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.
Hello Everyone, I’m Chuck Schmidt and I am the Outsider. This is an episode of some pretty cool secret places scattered about in the Smoky Mountains area. Most people just walk or drive by many of these things and never realize what the just missed. A set of carefully hidden stairs that leads to a beautiful cabin, a bridge fit for a troll, a hidden tunnel under the road to Clingman’s Dome. We’re going to explore these secrets and a whole lot more on this episode Secret Places of the Smokies.
One of the lesser known spots is the fairy house along Twin Creeks Trail. We want to tell you all about this cool little spot.
Before we talk about how to get to the fairy house, we want to share the history of this spot with you. A man named Louis E. Voorheis bought and developed land from 1928 to 1944. He owned 38 acres of land in what is now part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Voorheis wanted this area to be a mountain retreat to get away from crowds of people.
Voorheis enjoyed experimenting with water power, which is probably why he chose the property where two creeks run across it. Soon after he bought his land, he started working on a dam for hydroelectric power. He also built a water powered mill and many gardens where water features were prominent. Voorheis liked to use water features as part of the landscape, and he also built a pool, as well as the springhouse, known as the House of the Fairies. Just in case you’re not familiar with a springhouse it’s a small building constructed over a spring, formerly used for refrigeration.
Getting to the Fairy House
To get to the House of the Fairies, you will have to hike the Twin Creeks Trail. To get to the trailhead, you can park at Ogle Place Parking area to start at one side of the trail or at Mynatt Park on the other side of the trail just before the entrance to Cherokee Orchard Road. From there, you’ll have to walk up the road to get to the trailhead. There is a small pull off area at the trailhead but parking at these areas would probably be easier.
Twin Creeks Trail is an easy to moderate, out-and-back trail with a roundtrip length of 4.5 miles elevation gain of about 790 feet. This is not a heavily traveled trail so it will be more overgrown than most you may be used to. This trail also runs parallel to Cherokee Orchard Road so you will be hearing traffic while hiking.
You’ll walk along the creek and see many buildings from the Voorheis Estate. You can walk inside and see what living in log cabins was like without the gameroom, jacuzzi and hot tub. There’s also the Voorheis Estate house you can see. On one part of the creek, you can even see the water mill Voorheis built on LeConte Creek. This is a good trail to see wildlife along the trail, including snakes and black bears.
As you’re walking along the trail and you pass the Resource Center, you’ll see a small path jutting off from Twin Creeks Trail. Follow this trail to get the Fairy House. Once you get to the House of the Fairies, you’ll see an arch wall with a simple open door, with stairs leading to the top. You can go inside the springhouse. The exterior and interior are completely constructed of stone. The stone is covered in moss, which is probably why it was named the House of the Fairies! It’s pretty cool to look a the stonework and just how out of place this appears. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, the Elkmont area was a pioneer community, then a logging town, then a resort town for wealthy vacationers. When the park was established in 1934, Elkmont residents could choose to sell their homes for full value and relocate or sell their properties to the National Park Service for a discounted price in return for a lifetime lease. Once the National Park Service took over, Elkmont slowly started turning into a ghost town.
Today eighteen of the cabins associated with the Appalachian Club are being preserved by the National Park Service. The Appalachian Clubhouse and Spence Cabin were rehabilitated in 2010. Park crews also completed preservation work on four additional cabins in 2017. These four cabins are now open to the public to walk through and view.
While the remaining cabins are closed to the public until preservation work can be completed, visitors can explore the Elkmont area on foot. Hiking the Jakes Creek and Little River trails will lead the visitor past the stone walls and chimneys that mark the former locations of the other resort cabins that once stood in Elkmont.
One very interesting stop that should be on your list is a small stone bridge that is a little off the Little River Trail. The bridge is often called the “troll bridge”. A few hundred feet up from the trailhead is a gravel path going to the right. It’s a path parallel to the stone walls. Follow this path down, and to the left you’ll see the “troll bridge”. The bridge was part of the historic community, and I’m sure served as part of a popular walking or bike riding trail in its day. Much of Elkmont’s original shape and structure has been torn down over the years due to safety concerns and clutter. The troll bridge, however, was spared this fate. Instead, park officials had it cleaned up and fully restored. This bridge is as sturdy and photogenic as ever. You can cross it, pose for photos on it or just sit back and enjoy its quaint beauty. You can visit the bridge at any time, but May and June are particularly vibrant. The moss is bright, the salamanders are scurrying about. Your kids will love exploring this historic bridge. Just don’t get eaten. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Tunnel to Nowhere
The Story Behind “The Road to Nowhere”
In the 1930s and 1940s, Swain County gave up the majority of its private land to the Federal Government for the creation of Fontana Lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Fontana Lake is actually a reservoir for Fontana Dam, which was built as a TVA project during World War II to produce electricity for ALCOA aluminum plants in Tennessee as well as for Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manhattan Project. Hundreds of people were forced to leave the small Smoky Mountain communities that had been their homes for generations. With the creation of the Park, their homes were gone, and so was Old Highway 288 the road to those communities. The old road was buried beneath the deep waters of Fontana Lake.
The Federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with a new road and give everyone impacted lake front property free of property taxes. I made that up but it sounded good didn’t it? Lakeview Drive was to have stretched along the north shore of Fontana Lake, from Bryson City to Fontana, 30 miles to the west. And, of special importance to those displaced residents, it was to have provided access to the old family cemeteries where generations of ancestors remained behind.
But Lakeview Drive fell victim to an environmental issue and construction was stopped, with the road ending at a tunnel, about six miles into the park. The environmental issue was eventually deemed too expensive and the roadwork was never resumed. And Swain County’s citizens gave the unfinished Lakeview Drive its popular, albeit unofficial name “The Road To Nowhere.”
On weekends throughout the summer, the Park Service still ferries groups of Swain County residents across Fontana Lake to visit their old family cemeteries for Decoration Days and family reunions.
The legal issue of whether to build the road was finally resolved in February, 2010 when the US Department of Interior signed a settlement agreement to pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of building the road. In 2018, the last payment was made in the settlement. The State of North Carolina manages the principal and the County receives the interest each year.
Lakeshore and Tunnel Bypass Trail Loop (Goldmine Loop) is a 3.2 mile lightly trafficked loop trail located near Bryson City, North Carolina, Elevation gain of only 446 ft. Trail features beautiful wild flowers and is good for all skill levels.
From the intersection of U.S. 19 and Everett Street in Bryson City, NC, turn north to drive along Everett Street. Once through town the road becomes known as New Fontana Road. Continue on the same road until reaching the park boundary. Here the road becomes known as Lakeview Drive. In total, it’s about 8.5 miles from Bryson City to the Lakeview Drive Tunnel.
Since this is a loop you can start your hike in either direction. For purposes of this trail description we will take a counter-clockwise direction. If you have a fear of walking through the rather long Lakeview Drive Tunnel, you’ll have the option of taking the clockwise approach and using the Tunnel Bypass Trail, which avoids the tunnel.
From the parking area at the end of Lakeview Drive hikers will immediately proceed through the tunnel. Fortunately the tunnel is flat and easy to walk through; however, it’s 1200 feet in length, or almost a quarter-mile long! On dark overcast days you may want to bring a flashlight. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Grapeyard Ridge Trail
Close to Gatlinburg and often incredibly quiet, the Grapeyard Ridge Trail links Greenbrier Cove with the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Many opt to hike the trail from Greenbrier to the ruins of an old steam engine partway along, which makes for a 5.8-mile round-trip undertaking. However, you can extend your adventure by going the full way to Roaring Fork, crossing Grapeyard Ridge—named for prolific grapevines strung through its forests—in the process.
The east end of the Grapeyard Ridge Trail starts near where Porters Creek, False Gap Prong, and the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River merge to create the Little Pigeon River, which begins flowing northward towards Sevierville.
There are five water crossings without the benefit of a footbridge. During the rainy seasons the creek can be virtually impassable due to high water – if you wish to keep your feet dry. If you look around a little further upstream you may be able to find a spot to cross. The summer and fall time periods are usually drier, and are much better times to hike this trail when high water usually isn’t an issue.
There’s much evidence of bygone settlements, including the Whaley Cemetery not far from the Greenbrier trailhead. Along the hike you’ll pass several old homestead sites that were once part of a community known as Big Laurel. At roughly 2.1 miles the trail leaves the creek and begins climbing the ridge to James Gap. As you climb the trail passes through several long rhododendron tunnels. At roughly 2.85 miles hikers will reach the top of the ridge at James Gap. From here the trail makes a quick descent down to Injun Creek where you’ll find the remains of an old steam engine lying in the creek. Although some may suspect that “Injun” refers to “Indian”, it’s actually a misspelling of the word “engine”, apparently the mistake of an old mapmaker.
The engine, a Nichols and Shepard self-propelled, steam-powered machine, known as a traction engine, was brought to the area in the 1920’s to saw wood for the Greenbrier School. During its return trip the driver wasn’t able to execute a switchback, and the engine tumbled into Injun Creek. Many of its parts were salvaged, but the rest was left to rust in the creek bed. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Roundtrip Length: 5.8 Miles
Total Elevation Gain: 980 Feet
Highest Elevation: 2540 Feet
Trail Difficulty Rating: 7.76 (moderate)
Getting there….At the junction of 441 and 321 in Gatlinburg (Light 3), turn to travel eastbound on Hwy 321. Drive 6 miles and turn right into Greenbrier (look for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign on the right). This road will turn into a gravel road after a short distance. From the highway you’ll drive 3 miles to the Grapeyard Ridge Trailhead. There will be a small parking area alongside the road – just before reaching the bridge that takes you to the Ramsey Cascades and Porters Creek Trailheads.
