1. Where to Stay
There’s no lodging inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so book in the outlying towns of Gatlinburg and Townsend, on the Tennessee side of the park.
The quiet Talley Ho Inn (from $59) is on the park’s still-undeveloped western border and just a few miles from Cades Cove. Ask for a newly renovated “deluxe” suite on the second floor—you get little more than a bed and TV, but a private terrace affords uninterrupted views of the mountains.
Gatlinburg usually teems with tourists, but Park Place Condominiums (from $115) is tucked away on a low-traffic side street. Overhear the Little Pigeon River from the first-floor units, but all come with fully equipped kitchens, laundry rooms, and terraces.
Unwind in secluded luxury at Buckhorn Inn (from $195), a 1938 lodge and cluster of luxury private cottages just outside of Gatlinburg. Book the two-bedroom, full-amenities Bebb House, a private guest house once home to the inn’s original owner. The inn’s restaurant will pack you a sack lunch for your hike for $8.
2. Where to Eat
There are no restaurants inside the park, so grill for yourself at one of eleven designated picnic areas. Pick up hot dogs and two-liters at Parkway Market (1127 Parkway; 865-436-9368), a mom-and-pop 200 yards from the park border, and drive to the large Chimney’s picnic area off New Found Gap Road. There, you can eat atop a boulder overlooking the Little Pigeon River. Thinner crowds and tubing and swimming opportunities are only a few miles away at Metcalf Bottoms.
Pancake houses are everywhere, but the Log Cabin (4235 Parkway; Pigeon Forge; 865-453-5748) stands out for its quick turnaround and extra-fluffy stacks served with sides of country ham and lard-baked biscuits. Arrive before 8 a.m. to avoid the crowds.
Meat reigns in the Smokies, so give in to a ten-ounce Grand Champion Angus cheeseburger with applewood-smoked bacon at Bullfish Grill (2441 Parkway, Pigeon Forge; 865-868-1000), a strapping, cabin-style restaurant that douses even its salads in bacon and cheese.
Cherokee Grill (1002 Parkway, Gatlinburg; 865-436-4287) serves inventive comfort food inside a vast and dark chalet-style dining room. Order the perfectly breaded mountain trout with a side of tangy blue-cheese grits, and be sure to try one of the robust seven-malts from the Smoky Mountain Brewery microbrewery around the corner.
3. What to Do
Explore the most remote parts of the Smokies by backcountry camping. Before starting your trek, pick up a mandatory free permit at Gatlinburg’s Sugarlands Visitor Center (865-436-1297) and make reservations for overnight campsites along your route (865-436-1231). Hard-core hikers, tackle the Elkmont Campground Loop, a three-night, 30-mile hike that follows Little River and has incredible mountain overlooks. Abrams Creek loop is an easier one-night, fourteen-mile hike through a lush gorge. Beard Cane campsite, where you’ll stay the night, is completely remote.
Before you fish for plentiful mountain trout, pick up a fishing license from Gatlinburg’s city hall, chamber of commerce, or Ace Hardware on Highway 321 (nonresidents pay $10.50 for a three-day permit). Loiter on the Little River Outfitters Fishing Forum to see where the big ones are biting. Drop your line at Hesse Creek off the Rich Mountain trail, and you won’t see a soul.
If you want a private viewing of black bear and whitetail deer, get to Cade’s Cove at sunrise. The eleven-mile valley road delivers on wildlife sightings in the dozens, if not hundreds, including fox, coyotes, red wolves, wild turkey, and chipmunks. This time of year, you can also hike Abrams Falls, a moderate five-mile trail to a twenty-foot falls and idyllic swimming hole, in peace. The parking lot for the falls is halfway around the cove’s looped road.
4. Insider’s Tip
It’s worth facing civilization for, but Dolly Parton’s campy mountain theme park Dollywood has gone from overgrown country fair to Appalachian Disney World in a few short years, and the admission prices—$118 for adults and $100 for kids—reflect its changing status. Since mountain weather is unpredictable, cut the admission by more than half by skipping the Splash Country water park. A gold season pass will run you $103 dollars, and even for a day covers parking fees and automatically grants a 20 percent discount on food. But the best bet is to enter the park after 3 p.m., when you’ll be issued a free pass for the following day. Use the afternoon to plan what jamborees and roller coasters to hit up the next day. Watch what you wear—no profanity on T-shirts allowed.
5. Oddball Day
There is, in fact, one hotel of sorts inside the Smokies—the hike-in-only LeConte Lodge (from $64) is a primitive cluster of cabins perched on one of highest summits in the park. The lodge is typically booked well in advance, but try your luck with the open lottery form online. If you can’t score a cabin, you can at least check out the scenery. Five routes lead to LeConte—Rainbow Falls trail is an mild one that sports an 80-foot-high falls at the 2.6-mile mark. Picnic on the eastern side of the property overlooking the Cumberland Mountains, or rest up in the rocking chairs on the lodge porch. If you’re lucky, the pack llamas will be hauling food and supplies that day. On the way down, the Alum Cave Trail provides a steep continuity of thrills. There’s a vast view of the Smokies at Inspiration Point, two miles down.
AllTheSmokies.com is a cluttered but invaluable aggregation of hotel deals and entertainment options.
The Bear’s Den Smoky Mountains News blog is good for informed hiking advice and reports on upcoming festivals and events.
Choose from a roster of entertainment, news, and photo blogs on the area at Wordpress.com’s Smoky Mountains page.