The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited of the National Parks and there is no better time to go than fall to witness the changing colors of the foliage. You can easily spend a week in the surrounding area including Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN and Asheville, NC.
My drive from Charleston to Gatlinburg, mostly via I-40, took about 6 hours. In addition to being the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg is the home to over 100 artists and craftsman on an eight mile loop located three miles from downtown. Shops range from an old-fashioned soda fountain to art galleries to candles to a year-round Christmas shop plus shops with marvelous delicacies and music of the area. Stop for lunch at The Wild Plum Tea Room (on the loop and more of a restaurant than a tea room), leaving room for a fabulous dessert (try the bread pudding).
For an exciting overview, take the aerial tramway at Ober Gatlinburg and enjoy browsing the shops, having lunch or dinner at the German Restaurant or continuing further up the mountain on a chairlift.
You will find numerous activities in Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge ranging from Dollywood to whitewater rafting to Ripley’s Aquarium to an Elvis Museum to miniature golf. A local tv station has continuous information about things to do. While you can check out activities prior to your departure via the web, once there, you will readily find maps and booklets to plan your itinerary.
As Gatlinburg is easy to walk about, you can leave your car at your hotel. You can also take a trolley which operates not only to the Arts and Crafts Trail but connects Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge (about 7 miles south). It can get quite crowded during peak periods and staying at the end of town closer to Pigeon Forge (rather than closer to the Park) seems to work better to avoid traffic jams. There is a by-pass to the Park to avoid driving through the town.
Save a day for the National Park. Walk the beautiful trails and you can say that you walked part of the Appalachian Trail. The drive to Cades Cove, 25 miles south from the information center, has many places to stop to hike, walk and take photos. At Cades Cove there is an 11 mile loop with many historical markers plus an information center.
When driving to Asheville, the longer, scenic way is through the National Park. Be prepared to stop frequently to take in the splendor of the Smoky’s. If you have time, stop at the Cherokee Reservation which borders the eastern entrance to the park. It is the Cherokee’s that gave the area its name, describing the mountains as “shaconage” meaning “blue, like smoke”.
Leaving the park, you immediately connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway and can take this scenic highway for several exits before connecting to I-40 heading to Asheville.
Asheville is home to Biltmore and you will find a wealth of information about the chateau, restaurants, grounds and tickets at their web site, www.biltmore.com . Outside of the estate is one of Asheville’s quaint shopping areas, Biltmore Village. Walk the cobble-stone area and browse the local shops.
Staying in the Asheville area, you will want to walk about the city and check out the local restaurants and shops. One not to miss is a local independent book store/café, Malaprops. Established in 1982 it carries not only best sellers but a selection of local authors and fiction set in the area, recommendations from the staff plus a selection of cards, gifts and foreign language books, including Hungarian. The café is a perfect spot to sip a special brew and browse the treasures that you discovered.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center is close-by. In addition to information and exhibits about the highway, there is a Folk Arts Center with sales and exhibits of crafts of the Appalachian region.
While fall is a special time to visit, there are events each season for the visitor. The owner of a shop at Ober Gatlinburg said that the fall and holiday season seemed to be the most crowded and that May and Sept were far less crowded. A park ranger said that while fall is spectacular so is spring and as she was saying that, I was already planning my next visit to the Smoky’s.
Travel ideas: Fly to Asheville, rent a car & drive from Asheville to Gatlinburg, returning to Asheville.
Great Smokey Mountain National Park http://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm
Gatlinburg information: www.Gatlinburg.com
Gatlinburg’s Arts and Crafts Trail: www.GatlinburgCrafts.com
Ober Gatlinburg tramway www.obergatlinburg.com
Malaprops Book Store, Asheville www.malaprops.com