Our first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Our review of the most visited national park in the United States!

 

Alum Cave Bluffs, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

John Muir:  “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

Living on the East Coast of the United States, it’s hard not to be reminded of the Great Smoky Mountains.  It seems most people have visited the place, thanks to its close proximity to most big cities on the East Coast.  It is also the most popular and most visited national park in the US with over 12 million visitors in the calendar year 2022 alone.  

My in-laws have visited it, and so has one of my best childhood friends.  They talked about the mysterious, cloud filled mountains that look like smoke, and they talked about the vastness of the mountains.

My wife and I had talked many times about visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but we never got around to it until February of this year.  We were wrapping up our 2 1/2 months long cross country road trip going from North Carolina to Southern California, and we decided that this would be our last destination on our way back home, near Raleigh.  

On the morning of February 6, 2023, we left Gold Strike in Tunica, Mississippi for Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  The drive would take close to 8 hours (470 miles) via the ever popular I-40, which had been our go to highway during our epic cross country trip.

After crossing over to the state of Tennessee, we saw a highway advertisement for Buc-ee’s, practically a Texas institution and our recently discovered favorite gas station/convenience store, sized like a small supermarket!  We had to stop by to grab some delicious lunch, in the form of burritos and some much needed snacks and quick pick-me-ups in the form of caffeinated diet sodas for the road.  

After filling up our car in one of the many abundant gas pumps, we parked then walked inside.  As is the usual case, we heard the familiar “Welcome to Buc-ee’s” greeting which was awesome to hear these days, in light of what’s been happening since the pandemic.  Instead of the usual sullen employees at many retail establishments, Buc-ee’s employees are like a breath of fresh air!  You feel welcomed and you want to spend your hard earned money just by this friendly gesture.  Many retailers should follow suit…

We ate our delicious chicken fajita burrito (me) and vegetable fajita burrito (my wife) in the parking lot, savoring every bite.  Buc-ee’s burritos are better than many Mexican restaurants we’ve eaten in the past.  They’re a perfect blend of flavorful meats (or grilled veggies) with rice, beans, lettuce, queso, and salsa.  They are juicy, not bone dry, and filling, not skimpy on meats or vegetables.  Yummy!

After a hearty meal, we continued on I-40 heading east, then we cut south via TN-66 until we hit Pigeon Forge, then Gatlinburg.  Along TN-66, we started seeing the distant Smoky Mountains in the distance.  

We passed through scenic little towns along the way with beautiful setting sun creating an awesome atmosphere.  After passing Pigeon Forge, a popular tourist destination in its own right, with tons of hotels, shops, restaurants, and attractions, we made it inside the city limit of Gatlinburg.

Our hotel, Quality Inn & Suites Gatlinburg, was about a 10 minute drive from the city limit, right on Highway 321.  We turned right when we saw the sign for the hotel, with Baymont Hotel immediately on our right.  

We checked in to the hotel, asking if we could get a high floor with nice views.  We did book a nicer room with a fireplace for $10 more per night compared to a regular room, and we got the view!

Room was nicely updated with a gas fireplace and it was an end unit with a wraparound balcony!  We felt lucky.  After settling in, we went outside to check out the nice balcony!

Our room, Quality Inn & Suites, Gatlinburg, TN


View from the balcony!



Views were more than what we had hoped for and it indeed was beautiful.  We were surrounded by mountains with views of the roller coaster right in front, the main thoroughfare, and the roaring river.  It was really soothing to hear the sound of rushing water, right below our balcony.  Awesome…

We sat outside sipping coffees and talking about our trip.  We couldn’t believe our 2 1/2 months long trip was coming to a close.  Wow, how time flies when you’re having fun…

After dinner, we went outside to the balcony yet again to check out the nighttime views, and it was awesome.  Roller coaster was lit up with Christmas lights, and we watched the roller coaster running late into February night, with riders screaming at times.  We also watched camera flash going off every few minutes for inevitable and ever present photos taken at the coaster’s final big drop.



Lucky for us, the roller coaster stopped operating at around 10 o’clock for us wearied travelers to get some sleep.  Before going to bed, we tested out the fireplace which was great.  We haven’t used one since our trip to Vermont back in 2019.  Cool…

We both got a good night’s sleep thanks to the soothing sound of roaring river creating a perfect white noise.  We were finally ready to experience the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!  

