Getting ‘Round the Mountains

By: Jackie Eurice-Kenney
hiker on a mountain

Many visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains like to take it all in a little at a time. That’s why this region is such a draw for hikers, bicyclists, and others who want to venture out at their own pace. By doing so, they’re able to discover native plants and animals, remote waterfalls, or maybe a good fishing spot. Others like to see as much as possible as quickly as they can. That’s where modern transportation and other fun excursions come into play. But just because you’re in a place known for its wilderness doesn’t mean you’re far from a few luxuries. Whatever your preference—fast or slow transportation—there are quite a few ways to explore small areas in the region or the entire Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The pace you set is based on the method of transportation that you choose. Just make sure to leave your car behind so you can focus on the stunning surroundings and not have to worry about the road ahead.

Personal and Peaceful

There are many natural areas that are definitely worth exploring in this region. And going by foot may be one of the best ways to do so. Throughout the national park, numerous hiking paths take trekkers to secluded spots that may include waterfalls, historic landmarks or scenic overlooks. Plus, you’ll be able to travel at your own pace—pausing wherever you like to investigate a native plant or observe (at a distance) wild animals such as elk or bears as they go about their day. The most famous hike in the Smokies is along the Appalachian Trail, which extends throughout the entire park from the southwest to the northeast. Other popular hikes take adventurers through the backcountry on journeys to hidden features such as waterfalls or balds. Look for the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking Map in your What-to-Do guide for a trail that suits your speed.

Bicycling through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can be a bit tricky due to automotive traffic and tight turns around mountains. However, one of the best and most popular locations to partake in this activity is at Cades Cove. At select times, the trail is even closed to automotive traffic so that bicyclists can safely ride along the 11-mile loop. Mountain biking can also be done on the Gatlinburg Trail, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and the lower Deep Creek Trail. These are the only paths in the park for bicyclists but please use caution because they are open to hikers as well.

A number of stables in some of the areas surrounding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offer horseback riding across acres of beautiful land. Mount your trusty steed and follow the guides as they take you through the hills and across rivers or creeks on an invigorating ride into nature. It’s actually great exercise for both you and your horse while also being easy on your feet! Visit Pigeon Forge’s Big Rock Dude Ranch at Ponderosa, the Jayell Ranch in Sevierville, or the riding stables at the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm.

Scenic and Relaxing Tours

All aboard! In Bryson City, NC, visitors can board the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad for an amazing trip on an old-fashioned locomotive. Travel through the countryside while taking in breathtaking sights. On a nice day you can even reserve a seat in the open-air gondola for unblemished views of the passing landscape. Tours that traverse the Nantahala Gorge or the Tuckasegee River are available, and there are also options for wine or moonshine exploration rides for adults, as well as kid-friendly, holiday-oriented journeys.

For just a few dollars, the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge can be explored by trolley. Hop on at one of the stops and travel throughout the cities or to attractions such as Dollywood, the national park or the Arts and Crafts Community. There are over 100 stops and about a dozen routes. Check your What-to-Do guide for a map that details the trolley destinations.

By riding just over the tree line on the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway, you’ll be able to take in majestic sights and maybe even have the chance to see wildlife from above. For 45 years, visitors have been able to take this unique transport from downtown Gatlinburg to the ski resort and amusement park atop Mt. Harrison. Not only is the aerial tramway a more efficient means of traveling up the mountain, but it is also much safer than driving a car around the curvy mountainous roads that are sometimes covered in snow and ice. Plus, it’s a great way to see a spectacular view!

Thrilling Adventures!

Take a trip through the mountains on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Riders from tweens to adults will love the thrill of driving along trails that wind through the woods, along rivers and over hills. Bluff Mountain Adventures is one of several companies that offer guided, adrenaline-filled ATV tours over easy and rough terrain. On the journey, you’ll see impressive views of the Tennessee wilderness while having an incredible time on your ATV. Be advised: you may get a little dirty on this wild ride!

There are many scenic drives around the Great Smoky Mountains, and motorcyclists love the opportunity to take their bikes around the curves of the road. Nowhere is that more enticing than on the “Dragon.” This internationally renowned 11-mile stretch of US-129 winds along the southwestern border of the national park and offers a few areas to stop for scenic overviews. The Dragon (also referred to as the Tail of the Dragon) stretches from Chilhowee, TN to Deals Gap and Lake Cheoah in North Carolina.

You’ll have perhaps the best possible view of the Smokies—a bird’s-eye view—by taking to the air on a helicopter tour. If you’ve already explored the region on land, you’ll be able to see all the places you’ve trekked through from a new perspective. If this adventure occurs on the first day of your vacation, then you’ll certainly start your trip with a fantastic overview! Scenic Helicopter Tours in Sevierville offers different packages featuring varying sites. Some are easily affordable and are great opportunities to take to the sky. This is a highly recommended tour—especially for those who have never been for a ride in a helicopter. 

Whatever means of exploring the Great Smoky Mountains you pick, you are sure to have an exciting and adventurous time!