Much like Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley is a historic valley in the national park that used to be home to hundreds of people. However, this secluded region of the national park receives a small fraction of park visitors, so it’s the perfect place to escape to.
Today, this region of the Smokies is home to a wealth of historic landmarks and it’s also a great place for viewing wildlife. In addition to seeing bear, deer, and turkey, visitors to Cataloochee may spot elk, since this valley is home to one of the only wild elk herds in the Eastern US. You can enjoy a tour of Cataloochee by taking the Cataloochee Valley road, a winding, gravel road through the mountains.
A variety of historic buildings have been preserved in the valley, including two churches, a school, and several homes and outbuildings. This is the best place in the park to see historic frame buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cataloochee Valley is nestled among some of the most rugged mountains in the southeastern United States. Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, this isolated valley was one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some 1,200 people lived in this lovely mountain valley in 1910. Most made their living by farming, including commercial apple growing, but an early tourism industry developed in Cataloochee with some families boarding fishermen and other tourists who wished to vacation in the mountains.
In 2001, elk were released in Cataloochee Valley as part of an experimental program to reintroduce elk to the park. The herd can be seen regularly in the fields of the valley, especially in the early morning and evening hours. Visitors to Cataloochee also enjoy viewing deer, elk, turkey, and other wildlife. Wildlife watching can be especially fruitful during mornings and evenings in the valley’s open fields.
• Self-guiding Auto Tour
Learn about the history of the area, including the Little Cataloochee Trail. The inexpensive self-guiding tour booklet is available in a roadside box near the entrance to the valley.
There are several enjoyable trails to hike in Cataloochee. The Boogerman Trail, a 7.4 mile loop, elevation gain of 1040ft and a difficulty level of 9.48 making this a moderate level hike, that takes in groves of old-growth forest, is popular with hikers. The Little Cataloochee Trail follows an old road past old cabins and a church it’s 10.2 miles with an elevation gain of 2345 ft..
The entrance road to Cataloochee Valley is a winding, gravel road that has some steep drop offs with no guard rails. The road is narrow, so drivers may be required to stop or back up their vehicles to allow oncoming motorists to pass. Horse trailer traffic may be encountered on the road. Please use caution when driving on this road.
The most direct route into the valley is to take Cove Creek Road. To get to the valley from interstate I-40, exit at North Carolina exit #20 and travel 0.2 miles on route 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley. To get there from Oconaluftee or Cherokee, take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Highway 19. Follow 19 (toward Asheville) through Maggie Valley. Turn left onto Highway 276 N. Just before the entrance ramp to I-40 (but past gas station), turn left and follow the signs 11 more miles to Cataloochee. Using the Cove Creek Road route, motorists will be traveling on a gravel road for approximately 15 minutes.
A more scenic route (not recommended for RVs) is to take a long winding road, highway Route 32, from Cosby, TN to the Tennessee-North Carolina state border, where the road becomes gravel. It twists and winds into Cataloochee. (This route is not recommended if your passengers are prone to car sickness.) Using this route, motorists will be traveling on a gravel road for approximately 45 minutes. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Mileage to Cataloochee: from Gatlinburg – 65, from Cherokee – 39
Look Rock Fire Tower
Look Rock Tower Trail is a 0.9 mile heavily trafficked out and back PAVED trail located near Maryville, Tennessee that offers scenic views and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, and nature trips and is accessible year-round. There seems to be confusion about this trail when it comes to dogs. Dogs are not allowed on this trail!
Hike from the Foothills Parkway to the Look Rock Tower (observation). The trail has a moderate elevation gain of 170 feet from the trail head to the observation tower. You will pass an air quality monitoring station along the way to the tower. The Look Rock Tower is a concrete observation tower that allows excellent views of the western side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Begin your adventure at the entrance to Foothills Parkway, located in Walland, Tennessee on US 321. If you start in Townsend, drive toward Walland on US 321 and the entrance will be on your left.
The observation tower is a concrete structure allowing visitors to see as far as 40 miles on a clear day. Some of the points of interest are Clingman’s Dome, Mt. LeConte, Rich Mountain, Thunderhead Mountain, and Cades Cove.
