One of the highlights of our honeymoon in the USA was a week spent in the Great Smoky Mountains on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. We spent 6 nights in a log cabin in Sevier County just outside of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Where to stay
After flying into Charlotte airport and renting a car we made our way to Tennessee getting our first views of the mountains. We rented our cabin through Cabins of the Smoky Mountains who often have deals available so it’s worth checking the offers before booking, for our stay we got 6 nights for the price of 5.
Our cabin was called A Mountain Hibernation and is listed to sleep 4 people, however it is a studio living arrangement so better for couples. They do have cabins to suit all groups though so check the website, they will have something big enough for your family, even if you’re bringing all your friends as well!
What to do
You won’t be short of things to do in this area of the USA, whether you’re travelling as a couple like us or with family there are plenty of activities to keep everyone entertained. We’ll split our recommendations of what to do while in the Great Smoky Mountains area into two lists. The first will focus on what there is to do in the towns just outside of the National Park and the second list which will come in Part 2 will be what there is to do within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Within the towns
The towns just outside of the National Park, particularly Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are very touristy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there! If you’re staying in a cabin you will find that most rental companies provide vouchers for activities while you’re in the area, check through these and see if you are interested in any of the offers, you can find some great savings.
The towns are not walking distance apart and the Parkway in Pigeon Forge is very long and not very suitable for walking so you will want to take your car to look around there, alternatively take the trolley which runs in the high season. Gatlinburg is walkable however so if you’re staying near there you could leave your car parked up and head into town to explore.
Dolly Parton’s Stampede
We pre-booked our tickets for the Stampede before arriving in Tennessee and it is advised to book in advance if you can. The box office is open during the day though so you could head there on your first day in town and see what they had available during your stay.
This is a dinner theater which was a new experience for us, it’s not something we have in the UK or Europe really. The show is in a huge arena with seating around the edge and everyone facing inwards on bench seating with a fixed table. You will not go hungry during the show you get plenty and it won’t be wasted, if you can’t finish your meal the staff will come around with food bags for you to take your leftovers home. Each person, including children, are served a vegetable soup and biscuit (more like a savoury scone than what we would recognise as a biscuit at home) to start. Then you are served the main course of a whole chicken, a pork loin chop, half a baked potato and corn on the cob. And then you are all served dessert which is an apple turnover, described as a Speciality Dessert. All of this is included in the ticket price, as well as unlimited drinks, no alcohol though.
The evening starts with a country band performance while you have your first drinks, and you can buy snacks too, not that you will need them! The band were great and tried to get the audience involved and fired up ready for the main show.
The main show is fantastic, it’s fun for all the family, all ages and backgrounds. There’s lots of music as you would expect, it’s Dolly Parton’s show after all, there are also lots of animals in the show, the horses you can see close up during the day when you head to the box office to get your tickets, all the animals seem well kept. You leave with an upbeat feeling and having experienced a very patriotic atmosphere. You will find very few foreigners here so although yes the area is very touristy it’s also very American.
You’re in Tennessee and in the mountains, if you’re old enough to try some don’t miss out on a moonshine tasting. There are plenty of places where you can do this and we tried two of them.
We visited Ole Smoky Distillery first which conveniently has a car park underneath it where you can leave your car for a while. You won’t be able to drive afterwards so plan to spend sometime around the town after your tasting, don’t drink and drive.
Ole Smoky has lots of flavours of moonshine and lots of merchandise too if you would like to get some souvenirs while you’re here. They have a large complex which contains the tasting booths, the shop, the distillery itself as well as an entertainment area where a band was playing on our visit.
You get to taste a lot of moonshine for just $5 at Ole Smoky Moonshine, and they range in strength from many flavours around 20% abv (40 proof) right up to 64% abv (128 proof) which is their Blue Flame flavour, it’s supposed to taste of a bunch of nice things but it tasted like fire to us, every bit the 64% that it is, the 20 – 50% abv range were very tasty though. So tasty that we actually bought two bottles of moonshine and a bottle of their salted caramel whiskey which we got to try in the tasting as well.
