Smoky Mountains Activities
Worth getting out of bed for...
- You can barely move for mind-blowing panoramas in the Smokies. Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee’s tallest peak, has an observation tower from where you can scan 100-mile views across two states. The scenery on the hike up to Mount Le Conte is consistently glorious, but if the word ‘hike’ is a turn-off, the 20-foot Abrams Falls is low on exertion, high on aesthetics. If you’re set on the Appalachian Trail, one of the most popular sections runs from Newfound Gap to Charlie's Bunion, passing through a spruce forest with spectacular vistas.
- Arts and culture
- Music is Tennessee’s main claim to fame – the King himself first gyrated two hours away in Memphis, and the cradle of country music, Nashville is a similar distance away. Bluegrass plays everywhere in the region around the mountains, with regular folksy festivals and concerts from locally acclaimed artists such as the mandolin-toting Punch Brothers are regular events.
- Something for nothing
- The valley of Cades Cove is one of the Smokies’ most visited attractions, home to a pristine collection of log cabins and barns built by the cove’s 18th-century settlers. As well as providing an insight into historic Appalachian life (the Cove’s inhabitants were relocated removed when the National Park was formed), the area’s worth an eyeball for the abundant wildlife (black bears, deer, etc) and the incredible mountain landscape.
- Your chances of finding New York-style fashion boutiques are slimmer than slim, but if your after local mountain crafts and Cherokee knickknacks, you’ve struck gold. At the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community (http://greatsmokyartsandcraftscommunity.com/), three miles down the road from Gatlingburg, you’ll find the largest collection of independent artisans in the States, preserving the Smokies’ traditional mountain crafts such as carving, pottery, quilting, broom-making, weaving and candle-making.
- Nothing encapsulates Southern Americana quite like the roadside attraction. The area around Chattanooga is dotted with curiosities and you could easily spend a day cruising the highways, hunting for drive-time distractions. Start off with a stop at Rock City, (if you haven’t seen a barn roof with ‘See Rock City’ painted on it, you ain’t seen the South), and admire the ‘seven-state) view from Lookout Mountain, then move on to Ruby Falls (www.rubyfalls.com), a 145-foot underground cascade, and round the day off with a ride up the Incline Railway (www.ridetheincline.com), the steepest passenger railway in the world .
- Perfect picnic
- Here in the Smokies, the picnic world is your oyster sandwich. There are plenty of designated picnic sites with lovely views – Chimney Tops between Gatlinburg and Clingman's Dome is one of the most popular, which means it can get crowded, but it's a scenic riverside snack spot nonetheless. Alternatively, plant your backet in Cades Cove and follow lunch with a stroll along Abrams Creek.
- 70 miles of Appalachian Trail (www.appalachiantrail.org) run through the Smoky Mountains and, while we wouldn't want to walk all of them in one go, it’s well worth spending a day strolling the path and admiring the often spectacular scenery. Designed and constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, the path follows trails made by wildlife, then Native Americans and early settlers, and now by hiking enthusiasts, historians and nature lovers.
- The Mountains are ideal for adventurous youngsters, with plenty of outdoorsy activities to tire out your kids (and if you really get desperate, there’s always Dollywood (see Activities). For particularly tiny tots and those in pushchairs, there are some especially easy trails to follow in the mountains with fully paved paths and gentle inclines – try the Laurel Falls Trail, (which ends in beautiful waterfalls) or the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail. Just outside the mountains, Knoxville Zoo (www.knoxville-zoo.org) has the Kids’ Cove, which includes a petting zoo, climbing wall and carousel.
- Hop aboard the Smoky Mountain Railroad (www.gsmr.com) from Bryson City (on the North Carolina side of the Smokies) and follow the historic route across the mountains. As well as simple round-trips, the railroad offers gourmet dinner trains, mystery theatre nights, and a variety of kids’ activities to boot. Gatlinburg’s trolley (‘tram’ to us Brits) system is fun to ride and covers 50 miles of tracks in and around the city (www.ci.gatlinburg.tn.us/transit/trolley.htm). The Smoky Mountains National Park is, of course, ideal for outdoor pursuits, such as whitewater rafting (www.raftinginthesmokies.com), and horse riding (www.smokymountainridingstables.com).
April Gatlinburg’s Ribfest & Wings brings dozens of the Southeast’s barbecue vendors, hundreds of the Southeast’s barbecue eaters and a bluegrass-soundtracked street party atmosphere to the city streets. April–May The mountaintop Ober Gatlinburg (www.obergatlinburg.com) resort holds a sunrise service every Easter Sunday, offering free tram rides up the mountainside from 5.45am. May Gatlinburg’s Fine Arts Festival on the third weekend of the month combines food, music and art from all over the US. June MountainFest (www.gatlinburgmountainfest.com) comes to Gatlinburg, celebrating Appalachian heritage through food, bluegrass, and crafts displays. September Cades Cove celebrates Old Timer’s Day, a nostalgic informal get-together where the area’s former residents swap stories, play mountain music and make molasses.