Best Things to do in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains

The Quiet Side of the Smokies at http://www.smoky-mountain-top-travel-guide.html

It was a cool and misty morning with the rolling hills cloaked in a gentle mist making everything magical. I'd dressed for cool temperatures, but soon the sun would burn through and I'd be shedding layers.

Winter, or summer, spring or fall, the Smoky Mountains beckon with activities and fun. You can opt for the attraction-packed (and often quite crowded) towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, or the peaceful side towns of Townsend and Maryville filled with special places to discover. Or, visit both. Little River Road runs parallel to the Little River from Townsend to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg. The road allows travelers to catch views of waterfalls and wildflowers with Little River as a backdrop.

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Spanning the Tennessee and North Carolina borders, the Great Smoky Mountains is best known for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which protects most of the range. The mountain range gets its name from the natural fog that hangs over the mountains and has lured photographers.

Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center

The 17,000-square-foot Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center packs in 7,000 years of region history, but outside is 11 historic outbuildings, showcasing how folks in the area lived. There's also a 100-seat auditorium and a 500-seat covered outside amphitheater for performances and special events (including the Smoky Mountain Fiber Arts Festival which takes place in April)

Smoky Mountains National Park

Of course you'll want to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cades Cove Loop is considered one of the highlights -- a gorgeous drive with a sense of history. Tour the 11 mile loop road for the views, wildlife viewing, and the history. According to the National Park Service Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park including historic churches, a working grist mill, barns, log houses, and restored original 18th and 19th century buildings.

This route is quite popular and the traffic can be heavy during tourist season. Be aware that from early May to September, the 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to motorized traffic until 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Bicyclists can enjoy the park without sharing the road with cars.

If you don't feel like driving, you can take a tour offered by Cades Cove Heritage Tours. This is a private non-profit organization started in 2007 by local citizens concerned about the air quality and overcrowding in Cades Cove and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Their goal is to provide visitors with interpretative experiences worthy of the natural wonder and diverse history of the Cove as well as to ease the overcrowding, traffic and pollution in Cades Cove. Their tour costs $10 with no charge for children 5 yrs and under. Call 865.448.8838 for reservation, or buy tickets at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend.

The Appalachian Trail also runs through part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and at Newfound Gap you can hop on it for a bit of a hike and imagine you're trekking some of the roughly 2,200 mile trail that runs from Maine to Georgia.

Newfound Gap is also home to the Rockefeller Memorial, a popular destination within the national park and the site from where former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt formally dedicated the park on September 2, 1940


This part of the Smokies is famous for its synchronous firefly. Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are the only species in America which can synchronize their flashing light patterns -- blinking together to create a firefly wave. Peak time for synchronous fireflies in the park is about 10-14 days in late Mary through early June. Watching the display has become so popular that you may need to make advance arrangements through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Cades Cove Heritage Tours has been running tours, departing from the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center. Check well in advance by calling 865-448-8838 or emailing

Visit the Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop

The story goes that one day Mike Clemmer's wife Connie asked him What he would do he was given a blank check. The answer turned out to be move to Townsend and make dulcimers. Eventually they opened Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop in its present location.

Mike Clemmer is passionate about the Appalachian dulcimer and just about any other dulcimer, and there are plenty of other dulcimers to passionately love. The Fiddleside dulcimer has sides that look like a fiddle. There's also a courting dulcimer that is placed between two lovers and played four-handed. Parents would set up a young couple and as long as they heard the four-part playing they knew there was no messing around going on. The Hammered Dulcimer is play with small wooden hammers.

Clemmer not only builds dulcimers, and he even invented a fascinating hybrid he calls the Ban-Jammer. You play it just like a dulcimer but it sounds like a banjo.

He gives free dulcimer lessons one day a week and there's Pickin' on the Porch on Saturdays in summer. Call (865) 448-6647 or visit

Visit the Less Quiet Side

Moonshine Tasting in Gatlinburg

This is not a quiet country music town. Gatlinburg is a hillbilly Las Vegas with great views and landscaping and filled with attractions, shops, restaurants, and hotels. But the most fun (and alcoholic) experience has got to be moonshine tasting at Ole Smoky Distillery. Belly up to the bar and sample their Original Unaged Corn Whiskey, White Lightnin', Moonshine Cherries, Blackberry, their famous "Apple Pie", Strawberry, Peach and Lemon Drop. Plus their seasonal and special flavors. The moonshine is made of corn, water, yeast and a smidge of rye. There's no added sugar, the fermentation comes from the corn. Buy a couple of jars on the way out.

Hatfield/McCoy Dinner Show

Pigeon Forge, despite its folksy name has gift shops, chain restaurants and lodging, arcades, attractions, and amusement parks all strung out along a road clogged with cars. But one surprise was the Hatfields/McCoy Dinner Show. Don't go for the food, go for the entertainment which is pure fun, and bears no resemblance to the real story (which wouldn't be fun at all).

Enjoy the Little River

The Little River is known for its scenery. It starts in the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park then flows out of the mountains through Blount County. The river offers a full range of river activities. Depending on the part of the river, visitors can kayak, raft, fish, even go tubing.

For more information about Blount County, please contact the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority at (800) 525.6834 or visit Follow the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority at

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Neala Schwartzberg McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: February 3rd, 2014

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