Tennessee/ North Carolina/ Kentucky ( November 2018)
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
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I’ve wanted to visit the Smokey Mountains since 2014 when I met Gabriel but back then we were put off by the 9 hour drive from Chicago and flying just didn’t make sense, so we put it on a “back burner.” When we were ready to take a trip, there was a devastating fire in Gatlinburg and once again our plans were put off.
Flash forward to Thanksgiving break 2018- I was thinking of where to drive to spend a 4 day weekend with decent weather and have a little adventure and I revisited the idea of going down to Tennessee- now being older and having a more comfortable car and being a more experienced driver, the trip no longer seemed as tedious and scary and I got to work looking for a cabin.
Because it was a holiday weekend, many cabins required a certain number of nights for a stay. I took to VRBO and Airbnb to scout. I browsed and then I put a few favorites into a folder thinking I’ll come back in a week when Gabriel definitively gets the days off from work so we don't lose any deposits… I mean how busy could TN possibly be?
Turns out I was wrong as I read the nice sign that read “There are only 2% of listings available for your requested dates” — my jaw dropped, I grabbed a big full wine glass, and got my thinking cap and got straight to work trying to find us a cabin- I wasn’t about to not NOT go to Tennessee for a 3rd time now (and I LOVE Tennessee!!! Nashville is one of my favorite places in the world)
In my very drunk state I found a photo of a glorious copper bathtub in the bedroom overlooking Gatlinburg and automatically I knew I had to be there. Trying to figure out the price for the 4 days that worked for us, I accidentally clicked booked and saw my credit card was charged half the stay…. Which wouldn’t have been an issue if it wasn't a little over $800 for our days. I sat there with my empty glass and started at the screen debating if I should call Airbnb and try to undo my reservation- but my mind wandered back to the bathtub and the very unique theme of the condo (hello Dolly Parton!) And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I reasoned I’d pay more to stay in the heart of Gatlinburg then to stay in Pigeon Forge or Sevierville and pay for parking to be in Gatlinburg. What I would save in cabin costs would be made up in parking costs and in the end it worked out perfectly and this trip was absolutely one on my most favorite.
I let Gabriel know vacay was booked by throwing the receipt in his lunch box only to get a very angry text- if you know me, you know I never ask for his help/ opinions and he never knows where we are going- heck he doesn’t even pack himself. The times he has turned out to be complete disasters.
We left at 9pm on Wednesday after work and a nap and packed up and began our journey. We took turns driving, switching off every couple of hours- and we were so tired I honestly don’t even know how we got there. Thank god the road was straight and no one else was driving at night.
We arrived around 8am (there is a time diff between Chicago and TN) and took ourselves to breakfast to Crocketts Breakfast Camp where we both had omelettes and the biggest cinnamon rolls I had ever seen. We walked around getting maps and coupon books of the area post breakfast and took a drive up the “Roaring Fork” drive (important to note, not always open depending on season/ conditions) 5 mile oneway drive through nature, old cabins, and waterfalls. After that we headed to our Dolly Parton condo which was ready at 11am and checked in and took a nap.
At 330pm, we woke up and to ready and walked 15 minutes to reach Anakeesta its an outdoor “theme” park with bridges suspended from tree to tree and a ski lift you take up to access the “mountain.” I bought our tickets online in order to skip the line and THANK GOD! Make sure to dress warmly or in layers as it really does get chilly up on the lift and the temperatures drop when the sun goes down. We had a wonderful time watching the sunset, climbing the bridges, visiting the gift shops, and sitting by the fire before eventually making our way back down. I have 2 complaints though that honestly surprised me for being down in the south- people who are
local/ work in Gatlinburg are Not very friendly- its hard to get a straightforward response and no one was too keen on trying to help get that response/ further assist. And #2- to get down the ski lift there are 2 ways, a chair lift, or a chondola (chair gondola) and they have separate lines. We waited 45 minutes in line with others to get down because there was no one to direct the lines, nor a visible sign to direct the path which line went where and everyone ended up in the chonolda line and all the ski lifts were going down empty. When we got to the operator we asked if he had any suggestions of where to go and eat- he recorded “No Way Jose” across the street- and boy I wish we didn't listen. Our thanksgiving consisted of fajitas and a burrito- which wasn't the issue, it was kind of fun to have such different food for the holiday! But more so how expensive the food was and how gross it was and the restaurant wasn’t in the best shape. Basically- do yourself a favor and SKIP IT! If we knew, we would have gone to the Loco Burro up the street. I didn't realize how small Gatlinburg was (think of a tiny 20 minute walkable Las Vegas strip) and we walked around taking pictures with the “snow people” the city puts out and then ended up going to do wine and moonshine tastings.
