There are some things in this world I will never understand such as quantum physics, Fellini movies, and people who throw trash out of their cars into our National Parks. I’m a firm believer in the Leave No Trace philosophy – take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.
With the pandemic now looming over us for the second-year, record numbers of people are flooding into our National Parks. Our beloved Smoky Mountains National Park saw record numbers last year with over 12.5 million visitors. With them they brought record trash. Just look at the roadsides, littered with fast food bags, beer cans, cigarette butts and more. I can honestly say that I’ve never in my life finished my Egg McMuffin, Hash Browns and Coffee and tossed the bag out my car window. Especially if I’m driving though one of our countries crown jewel parks. Let me just take a moment and ask…WHAT ARE YOU THINKING YOU MORONS?
The roadsides are just part of it, just look at our trails again littered with junk food wrappers and plastic water bottles, beer cans and in one case a washing machine. Yes, you read that right, a washing machine.
Back in the day (FLASHBACK!) when I was a Boy Scout leader. We always hiked with a plastic bag and we’d all pick up garbage when we found it. One of our Scouting principles was “Always leave it better than you found it”.
Leave No Trace is an organization that believes in that premise of leaving it better than you found it and is built around seven principles
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impact
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
How nice it would be if everyone would adopt those seven basic Leave No Trace principles.
Through every storm there is a ray of light and in this case it’s a group of people that have formed an organization called Save Our Smokies. These devoted people have been organizing cleanup efforts in and around the park. It’s astounding the amount of trash they are taking out of the park on a regular basis.
Let all of us do our part in keeping the Smokies clean, if you brought it in take it out…don’t litter. If you’re an artist that’s great go home and paint something but don’t put graffiti on the park signs, structures, benches or landmarks. Be considerate to the other visitors, the volunteers and the wildlife. Let’s all do our part and Leave No Trace.
Take nothing but pictures, Leave nothing but footprints.
I probably should have written this blog post at the beginning and not a few years in, my apologies. When coming to the area locals and frequent guests throw out some terms they just assume everyone knows like; the spur, the bypass, the parkway, etc. Let’s make you a functional tourist, here is A Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area.
There are three “parkways” in the area The Parkway, The East Parkway and the Dolly Parton Parkway.
The Parkway, otherwise known as 66/441/321 runs from I-40 on the north down through Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and ultimately continues through the National Park all the way to Cherokee NC.
The East Parkway is where 321 splits from the main parkway in Gatlinburg and heads out east towards Cosby and the Greenbrier area of the National Park.
The Dolly Parton Parkway (411) splits off in Sevierville and heads East towards well….really nothing, it turn into the Newport Hwy and takes you back to I-40. You can take the Dolly Parton Parkway to Veterans Boulevard and head over to Dollywood, what’s also nice about this route is it also avoids the vast amount of traffic in Pigeon Forge.
Along with the parkways there is also “The Spur” this is a section of the Parkway that connects Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg. It’s a pretty drive through the forest.
Next is “The Bypass” – this runs from the Spur on the Parkway to the entrance of the National Park at Sugarlands thus avoiding the traffic in Gatlinburg.
Continuing A Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area, let’s talk about the towns themselves.
Gatlinburg, is a quaint but bustling town nestled right up against the Smoky Mountains. You do need to park your car and walk to most places or you can take the Trolley (highly recommended). What used to be many local shops and eateries, Gatlinburg has begun to see national chains start to move in and take away some of the charm the old town possessed. Still, there a lot to do and much to see in this town. Watch out for traffic during busy times, backups can be quite long. Also pedestrian traffic has the right-of-way all throughout the town so no rubber-necking when driving.
Pigeon Forge is known for attraction, attraction, attractions! Plus, hotels and restaurants. If you want the action this is it. The big attractions are all in Pigeon Forge; Dollywood, Titanic, Alcatraz, The Island and more. Pretty much every restaurant know to man is located in Pigeon Forge. Traffic can be heavy at times and the road is three lanes wide.
Sevierville while not as popular as the other two towns has it’s share of attractions and restaurants but is has all the big box stores the other two towns don’t have. Shopping malls, hotels, etc. Sevierville is much more like a typical suburban town than the other two which are gears to tourists. The one don’t miss in Sevierville is the Dolly Parton statue which is located in the downtown area.
Continuing A Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area, let’s talk about the area history. You will see the name Ogle quite a bit around the towns. William Ogle was the first settler to the area and his relatives are still present. William Ogle’s cabin has been restored and you can see it on the Parkway as you pass though Gatlinburg. You’ll also see the name Gatlin for which Gatlinburg is named. Radford Gatlin was the postmaster back in 1856 and decided to name the town after himself. Well that didn’t sit quite so well with the other settlers who arrived in the area around 1805. By 1858 a full blown feud had erupted between the Gatlin’s and the Ogles and Radford Gatlin was run out of town.
Let’s take our Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park has three main entrances; Sugarlands, Cherokee and Townsend. The main entrance is Sugarlands, this is located just outside of Gatlinburg and is probably the busiest of the entrances.
