The Great Smoky Mountains 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Appalachia

August 14, 2015

in Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, hiking

If someone says Smokies in passing conversation, I can immediately smell it. Sounds weird, but there’s an unmistakable sweetness in the Appalachian mountain leaves that I can’t shake out of my head. And for me, it’s been a problem I’ve had for a very long time.

I’ve been going to the Great Smoky Mountains since before I was born, and it’s one of my favorite destinations to catch a sunrise, a sunset, and everything in between, so if you haven’t had your feet in one of the cold streams, or on the top of Mt. Leconte, it’s time to get your adventure spirit in gear.

Here are a couple of tips for the first-timer, and maybe a couple of reminders for those making a second, third, or thousandth journey. Go get trekking!

1. Get your tires checked before heading out.

While you’re at it, also get a look at the brakes. All of the elevation climbing and serpentine roads make for some tough labor for your vehicle, so be prepared by making a pit stop at the mechanic shop to stop a breakdown before it has a chance to interrupt your vacation.

2. Keep an extra pair of everything with you at all times.

The very nature of Appalachia is that you’re going to want to get out, explore, and really get down into it, and if I had a dollar for every time I have gone looking for the perfect round stone for skipping in the water and accidentally fell into a freezing stream, I’d be a billionaire. So I learned to take extra pants, shirts, socks, shoes, and everything else with me when I go out. Maybe I don’t carry the extra clothes on the Alum Cave Trail, but I certainly leave them in the car for the return journey.

Great Smoky Mountains

3. Stop at the roadside stands.

No matter what time of year it is, the farmers of the Smokies always have something fresh and delicious to try. In the fall, grab a bushel of apples and pick your own pumpkin from the vine. In the spring, fill your bags with fresh green beans and juicy peaches.

My favorites are the apple cider and fruit pies, which are available all year round, and if you’ve got a flair for the culinary, there’s a lot of cast iron cooking ware that can help you recreate the rustic mountain food traditions of the Smokies.

4. Skip Gatlinburg, head for Cherokee.

Don’t get me wrong, Gatlinburg is a great spot to be…if you’re really into the tourist scene (and no judgement if you are). But skip the Ripley’s Believe it or Not and head toward Cherokee, North Carolina for the more authentic experience. Spend a couple of hours in the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, pick up handmade jewelry from certified Native American artisans at Native American Craft Shop, and grab breakfast at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles—you won’t regret it.

5. Go in late autumn or early spring for the best prices.

The high tourist season is when the leaves are changing, and it’s definitely a really beautiful time to be catching the sunrise at Newfound Gap, but if you’re looking to save, don’t go between May and the beginning of October—that’s when everyone goes. Ditto for Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Great Smoky Mountains

If you want to beat the crowds, think of going in early spring, or the beginning of November. You might catch a couple of leaves, or the first snow of the year. Did someone say sledding?

6. Stay in a cabin.

If you’ve got the extra time and money, skip the hotel and stay in a cabin, it’s so much better to go light a fire in the living room after a long day of hiking and put your feet up than to just turn on the TV to HBO.

Cabins are also great if you’re going with a big group of friends or your family—everybody can have their own room, and you’ve also got the added bonus of big common rooms in which to spend a lot of time together.

7. Prepare to spend a lot of time in the car.

The best spots, like Cades Cove, are deep in the mountains and take some time and mileage to get to. This shouldn’t dissuade you from going—the scenes are absolutely worth it—just prepare for long car rides with epic road trip playlists and a handful of homemade car games.

When my family and I head out to the Smokies, we play “The Song Game,” a little guessing game we made up where you say one word of a song title and the others have to guess which song it is. If you guess the exact song title, it’s two points, but for another song with the same word in it, it’s one point (so no one loses). It’s silly, but it makes for a really great car ride.

Great Smoky Mountains

Remember: it’s the journey, not the destination!

If you’re traveling from an international location, here are a couple of tips:

    • Don’t be surprised by the super-friendly people. In the American South, it’s not strange to get hugged by a complete stranger. Just roll with it!
  • Your international phone plan is useless here. Due to the remote location of many of the best spots, you’re going to be constantly roaming. My suggestion is to get a local SIM card at any of the gas stations along the way and use it instead; it will save you a lot of money. Just unlock your phone first and save your old SIM card for the return journey home!
  • Rent a sensible car. If you’re not the U.S., you’re probably going to be renting a car at the airport and driving right on through. So don’t get some flashy Mercedes, as it’s going to be useless. Grab something sturdy, like a truck—it’s what the locals drive, and you’ll fit right in!

If you’re heading to the Smokies for the first time, it’s going to be a life-changing experience, and one you’ll never forget. So get your camera, get your hiking boots, and grab your best friends—it’s definitely a destination made better by sharing!

This post and the pictures within it are by Claire Lovesti. Visit her website at


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