“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” –Henry David Thoreau
As most of you probably know, my husband and I are both teachers, so when Spring Break hits, we run like frantic monkeys towards the opportunity to ditch the desk, hop in a car (okay, minivan), get out of dodge, and go exploring. Teaching is stressful, as is parenting, and I am the type of person who relishes an opportunity to see something new or out of the ordinary, particularly if it’s outdoors. It seriously energizes my soul to be outside. So this year, with the knowledge that the weather was going to be cold (i.e. FRIGID) during our Alabama spring break, we decided to embrace the ice and head not to the beach but to the mountains about 4.5 hours from our house – the Smoky Mountain National Park.
Several years ago, we flew out to Jackson, WY, and visited the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. While the Grand Tetons are – hands down – the most amazingly beautiful mountainous landscape I’ve ever seen, I realized quickly that I preferred the Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone any day. There’s something about the lushly green, fog-blanketed mountains in the Appalachian foothills of Tennessee and the Carolinas that are just unmatched anywhere else in the US. Of course, this time we went at the tail end of winter / beginning of spring, so the lushness wasn’t nearly as prominent, especially in the areas hit hardest by the wildfire back in December, but there was no shortage of greenery. And to our surprise, high on the mountaintops was a blanket of 3-4″ of snow. I’ve never seen snow on the Smokys before, so this absolutely delighted me.
We rented a 1-bedroom, 2-story cabin on the ridge of a mountain in Sevierville, about 20 minutes away from Pigeon Forge and the main strip that basically continues all the way into Gatlinburg. I’ll be quite honest – I am not a fan of the tourist trap that comprises the main drags in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It makes me cringe to see such a beautiful place shoved full of souvenir shops and kitschy attractions. Even now that I have a kid and understand the appeal, those places just aren’t why I visit Gatlinburg. This is why:
This photograph doesn’t really do it justice, either, but you can get an idea.
So, if you don’t enjoy the souvenir shops, outlet malls, and attractions, what is there to do? Hiking of course, although it was too cold for me to strap on boots and commit to that this time, especially with a toddler in tow. Your other option is driving.
If you’re up for a ride in the car, Cade’s Cove offers a scenic loop through the valley that offers amazing views of the mountains and adjoining meadows. There are even some historic buildings (cabins, churches, etc) that you can stop by and check out. It’s not uncommon to see deer and black bears near the road. Just please, for the love of all, don’t be the person who gets out of their car and stops traffic in order to approach the wildlife. They don’t want to mess with you, and you shouldn’t mess with them either.
Newfound Gap is another destination that’s worth the time commitment. It’s about 15-20 minutes up the mountain to the lowest drivable pass in the Smokies. The view is stunning, and when we made the trip, the whole area was covered in snow. If you can bear the cold during the winter as the wind whips between the mountains around you, then it’s definitely worth checking out. It’d also be a great place for a break from the heat during the summer.
Another drive-to location that’s worth the time is Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest peak in the park and the 3rd highest mountain east of the Mississippi. We didn’t get a chance to visit this particular spot this time, but it’s definitely on the list for our next trip.
Finally, if you’re a hiker, the opportunities are limitless in the park. My husband is a huge fan of the Chimney Top Trail, which leads to a panoramic view at the Chimney peaks. Unfortunately, this is where the wildfire started, and the area sustained terrible damage, so that particular trail is closed. There is no shortage of other opportunities, though, including a 71 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Another favorite of the husband is the trail up to Mount LeConte, which he tries to hike when the weather is right. As you could imagine, these trails can be pretty steep and relentless, but ask anyone who’s done it, and they’ll agree – the reward is worth the work.
Lastly, I feel the need to give a shoutout to the artist community in Gatlinburg, to which my husband has personal ties. His grandfather, Jim Gray, has been a long-standing member of the art community and still has a gallery in the area despite having moved several years ago. Many of his paintings capture the enchantment of the mountains and have found homes in houses across the world. He was even commissioned to create a now-iconic statue of Dolly Parton in Sevierville. Additionally, my mother-in-law, Laurie Gray, also left her mark as a sign-designer and artist in the area and frequently uses the Smokies as inspiration for new paintings. You can check out both of their galleries through the hyperlinks.
Regardless of how you choose to spend your time – in the mountains or in the shops – the Gatlinburg region is worthy of a few days of your time. Having seen state parks and national parks in nearly every state this side of the Mississippi, I can attest that the Smoky Mountains are at the top of the list of the most beautiful places in America. If you get a chance, pack a bag, hop in your car, and GO!