We planned on visiting Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) this past fall. We timed our fall road trip south, starting in Virginia and ending in Florida, to line up our visit to GSMNP during predicted “peak” foliage, but an unseasonably warm fall delayed the color change. After camping in the rain for a few nights just north of Asheville, we decided to skip the Smokies and head straight to Florida where warm weather and beaches were waiting, with the intent to visit the park some other time. We had our chance to visit this spring. The timing was perfect. It was after spring break but before schools let out for summer – so the spring weather was cool enough for hiking and the crowds were non-existent despite GSMNP reputation of being the most visited national park in the country. We snagged ourselves a deal on a little Airbnb outside the park, in Pigeon Forge, TN and used it as our home base to explore the park by day. Here’s a breakdown of what we saw:
Clingmans Dome is the highest peak of the AT and offers incredible 360 degree views.
Schoolhouse Gap Trail
We bought a “wildflower walks” trail map at the visitor center for $1 and the Schoolhouse Gap Trail was marked on the map as a trail with many wildflower sightings. We aren’t wildflower enthusiasts, but we decided to try it out. We paid more attention to the flowers than ever before as we hiked on this trail and did our best at identifying them. The pace of this hike was slower than we’re use to – but hey! This time is all about slowing down and smelling the roses.
Cades Cove Loop Road
When we started this loop, I thought, “When do we get out and hike?” I didn’t realize it was a loop you drive around. It is closed to car traffic in the morning which allows bikers and walkers to enjoy the trail, but we arrived too late to walk to loop. I was perfectly fine with rolling down the windows, taking in the views, and playing some tunes. We spotted horses, wild turkey and 6 bears!
Porters Creek Trail
We missed the wildflowers on this trail by a few weeks. Rather than finish the trail, we turned around and head back to our car to find another hike that checked more of the boxes.
We had been cooking most of our meals, but after a day of hiking and months of eating stir fries, noodles, and banh mi, we were dying for some southern food. This place hit the spot and didn’t break the bank.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
This was another nature trail visitors drive around. We pulled over somewhere in the middle, parked the car, and walked into the woods to have a little picnic.
Alum Cave Trail
We started this trail too late in the day to make the trip to Mount LeConte, but made it past Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, views of The Eye of the Needle to the Alum Cave Bluffs before turning around. We loved this dynamic hike.
Having a home base to return to at the end of the day where we can cook meals and relax is super convenient. We have an unofficial algorithm to determine whether or not we will camp. In this case, the cost of staying in an Airbnb was slightly more ($27 more) and A LOT more convenient. No setting up tents. No breaking down camp. No cleaning dishes out of spigots and locking food in bear boxes. No days without a shower or nights sleeping in the rain. We love camping, but not all the time.
We appreciate the accessibility of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We understand that not everyone can make the long and technical hikes to mountain top balds or the rock scrambling descents into stream valleys -and even if you can, you just may not feel like it. Long trails, short trails, auto tours, paved paths for strollers and wheelchairs, pull off viewpoints, multiple visitor centers, and historical points of interest – this park has something for just about everyone. It made us smile to see visitors of all ages and fitness levels enjoying time in nature. I’m sure we’ll be back someday. Maybe with a stroller. Maybe with a wheelchair. Who knows? But we’ll be back.