In August my husband and I ventured to the southwest part of our state, North Carolina, for a much-needed few days in the mountains. While I have been to the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Asheville and Boone areas, I had never been south of Asheville. And visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been on my destination bucket list for several years. To stay the least, this visit didn’t disappoint!
Adding another layer onto this brief vacation is the fact that during this time our state was under COVID-19 restrictions, as the virus was still affecting our state. Observing social distancing and wearing our masks was important to us. So that certainly made things a little different than any other trip we’ve taken. But we took precautions and had a great time and stayed perfectly healthy.
After we narrowed down the area we wanted to visit, the next thing I did was make reservations through Airbnb where I found a cozy little mountain cabin. See my Airbnb review and photos of our cabin experience here.
We stayed in Maggie Valley, N.C., which offers close-by access to both the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had two full days plus one morning to fill, and decided to focus on the Blue Ridge Parkway and North Carolina sites the first day and the National Park and crossing over into Tennessee on the second day.
Friday: Bryson City, hiking at the Road to Nowhere, and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway
Friday we visited Bryson City, which is on the North Carolina side of the National Park, and a place I’d heard a lot of nice things about. There is a lovely downtown to browse, several restaurants, and a visitor’s center and museum. It’s also the home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which takes riders on an open-air day trip (which I would love to do sometime but we didn’t really have time for it on this trip).
We ordered take-out sandwiches and enjoyed eating our lunch at a covered pavilion next to the river.
That day we also stopped for coffee and a snack at Mountain Perks, where we had a chance to chat with the friendly owner. She recommended a few places to visit and gave us brochures on the waterfall trails near town, and 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 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The government promised to replace Highway 288 with a new road. But construction was stopped, with the road ending at a tunnel.
After hearing the story of the Road to Nowhere, my husband really wanted to visit it, so we headed there next. There are hiking trails at this location. We parked at the lot near the tunnel and started going toward it, only to find park rangers there blocking off the entrance because a sick bear was in the vicinity.
They said we could do the Tunnel Bypass trail, which we did. That led to part of the Goldmine Loop trail where we found ourselves at the 356′ long tunnel after all. So we walked through it, using our phones as a flashlight.
After that we got back in the truck and headed to the Blue Ridge Parkway, via the southernmost entrance of the Parkway. I’d never been to the beginning (or is it the end?) before.
All of the parkway is gorgeous, but I think this part in the Smokies may be the most beautiful of all. We stopped at almost all of the overlooks to take pictures and enjoy gazing out over miles and miles of mountaintops and clouds drifting by.
After a full day of outdoor exploration of Bryson City, the hike, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were ready to relax so we went back to our cabin for dinner.
Saturday: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Saturday was the day I’d been waiting for — we finally got to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! There is a road that crosses the park from Bryson City to Gatlinburg, Tennessee (Highway 441) and we took that.
First stop in the park was at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center, which features a large property with an outdoor farm museum. The exhibits, with structures relocated to the site and formed into a homestead, show rural mountain life in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It’s situated next to a stream and is a nice place to walk around and learn some local history.
Then we drove through the Park on Highway 441. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. It was busy, but for the most part easily navigable. That day we were mostly looking to just auto tour rather than hike, so we didn’t visit any trails.
In the park, we took the road for Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At 6,643 feet, it is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. The 7-mile road ends in a parking area. This part was very congested. We waited in a long line of vehicles to enter and then circle the parking area (there wasn’t any other way to go), only to find there was little hope of getting a parking spot or even to be able to stop. My husband was driving, and I hopped out of the truck to run over to the overlook to take photos of the incredible view, while he was in the slow-moving traffic circle. I would have liked to be able to stay there longer and for him to see it, too.
After that, we returned to Highway 441 and continued toward Gatlinburg.
I was looking forward to my first visit to Tennessee and seeing Gatlinburg. But honestly, I was disappointed to find that downtown Gatlinburg was basically The Boardwalk but on a mountain town street. It was packed with people, and so much more crowded than the quaint Bryson City. We saw not much social distancing and, sadly, many folks were not wearing masks. Gatlinburg was chain restaurants, t-shirt shops, souvenir stores, bars, “wild west” old-time photo place, Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum…you know, The Boardwalk.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, but this trip we didn’t want The Boardwalk. The tourism popularity is good news for their economy, and that’s a great thing, but it’s just not our scene. Not right now. We drove through town (which took a while, foot and motor traffic was heavy) and kept going.
We drove through the countryside, and just enjoyed taking in the lovely scenery of rolling hills and blue skies. We stopped at a roadside stand for some authentic Tennessee barbecue, and took it to the Douglas Dam where we enjoyed a picnic lunch at the park overlooking the dam.
Then we returned to our cabin in Maggie Valley, N.C., to have dinner and rest a bit before the evening’s plans. We were going to see the sunset on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
Saturday evening: Sunset on the Blue Ridge Parkway
We parked at the Thunder Struck Overlook and sat in the back of the truck to await the magic. There were a few other people there, too, for the same reason. They had nice cameras. Today I was just using my iPhone, but you really can’t take a bad photo with this kind of scenery. Look at these shots of the sun setting in the mountains!
Sunday: Deep Creek waterfall trails near Bryson City
Sunday was check-out day, but we wanted to at least see some waterfalls before heading home. The owner at Mountain Perks had suggested the Deep Creek waterfall trails near Bryson City. The trails aren’t too long, and there are three waterfalls in close proximity at that location.
As part of our protocol on this trip, while hiking we kept our masks handy, and put them on when we encountered others on a trail.
After that, we went back into town and had a delicious lunch at Mountain Perks (which I highly recommend!) and told the owner, Pam, how much we appreciated her sight-seeing suggestions.
Next time we visit, I’d love to go tubing in Bryson City, ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, and visit Dollywood. There’s no shortage of things to see and do here.
We had a wonderful time on our weekend getaway, and can’t wait to return! If you’re looking for a beautiful vacation destination any time of year, you’ll fall in love with western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
©Michelle Rogers, Inc.
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