Great Smoky Mountains National Park – 2020
Last year around the end of October I took a solo trip out to the Smoky Mountains for the first time. I fell in love with the gently sloping mountains blanketed in a rainbow of leaves. This year I made my way back with my dad.
We flew into Knoxville, which is the closest airport to the park at about a one hour and fifteen minute drive. We took a route that led us along a multitude of winding country roads, which took about as long as the highway route and was a bit more scenic. Upon arriving to the park, we went straight to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. During covid-19, I believe this and the Cades Cove Visitor Center are the only ones completely open for entry. There are many maps available at the visitor center, specific to the activity you want to do.
We drove straight from the visitor center up Fighting Creek Road to the Laurel Falls Trailhead.
traffic and driving route tangent
Let me just say, going into the park via Fighting Creek Road we faced no traffic whatsoever, but the line of cars backed up to exit the park onto 441S from Fighting Creek Road was literally MILES long. Like at least 4 miles straight of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Because of this, we took a longer but more scenic and far less trafficked road out of the park. From Laurel Falls we took a right on to Fighting Creek Road. Fighting Creek turns into Little River Road, then we took a right at the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Grounds and took 321 through Wear Valley up to Pigeon Forge. It took a little bit longer but was so scenic, very bucolic through Wear Valley.
end of driving route
Laurel Falls is a paved 2.6 ish mile, paved, out-and-back through the forest. The trail goes on past Laurel Falls but we just stopped at the 80-foot falls. The hike itself is pretty enough, with a few scenic vistas, but what really made it for us was seeing a bear cub munching on acorns.
Our first night we stayed in Pigeon Forge at the Tru by Hilton hotel. Pigeon Forge is bizarre, and extremely touristy. That’s all I have to say about that. The hotel was great though and the front-desk employee recommended Bullfish Grill to us. It was one of the few places without an hour wait and the food was delicious. I had pistachio crusted trout and the waitress was kind enough to give me free cheddar grits.
We woke up and made the hour drive from Pigeon Forge to Cade’s Cove to do the Cade’s Cove driving loop. This loop is 11 miles long and winds through a historic valley. There are many points of interest along the loop (around 18) that you can pull off and walk around. We pulled off and hiked the 5 mile out-and-back Abrams Falls trail. This trail runs alongside a river and ends at the 20-foot Abrams Falls. While this waterfall is not as tall as others, the sheer amount of water cascading down it is very impressive, and loud. Red and orange leaves pepper the trees at the sides of the falls.
After leaving the trailhead, traffic on the loop had slowed to a grinding halt. It took us about an hour to even get to a cut-through road that enabled us to avoid the backup. We ended up driving the 12-mile Rich Mountain Road, that pops us out into Wears Valley. This road was just as pretty, if not even more so, than the Cade’s Cove loop with much less traffic. It is an unpaved road that winds through the forest, which at this time of year was beautifully enhanced by the colorful autumn leaves. It did take over and hour to get back, but the drive was not bad.
We stayed in the same VRBO I stayed at last year, which is about a ten minute drive from the park entrance and a 12 minute drive from downtown Gatlinburg. I really liked the location of this rental, and the balcony with a wonderful view of the mountains.
For dinner we went into town and ate at Calhoun’s , a BBQ restaurant. There was a pretty long wait at all of the restaurants in downtown Gatlingburg, so we put our names on a few different reservations and took the one first available.
We woke up around 7 and enjoyed our coffee and the sunrise over the mountains from our rental balcony. Then we made our way up to Clingman’s Dome. It takes about an hour to drive to this point but the views are unparalleled elsewhere in the park. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the national park, and one of the highest points on the Appalachian Trail. When we visited, the clouds were still blanketing the lower mountains, making the view even more spectacular.
We did the 3.4 mile out-and- back hike to Andrew’s Bald from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot. The hike goes downhill for most of the 1.7 miles out, along the side of the mountain. We liked how the terrain varied from forest to rocky to dry scrub brush. The trail pops out onto an exposed summit, as the name implies. The hike back uphill was not nearly as strenuous as we had feared going down it all on the way out!
We spent a bit of time just admiring the view from the parking lot before driving back down through the park. We made a quick pit-stop at the Newfound Gap parking area, where another scenic patch of mountains lies visible.
For the rest of the day we drove around downtown Gatlinburg and walked a short amount of the Gatlinburg trail. For dinner we ordered delivery from Ski Mountain Pizza and enjoyed it from the balcony of our lodging at sunset. They delivered very quickly and were very friendly.
Thus concludes our trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had a great time and I am thankful for this time with my dad in the mountains!
- Arrive early! Especially during the fall when visitors flock to the park to see the leaves (like me). For Clingman’s Dome, the Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead, and Cade’s Cove especially make sure to arrive before 9:30am if you want to beat the mass crowds.
- Cade’s Cove Drive: start early in the morning, and if you stop to do the Abrams Falls hike be prepared to find a lot more traffic when you reemerge onto the road. Make sure to obtain a good map of the loop (we bought one at the Sugarlands Visitor Center for $1). Without our map we wouldn’t have known that we could escape the loop early via the Rich Mountain Road.
- Banking onto the statement about maps above, have a park-wide map as well. This allowed us to avoid the literal miles-long line of traffic to get onto 441S out of the park. There is very limited cell service inside of the park. Have a map and know how to use it.
- Bring layers: as with any mountain, the weather changes rapidly from hot to cold to rainy to sunny. Be prepared. And it should go without saying, but be sure to pack more than what you think will be enough water.
- Avoid driving down Fighting Creek Gap Road towards 441 to Gatlinburg. Traffic was lined up at this stoplight for MILES. This is where having a park map came in handy; we were able to avoid this traffic by taking a longer (but scenic) route.
- If you can, get a car with some pep in it. We had a Prius which was great for the gas mileage with all the driving we did. However, it did not take well to climbing up the steep hills or hitting potholes.
https://bullfishgrill.com/ — Bullfish Grill in Pigeon Forge
http://www.hilton.com/search/ru/us/tn/pigeon_forge/0/00000000000/0/0/price_asc/0/20?WT.mc_id=zlada0ww1ru2psh3ggl4advbpp5dkt6multibr7_153675410_1003528&gclid=Cj0KCQjw28T8BRDbARIsAEOMBcwt0Zozm1Ws9mUP2BRQUpIskxWMjjvzVodsnMEETRJRADF71Lmlb3UaAgcLEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds Tru Pigeon Forge
https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm Visitors Centers
https://smokymountains.com/park/cades-cove/scenic-drive/ Cade’s Cove Drive
http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/abrams.htm Abram’s Falls Trail
https://calhouns.com/menus-and-locations/gatlinburg/ Calhoun’s Gatlinburg
https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/clingmansdome.htm Clingman’s Dome
http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/andrewsbald.htm Andrew’s Bald Hike
https://www.skimountainpizza.com/ Ski Mountain Pizza