We bought our wine from TN homemade wines after visiting and tasting serval other places (you’ll hear many recommendations for the cotton candy wine- I wasn’t overly impressed) and 3 bottles ran us about $75 but it was completely worth it (you MUST try the blueberry) and then we headed to Sugarlands Distillery (they have a whiskey bar across the street too!). You pay $5 a person and get that back in a certificate to use toward any purchase (so people don't come in and drink for free). You wait for a tasting to start around a big circle bar- your bartender will explain each of the 12 flavors you will taste (they alternate flavors each day so come back to try more!)and will pour and then you all drink together. It was super fun but we started off with a straight 100 proof and I felt my insides burn. By the time we were done, we were ready to stumble home. We poured water and bath salts and bubbles into that glorious copper tub and light candles and watched the space needle and the lights of the ski lift illuminate our room while we both sat on alternate ends (yes its THAT big!) soaking. It was an absolutely wonderful Thanksgiving.
I did forget to mention before- prior to our trip I joined this group on Facebook called “Having Fun in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding towns in the Smokys” and it helped plan my entire trip. Locals and visitors are posting tips and places to go and things to do, weather conditions, and helpful advice. It is quite a busy group and one of the more impressive travel groups I belong to- admins are awesome and keep the group clean and to the point (posts need to be approved) and by being apart of the chatter weeks before we left really helped make the most of our short time we had on our trip.
Ended up being our busiest day due to awesome weather and everyone coming to Gatlinburg to visit the shoppes for Black Friday so we escaped up to Clingman’s Dome up in North Carolina (also open only seasonly). Its about a 45 minute drive across state lines and honestly we assumed we would be passing a city to fill up our car in after we left TN- wrong! The Marathon gas station before you head into the Smokies is the last station you will see for awhile so make sure to fuel up!
We stopped The Donut Friar breakfast, well I stopped in- we couldn’t find parking so
Gabriel circled outdoors while I got pastries and coffee - def a must do! Place is cash only, the snickers specialty coffee is pretty darn good, then we qwew on our way to NC.
Once we got there, we found parking in the lot (last stop for bathrooms!) and got our walking sticks ready (not necessary but the walk is up a steep incline- don't try to take it too fast it gets harder to breathe) and trekked our way up to the Dome. It REALLY gets cold up there and the ranger said it was an unusual day because there was no snow so make sure your layer up. Once you reach the Dome- its an open observation but VERY windy so make sure to keep your loose items secure. The views of the mountains are stunning. When we walked back down, we popped into an entrance of the Appalachian Trial and hiked for a little just to say “we did it!” After that we took the 1.5 hour drive to Cades Cove, another 11 mile scenic route you drive through - and honestly, unpopular opinion, if I were to do it again I’d skip it during that time of year. There greenery is all dead and due to the amount of people visiting that time of year, it took up over 3 hours to complete because people kept stopping. We saw coyotes and deer but no elk/ other animals and overall felt like we could have spent our time much better. Im sure its beautiful during different times of the year and when its not as congested but it was definitely my least favorite thing we did- plus the ride there and back to Gatlinburg was just SO long. We got back to our condo, showered and changed for dinner.
