The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the US, attracting more than 9 million visitors per year – that’s twice as many as the Grand Canyon. After our two days spent there, it’s easy to see why.
Avoiding Dolly Parton’s Dollywood resort and theme park, we stayed in a town called Gatlinburg on the edge of the national park, and it felt like a holiday within a holiday. Unusually, we had found budget accommodation downtown rather than out of town, so we could park up the car and relax. Our balcony had amazing views of the mountains and the creek, and the store over the road sold Sierra Nevada. Perfect, despite the first day rain.
Gatlinburg gave a sense of how Tennessee-ers relax at a “top vacation spot” and it was, well, different. Gun shops, cowboy boot stores, matching his and hers souvenir t-shirts (which a worrying amount of people were wearing), Harley Davidson merchandise and the most unhealthy parade of sweet shops and burger restaurants known to man. There was no salad in this town, and it showed.
We settled for a Five Guys (no food blogging opportunities here) and went over to the Smoky Mountains Brewery, where we enjoyed brewed-on-site craft beer (we enjoyed it even more when we found out it was only $2 a pint) and joined in an impromptu pub quiz. Our English roots didn’t help with the popular American culture questions, and despite our best efforts, we came last! Still had a lot of fun though.
We woke up early to glorious sunshine and after getting our pack up from Old Dad’s General Store, headed on the scenic road to Cades Cove. This 11-mile single-track loop road covers a clearing in the forest which you can drive round and stop off to walk different trails into the forest. There are also some old settlements and the potential to see lots of wildlife. We had our fingers crossed to see some bears.
On our first trip round, we saw white tailed deers and wild turkeys.
We went on a trail but didn’t see even a hint of a bear, so we decided to drive round again and find somewhere to stop for lunch.
It was bear-ly five minutes into our second loop when we spotted cars stopped ahead and people going crazy with their cameras. We knew it must be something good. And on the right hand side, amongst the trees, there it was. Our first sighting of an American black bear.
We were lucky enough to see a second bear in the open valley. An unbearlievable experience!
The other main attraction in the Great Smokies are the many moonshine distilleries. After an obligatory ID check (Tennessee State Law requires it from everyone) we got to sample the whole range at Davy Crockett’s Tennessee Whiskey – the salted caramel was delicious.