Some to some of the mightiest mountains in the nation, oldest rivers on Earth and most staggeringly scenic drives on the road, a Great Smoky Mountains vacation is full of natural beauty and family-friendly fun, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, a bucket list destination of pure Americana.
Not only does this Appalachian wonderland boast the most visited national park in the United States, flush with hiking trails and sweeping vistas, it’s got charming cities such as Asheville and Pigeon Forge along with cozy boutique lodges, campgrounds, farm-fresh restaurants and more breweries per capita than almost anywhere else in the country. Oh, and there’s also a little place called Dollywood. When you hear the call of the wild (and the theme parks), here’s where to go in and around the Great Smokies.
Where to Stay
In Pigeon Forge, a picturesque mountain town with a frontier-era vibe and country twang, Black Fox Lodge is the best of both worlds — a boutique-style Hilton property that marries rustic-chic charms with contemporary amenities and a sprawling outdoor pool with a water fountain, slide and nearby fire pit. Outfitted with rooms and suites in varying sizes and affordable rates, it’s an apt go-to for families en route to nearby Dollywood.
Dancing Bear Lodge & Appalachian Bistro is a comfy oasis tucked away in the quieter town of Townsend, just west of Pigeon Forge. Nestled on the edge of the Smokies in an area nicknamed the “peaceful side” of the popular park, the homey property features 38 acres with 26 adorable cottages, log cabins, wooded lofts and villas nestled among the trees. Walking trails weave their way to a beer garden, general store and the Appalachian Bistro, which offers locally sourced fare such as charcuterie, smoked trout cakes, lamb ribs and rainbow trout.
On the North Carolina side, Asheville abounds with hotels, rentals and inns, but one riverside newcomer seamlessly blends rusticity with modernity. Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins is a boutique campground offering a sort of glamping vibe with 16 twee A-frame cabins, while still being close to urban luxuries. Across the street from the French Broad River Greenway, among the oldest rivers on the planet, its accommodations feature distinctive amenities like hammocks, record players and vintage records, and the on-site Canteen lounge is a quasi-general store.
Where to Eat
A newer restaurant in Sevierville, a few miles up the winding road from Pigeon Forge, The Appalachian has quickly cemented itself as a seminal dining destination. As its name suggests, the restaurant is all about local sourcing and Appalachian heritage, courtesy of Tennessee-bred chef David Rule. Rigorously seasonal, the menu changes often with items such as fried oyster mushrooms with smoked tomato aioli and wood-grilled elk loin flecked with West Virginia sea salt.
For authentic barbecue and Southern meat-and-three platters, you can’t out-comfort the soulful portions at Tennessee institution Puckett’s Grocery. After originating as a small grocery store in Leiper’s Fork, the homegrown brand has evolved into a handful of statewide outposts—including one in Pigeon Forge—slinging pimento cheese bites, smoked meatloaf, Southern fried chicken and cherrywood-smoked pulled pork.
Asheville, meanwhile, is a mecca for foodies and beer-swillers alike. Recently heralded as the No. 1 food city in the country by Yelp, the town teems with chef-driven passion projects. Snag a seat at Vivian, a European-style bistro serving roasted rutabaga with Cognac cream, crab dip and smoked oysters in a cozy room. More recently, the city welcomed its first full-fledged Filipinx restaurant, Neng Jr.’s, an intimate 17-seater where the bill of fare includes grilled snapper with Chinese pumpkin and smoked Filipino spaghetti.
Of the myriad breweries and beer bars scattered all over Asheville, standouts include sour-focused ales in the garage-like Wicked Weed Funkatorium or the city’s first sake brewery at auto shop-turned-bar Ben’s Tune Up.
Where to Play
In Pigeon Forge, the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster lets guests zoom down tree-lined trails, while Outdoor Gravity Park features a unique activity called Zorbing. Fearless visitors can burrow into 11-foot inflatable balls and roll down 1,000-foot hills. For more thrills, The Island is an indie amusement park outfitted with casual eateries, shops and family fun such as an arcade, laser tag, roller coasters and a ropes course.
Of course, you can’t talk thrills in the Smokies without a stint at the one and only Dollywood. The most famed theme park in Tennessee, this pastoral paradise has 50-plus rides and attractions that run the gamut from cutesy carousels to nerve-tingling coasters, plus a water park, frontier-style shows, fireworks and Dolly-approved country music concerts.
The main attraction in the Smoky Mountains, though, is its namesake national park. With nearly 14 million annual visitors, making it one of the most visited national parks in the country, people flock from all over the world to this free-to-enter marvel for its near-mythical beauty, valleys billowing with smoke-like fog, misty waterfalls and iconic scenic byways. Hiking, horseback riding, biking and fishing are popular pastimes, especially on trails like Chimney Tops, an arduous 1,400-foot ascent for worthwhile vistas of this epochal Appalachian range.