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.”
So you caught the bug didn’t you? You’ve been to the Smokies a few times and have rented a few different cabins and now comes the decision “hey let’s buy one of our own and we can rent it out, it will be fun and we’ll make tons of money right?” Hold on their buckaroo….not quite. Going down that road can make this the most expensive vacation you’ve ever gone on. There are a few things to consider when buying a cabin in the Smokies.
Let’s ask some important questions first. Number one, have you been to couple’s therapy? Because you may need it as this enterprise rolls along.
But seriously the first question is why do you want to be in the rental business?
Do you just want a second home and someone else to pay for it?
Do you want to generate income?
Do you really want to be in the hospitality business?
Are you willing to dedicate hours that you may or may not have time for to things like pricing, marketing, upkeep and so on.
Are you competent when it comes to technology, can you build a website, can your write social messages, can you produce quality videos, do you understand SEO? Are you really willing to learn?
All kidding aside the Smokies are one of the top locations in the country for rental property.
According to Vacasa…”Our number one best place to buy a vacation rental is Sevierville, Tennessee, nestled among the Smoky Mountains” Vacasa analyzed home sales data in vacation destinations throughout the country, and overlaid it with actual performance data for thousands of U.S. vacation rental properties. With that calculation Sevierville came in #1 in the US.
AIRDNA in 2019 published their list of the best vacation property investments in the US both Sevierville and Gatlinburg scored A+ with Investabilty scoring an unbelievable 100. In 2020, the Smoky Mountains we #4 of the best places to buy vacation property.
Forbes Magazine in 2019 listed their Five Best Places to own Vacation Rental Property list, which ranks 150 destinations: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Gatlinburg, Tennessee finished #1 and #2. The criteria pointing to short-term rental profitability include real estate prices, local vacation rental rates, insurance, taxes, maintenance expenses and the popularity of a tourist destination. “The Southeast did extremely well this year, especially in non-luxury markets like the Smokey Mountains. There they have very friendly short-term rental regulations, it’s a four-season market and a five-hour drive from several major cities.
I could keep going but you get the point. What do you think all of this publicity has done to property values here in the Smokies….yep they’ve skyrocketed over the past year. With 12 million people coming to the Smokies now on vacation demand is not showing any signs of slowing. Even thought the property vales have risen quickly the return on investment still works for purchasing a property and renting it out. The days of a sub $99 per night lodging experience may be moved into the hotels on the strip and out of the cabins. If your cabin is only renting on price then you really need to look at your experience offered because you are certainly leaving money on the table and are hurting the other cabin owners.
Let’s tackle some of these questions I posed…. why do you want to be in the rental business?
• Do you just want a second home and someone else to pay for it? – There isn’t a darn thing wrong with that approach. Some “serious” owners may frown on that approach but who cares. They think you’re dabbling in the experience. If you’re offering a great experience and maintain the property in prime condition that’s the important thing.
• Do you want to generate income? How much? Is this for retirement? Kids College? Are you in this just for the appreciation on the property? You can do all of the above but you have to fire on all your cylinders to make that happen. You need to buy the property at the right price, build out your budget and stick to it. Get your pricing right, and hit your occupancy numbers. Listen on we’ll hit on most of these points on this podcast.
• Do you really want to be in the hospitality business? Even before you turn on your VRBO Listing you’re in the hospitality business. Congrats. Every detail matters. Every decision you now make determines your rates, demand and satisfactions.
My formula from the start has been this 1 Part Home, 1-Part Hilton, 1-Part Disney. 1-Part Home: you need everything a person expects at home…a place to eat, gather, comfortable bathrooms, kitchen utensils, comfortable seating, lighting, air conditioning and heating. Those things seem basic right? 1-Part Hilton…your guests are traveling they need the amenities of a fine hotel, clean comfortable towels, linens on the beds, highest level of cleanliness, modern electronics, fast Wifi, wide variety of channels or choices on the TV. Finally 1-Part Disney- what makes your guests escape the everyday? What environment are you creating? For us it was creating a log cabin immersion experience. No detail overlooked, nothing from home depot. Black appliances not stainless steel, stainless steel screams suburbs! Natural materials from the copper tub, to the rock sink, live edge counters, no harsh chrome or plastic. The property bothers would die in this cabin there’s no subway tile or gray paint. Other cabins, have a treehouse theme. Others create awesome family escapes with pool tables, arcades, theater rooms, outdoor areas. Surprisingly no one is putting in fitness rooms yet. I expect to see pelotons or equivalent in the not too distant future.
