Since this was considered one of my *bigger* birthdays, I knew I wanted to spend my 30th doing something I loved…something that would set the tone for the rest of this year. Since I lucked out having my birthday fall on a Friday, I could take advantage of a long weekend for a mini-getaway. Despite our bags being mostly still packed from out trip to Portugal, I looked into some surroundings areas that we could get to quickly.
Since hiking and being outside fills me with the most joy, I wanted three days full of nature and the ability to be disconnected from the world. I quickly stumbled upon the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located partially in western Tennessee and only an hour-ish flight from D.C. We planned to leave Thursday afternoon for Knoxville and return the following Sunday. We rented a car to make the hour trek to Gatlinburg (with a pass through Pigeon Forge) and to get to the hikes during the day.
My birthday was blessed with warm, sunny temperatures which allowed us to explore for hours each day. This park is huge and we’d have to spend months here to witness every corner, but we hit some big sites that were perfect for a long weekend. Here’s the must-sees for you visit to The Smokies!
One of my favorite parts of staying in the mountains are the unique AirBnB options. There were a plethora of cabins to choose from, all with spectacular views and rustic decor. We choose a wooded home high up on the mountain that offered some serene solitude, but still close enough for us to get to town. We also took full advantage of the hot tub, which turned out to be a necessity given how sore we were after full days of hiking. Since it was a steep and twisty drive up to the top, we made sure to get a lot of groceries ahead of time since we didn’t totally feel up to driving into town in the dark. We did find a pizza shop that delivered up at our altitude which was a life saver our first night there. Many of the homes are within a half an hour to the western side of the park, which made day trips a breeze.
Mount LeConte via Alum Cave
Our first full day there was also my 30th birthday and I wanted to celebrate big with an 11 mile hike up to the top of one of the highest mountains in the park. We took our time in the morning but made it to the trailhead around 9am to find that the lots were completely full. There was plenty of street parking but we made a mental note for future excursions. Although we were anticipating a warm day, it was chilly in the morning and we new the top of the mountain could easily be 30 degrees cooler than where we started. We wore tons of layers and hiking boots and then set off. Since it was a Friday, the crowds were limited but still plenty of people on the trails.
Mount LeConte via Alum Cave is a steep trek up to the top of Mount LeConte, a gorgeous mountain that overlooks the park. There are a number of routes to get there, but via Alum Cave is the shortest (and thus, steepest). After plenty of switchbacks we made it to Alum Cave, which is more like a cut out on the side a cliff where we paused to catch our breath. Almost at the halfway point to the summit, we stopped here to refuel with some snacks we packed beforehand. We then headed off for the final three miles to the top. Some of the prettiest views of the landscape are from this portion of the trail. Because the Smokies can be so foggy (duh), low hanging clouds can conceal your views at the summit so it’s best to get some pictures before you get too high. While I had read this trail was strenuous, we did not find it to be too difficult. It was quite a climb, but there was really only one area that had a very narrow ledge that we had to be careful walking across. The majority of the trail is wide open and easy to maneuver.
At the top of the mountain sits a beautiful lodge with a cafeteria where you can enjoy hot chocolate and some snacks before you head down. Although we weren’t planning to stay at the lodge, you can book a cabin months in advance for a super cool experience. We spent some time at the top waiting for the clouds to clear and resting our legs. Dan had made special plans for a delicious birthday dinner and I could already hear my stomach grumbling in anticipation at this point.
The way down was much, much easier and we made it to the bottom about a half hour quicker than our hike up. Though, the thought of food at this point was giving me a good kick in the pants. Once we got back to our car, I changed into some nicer clothing to head into Gatlinburg!
Gatlinburg is a small town just outside of the Smokies. As you may be aware, there were horrific wildfires in the area in 2016 and you can sense some of the areas on the fringe of the town are still recovering. However, the main strip is beautiful and alive with various shops and restaurants. Dan picked out Taste of Italy for my birthday meal and it was a delicious choice! We were ready to carb load for tomorrow’s hike and probably ate enough garlic rolls to carb-load for the next month. We had a bunch of leftovers which were perfect for an evening snack. After our early dinner, we spent the rest of the day wandering in and out of the fairytale-like store fronts and sampling beef jerky (Dan) and donuts (Juliette). We got some goodies from the Donut Friar (do it!) for the trip home and eagerly headed back up to our cabin to relax in the hot tub overlooking the valley.
The next morning we laid low drinking coffee and soaking in the views before getting ready for another hike. We were feeling pretty sore from the previous day so we chose to do Grotto Falls, a short and sweet hike that leads to a waterfall you can walk behind. We got to the trail a little after 9 and had to search a little harder for parking given it was now the weekend. Once we squeezed in between some boulders, we started our walk upwards through the mountains. Because this trail is a much easier walk, it was packed with young families and groups of kids that made it harder to navigate. While we enjoyed the hike, we would have preferred going at an off time so we could have the path to ourselves. However, putting up with all the noise was so worth the waterfall at the turning point. We learned in Yosemite that the springtime is the best for waterfall viewing and that appears to hold true across the country! The freshly melted snow made for some awesome pictures. This hike only took a couple hours and while I’m always eager to do more, Dan persuaded me that a big plate of pancakes was calling our names.
We said our goodbyes to Gatlinburg and headed to Pigeon Forge, which is a town nearly impossible to describe. Pigeon Forge is almost like a Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined, sans the ocean. There are numerous odd museum exhibits, mini-golf courses, race tracks, themed hotels and, of course, Dollywood. Plus, tons and tons of diners. Sadly, many of the diners closed at noon (what?!) even on the weekend but we were not going to give up that easily. After a couple of busts and some minor hanger breakdowns, we found Frizzle Chicken Pancake Coop and immediately got to ordering a stack of pancakes and chicken biscuits. My multigrain cakes with blueberry on top were the perfect way to celebrate my 30th year. We left for Knoxville happy, relaxed…and stuffed.
We drove the hour or so back to Knoxville and stayed at a hotel next to the small airport since our flight was early the next morning. We spent the rest of the day reading by the pool and trying to transition back to reality!
Overall, this trip to Tennessee was exactly how I wanted to start this new decade. Even though we were only a few hours away from D.C., it felt like a different world! There is still so much I want to see in the Smokies and loved the peace and dreaminess that came with venturing (and eating) our way through Gatlinburg. I see another long weekend trip in our future!
Have you ever been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? How do you like to celebrate your birthday?