

Smoked Meats: Talk about being worth a detour—if you're bedding down in Townsend, don't think twice about taking the 40-mile ride around the western flank of the park to Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams. Proprietor Allan Benton, who has been dry curing and smoking meats for more than 40 years, has maintained the traditions of his rural Southern upbringing. He's a regional culinary treasure. If you're lucky, he might be helping out at the register when you stock up on his bacon.

Craft Beer: Forget the moonshine, which has largely grown into a tourist industry with cunning labels and long lines at the tasting rooms. Beer is where it's at in the Smokies, and Bryson City has the goods. Start with lunch and a pint at Nantahala Brewing's Burger + Bar, then stroll up Everett Street to Mountain Layers Brewing Company's rooftop deck for one of the microbrewery's lagers, wheat beers, or IPAs. Finish out the day with the deeply knowledgeable team at Bryson City Taproom, a tiny beer bar and shop attached to (and owned by) the town's terrific outdoor shop, Bryson City Outdoors. Don't miss the staff-picked brown bags of brews to take home.

Caffeine Boost: High-end coffee is hard to find in the Smokies, but quiet Townsend delivers with The Artistic Bean, which hand roasts from its welcoming spot near the town's top tubing outfitters. Consider this the perfect way to launch any day on this side of the park.

Chef Shelley Cooper
Dish by Chef Shelley Cooper
Left: Shelley Cooper has helped elevate Appalachian food. | Credit: Andy Anderson
Right: Credit: Andy Anderson

Farm to Table: From Shelley Cooper (who grew up cooking at her grandmother's cabin in the Blue Ridge) to North Carolina native and master of Appalachian cuisine John Fleer (whose storied career has included a long tenure at Blackberry Farm), chefs have taken regional food to celebrated heights. Taste the bounty of flavors at Dancing Bear Lodge's Appalachian Bistro in Townsend.

Carve Out Time for Galleries

If you think Gatlinburg is all about the crush of commerce on the Parkway, you've missed the best thing the town offers: its Arts and Crafts Community Loop, a stunning 8-mile route of winding country roads that link more than 100 independent shops and galleries bursting with genuine, quality products—pottery, woodworking, leather, textiles, foods, fine art, and more.