Mt LeConte (elev 6,594) is the third highest peak in the park yet when most people talk about it you’d think it’s the highest. There is a guest lodge up on top which makes the peak very endearing to most hikers. Clingman’s Dome is actually the highest peak in the park at 6,643ft. There is an observation tower on Clingman’s Dome which on a clear day offers spectacular views of the Smokies and surrounding states.
Other popular sites to see in the park are Laurel Falls, the most visited waterfall in the park and Cades Cove which is a settlement in a valley out near Townsend on the west end of the park. I will be doing a Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area focusing on the park itself in the upcoming weeks.
I hope this Beginners Guide to the Smoky Mountains Area gives you just a bit of knowledge to take the novice tourist edge off your visit. I will be doing follow-up blog posts around this same topic for the next few posts.
There’s a small town in northeastern Illinois a few hours out of Chicago called Galena. Galena is a small quaint little town with antique shops, bed and breakfasts, and a variety of unique eateries. This was also home to Ulysses S Grant for a period of his life. Because of this historical importance one weekend a year either in August or September Galena becomes the target for 3000-5000 Boy Scouts from Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa attending the Grant Pilgrimage. If you were heading to Galena on this weekend for a romantic getaway your plans were just dashed. Something similar happens in the Smoky Mountains area from time to time and it’s important for you to know when not to visit the Smoky Mountains if you want to avoid, endless traffic, crowds of people and really loud cars. Yes, I’m talking about the variety of car shows that occur all along the parkway especially the “Rod Runs”.
If you’re a car enthusiast by all means come on down and visit! If you don’t want to be stuck in traffic behind loud smelly cars (some are really smelly) then you want to avoid the Rod Run Weekends that occur in April and September.
If you’ve been to the Smokies you’re aware of the parkway and all the parking lots along that strip, now imagine all of those parking lots filled with hot rods, trucks, people in folding chairs lining the street like a parade route. The sidewalks are filled with people walking plus; scooters, electric wheel chairs (Rascals?), bicyclists all moving up and down trying to view the cars.
Then there is the traffic….it’s endless. Trying to go from Titanic to the Aquarium is the time equivalent of flying from Chicago to LA. Pack a lunch, you’ll need it. Locate the recirculate button on your dashboard, you’ll thank me later. Put in ear plugs when going through the tunnel on the spur, that seems to the place to find out just how loud your car is.
So, when are the times not to visit the Smoky Mountains to avoid all this? Here are the dates:
Pigeon Forge Rod Run- Spring: Fri, Apr 16, 10 AM – Sun, Apr 18, 8 AM EDT
Shades of the Past Car Show: Fri, Sep 10 – Sat, Sep 11
Pigeon Forge Rod Run- Fall: Sep 10, 10 AM – Sep 19, 8 AM EDT
There are other car shows but these are the big ones that really cause the most havoc on tourists who don’t share this particular interest. Here is a list of those other shows: Car Shows
There’s nothing like Winterfest in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Here are our Twelve Days of Winterfest, a sampling of all the amazing holiday treats waiting for you in the Smokies.
On the first day of Winterfest my true love said to me….Let’s go see some lights! How about 15 million of them scattered throughout Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Dollywood. Maps and Trolley tours are available.
On the second day of Winterfest my truelove said to me…”let’s go to the Great Smoky Christmas Arts & Crafts Festival” November 30 – December 6. There will be dozens of booths featuring unique handcrafted gifts made by members of the Great Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts Community.
On the third day of Winterfest…Let is Show, Let it Show, Let it Show! During Winterfest, your favorite Pigeon Forge Christmas Shows celebrate the season with holiday themed performances! Hear your favorite carols performed with a twangy Smoky Mountain twist!
On the 4th day of Winterfest my true love said to me….”Take me to the Parade!” Back to back parades on Friday and Saturday in Sevierville and Gatlinburg help bring the holiday spirit to town!
On the 5th day of Winterfest my true love said to me….”Five Golden Dolly’s!” Gaze in awe at over 5 million glistening lights, and for the first time ever, fireworks that light up the winter night sky. Wrap your family in the light of the season this Christmas at Dollywood.
On the 6th day of Winterfest…The Polar Express departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole. guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story.
On the 7th day of Winterfest… the SkyLift Park will be lit up at night with over 40,000 lights including a 300-foot tunnel of lights on the SkyBridge, a 30-foot Christmas tree structure with lights animated to music, and much more.
On the 8th day of Winterfest….Anakeesta celebrates their first Christmas with sparkling lights and decorations, hot chocolate, apple cider, carolers, Tunes & Tales and more!
On the 9th day of Winterfest…Immerse yourself in a multitude of custom-built light displays at Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland, all dancing in perfect synchronization with the festive music on your radio.
On the 10th day of Winterfest….Inside and out, Titanic is magical during the winter holidays. The ship will be aglow. Come exchange greetings with our Titanic crew or enjoy the glittering lights and the festive decorations.
