Gatlinburg, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Continuing my road trip through Tennessee

It had been less than a year since I had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time as part of a Trek America group tour of the Deep South. Then, it was mid-Autumn and we’d arrived as the the first snow of the season had fallen, the park a sea of browns, oranges and red as the trees got ready to shed their leaves. This time, it was the height of summer so I expected a rather different experience. I’d planned to spend a bit more time in the park for this visit having only got to spend one morning hiking to Abrams Falls last time so was excited to return and get the chance to see more of this huge National Park.

Meeting Ellie,the Pink Elephant, in Cookeville, TN

We were visiting the park as part of an extensive road trip mainly taking in the east coast states of the US. Having begun out trip in Florida visiting Miami and Walt Disney World, Orlando, we had since spent time in Savannah, Georgia and driving through South Carolina state before briefly heading inland to visit Atlanta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. We were now driving back east towards ours next state of North Carolina, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Smokies.

Once again, I’d be using the nearby town of Gatlinburg as a base having enjoyed its ‘Swiss mountain village’ theming on my last visit. Leaving Nashville after a fun couple of days, we made our first stop of the day literally on the roadside in Cookeville to see Ellie the Pink Elephant. This roadside attraction is known for being dressed in various props and costumes throughout the year and when we stopped, was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses!

It was then on towards Gatlinburg.

Arriving late morning, we drove straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park taking the obligatory photos with the National Park sign at the park’s border. After a quick stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to pick up park maps and buy a Junior Rangers activity booklet to fill in, we began our drive further into the park towards Clingmans Dome viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped at a picnic site alongside the Little Pigeon River, taking a short hike along a self-guided trail up into the woods nearby before returning to eat lunch by the river.

Enjoying the view on the way to Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower

Continuing our drive along the gradually ascending road, we pulled over at a few viewpoints along the way and were very excited when we spotted a family of black bears on the roadside in the distance.

Pulling over at a safe distance, we watched as they crossed the road in front of us before disappearing into the trees.

After that bit of excitement, we continued our drive, stopping at a few more view points before arriving at the start of the trail for Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Above, another pretty view as we climbed the road towards Clingman’s Dome, and below, at the Observation Tower enjoying the views

We then followed the trail from the car park towards the large concrete structure. The observation tower lies just across the North Carolina border and on a clear day you can see 7 states from it.

Even on this slightly cloudy day, the views were pretty spectacular although we found the observation tower itself to be a bit of an eyesore!

Having spent some time enjoying the views, we returned to our car and drove back down through the park and into Gatlinburg to check into our motel, an Econo Lodge just off the main strip. That evening, we took a stroll along the strip before a pizza dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

The next day, instead of returning to the National Park, we visited Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s iconic theme park!

Above, the Dollywood Express running through the park, and below, a fun day at Dollywood

Parking in nearby Pigeon Ford, we used the park’s park and ride service to get to the gates. Once inside, we spent the day riding the park’s various coasters and amusement rides and watching some of the shows.

Dolly Parton’s tour bus

Highlights included taking multiple rides on the huge Wild Eagle coaster, getting soaked on the Smoky Mountain River Rampage rapids, visiting the on site Dolly Museum, full of Dolly Parton costumes and memorabilia and getting to steps inside Dolly Parton’s tour bus!

After a fun but tiring day at the park, we caught the park bus back to the Pigeon Forge car park and drove back to our Gatlinburg accommodation taking another stroll into town that evening to have dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.

We were saying goodbye to Gatlinburg – and Tennessee – the next day to continue on our road trip but first, we were heading back into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend most of the day exploring further. After parking at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, we followed the nearby trail through the woods and out to Cataract Falls.

John Ownby Cabin

Then, we returned towards the Visitor Centre and picked up the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a short looped trail out past the historic John Ownby Cabin.

Returning to the Visitor Centre, we handed in our now completed Junior Ranger booklets and took our pledge to received our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger badges!

With plenty of the park still to see, we then began our drive out to the Cades Cove loop road, an 11-mile one way road past some of the park’s highlights. Allowing ourselves what we thought was ample time to make regular stops along the road and get out and hike, we soon found ourselves hitting slow moving traffic and began to panic that we wouldn’t make it around the loop road and out of the park in time to make our pre-booked early evening white water rafting trip en route to Asheville in North Carolina!

Pulling over along the Cades Cove loop road

Seeing crowds of people gathered around a tree in the distance and realising that whatever they were looking was the reason for the hold up as cars either slowed to see or backed in and out of whatever parking spaces they could find nearby, we joked that maybe there was a bear up the tree only to discover that there actually was! Managing to find somewhere to park, we pulled over to have a look for ourselves and there, sat up high in a tree eating berries was a huge black bear!

Spotting a bear up a tree!

It was amazing to see the bear sat up there, casually eating his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the fuss he was causing around him!

Back in the car, we continued around the trail, unfortunately with no time left to pull over, stop and explore anywhere. It had taken us twice as long as we expected to get around but we made it out of the park with just enough time to get to our next destination on time.

It had been lovely to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see a bit more and experience it in different season and we felt lucky to have had a couple of encounters with black bears along the way but there is still plenty of the park let to see and I hope to have the chance to go back some time in the future.

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