The following morning, we got complimentary hot breakfast with eggs, sausages, coffee, juice, and bagels, filling out stomachs with the essential energy source for the long hike ahead.  After breakfast, we headed out towards Sugarlands Visitor Center, which was the closest visitor center to our location.

Besides the Sugarlands Visitor Center, there are two others:

  1. Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center *closed during the winter; south of Sugarlands Visitor Center 
  2. Oconaluftee Visitor Center *south of Clingman’s Dome Visitor Center 

We arrived within 10 minutes, then headed inside to inquire about possible hiking options for our 3 day stay.  The park ranger, friendly and knowledgeable, recommended one must hike trail:  Alum Cave Trail.

Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

Alum Cave Trail is a 2.3 mile trail that takes you to old-growth hardwood forest, and is one of the most popular hiking trails at the park.  The highlight of the hike is the narrow tunnel of Arch Rock, which is located about half way along the trail.

We thanked the park ranger, and headed out of the visitor center.  Thanks to a handy map provided by the same ranger, we were able to find the right way to get to the Alum Cave Trailhead.  

We took the Newfound Gap Road for about 9 miles, noticing the change in elevation immediately after leaving the visitor center.  We also noticed the busy road and almost filled parking lots along the way.  Even in early February, the park was buzzing with activity.  We definitely saw why the park is the most popular national park.

We turned left to get to the Alum Cave Trailhead and parking.  We were thankful we got a parking spot, barely more than 5 available by that time of the morning.  After parking, we got on the trail, looking forward to finally hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!  

At the start of the Alum Cave Trail




After confirming the direction of the trail (straight ahead), we crossed a short bridge over a stream.  It was soothing to hear running water again after traversing through the arid, desert climates of Southwest for the past 2 months.

Air was fresh with a slight hint of early Spring coming.  At first glance, plants were still abundant and plenty green.  Upon closer inspection, many of the shrubs haven’t bloomed.  After all, it was still early February.  We still loved the hike hearing the sound of water flowing nearby…

The trail slowly ascended with every step, with each step getting us closer and closer to the midway point of the trail, Arch Rock.  We took in the wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains: the ever present sound of stream running, birds chirping, insects buzzing, and the rhythmic sound of our marching footsteps.



Along the trail!


We arrived at Arch Rock about 45 minutes into our hike.  We encountered a bridge made out of a log, but this one only had a handrail on one side of the bridge.  We took our time crossing over it, taking careful steps and trying to lean towards the side with the handrail.

One of those log bridges with one handrail along the trail

At Arch Rock

Arch Rock was a fascinating place with an opening for one person to traverse at a time.  The dark, narrow staircase made out of stone slabs added to the overall ambiance:  it was indeed a mysterious and wondrous place. We took careful steps inside the cave, looking around as we climbed.

The staircase is short, maybe equivalent to two stories, but Arch Rock serves as a sort of the unofficial midway point of the hike.  It is also one of the main points of interest of the hike.

Inside Arch Rock

Looking back down the way we had come

We made quick work of the staircase, then came out on the other side.  We continued onward, making good time.  We noticed the trail got harder the rest of the way, with more gradient changes and switchbacks.

We asked several fellow hikers who were coming down the trail to ask the most popular question during any hike, which is:  how much farther to the end of the trail?  Lucky for us, that answer was about 30 minutes.

We trooped on, mindful of any slippery, muddy spots along the way, but still looking around for the ever changing scenery.  Near the Inspiration Point, we met up with two hikers who were going to the same place we were.

While chatting, we all arrived there, a popular scenic spot for nice views of the Smoky Mountains.  There was a clearing with a convenient rocks suitable for sitting, which we all took full advantage of.  We loved the views!  The mountains were still incredibly lush with trees everywhere, unlike mountains in the Northeast this time of the year.

Inspiration Point, Alum Cave Trail


We drank some water, taking in the incredible sights and rested for few minutes, trying to catch our breath.   Afterwards, the two hikers, who we found out later were close friends, left for Alum Cave Bluffs, the end of the trail.

We took our time, then also followed suit, following in their footsteps literally.  We arrived at Alum Cave Bluffs after about 10 minutes.  We knew it was the end of the trail, as we saw close to 20 people huddled together under the foot of the Alum Cave Bluffs.

The place was gigantic with the mouth of the cave big enough to hold 30 people!  Awesome…

Alum Cave Bluffs


Views from Alum Cave Bluffs

We met up with those two hikers from Inspiration Point, and while we ate our lunches, we chatted again.  We found out one of them was a big rig trucker who used to traverse the country from the Northeast (Boston actually), all the way to Southern California and back.