Visitors may walk only to the viewing platform of the tower. Park officials blocked off the spiral stairway leading to the enclosed glass observation room. The tower is now used as a weather station, so the observation room is full of weather equipment. The winds are often quite strong at the observation tower. Sometimes you may feel like you need to hang on to something.
The views are amazing from the tower. If you happen to be here in the autumn, the fall colors will blow you away.
WARNING: Some people have noted the railing at the tower is low, about three feet, so if you have small children, be particularly careful around the railing. Adults need to be careful as well, especially on windy days. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Mt Camerer Fire Tower
Although it’s a roundtrip hike of more than 11 miles, this hike to Mt. Cammerer is still the shortest and most commonly used route to the summit of the 4928-foot mountain. From the trailhead hikers will climb the Low Gap Trail for three long miles before reaching the Appalachian Trail. This is a steep and relentless climb that traverses over several switchbacks, while taking hikers through a beautiful, mature hardwood forest as they proceed up the Cosby Creek valley.
The first section of trail travels between Cosby Creek and the Cosby Campground. Portions of this section share the same route with the Cosby Nature Trail, a short loop hike that begins from the campground. At four-tenths of a mile from the trailhead you’ll reach the Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail junction. To continue on the Low Gap Trail you should turn right here.
At just over eight-tenths of a mile hikers will reach an alternative path for reaching the Low Gap Trail. Although this spur trail would shave some distance off your hike, you have to stay at the campground in order to use this route.
At roughly 2.9 miles hikers will finally reach the Appalachian Trail. By this point you will have already climbed more than two thousand feet, thus completing the hardest part of the hike. During our most recent visit, in early May, we were greeted by a carpet of fringed phacelia at this junction. There were literally thousands of these tiny, but beautiful wildflowers covering the forest floor here.
Along the early portions of the Appalachian Trail you’ll continue climbing, however, the terrain isn’t quite as steep as the Low Gap Trail. At roughly 3.7 miles the trail begins to level off, and travel becomes much easier. Hikers will now traverse along a ridge that offers decent views of the Cosby and Toms Creek valleys through the trees.
At just under 5 miles hikers will reach the rugged spur trail that leads to the summit of Mt. Cammerer. The spur is roughly six-tenths of a mile long, is fairly level, but does involve some rock scrambling as you approach the fire lookout. Although the last tenth-of-a-mile traverses over some fairly rugged terrain, it’s nothing that would be considered exceedingly difficult.
Standing at an elevation of 4928 feet, the summit of Mt. Cammerer sits on the edge of a rocky outcropping overlooking the Pigeon River Gorge. On a clear day the views are simply stunning; some even say one of the best in the park, which includes me. In fact, I have ranked this as second on my list of the Best Hikes in the Smokies.
For an even better vantage point, step up to the deck of the stone fire lookout. This “western” style tower, which was fully restored in 1995, provides hikers with outstanding 360-degree views. Look in any direction and see row upon row of mountains. The mountain directly across the gorge, with the white aviation tower at the top, is 4263-foot Snowbird Mountain. Below that you may be able to see the water tower for the hydro-electric plant in the Big Creek area. Towards the south is Mt. Sterling, which also has an old fire tower atop its summit. And of course, towards the southwest, is the seemingly endless expanse of mountains known as the Great Smoky Mountains.
Using hand-cut stone, the octagonal fire lookout atop the summit of Mt. Cammerer was built by local laborers and the Civilian Conservation Corp in the late 1930s. The men who built the lookout drilled and blocked the stone from a quarry only one hundred yards downhill from the tower. Some of these stones weighed as much as 600 pounds!
The architectural style used for the lookout was called “western” because it didn’t require a raised structure to see above the trees.
Between February 15th and May 15th, and then again from October 15th through December 15th, the structure was manned by lookouts who lived on the premises on two-week tours. This lookout was operated until the 1960s when modern fire detection methods were able to replace it.
This is considered a strenuous hike of 11.1 miles with an elevation gain of 3045 feet. Max elevation of 5054 feet. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Thomas Divide Tunnels
Many of you who have visited the Smoky Mountains have heard of or crossed Clingmans Dome Road, but we bet you’ve never seen what’s below it! Did you know that there is a secret tunnel under Clingmans Dome Road? The ornate archway is less than a mile west of the junction with Newfound Gap Road. We’ve got all the details on the secret tunnel under the road and other secret places in the Smoky Mountains:
About the Secret Tunnel Under Clingmans Dome Road
The Thomas Divide Tunnel is less than a mile west of the junction with Newfound Gap Road. When Clingmans Dome Road was finished in 1935, there was a trail that closely paralleled the upper section of Newfound Gap Road on the North Carolina side. It connected to the Appalachian Trail on the far side of Clingmans Dome Road. Instead of routing the trail to cross Clingmans Dome Road, the engineers chose to build the tunnel under the roadbed. This old hiker’s tunnel kept the hikers from having to cross over Clingmans Dome Road.
