In our case, we drove a good 10 hours from Kansas City, MO., to our Wyndham timeshare near Gatlinsburg, TN. We basically took the Interstate Hwy past St. Louis to Nashville and then east to Knoxville. The ride WAS long but very scenic in many places and even encountered "smog" around the Nashville area, which was shocking since the last time I saw this orange-brown haze was near L.A. in the 1970's! Since our trip was near the end of the Covid pandemic (we all were fully vaccinated) we were not that concerned and it was only in a few places where people were wearing masks or keeping their distance.
The Park Environs
Our hotel was actually just outside of the park in Sevierville. We had arrived there during a weekday, so we presumed it would be less crowded. Not so! Plenty of traffic in both directions to and from the park entrance which is 20 min. or so. The good thing, unlike many National Parks, entrance was FREE. Parking is FREE. As you pass Pidgeon Forge heading to the park, the two most memorable sites were the Titanic replica looming in the background of the Upside Down building, which was next to the costly Hard Rock Cafe! At first glance, both of these visions are startling- you see them but you can't believe it. The Titanic truly is a large replica right along the road just after the crazy upside down building with upside down trees. Further down the road is King Kong scaling a large hotel.
All this sets the "Viva Las Vegas-like style" strip in miniature. There are so many places to eat, shop for souvenirs, carnival type rides. But, this is NOTHING like what you experience in Gatlinsburg (what a traffic mess), which is on the other side of the park.
Upon entering the park proper, you will soon be in a wonderful, green, tropic-like, environment densely forested. What a relief from just a few miles back! Soon, you will come to a Y intersection. To the left will be going to Gatlinsburg, to the right, to the National Park Bypass road. If you want to just see the park and explore the area, stay to the right. You will come to the Welcome Center, which is usually packed. Very interesting place with bathrooms and a store. It's best to either be early or late for parking is limited.
Following the Bypass Road, it is just a beautiful escape from the other world. Nature is all around along this two-lane road that is windy at times climbing and descending. You will pass the official entrance sign and some hiking spots to explore along. Eventually, you come to the Overlook area. Depending on the weather, you will have wonderful vistas of forested mountains. Plus, at the end of the area, there are restrooms and a hiking trail to take you even further higher.
Much further up the road, some 20 miles or so (just follow the signs to Clingman's Dome Overlook) is the highest point of 2000m or 6000 ft. There is a large parking lot upon arrival and restrooms. Then, you have to walk up a steady climb of a little more than an half mile to Clingman's Dome. This is a structure with a ramp and on a clear day provides the best views of the park. The problem is weather. When we were there, it is literally socked in with low clouds or fog blocking all views. I can only imagine the stunning vistas on a clear day! If you go there, try to be there by 10 AM, it is a VERY popular site and while the parking lot is big, it fills up fast.
After leaving this site, one can return to where you came from or continue along the road for other vistas etc. We returned to where we came and hiked along a mostly flat trail called Alum Cave Trail, right off the road. It was along a beautiful stream with tall green trees for some time and we started to climb after about a mile or so. The gradual climb is easy for most until about the halfway mark of the 6 mile hike one way to the top. Only a few hikers were encountered and that was fine. Once we started some serious climbing we stopped and turned around. It was good to get out of the car!
Once we got back to the Welcome Center, we turned into by bypassed it since the road continues on into a valley where many go to see Laurel Falls, but is was packed, so we continued onto Little River where there was a large parking lot and nice river beach to swim. We hiked on the Chestnut Top Trail, which entrance is right off the road. It was a steady gradual climb into the back country. We never encountered any black bears or other critters just the serenity of the forest.
As far as National Parks go, this is a must see one time thing. It is mainly forested mountains. Like most others, if you just stay in the car it is limited. You really need to get out and hike along many of the trails it offers to enjoy it (you can only see so many vistas of landscapes). It is an easy park to visit for locals also during weekends but even in the work week, it was busy.
We ventured into this small tourist trap to check it out. All I can say is that if you do not like bumper to bumper traffic along a two lane where both sides are packed with tourists and various stores, avoid it! It is just a tourist spot where some of the fun rides like mountain roller coasters, ski lifts to other adventure rides, more stores, originate from. Parking is hard to find and pricey. What should have taken not more than 10 minutes to drive through, took 1 hr. due to traffic crawling. We escaped this horror pit by turning left onto 321 East which loops around to take you you back into Pidgeon Forge. Even that became a crawl as we got closer to that town (remember, this was a weekday).
Overall, this was a one time visit. Compared to Yosemite in California and others in the West, it simply fails in the variety of scenery. If you are not a camper or hiker, it does not offer much but vistas. Access is better than those parks in the West and it is FREE. No reservations needed like those in the West. If weather is good while you are there, Clingman's Dome is a must!
perrya (author) on June 24, 2021:
Like I said, having good weather when going to the 2000m level is critical to see anything. Hiking to many of the waterfalls is usually a busy affair and finding a parking space is just pure luck unless you are there at 10 AM. We ate at the Hard Rock cafe and it is WAY overpriced at $16 for a hamburger, but it was a one time thing. Most gas was $3 or less
Robert Clarke from UK on June 24, 2021:
It sounds great - and free too!! Great pics