I have to be honest and tell you that I have not been motivated to write about our experiences in Tennessee. Between the weather, the crowds and simply have a moment of weariness in our 9 months of travels, we weren’t as excited to get out and about. Unlike taking the option to veg out at home back in Portland, vegging in the trailer is only tolerable for about a day before we both go stir crazy and are forced to get out. However, with high winds, much colder temperatures and nearby wildfires causing air quality issues, getting outside wasn’t a great option either. Despite the hiccups, we had some fun moments while visiting, but if my post doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as usual, please refer to the aforementioned reasons. 🙃
The area just northwest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is comprised of three main cities couched next to one another: Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Together we would akin them to one massive amusement park. We went during the off season, and yet the crowds of people were already overwhelming. The area is home to the Dollywood amusement park, but also gondolas, arcades, mini golf, go carts, mountain (roller) coasters, and more. Couple this with the crowds headed to the national park, and you have yourself a whole mess of people.
For a family with kids this may be a veritable paradise, but it wasn’t really our speed. The advertisements paint this picture of Gatlinburg as a peaceful paradise near the mountains, but it is anything but that, so be wary of this false advertising. However, in nearby Townsend and Wears Valley, you can access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park without the frenzied experience and large crowds of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, so there are some options depending on the type of vacation you are seeking. Sadly, the Wears Valley area suffered wildfires during our stay, so it may take some time for the area to fully recover. 😞
One of the first hikes we did was Rainbow Falls, just north of Gatlinburg. It is not a long hike, but it does have a decent amount of elevation gain. Even with several parking lots the parking can fill up fast, so be aware that this is a crowded trail and you may need to get an earlier start. We did enjoy the many waterfalls along the hike, and the trail is in good condition, culminating at an 80-foot waterfall. As an option, the trail does continues, so we went another mile or so to another set of falls higher up to eat our lunch and enjoy a spot of sun since it was still rather cold in the shade.
Afterward, we headed toward the madness in Gatlinburg and parked at a public lot on the northern outskirts. Parking cost a whopping $20 for the day, so we decided to try and make it worth our while and explore for a bit. We started at the Gatlinburg Brewing Company with a post-hike beer. Our seat was right next to the road below, so we had a good view for people watching, the staff was really welcoming, and the beer was great. 🍻
With the sun shining, we were in good spirits, so opted to brave the crowds and head back into the center of town. We didn’t get far before we ran into large lines waiting for gondolas and sidewalks filled to the brim with people, so we turned around and headed toward Ole Red to catch an afternoon country music performance. That particular day we heard Cody Webb play and had a fun time listening to his music and observing the audience. 🤠
Right next to Gatlinburg is Pigeon Forge, an extension of the amusement park feel, but with some structures that look like they are part of a movie set. Examples include a Titanic ship, an Empire State building with King Kong, a sideways building and an upside down building. We took the “back way” on Highway 449 (aka Veterans Hwy), along which you can find Dollywood and the mountain coaster we visited, called Rocky Top Mountain Coaster, which is one of the largest of its kind in the area. These are individual coasters that you partially control. You are ratcheted up to four different coaster downhills, at which point you can use the brakes to meter your speed. In between, the coaster is recharged and you go on the next downhill. Matt and I were a bit underwhelmed, but I say it’s worth trying at least once if you like roller coasters.
We also went to the The Old Mill Pottery House Cafe and had some delicious salads for lunch. Highlights of the cafe are their house-made baked goods, including bread, pies and cakes, and their lovely outside patio area. After lunch, we took a walk down the Pigeon Forge Riverwalk Trail, a paved 2.7 mile out and back. Despite the main drag with go carts, amusement rides, mini golf and arcades being just across the river, it was actually rather peaceful, and we saw a variety of ducks, geese, muskrats and plenty of wildflowers in bloom.