Why the Secret Tunnel? While the reasoning for building the tunnel under Clingmans Dome Road instead of having the trail cross on the roadbed is not certain, there are a few possibilities! One is that Clingmans Dome Road is elevated above the Appalachian Trail, meaning that switchbacks or stairs would have been necessary to go up or down the road crossing. Another is that the secret tunnel was designed for equestrian use to eliminate possible conflicts between horses and vehicles. It is most likely that the trail was used by hikers and riders from 1935 to 1960.
How to Find the Secret Tunnel
When you come to the gate where the road can be closed for the winter the tunnel is about .2 miles further up. Chances are you’ve driven over this tunnel without knowing of its existence if you’ve ever been to Clingman’s Dome. It looks like you’re just driving over another bridge or stone-walled culvert, but when you walk down you find one of the most unique structures I’ve ever found in these mountains. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
The historic cabin was built by Humphrey Ownby in 1845. It received its current name after being sold to Frank Avent in 1918. Frank’s wife, Mayna Treanor Avent, used the cabin as an art studio until 1940. Though the park purchased the cabin in 1932, the Avent family retained a lifetime lease, and used the cabin until 1992. Two years later the cabin was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Born in Nashville, TN in 1868, Mayna Treanor Avent would become a nationally renowned artist. Mayna was famous for painting a variety of subjects in both oil and watercolors. She also carved woodblocks to create prints in the Japanese style. Her works have been exhibited across America, including the Smithsonian Institute’s National Portrait Gallery. You can learn more about Mayna in Women of the Smokies, a book published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association in 2016.
The hike to the Avent Cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains begins from the Jakes Creek Trailhead in Elkmont. To reach the trailhead from the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, drive 4.9 miles west along the Little River Road to the turnoff for the Elkmont Campground, which will be on your left. After turning into Elkmont, drive 1.4 miles to reach the campground entrance. Instead of proceeding into the campground, turn left and drive another 0.8 miles to the parking area for the Jakes Creek Trailhead at the end of the road.
From the Townsend “Y” intersection near Cades Cove, the turnoff for the Elkmont Campground will be 12.6 miles away.
From the fairly large parking area, walk through the gate on the far end of the road to begin your hike along the Jakes Creek Trail. Almost immediately you’ll begin passing the remnants of several old cottages.
After walking roughly one-third of a mile along the old gravel road the Cucumber Gap Trail will branch off towards the left. Hikers should continue by proceeding straight ahead here. A short distance from this junction is the Meigs Mountain Trail, which forks off to the right.
After passing the two trail junctions, continue up the Jakes Creek Trail for roughly four-tenths of a mile. Locating the short, unmarked spur trail to the Avent Cabin can be a bit of a challenge. You’ll need to take your time and keep your eyes focused on the right side of the trail. At roughly four-tenths of a mile from the Meigs Mountain Trail junction there will be a short, but noticeable left-hand crook in the footpath. At this crook the trail also passes over a shallow creek. From this point you should travel another 25-30 yards and begin looking for a slight indentation in the trail that leads off to the right. You’ll know you’ve reached the correct spur trail when you see a set of wooden steps leading directly off the side of the trail. If you have a GPS, the coordinates for this junction are 35.63731 -83.58477.
From the wooden steps the short spur trail leads downhill to cross over Jakes Creek. After crossing a rather long footbridge you’ll continue walking up the hill on the opposite side for another 50 yards or so to reach the cabin. Although it’s not an official trail, the footpath is very easy to follow. However, during rainy weather, the path becomes very slick and muddy.
The cabin contains bedframes, gardening tools, a stone fireplace, and an attached kitchen with sink and iron cooking stove. This one really is a hidden gem, the cabin is so well preserved, you feel like your standing inside someone’s current rustic cabin looking out waiting for the Avents to arrive.
I really had mixed feelings about including this one in the podcast. This cabin is so pristine I’d hate to see idiots who are intent on carving their initials into everything in the park deface this beautiful structure. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Rich Mountain Road
Got an all wheel drive or four-wheel drive vehicle and you’re up for some adventure. If so, then you are in for a treat out by Cades Cove on Rich Mountain Road.
Here’s my disclaimer….Rich Mountain Road is more primitive than many of the main paved roads in the park, so there are some issues you need to be aware of depending on the conditions. The road is covered in gravel and usually suitable for most passenger vehicles, but heavy rains for an extended period of time can render parts impassable for some or all vehicles. You can inquire about the current conditions with a park ranger before traversing the road.
