Traveler: Mike Ramsden
When: June 2019
The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the US attracting over 10 million visitors per year. To put that in perspective the Grand Canyon sees roughly 5 million visitors per year. I used to think this was due to its proximity to so many east coast cities what I discovered is the Smokies make for incredible scenery. With over 800 miles of hiking trails & 700 miles of streams, there is plenty to see in the park. We stayed for two days and two nights in Gatlinburg, TN. Although our time was short, we were able to traverse close to 20 miles between our two days of hiking.
The Gateway to the Smokies is 35 miles east of Knoxville. Traffic can be a bit slow moving as some of the roads on the way are one lane. But it only takes 1 hour to drive from Knoxville to Gatlinburg. We rented a car at the airport and made the drive to an AirBnB just outside the town of Gatlinburg. On the drive you’ll pass Dollywood Theme Park & Splash Country. So whether you’re a Dolly Parton fan or just a general thrill seeker there is something for everyone there. Not only is it Tennessee’s most visited tourist attraction but it’s one of the top 50 most attended theme parks in the country. However, due to our short turnaround we didn’t have time to visit the park. Once we got to our AirBnB we quickly realized we made the right move in large part to the amazing balcony view of the park. It was a perfect spot to take in the sights.
Travel Tip: if the car rental company offers up a dodge charger or any other type of sports car DO NOT TAKE THE BAIT. We quickly realized why they were giving away the upgraded option. It was not the most practical car choice for all the tight turns and hills we would later encounter.
With over 800 miles of hiking trails in the park it’s impossible to narrow down which trails to hike. After some research, we opted to hike the below four trails as they came highly regarded & weren’t too far away from our stay.
Rainbow Falls Trail:
Round trip- 5.4 miles
Elevation gain- 1685 ft.
Highest elevation- 4285 ft.
This was a fantastic hike. Rainbow Falls has the highest single drop for a waterfall in the Smokies. Due to the mist and sunlight it is best to view after long periods of rain or early morning. By midday the sun hits the falls making it difficult to get good shots. I’ll discuss below but the other benefit to making this hike is that from the falls you can continue towards Mt. LeConte.
Round trip- 5.9 miles
Elevation gain- 1607 ft.
Highest elevation- 4217 ft.
We took this trail on the way back down from Mt. LeConte. It takes you through some open meadows and isn’t as wooded as the Rainbow trail that we took up. This is partly due to a fire that started on the Chimney Tops trail 3 years ago which left 14 dead, 150+ injured and burned thousands of acres of land. The area is still recovering from this of course & paired with the rain that we encountered it made for a very eerie trip back down to Gatlinburg. But we met some friends along the way. A deer followed us for a quarter mile of the hike and we even saw a bear once we got back into a more wooded area. So keep your eyes peeled for wildlife!
Mt. LeConte Trail:
Round trip- 13.8 miles
Elevation gain- 3993 ft.
Highest elevation- 6593 ft.
Mt. LeConte is the third highest peak in the Smokies. It is rated as one of the top 3 most difficult trails to hike in the park. There are two trails you can take that eventually get you to the peak of Mt. LeConte. We took Rainbow Falls trail up, then continued to Mt. LeConte & completed the loop with Bullshead. Once you get close to the top there is a lodge that you can stay in on the mountain. Staff stay there for month long shifts & provide meals daily. Rates vary but for roughly $100-$150 per person will get you a bed & meals for the day. To many people’s surprise including mine, the Smoky Mountains have the highest annual rainfall in the entire Southeast US (58”-60”). Boy did we find this out the hard way as it rained almost the entire hike for us. Luckily, we were prepared with the proper attire. I would highly recommend bringing a rain jacket if hiking during the summer months.
Fun Fact: There is controversy over which LeConte the mountain is named after. It was long considered to be named after Joseph LeConte a famous geologist & charter member of the Sierra Club. However, there are some that believe his older brother John a Scientist & president of the University of California Berkeley is who it is named after.
Chimney Tops Trail:
Round trip- 3.3 miles
Elevation gain- 1487 ft.
Highest elevation- 4753 ft.
After over 14 miles of hiking the day before, we were looking for a little less strenuous second day. So we picked the Chimney Tops trail. As mentioned above this is where two teenagers started the fatal fire. In total 18,000 acres burned. Even after the horrific event it is still one of the most popular trails in Smokey Mountain National Park. Known for its incredible panoramic views you will not be disappointed. Although it’s a short hike it is very steep with some switch backs along the way. But the view is certainly worth the work to get up there. Be sure to bring plenty of water for the hike.