Next, we went to the main drag (The Parkway/Hwy 441) to play at the Fantasy Mini Golf. We picked this place because it didn’t seem as busy as some of the others. It wasn’t as interactive as the mini golf course we went to in Destin, but it was a fine way to be outdoors enjoying the sun since we couldn’t head into the Smoky Mountains due to road closures from the high winds and wildfires. Once we finished our 18 holes, Matt wanted to get some ice cream, so we headed back to the Old Mill creamery. Matt was not impressed, but for some classic flavors on a hot day, this place would do just fine. 🍦
If you keep continuing from Pigeon Forge toward Knoxville, you pass through Sevierville, which is where we stayed at the Sun Outdoors RV park. It is called the Sun Outdoors Pigeon Forge, but it is technically in Sevierville between the main road and the West Prong Little Pigeon River. It’s a larger RV Park, but thankfully for us wasn’t that packed most of the time we were there. There are “comfort stations” with showers, restrooms and laundry and the park is in the process of constructing a new one. Close to the entrance is a play area, including a large jumping pillow and other play equipment, basketball and pool areas. Additionally, they have a billiards and arcade room and a dog run. Even closer to the entrance are a conference center and RV wash, and next to the office is a fitness center, which is used nearly every day.
The amenities were really nice, and the park was well maintained, but the traffic noise was hard to escape. Further, when the crowds came in on the weekends, the WiFi became practically unusable with the higher density of people. If you are looking for somewhere to take your kids and enjoy the amenities and convenient location, this is a great place. If you are looking for something more peaceful, I would consider something a little farther away from Hwy 441.
There is a cute little downtown area, where we enjoyed lunch at Graze Burgers and later on had dinner at The Appalachian. At Graze, I had a salmon burger and Matt had a chicken sandwich, both of which were cooked perfectly. 😋 If you’re looking for a soothing atmosphere and a creative take on regional farm to table cuisine, The Appalachian is a great option. We tried their butterbean hummus appetizer, and for our main dishes I had the rainbow trout and Matt had their chicken and gnocchi. The hummus and veggies were refreshing, my main melded some great fresh ingredient and wasn’t too filling, and Matt’s reminded him of a southern classic: chicken and dumplings. For dessert we tried their goat cheese cheesecake, and though delicious, we were stuffed! 😵
This area isn’t as crowded with tourists, but there are a lot of the big box stores, so it still has quite a bit of traffic. However, there is a lovely riverwalk called the West Prong Greenway that runs along both sides of the West Prong Little Pigeon River, totaling about 2 miles round trip. We went here after eating at The Appalachian to walk off our meal. Looking eastward you have a stunning view of the Smoky Mountains, there is a gazebo and picnic tables on the northern side of the river, a platform next to the Parkway Bridge with more picnic tables on the southern side, and plenty of benches to sit on and take in the views on both sides.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We would have loved to explore the trails here much more than we did; however, mother nature had other plans. There were a lot of high winds causing downed trees and power lines, making it dangerous to travel to the mountains. Furthermore, the wildfires led to more road closures, pushing people into a smaller area. Given the dry conditions and not wanting to exacerbate the situation for the fire fighters and rescue crews, we stayed away and decided to come back later on in our journeys when we could approach from the south near Asheville, North Carolina.
All that being said, we did get one more day to check out a few hikes. 😊 Starting near Wears Valley, we stopped at Spruce Flats Falls Trail, a 1.8 mile out and back trail. This hike is short and steep, but the views along the way are beautiful and the falls are a serene place to enjoy a snack or lunch on a warm day. Since the area had freezing overnight temperatures, it was still pretty chilly, so we headed back down and went on our merry way. We liked that this wasn’t as busy as some of the other trails.
After a quick stop at the visitor center to eat lunch, we drove up to the Alum Cave Trail, a 4.4 mile round trip with 1125 feet of elevation gain. This is a popular trail, but we found parking along the road without issues. It was still cold, as exemplified by all of these ribbons of ice that had slowly expanded and pressed out of the soil along the trail. I have never seen anything quite like it and thought they were fascinating. A little over a mile in is Arch Rock, a natural land bridge underneath which is a staircase that you can take to continue the hike. It is a neat feature, but we pressed on to see the caves. You eventually reach exposed, sunny spots along the trail with expansive views of the surrounding mountains, which were gorgeous.