Additionally, the road is seasonal, and is usually open from April through mid-November. Buses, RVs, vans longer than 25-feet, and vehicles towing trailers are always prohibited on Rich Mountain Road.
That said…Rich Mountain Road offers an alternative way to leave Cades Cove if you want to take a break from the traffic. It’s a one-way, 12-mile journey on a twisting gravel road that leads north out of Cades Cove and ends in the town of Townsend. The road winds through quiet forest that often features excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing and nature photography.
Cades Cove is one of the most visited natural areas in the country, and there’s no denying that during the busy seasons the traffic on the main thoroughfares can get maddening. Rich Mountain Road offers a quieter, less traveled road that offer some of the same opportunities for scenic vistas and wildlife-watching opportunities.
Despite the fact that it is easily accessible from the popular Cades Cove, Rich Mountain Road feels far away from the activity of the national park, and more like a secluded nature preserve. It’s one of the most unfrequented areas of the park that is open to public car traffic. The winding road passes by waterfalls, streams, and cliff sides as it travels up Rich Mountain and down the other side toward Townsend. You will feel so much better about your ride up the mountain back to your cabin after taking this little adventure. I’m just kidding!
There is a scenic overlook on the road that provides an outstanding view of the Primitive Baptist Church in the valley below. This is the signature view of Cades Cove, that you’re always seeing in pictures so have your camera at the ready. Keep in mind this is a drive through the park and through a forest where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people need a view from Clingman’s Dome or New Found Gap and want that on every turn. Other appreciate the quiet forest, the thick stands of trees and find beauty in that. Decide which person you are before you get on this 12-mile one-way road that exits out of the park and into Townsend.
You can access Rich Mountain Road from the Cades Cove Loop Road. The junction is on your right just after Hyatt Lane. You will not have access to this road on Wednesdays due to Cades Cove now being closed to vehicle traffic on Wednesdays. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Smokies Super Secrets Day!
If you want to have a Smokies Secrets Day on your vacation you can knock a few of these out on a loop tour. If you enter the park through Sugarlands entrance, turn right and head towards Cades Cove. In four miles you’ll come to the Elkmont entrance. In Elkmont you can knock out the Troll Bridge and hike to Avent Cabin. Get back in your car and you can head out to Cades Cove where you can take the Rich Mountain Road to Townsend. In Townsend you can grab lunch at the Burger Master Drive-In and then catch the Foothills Parkway back to Pigeon Forge. The Foothills Parkway will take you to Look Rock Fire Tower, stop take some pictures and enjoy the incredible views from the Parkway. In one day you’ll see more of the parks secrets that 95% of most visitors miss.
There also a few cool little secrets hidden around the towns, here are just a few…
Harrisburg Covered Bridge
Before the Harrisburg Bridge was built in 1875, the McNutts Bridge, which was washed away during a flood, existed in the same place. In March of that year, the Sevier County Court ordered a panel to be used to carry out and organize the construction of a new bridge. As usual at the time, the local population contributed to the financing, or provided them with construction material, or worked as an assistant in building the project. The voluntary cash donations totaled $50, with the county’s $25 contribution.
In the late years of the 19th century, the population grew around Harrisburg, and life in the area flourished due to the many local mills and blacksmith workshops. In 1915 a new bypass was built around Harrisburg, the community slowly disappeared as many people moved away but the bridge remained.
In 1952 the bridge was stabilized with the help of a concrete bridge pillar attached to the building framework.
In the 1970s, the overall state of the bridge had deteriorated so much that it was thought to demolish it, until the organization Daughters of the American Revolution raised the necessary financial resources to rehabilitate the bridge by donating revenue. It was also the organization that made the request to include the bridge in the National Register of Historic Places, which succeeded on June 10, 1975 (NRHP-ID 75001777).
In 1983 the bridge was re-established, but it was noted on the bridge that the crossing for vehicles must not exceed the permissible total weight of three tons.
In 2004 various repairs were carried out on the bridge. After this further renovation, the permissible total weight was increased to 15 tons. As of 2010, an average of 20 vehicles per day crossed the bridge.
If you’re heading over to the Bush Beans Museum than make this a short little side trip, it not far out of your way. Take the Dolly Parton Parkway to Old Newport Road onto Old Covered Bridge Rd. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Dolly Parton Statue
You’d think this would be in Dollywood but there is a statue to Dolly in downtown Sevierville.
This famous statue is Sevier County’s way of saying thank you to their favorite daughter for her incredible generosity and relentless promotion of tourism in the Smokies. Despite her tremendous success, Dolly never forgot where she came from. In 1986, Parton opened the Dollywood, which is now the largest employer in Sevier County and the #1 ticketed attraction in Tennessee.