• Are you willing to dedicate hours that you may or may not have time for to things like pricing, marketing, upkeep and so on. Prices change with the seasons or with different events. It takes time and planning to put together a pricing strategy. If you’re just setting one price for the whole year you’ll likely leave money on the table and a lot of it. This takes time knowing this market, school calendars, civic events, holidays, things like that.
What about marketing?
• Are you competent when it comes to technology, can you build a website, can your write social messages, can you produce quality videos, do you understand SEO? Are you really willing to learn? Google Analytics?
Buying a Cabin in the Smokies….Let’s talk about the property:
What type of structure? Cabin, Chalet, House, Condo, Yurt?
How many bedrooms? The more the merrier? One-bedroom honeymoon? Studio?
To view or not to view? What kind of view do you want the cabin to have? Mountain, canopy, forest, waterfront or city view?
What is the property constructed like? Logs, Timberframe, Fake logs, Cedar siding, Modular, high rise?
Are you in a resort with amenities…pool, park, fishing ponds?
Are you stand alone with no amenities?
Buying a Cabin in the Smokies…..What about finances?
Cash purchase or a mortgage?
Money for repairs?
Do you have an estimated budget going in? What is your breakeven? How many nights is that? What is REVPAR?
One of the most popular questions I get asked or see asked on popular boards and groups is… which is the best of the seasons in the Smokies? Great question but also loaded. Most people just start throwing out answers Spring! Summer! Fall! Winter stinks! It’s like asking the Facebook groups who has the best BBQ in the Smokies and sure enough out come 200 people giving only five answers..Delauders, Bennets, Hungry Bear, Calhouns, Corky’s ! Blah, blah, blah. No one ever asks….What kind of BBQ do you like? Beef? Pork? Sausage? Briscuit, Ribbs, Pulled pork sandwich? Wet or Dry? Kansas City Style? St Louis? Memphis? So when I’m asked when is the best time to visit the Smokies I’ll always ask that it depends on what you want to do and what you want to see. There are pros and cons to every season.
If you want a run down of how many visitors come to the area the busiest months are in this order: July, June, August, October, September, May, April, November, March, December, January and February. Summer Months of June, July and August will see 4.5M people. The Fall: Sept, Oct, Nov will see 3.5M, The Spring: March, April and May will have 2.9M and Winter: Dec, Jan and February will see 1.6M visitors. If you’re down there now on July 4th Weekend, Congrats you are there on the busiest week of the year and typically the hottest time of the year!
Although March weather can still be chilly and unpredictable, April and May bring warmer temperatures and an explosion of wildflowers in the meadows and redbud and dogwood trees in the mountain forests. At lower elevations, temperatures hover in the 60s by day, dropping the 40s at night, but the weather can change rapidly from sunny skies to snow flurries early in the season. In this shoulder season, travelers can score lower rates on accommodations on weekdays, but rates are higher for spring weekends, which attract quite a few in-state visitors. Having said that, the spring is seeing an uptick in visitors as the Smokies are becoming a popular destination for spring breakers.
April is characterized by frequent afternoon showers, while May temperatures soar into the 70s and 80s during the day. However, May also sees more than 4 inches of rain, similar to April precipitation totals.
Spring weather can be quite unpredictable with large variances temperatures. Occasionally, the mountains can receive large snowfalls in early March. There are some cool, sunny days that are ideal for going on wildflower hikes.
Spring is a lesser crowded time to explore the Smoky Mountains, so if you’d like to enjoy some privacy during your trip simply plan a visit in March or April. It’s an ideal time to enjoy destinations like Cades Cove, Alum Cave Trail, and Clingman’s Dome without the crowds.
Additionally, spring in the Smoky Mountains is an excellent time to see waterfalls due to elevated flow volume. Abrams Falls, Ramsey Cascades, The Place of 1000 Drips, and Rainbow Falls are especially impressive this time of year.