On the 11th day of Winterfest…..Need to do some last minute shopping, with nearly 150 name brand outlet stores where shoppers can find everything from fine China and clothing to tools and furniture.
On the 12th day of Winterfest….At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2021, fireworks will blast off the rooftop of the 400-foot tall Space Needle with special music choreographed for the fireworks.
In November of 2016, Chuck and Cindy Schmidt had owned their Sevierville, Tenn. log cabin for just a month when the Chimney Tops 2 Fire swept through 11,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fire took several lives and destroyed hundreds of structures but miraculously spared the cabin.
“That night we decided that we had been spared for a reason, and we have always been pretty lucky,” Chuck said. “We had a feeling that the cabin was meant to be something more than just a vehicle for us to make money.”
At the time, the Chicago native had been dreaming of retirement in the Smokies. Chuck and Cindy had been vacationing there for years, but Chuck’s love for the mountains goes all the way back to his family trips there as a kid.
In 2016, the couple decided to finally trade in their weekend getaways for a place they could call their own. They bought the two-bedroom log cabin with plans to eventually move to the Smoky Mountains for good.
During renovations, they fondly remembered each of the cabins they had rented for their own vacations in years past and decided they wanted to create the same experiences for others, too. So, they opened the home to guests when they weren’t using it themselves, naming the cabin Dancing Bearfoot®.
“I worked as a wedding DJ for years when I was younger, and during my set late at night, I would play a slow song that was perfect for ‘dancing barefoot and hanging on your woman,’” Chuck said. “It’s easy to picture slow dancing barefoot as being something romantic, and from there it was simple to put the ‘bearfoot’ spin into the name.”
Guests have found love at the property, particularly for its authentic and cozy log cabin atmosphere. Before the pandemic, the rental was booked for around 68% of the year, hosting families and couples from empty nesters to newlyweds for three or four nights at a time. Chuck described reading Dancing Bearfoot’s guest book as one of his favorite things about sharing the cabin with visitors.
They manage the home together with American Patriot Getaways, a property management company that handles cleaning, maintenance, reservations and marketing, while Chuck and Cindy handle additional marketing, special guest experiences, and a program to give back to the ecosystem around them.
PAWS, PEOPLE, PARK…
After their good fortune in being spared by the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, the Schmidts decided to pay it forward through their Our Cabin Cares Project, a program to give back to the community’s many members.
The avid animal lovers started first with the Appalachian Bear Rescue, an organization that helps orphaned and injured black bears receive the medical care needed to return to the wild. The Schmidts donate a portion of every Dancing Bearfoot stay to the rescue, as well as certificates for free stays they can auction off at fundraisers.
“We have 13 cubs and two yearlings at Appalachian Bear Rescue today, and we simply could not get these bears back to the wild where they belong without the support of people like Chuck and Cindy,” said Dana Dodd, the organization’s executive director.
The rescue often cares for bears ill or injured as a result of human interference, especially when people feed them. Dana stressed the importance of cabin owners teaching their guests how to keep themselves and the bears safe during their visits to the Smokies. To help, the Schmidts provide their guests information from BearWise, a group helping people live responsibly with black bears.
The Schmidts wanted to give back to the people of the Smoky Mountains, too, so they also donate a portion of each stay to their local chapter of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic organization that provides financial assistance to community members in need of food, clothing, or other necessities.
What unites all walks of life in the area is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the U.S. “Nobody would come to the area without the National Park. We were helping the animals and we were helping the people, so we decided that we had to help the park, too,” Chuck said.
To the Schmidts, it’s important that local small businesses benefit from tourism, too. Chuck and Cindy feature local spots on their website to help guests discover special experiences, shops, restaurants or other places they may not have found, like many vacation rental hosts. But unlike most, Chuck also hosts his own travel podcast, An Outsiders Guide to the Smoky Mountains.
He created the series after listening to other podcasts that would mention only the already well-known tourist attractions and towns in the area. “I want to encourage people to open their minds and go to some of those more interesting, off-beat places that are all over the Smoky Mountains,” Chuck said.
One of Chuck’s favorite places to visit and promote: Doc’s 321 Cafe and Market Place, a small restaurant operated out of a renovated 1980s school bus just outside of Gatlinburg.
Although Dancing Bearfoot had a rough spring during the Covid-19 travel shutdowns, they’re back to hosting this summer. Now more than ever, travelers seek out isolated, secluded and relaxing stays like those provided by Dancing Bearfoot – and the communities they visit need their business.
Chuck finds great joy in supporting both. “When you walk through that door I want you to completely forget your normal life and walk away from all of that stuff,” Chuck shared.
The Schmidts see Dancing Bearfoot’s future as providing ever better experiences for their guests and growing their support of the community wherever possible.
“Every cabin owner could be doing something to give back to the communities in which they’re drawing from,” Chuck said. “The Smoky Mountains and Appalachia in general could use the help. There are a lot of organizations in the area that could use the help and funding, so if we all just gave a little bit, we could make a big difference.”