We learned many fascinating things about the trucking business like how newer trucks are less safe on the ice compared to older trucks and how many hours truckers can drive before taking mandatory safety rests/sleep.  He told us tales of him driving cross country with his son, and we also chimed in about our past two months of driving cross country to visit all those national parks.  He lamented he hadn’t had a chance to visit many of them, but he certainly would like to in the near future.  

We took solace (and shade) under the huge bluff, taking a much needed rest after a hour and a half hike up.  The best part of any hike is finally making it to the end of the trail, hopefully with a scenic view, just like at Alum Cave Bluffs trail.  We rested a good 20 minutes, breathing in the fresh February air and taking in the sights of the great Smoky Mountains!

As the two hikers left after saying goodbye, we also made our way back to the parking lot after few minutes.  Going down is always easier than going up, and this was no exception.  

We savored the hike, reveling in finally hiking the Great Smoky Mountains, enjoying the beauty surrounding us.  We took our time getting down, stopping at several points, especially near the running stream to get a free mind cleansing therapy session, compliments of nature.

I read a news article some time ago where doctors in Canada were giving away free park (national/provincial) passes for their therapy patients.  Instead of the usual in-office sessions to help patients with mental illnesses, they’re telling their patients to go outdoors and to hike, at least 2-3 times a week.  

I couldn’t agree more.  Hiking or walking outdoors will do wonders for your psyche, as well as making you stronger physically.  We certainly got a nice dose of free therapy session thanks to nature!  We felt great all around, just like after any hike or walk outdoors.  We highly recommend it!

After making it back to our car in the parking lot, we mapped out our next destination.  We decided, thanks to tips from the friendly park ranger, to check out several famous overlooks at the park.  One of those was the Ben Morton Overlook.

We got on the Newfound Gap Road, and climbed and climbed.  With every mile driven, the views were getting better and better, and our ears were ringing from the sudden change in elevation.  Keeping my eyes on the road, I took every turn and switchback carefully, until we got to Ben Morton Overlook.

The drive took about 10 minutes from the parking lot, and we enjoyed every bit of that minute.  I love discovering new places and new roads.  It’s really one of the best reasons why I love to travel.  It gets my brain hyper focused on all those new stimuli, which in turn, makes me genuinely happy and satisfied…

We found the overlook packed with at least 20-30 people but that was ok, as the overlook was much bigger than we anticipated.  We parked, then got out to explore the area.  





We noticed a restroom which was a rare sight at an overlook so we took advantage of it.  Afterwards, we saw why Ben Morton Overlook was one of the best spots to see the Great Smoky Mountains.  

At elevation of over 5,000 feet, the views were just spectacular.  On top of that, because it’s located on a ridge, you get a panoramic views of the surrounding areas.  We saw Mt. LeConte among many peaks, and we were in awe…

View from Ben Morton Overlook 





We took several minutes glued to the awesome views of the Smokies, then started to make our way back to our car.  We were getting tired and hungry from the hike, the drive, and all the new stimuli.  We were ready to get back to our hotel.

After we made it back to our hotel, we took hot showers to cleanse ourselves.  It was, as usual, some of the other great things about hiking:  that feeling of accomplishment and well being, especially after taking a nice hot shower so we don’t smell like animals (well, me mostly)!

In conclusion:

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was exactly as advertised.  It has the size, the beauty, and so many recreational options nearby in towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, that anyone will find something fun to do!

We loved hiking the Alum Cave Bluff trail and seeing at least a small part of the Smokies.  We also loved seeing incredible scenic spots like Ben Morton Overlook.  We understand we only got to experience a tiny bit of the Smokies, but that’s ok.

We plan on revisiting it many times in the near future.  With great hotel prices (especially during the off season and the national park itself is free to visit) and inexpensive dining options galore, the Great Smoky Mountains is a fantastic destination for anyone with any budget.  

We certainly enjoyed ourselves, even if that was only for 3 nights/4 days.  We thank you for reading and happy trails.  The trip to the Smokies marks the end of our epic 2 1/2 months long cross country road trip going from North Carolina to Southern California and back!  

Thank you for keeping up with us, and hop along for the ride as we continue our journey of FIRE (financial independence retire early), as we discover new places (and sometimes old places) in our future.  


Jake

Wandering Money Pig 



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