Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a magnet for my soul. Driving in from points west in Tennessee, there are vantages outside Knoxville and Maryville where vistas open up to reveal row after row of soft, undulating ridges on the horizon. Peace lies there.
At 500,000 acres, the park is huge, especially for a park in the eastern U.S., and it attracts millions of visitors. It is America’s most-visited national park. The visitor count was almost 11.4 million in 2017, bolstered by big attendance for the solar eclipse that year and not harmed significantly by a tragic wildfire in 2016.
Despite its popularity, I can find solitude, at least relatively speaking, in almost 600 miles of trout streams or along 800 miles of trails, all the while realizing that I share the park and surrounding region with many others, including groups of all sizes and types.
As a region, the Smokies appeal to myriad groups. It could be a hiking club using Townsend as a base for some day hikes, a multigenerational family reunion focusing on Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, a church youth group attending a denominational rally or a seniors group just wanting to soak up fall color in the mountains.
Here are some of the signature destinations your group shouldn’t miss when visiting the Smoky Mountains.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Getting a handle on the Smokies is a challenge. Let’s start with the national park itself and then examine some of the park’s Tennessee gateway communities.
Tourism professionals often marvel that some visitors say they are “coming to the mountains” yet they never enter the national park. Just having those beautiful mountains as the backdrop for their visits satisfies them, but it shouldn’t. Mother Nature spent too much time preparing for them to be ignored.
A wise group leader would begin a Smoky Mountains adventure at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. In addition to getting the lay of the land at an expansive 3D tabletop map, Sugarlands features one of the best National Park Service videos in the country. These 20 minutes ought to be part of everyone’s visit to the Smokies because they offer so much perspective on the land and the people.
Perhaps the easiest group activity is to drive to 5,049-foot Newfound Gap and straddle the line between Tennessee and North Carolina for a group photo. You can imagine the scene when Franklin Roosevelt visited in 1940 to dedicate the park, which citizens had donated to the nation after considerable public and private fundraising.
When you peer over the verdant ridges now, it’s unbelievable that about 80 percent of the donated land was logged over. What a difference almost a century of healing can bring.
The famous Appalachian Trail passes through Newfound Gap, and you can take an out-and-back walk on it. When recounting that stroll back home, remember to say you hiked on part of the Appalachian Trail, not the entire trail; too many people know it’s 2,190 miles long.
After Newfound Gap, drive on to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet. The walk from the parking lot to the futuristic-looking observation deck is a short quarter-mile jaunt that is steep and memorable. It may make you wish you exercised more.
There are many other opportunities for group trail time, and rangers at the Sugarlands Visitor Center are your best counselors. From Sugarlands, you can walk two flat miles into Gatlinburg on the Gatlinburg Trail, or you can enjoy a loop of slightly more than a mile to see a small waterfall and a settler’s cabin.
Cherokees and earlier natives knew the Smokies well. Cherokees even helped the first American settlers who trudged over the mountains in the early 1800s to the spot that became Gatlinburg. It was a tiny hamlet when the national park was created, but that changed almost overnight.
What evolved is a compact, attraction-filled, largely walkable town hemmed in by the park on three sides. Hotel rooms overlook a stocked trout stream, souvenir stores seem as abundant as the park’s famous synchronous fireflies, and the Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway can whisk you away from the hustle-bustle for a 2.1-mile ride to Ober Gatlinburg. Ober Gatlinburg is a mountaintop amusement park with Tennessee’s only ski slopes, a substantial indoor ice arena and numerous other attractions.
Back in town, diversions include the incongruous but popular Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. First-timers to Gatlinburg, who may be most eager to see a black bear in the woods, are just as thrilled to see sharks, rays, sea dragons and electric eels. The largest of three massive tanks holds 750,000 gallons of saltwater and has a glass tunnel so you can watch toothy sharks glide overhead.
Among Gatlinburg’s newest attractions is an outdoor spot called Anakeesta. That’s a Cherokee word that means “the place of balsams.” Getting to Anakeesta is part of the fun because you must ride a “chondola” to get there. “Chondola” is a made-up word for a combination gondola and chairlift that takes you 600 feet up a ridge to Firefly Village.
Attractions there include a canopy walk — 16 suspended bridges and 14 viewing platforms suspended 40 to 60 feet off the ground— a mountain coaster, a combination zip-line/rappelling adventure, shopping and gem mining. Perhaps most impressive at Anakeesta are panoramic views of Mount LeConte, which, at 6,593 feet, is the third-tallest peak in the national park.