As we approached the final ascent we noticed dozens of icicles on the rock outcroppings above us. This was neat to see at first, but then the wind started to knock them off and they shattered on the steps below, making them a little dangerous to passersby. 😲 We hurried up the steps and ducked in under the rocks to take a beat. I wouldn’t call this a true cave…it’s more of a hollowed out area underneath a rock outcrop, but it is a large area to soak in the views, sun rays, and breath the fresh mountain air. We didn’t stay long since it was still so cold and it was only going to get colder at this point in the day, so we made our way back to the car and back to our trailer. I recommend both of these as shorter hiking options.
We were fortunate to enjoy a few nice days in Knoxville. I met with a department head at the University of Tennessee, which has a beautiful campus. It was an elucidating meeting, and afterward we parked downtown and walked to Old Town for lunch at OliBea. Matt had their carnitas tostada and I had their vegetarian farm burrito, both of which were fabulous. They really know how to create some great flavors and textures, so I highly recommend them for brunch. 👍 Please note that the most up-to-date menu is on Facebook. Unfortunately, the company that designed their web site went out of business and they have not been able to take down the old menu. 😕
Knoxville also has some great greenways, so we moseyed down to the riverfront to walk off lunch and enjoy the views since it was the nicest day during our stay. Along the way, we heard and later saw two groundhogs on the hillside above us fighting and a nearby hawk eyeing them as potential dinner, swooping toward them on the attack. It was quite the scene!
We returned later that week for a snack run at Trader Joe’s, and then headed back to Old Town for dinner at Kaizen, an asian fusion restaurant. This little gem was outstanding. 😍 In addition to a couple of tasty cocktails, we couldn’t resist trying some of their steamed buns, and they did not disappoint. Matt had their shrimp fried rice, which was perfectly cooked, and I had their drunken lamb noodles. My dish was not nearly as spicy as they proclaimed, and I savored the texture and umami flavor.
After a couple of satisfying meals, we walked down the block to the Boyd’s Jig and Reel Scottish bar to enjoy some live music. That night the Brockefellers were playing, a trio that likes to crack a lot of jokes and keep you on your toes. They are mainly a cover band that has a 60’s surfer music vibe mixed with jazz fusion and a diverse lineup of songs. It was great to see another live performance and enjoy the positive vibes. 🎶
We had some more wonderful adventures in the surrounding areas between Sevierville and Knoxville. On our first full day in the area, we went to Alcoa to walk around Springbrook Park. This park is a nice little find, family friendly and from there you can bike along their greenways to Maryville. It is a cute town, and seems like a great place to raise a family, because the elementary, middle and high schools are all right there, making it easy to stay in one area. There are also several other parks and lakes near the schools. On our way back, we stopped in at Southern Grace Coffee Company. Not only do they have some amazing roasted coffee, but they also have some cute jewelry for sale and a relaxing front porch to sit on and take a respite. If great coffee is your thing, you will love this place. ☕️
Another great place to explore outdoors is the Seven Islands State Birding Park in Kodak, TN. It is free for entry, has ample parking, some paved trails that you can bike on, and several more for walking. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to come back a second time and explore some more. The park features a brand new pedestrian bridge that takes you to Newmans Island, but also has a couple of barns and picnic spots along the French Broad River, a pond, and some elevated points with beautiful views of the mountains. We saw lots of deer, muskrats, many types of birds, and loved the variety in the landscape.
Finally, we had a fun dinner at a traditional Italian eatery called Ristorante DellaSantina that is technically in Sevierville, but is tucked away off highway 416 in a quieter part of town. The staff is very friendly, has local patrons that frequent the restaurant regularly, and has a nice ambiance and interesting wine list. Matt chose their chicken parmesan, I had their frutti di mare, and we both saved room for tiramisu for dessert. If you like Italian American food and are looking for a romantic atmosphere, you will enjoy this place.
Although we did have some fun while visiting, we are not likely to return to this specific area. That being said, it is beautiful and there are plenty of ways to entertain yourself and lots of delicious food to eat, so choose the adventure that appeals to you. ❤️