Sweeping, Stunning Smokies - 405 Magazine

Sweeping, Stunning Smokies

This famous mountain range has dense forest, cozy cabins and vivid action.

Photo by Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism

This famous mountain range has dense forest, cozy cabins and vivid action. 

Home to some of the mightiest mountains in the nation, oldest rivers on Earth and most staggeringly scenic drives on the road, the Great Smoky Mountains that straddle the Tennessee-North Carolina state line are a bucket list destination of pure Americana, natural beauty and family-friendly fun. Not only does this Appalachian wonderland boast the most visited national park in the United States, flush with hiking trails and sweeping vistas, it’s got charming cities such as Asheville and Pigeon Forge along with cozy boutique lodges, campgrounds, farm-fresh restaurants and more breweries per capita than almost anywhere else in the country. Oh, and there’s also a little place called Dollywood. When you hear the call of the wild (and the theme parks), here’s where to go in and around the Great Smokies. 

Where to Stay

Photo by Wrong Way River Lodge

As small gateway cities to major attractions, there’s no shortage of lodging options in communities like Asheville on the North Carolina side and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. From budget-friendly chains and home rentals to cabins, cottages, campgrounds and everything in between, rest assured there’s something for every type of traveler. 

In Pigeon Forge, a picturesque mountain town with a frontier-era vibe and country twang, Black Fox Lodge is the best of both worlds — a boutique-style Hilton property that marries rustic-chic charms (think faux taxidermy, a wood-paneled bar and a crackling lobby fireplace) with contemporary amenities and a sprawling outdoor pool with a water fountain, slide and nearby fire pit. Outfitted with rooms and suites in varying sizes and affordable rates, it’s an apt go-to for families en route to nearby Dollywood. 

For a break from the hustle and bustle, Dancing Bear Lodge & Appalachian Bistro is a comfy oasis tucked away in the quieter town of Townsend, just west of Pigeon Forge. Nestled on the edge of the Smokies in an area nicknamed the “peaceful side” of the popular park, the homey property features 38 acres to spread out, rove and relax amid nature, along with 26 adorable cottages, log cabins, wooded lofts and villas nestled among the trees. Spread spaciously across the forested property, abodes contain hot tubs, fireplaces, full-service kitchens and porches. Walking trails weave their way to a beer garden, general store and the Appalachian Bistro, which offers locally sourced fare such as charcuterie, smoked trout cakes, lamb ribs and rainbow trout. 

On the North Carolina side, Asheville abounds with hotels, rentals and inns, but one riverside newcomer seamlessly blends rusticity with modernity. Wrong Way River Lodge & Cabins is a boutique campground offering a sort of glamping vibe with 16 twee A-frame cabins, while still being close to urban luxuries. Across the street from the French Broad River Greenway, among the oldest rivers on the planet, its accommodations feature distinctive amenities like hammocks, record players and vintage records, and the on-site Canteen lounge is a quasi-general store and cafe stocked with sandwiches, snacks, drinks and outdoor gear.  

Where to Eat

Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro

Considering its unique geography in a region that combines Southern comfort with Appalachian cookery and Carolina-style barbecue, along with an abundance of local farms and fertile terrain, the Smokies have loads of dining options with culinary gems worth the trek alone.  

A newer restaurant in Sevierville, a few miles up the winding road from Pigeon Forge, The Appalachian has quickly cemented itself as a seminal dining destination. As its name suggests, the intimate, hearth-fired restaurant is all about local sourcing and Appalachian heritage, courtesy of Tennessee-bred chef David Rule. Rigorously seasonal, the menu changes often with items such as honey-swathed chicken skins, butterbean hummus, fried oyster mushrooms with smoked tomato aioli and wood-grilled elk loin flecked with West Virginia sea salt. 

For authentic barbecue and Southern meat-and-three platters, you can’t out-comfort the soulful portions at Tennessee institution Puckett’s Grocery. After originating as a small grocery store in Leiper’s Fork, the homegrown brand has evolved into a handful of statewide outposts—including one in Pigeon Forge—slinging pimento cheese bites, smoked meatloaf, Southern fried chicken and cherrywood-smoked pulled pork. 

Asheville, meanwhile, is a mecca for foodies and beer-swillers alike. Recently heralded as the No. 1 food city in the country by Yelp, the mountain town teems with chef-driven passion projects and a legion of legendary breweries. Snag a seat at Vivian, a European-style bistro serving roasted rutabaga with Cognac cream, crab dip and smoked oysters in a cozy room. More recently, the city welcomed its first full-fledged Filipinx restaurant, Neng Jr.’s, an intimate 17-seater where the bill of fare includes grilled snapper with Chinese pumpkin and smoked Filipino spaghetti. 

Come thirsty, too, because Asheville’s brewery scene is banging. Of the myriad breweries and beer bars scattered all over town, standouts include sour-focused ales in the garage-like Wicked Weed Funkatorium, the city’s first sake brewery at auto shop-turned-bar Ben’s Tune Up and a variety of esoteric IPAs, stouts and doppelbocks at the funky South Slope locale of Burial Beer Co

Where to Play

Dollywood’s Lighting Rod roller coaster. Photo by Steven Bridges.

From panoramic hikes to adrenaline-pumping thrills and toe-tapping entertainment, the Smoky Mountain region boasts all manner of adventure and excitement for all ages. 

In Pigeon Forge, the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster lets guests zoom down tree-lined trails like an all-natural roller coaster, while Outdoor Gravity Park features a unique activity called Zorbing. Fearless visitors can burrow into 11-foot inflatable balls and roll down 1,000-foot hills. For more thrills, The Island is an indie amusement park outfitted with casual eateries, shops and family fun such as an arcade, laser tag, bumper cars, roller coasters and a ropes course. 

Of course, you can’t talk thrills in the Smokies without a stint at the one and only Dollywood. The most famed theme park in Tennessee, this pastoral paradise has 50-plus rides and attractions that run the gamut from cutesy carousels to nerve-tingling coasters, plus a water park, frontier-style shows, fireworks and Dolly-approved country music concerts.

The main attraction in the Smoky Mountains, though, is its namesake national park. With nearly 14 million annual visitors, making it one of the most visited national parks in the country, people flock from all over the world to this free-to-enter marvel for its near-mythical beauty, valleys billowing with smoke-like fog, misty waterfalls and iconic scenic byways weaving through dense forests and along mountain crests. Hiking, horseback riding, biking and fishing are popular pastimes, especially on trails like Chimney Tops, an arduous 1,400-foot ascent for worthwhile vistas of this epochal Appalachian range. 

Photo provided