Soon after Dollywood was launched, the people of Sevier County started raising money for a statue of Dolly to display in downtown Sevierville. Local artist Jim Gray was chosen to create the statue, having submitted a 10-inch wax-over-metal model of the statue as a proposal.
Once Gray’s concept was approved, Dolly came down to pose for the statue, sitting on a stool, barefoot, with her arms wrapped around a guitar. Next, Gray built a skeleton of Dolly from steel and brought her to life with 300 pounds of clay. Jim Gray spent over 2,000 hours creating the Dolly Parton statue in Sevierville.
The statue was officially unveiled on May 3, 1987, exactly one year after Dollywood’s very first opening day. The ceremony was attended by Dolly, her father Lee, and a crowd of around 500 spectators. Speaking at the event, Dolly told the people of Sevierville that the statue “makes me feel like you folks are proud of me, and I’ve always wanted you to be.”
Jim Gray also spoke at the ceremony, telling the crowd that he had received more offers for help on creating the statue than any other project he had worked on. Gray recalled, “Everyone wanted to help…carry clay, or anything. But I wanted to do this one myself.”
The Dolly Parton statue meant a great deal to Dolly’s late father, Lee Parton. In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Parton told a heartwarming story about her father’s devotion to her statue:
“After her Dad died, one of her brothers told her that her Daddy used to put a big bucket, a big oil drum of soapy water, and a broom in the back of his truck, and late at night, he’d go down to the statue and scrub all the pigeon poop off it. A fathers love for his daughter. It touched her. Dolly cried her eyes out.”
The Statue is in Downtown Sevierville at the courthouse located at 125 Court Avenue in Sevierville. While you’re down there swing over to Graze Burgers for a great meal! This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
This is just a really unique little museum that’s fun to go through. It’s the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. The World’s only Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
When you find yourself in this part of the world stop by and see over 20,000 sets of Salt and Pepper Shakers from around the world, and a huge Pepper Mill collection!
I’m sure the first question that comes to your mind is why would someone open this museum???? One of the main purposes is to show the changes in a society that can be found represented in shakers. As you walk through the museum you can see the changes from ancient times to the 1500’s, 1800’s, 1920’s, 40’s, 60’s all the way to present time.
Another purpose of the museum is to show the variety and the creativity that can be found in salt and pepper shakers. Who were the people and the artists creative enough to come up with all these amazing different shapes?
The third purpose of the museum is to bring people together. We are all connected to salt & pepper shaker collectors, a grandparent (or other family members), a friend, a co-worker, or a neighbor. And everyone has a memory about a salt & pepper shaker, either from their childhood or later in life.
Here’s mine, when I was a kid my grandmother had a salt and pepper shaker in the shape of a toaster. The toast was the color of white and rye bread and the toast went up and down with the push of a button. As a little kid were entertained by these shakers…it was a different time right? When I toured the museum, I kept watch to see if they had the toaster and sure enough there it was!
As you explore the collection you will see the salt & pepper shakers displayed by themes and colors. They have also created little stories (within the displays. Each theme is separated by pepper mills. They currently have over 1500 pepper mills from all over the world. Check out the mechanisms on these pepper mills, they’re fascinating, from simple to complex. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Wild Plum Tea Room
Inspired by Austrian-style tea houses, lunch at The Wild Plum restaurant and tea room is a must for any visit to Gatlinburg, TN. Located in the historic Arts & Craft Community, They offer fresh home-made and delicious food unlike any other restaurant in Gatlinburg. Although they were originally established as a tea room and lunch restaurant we are now more of a lunch restaurant and do not just serve tea.
Our lunch menu selection may include; appetizers, soups, salads, specialties, desserts and more. Vegetarian, vegan and allergy-accommodated meals are available. From our hearty Lobster Pie and their famous Wild Plum chicken salad, they are sure you will find something for every person in your party, including the kids.
Need to bring your pooch? They are a Gatlinburg dog friendly restaurant. Dogs are allowed on the outside porch deck with their owners when weather permits. Please make sure all dogs are on leashes. We are happy to provide your furry friend a bowl of cold water while you dine on our deck. Sorry, but dogs, other than service dogs, are not allowed in the inside of our restaurant or on our enclosed patio area.
The Wild Plum is OPEN Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11 am until 3 pm, Reservations recommended. No same day reservations. Pre-planned curbside available Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Food is prepared fresh daily. 24 hours notice for pick-up orders.
The Tennessean Magazine rated the Wild Plum Tea Room as one of the 10 Best restaurants in Tennessee. Now you know why this made our secrets list. You’d think they would be located in downtown Gatlinburg but no they are tucked away in the Arts and Crafts Community at 555 Buckhorn Road. Plan ahead, you won’t be disappointed going here. This is one of our Secret Places in the Smokies!
