Happy Wednesday Friends! If you’re here for a wedding post… sorry about your luck. Because of Valentine’s Day yesterday, everything got a BIT moved around. So today, my travel post is going up! So welcome to #TravelTuesday on a Wednesday 🙂
Today, we’re heading back to the Smoky Mountains and America’s most visited National Park. Last week, I talked about all my favorite hikes (if you didn’t see it, check it out here) but this week, I’m talking about all the other things I love to do inside the National Park. Because let’s face it, hiking just isn’t for everyone. (Although, I reallllly believe it should be. And if you’ve never tried it, you need to at least once!)
There are two very common misconception about vacationing in a national park. The first… it’s just for families in RVs. The second… all you can do is hike. My friends, this is where SO MANY PEOPLE are wrong. And they miss out on some seriously incredible vacations because of it. Of course there will be hiking that can be done, and lots of families in RVs. But there are so much more to our National Parks.
Like riding bikes, fishing, scenic drives, picnicking, swimming… okay. You get the picture. So let’s start talking about the best activities in the Smokies!
Okay… this one is the ONLY one that I feel conflicted about, so I’m going to start with it, just to get it out of the way. For me, the best views are rewarded after a really great hike. But I know so many people would rather just enjoy a view quickly and then move on to their next activity. This is where Clingman’s Dome comes in. Now, I talked about this in my hiking post too. (See why I’m conflicted?!) Because it’s not like you hop out of your car and are at the dome. Oh no. You have to hike half a mile up to it. And it’s freakin’ steep. If you don’t think you’ll make it, luckily, you’ll find a pretty spectacular view from the parking lot.
However, the view from the top is even better. And if it’s not too “smoky” you can see up to 100 miles away, at a 360 degree view. So personally, I recommend “hiking” to the tower. No, this isn’t technically a hike, because it’s a paved walkway. But it will feel like a hike because it’s so dang steep!
One thing that I have always loved are scenic drives. Whenever we go on vacation, I’m the person that plans at least one. I love to ride around with the window down while we check out some pretty spectacular scenery. We do these scenic drives differently in every place we visit. In Banff, some scenic drives were “before dinner” affairs. In the Tetons, they were “on the way” detours from one spot to the next. For us, scenic drives in the Smoky Mountains were the best in the early evening. We found out that after a long day of hiking, we got hungry and tired much earlier than normal. So we liked to get an early dinner, then go for a drive. This worked out PERFECTLY because while the rest of the tourists were eating dinner… we had the roads to ourselves. I mean, how many people can say they saw Roaring Fork Motor Trail in July with only two other cars?
The scenic drives in the Smokies are insanely gorgeous, and shouldn’t be missed. If you’re looking for a filler activity, they are your very best bet. The best scenic drives on the Tennessee side?
- Roaring Fork Motor Trail Probably the most famous of the scenic drives, Roaring Fork Motor Trails earns itself my number one spot to take a drive. This road is narrow and windy, so don’t expect to drive your RV through it. (Seriously, we were in Trev’s Ford Escape and I was a little nervous a couple of times!) This 6 mile, one way loop starts in Gatlinburg and takes you deep into the mountains before spitting your back out into civilization. There are SO many awesome places to stop that it will take you a loooooong time to finish this one. I think it took us almost 3 hours, because your girl could not pass by a water fall or old cabin without stopping to explore and take a photo. (I’m so lucky Trev was so patient with me that day… seriously!) Finding Roaring Fork: Turn left at Traffic Light #8 and follow the road up to the Cherokee Orchard entrance.
- Cades Cove Loop You guys… there is nothing prettier than Cades Cove. There is a reason that this scenic drive is the most popular. Now… we didn’t drive this. We biked it. I’m going to talk more about this next… just know that you CAN do this as a scenic drive. Finding Cades Cove: You’re going to have to drive a half hour outside of Gatlinburg to get there. But I promise… it is work it. Again… I’ll talk more about this next 🙂
- Clingman’s Dome Road While this is technically a road that takes you to Clingman’s Dome, I’m adding it to the list of scenic drives because you guys… the views are INSANE. Luckily, the sweet people that made the road realized this, and put in tons of turnouts so you can stop and snap pictures. This seven mile stretch of road climbs up to the highest peak in Tennessee. It’s the easiest way to gain elevation, and get that “just hiked to the top of a mountain” view. The road dead ends at the Clingman’s Dome Parking lot. Finding Clingman’s Dome Road: Clingman’s Dome Road starts .1 mile from Newfound Gap Road. You won’t miss it.
Just remember… these roads are HIGHLY trafficked every summer. So expect to take your sweet sweet time. (Honestly, I didn’t mind. It was easier to take pictures that way!) Roll down your windows, throw on some John Denver and I promise, you’ll enjoy the ride.
A trip to Cades Cove is like a trip back in time. It sits in an isolated valley that is so scenic, it looks like a post card from the past. Cades Cove gives us a glimpse of what life was like before the National Park, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and even cars existed. You’ll find such well preserved homesteads that you’ll think you’re on the set of When Calls The Heart. (I can’t be the only Heartie out there!) Here you’ll also find wildlife, hiking trails and a sense of peace like no where else in the park.