Places to Eat & Drink
Sugarlands Distilling Company
We arrived mid-day to the charming mountain town of Gatlinburg with time to spare. So we felt it was a must to try out some moonshine. Sugarlands Distilling Company is right in the thick of the action along the main drag (Parkway) through town. Inside there are 4-5 tastings going on at once with roughly 20 people per tasting station. Our guide’s name was Tommy and after a few jokes that ranged from bird box, Michael Jackson & Paul Walker we got down to business. They give you a small plastic shot cup and away you go. With over 20 flavors to try, it can get rowdy quick. Some of our favorites were the blackberry, pina colada & lemonade. Afterwards you’re free to purchase however much moonshine you feel is necessary for the trip home. We walked away with the lemonade flavored moonshine. Tommy gave us a heads up that if you freeze it in an ice cube tray it goes very well with a glass of tea or whiskey. Needless to say, we took him up on that suggestion.
Smoky Mountain Brewery
Anytime I go away I love to check out the local breweries of that particular city. Gatlinburg happens to have two (Smoky Mountain Brewery & Gatlinburg Brewing Company). We opted to go to the Smoky Mountain Brewery because it was walkable from downtown. SMB opened in 1996 & is the oldest craft brewery in East Tennessee. I tend to grab a flight so I can try a handful of their beers when stopping in for the first time. In total they had six beers on tap with 4 seasonal beers to choose from. My flight included the Pale Ale, Helles Lager, Brown Ale & their IPA. All four were solid beers but my favorite was probably the Helles Lager. We stopped in after our dinner one night so we didn’t grab any grub at the Brewery. However, you would be hard pressed not to find something to like on their menu. They have burgers, cheese steaks, pizzas, calzones, wings, steaks, salads & a whole host of tasty appetizers. Be sure to pop in for a beer and some good bar food if you have a chance during your stay.
Red Oak Bistro
During our second night we decided to try Red Oak Bistro for some drinks & food. Red Oak is tucked away 5 miles (15 mins) outside of Gatlinburg up on a small hill. Inside you’re welcomed by a nice bar to the left with countless bottles of wine at your disposal. To the right there are tables for dining along with a lounge area by a fireplace if you’re looking for a cozier experience. If the weather is nice you can also enjoy a deck patio overlooking the scenic backdrop. They have over 40 wines, 22 whiskeys & 16 beers to choose from. The food menu is primarily small plates so Red Oak is a great starter spot before you indulge in something a little more filling. That said we ended up ordering multiple small plates and got plenty full. We had the Baked Brie, Caprese flatbread (our favorite) & Grape leaves w/yogurt & rice. Be sure to check them out if you’re looking for a nice spot to wind down after a long day of hiking.
The Park Grill
We enjoyed our first dinner of the trip at The Park Grill. Being that it is located right on Parkway it’s a very popular place for tourists to have dinner. So I would suggest calling ahead or placing a reservation to be safe. We lucked out even though we didn’t have a reservation. They offer steaks, seafood, chicken, hamburgers, soups, appetizers & a huge salad bar. I ended up ordering the Southern Pecan Chicken and it was fantastic. All entrees include the salad bar, one side & hot bread. For most of their meats they offer two unique sauces worth exploring as well; Whiskey Glaze or Savory Peppercorn Sauce.
We found this place on our way to Red Oak Bistro. It is located 10 mins outside of Gatlinburg. They have a full deck patio with a tiki bar outside. On most nights they will have live music for entertainment as well. If you’re looking for something with a little more of a “local” vibe away from the touristy bars, then Three Jimmy’s is a great choice. We didn’t get a chance to grab a bite to eat but they boast that they have the best burger in town. Nonetheless it’s the perfect spot to catch some live music while mingling with the locals.
From the outside this looked like a cool spot to check out. It sits right along the river towards the edge of town. We stopped in for a drink one night and quickly realized we made a mistake. The bartenders essentially ignored us even though there were 5 people in the bar. Once we did get their attention, they had an attitude and clearly didn’t want to be there. Our drinks took forever and it honestly totally ruined the one beer we did have. I wouldn’t recommend this place & don’t fall for the nice ambiance in which it conveys from the street. I can say this is one of the very few places I have visited through my travels that I would give a negative review.