The second moonshine distillery we visited was Sugarlands where we also got to go on a tour of their distillery. All of the moonshine sold under their name is distilled, bottled and shipped from Gatlinburg, and it’s not as big a premises as what you would expect for the amount of moonshine they’re producing and shipping.
We started with a moonshine tasting (on a different day to our tasting at Ole Smoky!) they have different flavours here but some were the same, apple pie flavour seems to be sold by all the distilleries for example. The strongest they have here is 100 proof (50% abv) which is strong enough really! The servers here were really fun and went above and beyond what you would expect from a tasting, they’re like entertainers.
We had to buy one of their flavours to take with us and chose the Peanut Butter and Jelly flavour. Tip – it makes a great milkshake.
After our tasting we joined Connie who gave us a tour behind the scenes of the Sugarlands Distillery. All of their moonshine is made right here in Gatlinburg, we got to see the stills and Connie explained about the different fluids which come from the still, it’s not all drinkable moonshine! There is the heads, containing very high levels of alcohol, the hearts, the good stuff that becomes moonshine and lastly the tails which contains less alcohol and tastes bitter. The heads and tails are set aside for another run through the stills to produce more hearts. There is very little waste from the distillery, even the used corn meal goes to farmers to feed livestock, there are some very happy farm animals in Tennessee!
To end the tour we got to see where all of Sugarlands moonshine is bottled and shipped around the country. They can move a lot of their product through the distillery each day and we were surprised at how small a space they manage to do this in. Great care is taken to make sure each bottle that leaves the distillery is perfect through several quality checks.
The verdict; so we visited two distilleries, which was best? Well they were both great and their products tasted fantastic – we made purchases at both, however we thought the service at Sugarlands was the better of the two but we preferred the taste of Ole Smokys moonshine. So really it depends what you want from your experience! And these are only two of the moonshine distilleries in Gatlinburg, there’s plenty more for you to try!
There are loads of these around Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. They are gravity based coasters where you are pulled up to the top of the course and it’s just gravity that pulls you down to the bottom – but you can still go pretty fast! If you don’t want to go as fast the car comes with breaks which the person sat at the back can operate. Each car can hold up to two adults but you can also go it alone.
There are offers to be had for these, with our cabin we got a voucher included that allowed one of us a free ride if the other paid full price. It’s worth checking the offers for local attractions whether you’re on a budget or not you don’t need to pay over the odds and with the money you save there are plenty of other attractions to spend it on.
If you like shopping you will be kept entertained here, there are loads of shops selling everything you can think of, even Christmas decorations all year round at the Christmas Place. As well as souvenirs and the tourist tat you can find good deals on clothing (cow boy boots anyone?) and we spotted lots of funny slogans printed on all sorts of house hold items, I thought the door matt and mug pictured below were really funny.
We had a memorable tasting at the Pepper Palace where Richard had to sign a wavier to try their hottest sauce which is made on premises. It contained capsaicin and was called The End. He was fine in the store but the full effects were felt later on…
Drive-In Movie Theater
Not in Sevier County but just a short drive away in nearby Maryville you will find the Parkway Drive-In. This was a fantastic experience, for us it was like something straight out of Grease as we had never seen these other than in films. We paid $8 each which was for both shows that evening, a bargain price. People came prepared for the drive-in bringing balls for their children to play with while we all waited for the sun to go down. Some people were in pick-ups and reverse parked so the bed of their truck acted like a lounge which they filled with pillows and blankets. We brought a packed lunch which we ate in our car but there is a concession stand which was well priced.
You park your car facing the screen and the instructions given at the entrance tell you which radio station to tune into – that’s where the sound for the film will come from. The doors opened around 7pm and we had a bit of a wait, a little over two hours, until it was dark enough to play the films.
Not yet convinced to spend a week here in the mountains? Well come back next week for Part 2 where we’ll tell you what there is to do inside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and also where to eat!