There are two ways to see Cades Cove… driving or biking.
Biking Cades Cove. Everywhere online will tell you, the best way to see Cades Cove is by bicycle. So… Trev and I rented bikes. They asked us how long we wanted them for, and everyone ahead of us was saying 2 hours. So we said that too. Guys… don’t be stupid like us. Don’t say two hours. Say 4 at the VERY LEAST unless you are a really really really good biker. The last time we biked a long ways had been the 8 miles around Mackinac Island. That bike trip is super easy, and only took an hour. This bike trip… is not. I honestly thought I was going to DIE trying to make it back in two hours. So, if you insist on biking…
- Plan Accordingly. Head to Cades Cove on a Wednesday or Saturday morning. One these two days, only bicycle traffic is allowed until 10 am. If you have your own bike, bring it! It will save you money, AND you can get a head start on the loop. If you need a rental, the store at the campground has them. It’s $7.50 an hour for adults, and $4.50 an hour for kids 10 and under. They start renting bikes at 7 am… and there is a line. So get there early! We got there for 6 and STILL were pretty far back in line.
- Take Your Time. Seriously. When I said 4 hours I mean it. This is not an easy bike trip. And if you have little ones with you, they will need even longer. Trev and I are two individuals that like to believe we are in descent shape. And it was super rough. The longer you give yourself, the more of The Cove you’ll be able to explore.
- Pack water and snacks. Put water and snacks in your bag. If you don’t, you won’t have an opportunity to get any while you’re riding unless you go back to the campground area.
- Plan on just seeing the outer road. The outer loop alone is 11 miles of ups and downs and curves. We started by trying to see a church down a side road and it was just too much. So, if you’re on a bike, stick to the outer loop and I promise, you won’t miss out on anything.
But seriously, biking early in the morning was so beautiful, and so peaceful. Just know what you’re getting yourselves into. If it’s your first time to The Cove, you should see it by bike. Because it really is magical!
Driving Cades Cove. Next time we head to the Smoky Mountains, we will be driving the Cades Cove Loop. There were SO MANY side roads, trails and homesteads we wanted to explore, but because we only had two hours on our bikes, we just didn’t have the time. If you plan to drive the loop…
- Take Your Time. Seriously. Plan to spend the day exploring Cades Cove. Get there in the morning and don’t plan anything else until dinner time so you don’t feel rushed. When you get there, you’ll see why. It’s so beautiful and you’ll want to spend as much time exploring as your heart desires.
- Stop and visit The Homesteads. This is a great opportunity to include some history into your trip! I couldn’t get over how cool some of these places were on the outside. I REALLY wanted to check out the insides too. But, we of course didn’t have time. So you should do it for me, and then tell me all about it 🙂 On the loop you’ll find homes, churches, a working grist mill, and barns. You can also purchase a guide book for $1 that will help you as you take your tour.
- Take a Hike. I know I know. I said this was about stuff that wasn’t hiking, but I have to mention it here! Cades Cove has some awesome hiking trails within it. In fact, one of the most popular hikes in the Smokies, Abrams Falls, calls this beautiful valley home. If you plan to hike, be sure to back extra snacks and water and wear the proper shoes. While many of the hikes are marked easy or moderate, they aren’t the kind of hikes that you can do on a whim in flip flops.
If you’re anything like my husband, or anyone man in my family really, you call yourself a fisherman, and probably insist on taking your fishing poles EVERYWHERE you go. Just in case. Luckily, there are over 2,900 miles of streams that can be fished within the national park. But, before you a drop your line in you need to know a few things…
- The National Park requires every fisherman/woman over the age of 13 to have a valid Tennessee Fishing license. (Trev picked his up at a Walmart in Pigeon Forge. They’re easy to get!)
- Fishing begins a half hour before official sunrise and ends a half hour before official sunset.
- Know your limits. Be sure you check out the size limitations, catch limitations and equipment limitations before you go. (Find them here!)
Ranger Lead Programs
If you’re not comfortable going out to explore the park on your own, join a program lead by a Park Ranger. You can find an entire list at the visitor’s centers, or you can check out a calendar of events here. These programs are great for any person, or any age. Or, you can book an adventure with any of the Park’s Partner Organizations. For more information on these programs, click here.
Book A Tour
Feel like traveling with zero stress? Don’t want to plan things on your own? Book at bus tour that will have everything planned for you. At Rocky Top Tours you’ll find a bunch of different options. Choose the one that suits you and your family/friends/loved ones best, and start booking. This no fuss approach will be sure to leave you smiling because you’re guaranteed to see the best of the Smoky Mountains.
Now go get to planning… your Smoky Mountain adventure is awaiting you! Next week, I’m sharing my 4 day Smoky Mountain Itinerary. Don’t want to miss it? Be sure to subscribe to have it delivered to your inbox the minute I post!
This will be the last you hear from me until Sunday. My long weekend starts tomorrow and I’m SO EXCITED to head North as soon as I get out of work! We have a ton of fun things planned and I just can’t wait to get home. But because it’s such a long drive… I won’t have time to get a post up tomorrow 😦 So I hope you have a fantastic rest of the week, and a restful weekend full of happiness.