We drove up to Gatlinburg’s “Crystelle Creek Restaurant and Grill” and waited 30 minutes in line to have the manger tell us right before we were seated they ran out of all their chicken- of course what I was going to order so we called Cherokee Grill and begged to be seated, and the front desk took pity on my chicken story and we got seated there 15 minutes later and it was a blessing in disguise because the food was absolutely phenomenal- and I got my chicken! After we walked over to Ole Smokey Distillery and did a tasting there (less proof %- didnt feel like we were going to die) and purchased a coffee moonshine to mix in when we have guests come over- the flavors were a lot less intense at this place- same $5 entrance and coupon for purchase, but tasting experience was done right up at the bar and was less fun but still got the ‘shine! We called it an early night and came back "home" hung out in the tub and watched a bears try to break into the garbage below!
We took the day a little more slow- we went to the very famous Pancake Pantry for breakfast. We got into the 45 minute line and a lady came up and took our names and we waited… for about 5 minutes! They let us skip the entire line because in the 45 minute wait we were only only party of 2 so we got settled quickly. G ordered the berry crepes and I got the sweet potato pancakes after G shamed me for trying to get “Caribbean pancakes” down in the south- we were both very happy but I wish I opted for something sweeter.
Afterwards we walked back to condo and packed our bags and headed back to the SMNP to climb Laurel Falls- a 45 minute paved walk to see a waterfall. Our day was a little more cloudy so the temp kept fluctuating but we were dressed in layers. The walk wasn’t as intense walking up as the previous day— But PLEASE when you are on the trails be MINDFUL that they are 2 way. One family we were passing wouldn’t move out of the way so I scooted so they could pass and the parent was wet from rain and I took a pretty big tumble and ended up with a skinned knee and very bruised butt and it was painful enough where it stopped me from continuing on to hike Chimney Tops which I was excited to do- and I’m not a wuss for pain. I fractured my foot on a previous vacation and still finished our rather strenuous activities and the rest of the vacay before finally going up and seeing a doc at home. We skipped the strenuous 11 mile Mt. Le Conte hike due to weather but plan to come back in the future to do that.
Afterwards we figured we were pretty close to Pigeon Forge and we drove up to go visit The Christmas Palace to find our vacay ornament (we get one for our “ Xmas travelers tree” from every place we weber visited!) and were blown away by this store. We spent hours looking at all the decorations from ornaments to villages to the incredible lights- its a must do when you’re in the area!
After that we had dinner at Applewood Farm House (not grill!) we got there pretty early so no dinner rush. We were seating on porch swings with a table between and it was a GREAT atmosphere. They start you off with the most amazing applewood fritters and apple julep juice, soup and then dinner is served family style where each person gets an individual entree but the sides are shared. It was a lot of “stuff” and we were dying after and had to take dessert back home. The waitresses all wear mumus and I dont think it could have felt anymore “southern” if it tried- though Ill be honest, I preferred the fried chicken at the Cherokee Grill better but the sides were still really good Gabriel ordered livers and I think it was the first time I didn't ask him to steal a bite off his plate but he was very happy with it.
We left at 9am and headed to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. We missed the cut off for the last tour due to time change we forgot to look at previously, and opted to skip the final running tour of history and drove up the road to do the Diamond
Cavern tour that is NOT apart of Mammoth Caves but also really nice to see all the
stalagmites and stalactites. We had done the Cave of the Mounds up in WI and id say it was very similar- rocks and caves excite me a lot more than they do my husband so I thought it was nice, he was bored but I took a lot out of the tour. In general- if you had previously done a tour of the formations and aren’t interested in the rocks- you’d be okay to skip this. Tour was a little over an hour and afterwards we headed back to Chicago in a snowstorm. It was an incredibly fun and busy weekend and for once, I was glad we took some time to recharge our batteries and destress - we all know how stressful the holidays can be! We vowed from now on to add “Thanksgiving” to the list of times it’s a good idea to take a trip- we dont like turkey that much anyways and our family all lives within a 45 minute radius so it’s not like we are missing anything.
Let me know if you have any questions! I hope the Smokey Mountains are on your travel list!
The Everyday Girl