The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts offers a marked contrast to Gatlinburg’s chondola, sharks and mountain coasters. Visit the campus, view artwork by local, national and international artists in five galleries, and experience a completely different way to enjoy the Smokies.
The Smokies’ most active visitor town is five miles north and a world apart from Gatlinburg because it has something Gatlinburg doesn’t: flat land. It occupies a valley of the Little Pigeon River.
Slicing through town is a four-lane divided route named simply the Parkway that is lined with attractions, amusements, restaurants, theaters, mom-and-pop motels, chain hotels, souvenir emporiums, miniature golf courses and one genuinely historic site. This is a kid-in-a-candy-store place built for fun and games.
There’s fun off the Parkway, too, and the most notable example is the Dollywood theme park.
Dollywood is Tennessee’s most-visited ticketed attraction. The stamp of local superstar Dolly Parton is all over this park’s music, food, crafts and thrill rides. It begins each season with entertainers from around the world for the Festival of Nations and then continues with multiple themed festivals before presenting weeks of holiday music and lights during Smoky Mountain Christmas.
A major park expansion — assuming you consider $37 million major — opens in 2019. Wildwood Grove is the area’s name, and it will be a tribute to the Smokies, with 11 family-oriented experiences.
Elsewhere in the Dollywood universe are the DreamMore Resort, the Splash Country water park and two dinner shows on the Parkway: Dolly Parton’s Stampede and Celebration, newly opened this year.
One of the most unexpected sights in the Smokies is a towering replica of the Titanic — yes, that Titanic. It’s both an attraction and a museum, with highly trained staffers in ships costumes who explain the surprising collection of Titanic artifacts. Another unexpected attraction is Pigeon Forge Snow, which offers 11 lanes of indoor snow tubing on real snow year-round. Don’t ask how, just slide.
Live entertainment, a hallmark of Pigeon Forge, is delivered in more than a dozen theaters. Mainstays include Country Tonite, the Smoky Mountain Opry and the Comedy Barn. Free outdoor entertainment is offered at the walkable Island in Pigeon Forge development, along with restaurants, shops and rides.
Pigeon Forge’s touchstone to history is the Old Mill and its related businesses. The mill was built in 1830 and continues grinding corn and other grains today. Adjacent are the Old Mill Restaurant, especially good for a powerhouse breakfast before a mountain hike; the Pigeon River Pottery — check out the face jugs, along with artistic ceramic pieces; the Old Forge Distillery; and other heritage-oriented shops.
Continuing north takes you into Sevierville, where more lodging, more restaurants and abundant shopping — consider the expansive Tanger Five Oaks development — are calling cards.
Weather usually isn’t a deterrent to fun in the Smokies, but Sevierville solves even that at Wilderness at the Smokies, which includes an indoor water park called Wild WaterDome. That’s in addition to lodging, two outdoor water parks and a three-story ropes course.
A guaranteed selfie location is on the Sevier County Courthouse lawn. It’s a bronze statue of Dolly Parton, guitar in hand, crafted by local artist Jim Gray and unveiled in 1988. Imagine the millions of people who have had their pictures taken with Dolly.
If the excitement and electric atmospheres of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg wear you out, the antidote is nearby in Townsend, which for years has billed itself as “the quiet side of the Smokies.”
It’s a calm community with only one traffic light on the Little River that even has a bicycle/walking path along the main drag. Most people know Townsend because it provides access to Cades Cove, a picturesque valley that nurtured an almost self-sufficient farming community before the national park was formed. The 11-mile loop road around Cades Cove is highly popular, and it leads to an enjoyable up-and-down, 2.5-mile trail to Abrams Falls.
Two Townsend attractions link it to the national park. One is the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, whose mission it is to preserve and interpret the heritage of the people who inhabited the mountain communities before the park came along. There is an excellent museum and a collection of 13 historic buildings, including a cabin, a chapel and an underground still. Groups can book narrated Cades Cove tours on 18-passenger vehicles.
The second is Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR). You go to ABR to learn about its assistance to black bears, often sick, malnourished or injured. Since 1990, ABR has treated and returned to the wild more than 275 bears. Its rehab facilities are not public, but the education makes you appreciate any bear you see in the wild. ABR offers group-worthy programs in classroom settings, and it happily arranges hikes for small groups. One leads to a known bear den high in a tree.