Super Secret – 2 for 1, Self Spoiling Secret
Fruitful Vintage Personal Chef Service & Gatlinburg Mobile Massage
Fruitful Vintage can come to your cabin rental or home and prepare delicious meals on-site, for your special event. Chef Ray’s goal is to add a unique service and personal touch for every customer he serves. Buffet services include: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Holiday, Finger Foods or arrange your own BBQ without leaving your cabin or chalet. From a 4-course romantic dinner for two or a 3-4 or 5 course feast for twenty they can make your meal special.
Check our fruitful-vinatge-chef.com for complete detail.
Next is Gatlinburg Mobile Massage. If you just returned from a hike to Mt Camerer and need to relieve those aching muscles or just to help enhance your stress relief vacation, Gatlinburg Mobile Massage will come to your cabin and chalet for a relaxing 60 or 90-minute Professional Therapeutic Massage. Gatlinburg Mobile Massage is Gatlinburg’s number one mobile massage team with over 450 five-star reviews. Weather permitting, they can set up on the deck outside your cabin and you can enjoy the tranquil sounds of nature and feel the fresh mountain air surround you during your outdoor massage.
Check out Gatlinburg-mobile-massage.com for more information.
Well that wraps up my favorite secret of the Smokies episode, ten of them inside the park and five of them outside the park. It’s one thing to hike to a waterfall or a scenic view but something else when there’s a bit of a secret treasure hunt involved to make things a bit more fun.
Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains is a magical time of year. Join Chuck Schmidt, travel host for a tour of the area’s best events, attractions and holiday shows.
Just think of it, 15-Million lights in just 25 miles, that’s what you’ll experience at Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains. Sevierville, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge pull out all the stops in creating a winter wonderland everyone has to see in their lifetimes. Add the special experience of Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas and thier 5 million lights on display and you’ll soon make this visit a family tradition.
Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains runs from November 22nd through February 15th. Winterfest in Pigeon Forge kicks off on Thanksgiving evening with fireworks at the Titanic Museum at 7pm . Another must-see is on November 23rd and it’s the lighting of the Christmas Trees at The Island in Pigeon Forge with nearly 40,000 ornaments, half a million lights and more than 5,000 feet of garland.
Gatlinburg’s winter calendar of events is packed with fun seasonal activities like Winterfest, Great Smoky Thanksgiving Arts & Crafts Show, Festival of Trees, Smoky Mountain Tunes and Tales, the Great Smoky Christmas Arts & Crafts Show, the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade, and the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop and Fireworks show, just to name a few.
In Sevierville special Winterfest attractions, like Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland at Smokies Stadium (November 15, 2019 – January 5, 2020), add to the excitement. This 1.5-mile drive through LED light and music experience features fun extra activities for the kids, including crafts and photos with Santa (beginning after Thanksgiving).
Winterfest lights in Pigeon Forge shine
from November 22nd through February 17th. See more than 5 million shining
Pigeon Forge holiday lights when you take the Winterfest Driving Tour of
Along your driving tour, you’ll see bear,
deer, fox and other critters native to the Smoky Mountains “wandering” through
Pigeon Forge. Sparkling lights, giant ornaments, and tall, tall trees are seen
on Island Drive and throughout the Island in Pigeon Forge. Even the
200-foot-tall Great Smoky Mountain Wheel shows off the holiday spirit with red,
green and white lights.
Another highlight of Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains are all the holiday shows at the dinner theaters. Including; Twas the fight before Christmas at the Hatfield & McCoy Christmas Disaster Dinner Feud™, Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Stampede! , Christmas at the Smoky Mountain Opry. That’s just a few, there are more Christmas shows at The Comedy Barn, Magic Beyond Belief, Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre, Country Tonite and more.
If you’re looking for a memory to last a lifetime than consider a ride on the THE POLAR EXPRESS™ . Over 90,000 guests rode THE POLAR EXPRESS™ with the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in 2018 and anticipate the same in 2019! The 1¼ hour round-trip excursion comes to life as the train departs the Bryson City depot for a journey through the quiet wilderness for a special visit at the North Pole.
Set to the sounds of the motion picture soundtrack, guests on board will enjoy warm cocoa and a treat while listening and reading along with the magical story. Children’s faces show the magic of the season when the train arrives at the North Pole to find Santa Claus waiting. Santa will board THE POLAR EXPRESS™, greeting each child and presenting them with a special gift as in the story, their own silver sleigh bell. Christmas carols will be sung as they return back to the Bryson City Depot.
Those are just a few of the events, attractions and experiences you can expect at Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains. For more details list to the bonus episode of our podcast – An Outsiders Guide to the Smoky Mountains.