To fully enjoy the beauty of spring in the Smokies, go for hikes in low elevation regions of the park like Greenbrier and Cades Cove. After all, the Smoky Mountains national park is famous for its biological diversity and a stunning number of wildflowers. Some popular trails to see wildflowers are the Porter’s Creek Trail, The Little River Trail, and the Schoolhouse Gap Trail.
March: Mid priced except for Second Half – Spring Break
April: High Priced First Half- Spring Break, second half mid priced
May: Mid Priced month except for Memorial Day Weekend
Summer in the Smoky Mountains
I hope you love being around other people because this is for many people their favorite seasons in the Smokies. Expect peak lodging rates and heavy traffic on popular routes like the Cades Cove Loop, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Newfound Gap Road in the summer. Temperatures soar into the high 80s and low 90s in lower elevations, although evenings stay comfortably cool in the 60s and 70s. Although the humidity is not as severe as in other parts of the two states, visitors will see some haze and afternoon thunderstorms are fairly common. Reserve hotels and cabins up to a year in advance during this peak season especially large cabins for large groups.
Summer is the perfect time of year to enjoy outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, zip lining, or horseback riding. Wildlife like deer, bear, and turkey are very active during the summer season, so it’s a prime time to see wildlife.
On warm sunny days, many visitors cool off by going to swimming holes in the national park, exploring waterfalls, or by visiting high elevation parts of the Smokies like Newfound Gap, The Chimney Tops Trail, and Clingman’s Dome.
June: High Priced…All of It, Summer Season
July: High Priced…All of it plus 4th of July Premium priced
August: Mid-Priced as summer winds down
Fall in the Smoky Mountains
Fall is one of the most popular seasons in the Smokies. Outdoor enthusiasts enjoy warm days in the 70s and 80s in September and cool nights dipping into the 50s, perfect for hiking and biking. Other visitors enjoy taking scenic drives through the park to enjoy the fall colors, which begins in mid-September when lodging rates are at offseason lows. In October, however, as the days get cooler and the leaves reaches peak color, throngs of visitors flock to the park on weekends, meaning crowds and peak pricing return. By November, temperatures drop to near freezing and snow is a possibility in the higher elevations, which may result in some road closures.
With dry, cool weather and stunning autumn colors, the fall season is one of the best times to go hiking in the national park. Some popular fall hikes to explore are the Alum Cave Trail to Mt. LeConte and The Middle Prong Trail in Tremont.
September: is High priced for Labor Day Weekend but is mid-priced for the remainder
October: all month is High Priced for fall colors
November: The weekends are High but weekdays are mid-priced, Thanksgiving is a premium
Winter in the Smoky Mountains
Winter is certainly not on of the popular seasons in the Smokies. Although winter is fairly moderate in terms of temperature, it’s not unusual to experience extreme weather in the higher elevations. Daytime temperatures generally hover in the 50s, with lows at or below freezing and January and February are the months with the most snowfall. Lodging rates are the lowest during this season, except for holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. Keep in mind, some attractions, visitor centers and campgrounds close during the winter.
Once winter arrives in the Smokies, high elevation areas of the national park routinely see temperatures below freezing. Lower elevation areas like Gatlinburg and Cades Cove usually have mild temperatures and don’t receive much snowfall. January and February are the biggest months to see snow, especially in the higher elevation areas like Mt. Leconte, Newfound Gap, and Clingman’s Dome.
Experience the Winterfest Lights
Every winter, the Sevier County becomes a winter wonderland with more than 5 million lights brightening the night. Now in its 27th year, Winterfest has become one of the most anticipated celebrations in the Smokies. Wherever you drive in the county, you’re sure to see lots of awesome light arrangements. Businesses get in on the fun, too. You can see amazing arrangements at The Old Mill, The Island, Dixie Stampede, and Smoky Mountains Christmas at Dollywood.
December: up until a few days before Christmas, December is mid-priced due to Winterfest. Christmas – New Years is Premium priced.
January: Low priced except for New Years Day- Premium, MLK Weekend
February: Low priced except for Valentine’s Day, Presidents day weekend
Well there you have it the pro and con for all four seasons. You just need to decide which is the best fit for you. Hot or cold, crowded or less-crowded, wildflowers or fall colors. It’s all your personal preference. It’s always a good season to visit the Smokies.