Every year my friends and I take a girls trip to relax, hike, and catch up! For 2020, we decided on Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is about an 8-hour drive from St. Louis and perfect for a long weekend. April is normally the month of our annual girls trip, but due to COVID-19, we had to reschedule to June. Smoky Mountains National Park opened in May with a phased reopening. Mid-June turned out to be a good time to go, as by this time most of the trails and visitor centers were open. The cabin price was a little higher due to high season rates and my friend who was supposed to be only 5 months pregnant in April was now 7 months along and it was a little too risky to make the drive. My friend Abby and I did continue on for the trip and made the best of everything.
Since we were only traveling for a long weekend, we only explored the North Side of the park. We started our visit at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. No matter how much advice you have been given, blog posts read, and research done; I have found that park rangers are usually your best resource. Park Rangers know what is best to recommend for the season, daily weather, road closures and trail difficulty to best plan your visit.
COVID-19 & NATIONAL PARKS
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was very conscious of protocols for COVID-19. At the visitor center, masks were required inside and there was a limited amount of people allowed in. Hand sanitizer was readily available and there were social distancing markings on the ground. On the trails, it is advised to give extra space. Being in nature makes it easier to social distance, but some trails are set up better to distance than others. If you want to keep extra distance it’s best to get to the trails early. The most popular trails do tend to get busy from 10am-3pm. When we spoke with one of the Rangers, she pointed out one of the trails that is very wide and not as heavily trafficked, the Little River Trail.
One essential for this trip was a cozy cabin in the mountains. We sure were able to find this! Our cabin was perfectly set up with a wrap-around porch, hot tub, full kitchen, and 2 bedrooms. We were surrounded by trees, and I loved sipping my coffee on the porch in the mornings. One evening I even saw a mama black bear and cubs cut right through the woods in front of our cabin! The resort was very careful to have extra locks on the screen doors and locked up trash/recycling. I was very excited to see a black bear in the wild! As long as not approached or fed by humans, black bears are usually not aggressive, and I felt safe on my balcony. Located on our cabin’s property was a pool, stocked fishing ponds, mini golf, frisbee golf, hiking trails, and more. If we had more time in the area I would have spent a day just hanging around the resort. I would recommend this resort to someone wanting to visit the North Side of the Smokys! Either I, or your agent at Brentwood Travel, can take a look at the availability for you!
Our cabin was just north of the Pigeon Forge area. We drove through the main parkway and I couldn’t believe how many options there were for food and entertainment. If your family is a fan of mini golf, arcades, go carts, laser tag or dinner shows, you have found your place. It would take a whole summer to get through all of the restaurants and activities. The main strip here was similar to a family vacation in Branson, Missouri.
20 minutes south of Pigeon Forge and just on the north end of the park sits Gatlinburg. Similar to Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg is lined with restaurants and entertainment. In my opinion, Gatlinburg has a little more of the small town charm. However, this also leads to a little more congestion and high parking costs! A benefit of staying in this area is that you have quick access to the north side of the park and the Sugarland Visitor Center. We drove through Gatlinburg to have lunch one day. If I had a little more time to spare I would have paid a visit to the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park and done a few of the short trails in the area!
Cataract Falls and Fighting Creek Nature Trail- These are both located behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center. We hiked these two trails the afternoon we arrived in the park just to stretch our legs and get a little sight of nature! Both were both relatively empty in the afternoon. Cataract Falls has some families that were playing in the creek. There is also a small waterfall at the end of the trail. Roundtrip it is less than a mile. The Flight Creek Nature Trail is a loop a little over a mile!
Laurel Falls- This is a popular 2.6 miles roundtrip hike right off of the Little River Road. The trail is mostly paved, but it is straight uphill (and then back downhill). There was a nice little waterfall at the top to view! Since this is a popular hike, so I would plan to go early in the morning. We went about 8 AM and it was a little crowded. There was lots of families that made the trek (although I imagine some tired legs on the way down!). The trail isn’t super wide, so it did make keeping your distance hard. Luckily most people were conscious of this and stepped aside to let people pass.
Little River Trail- This was recommend by the ranger at Sugarland Visitor Center as her favorite hike. The trail connects to others to make a long 8 mile option, but we just went as far as we wanted and then turned back. There were storms expected in about an hour so we headed about 1.5 miles in and then back. This trail is very wide, which was great for keeping a distance. The trail was along a river and was very peaceful. We enjoyed the walk very much!
Cades Cove Loop Road- Although not a trail, I did want to point this out! Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11 miles one-way loop with lots of stop offs! The road takes about 2-3 hours to drive depending on your stop offs and wildlife viewing. You can also rent a bike to make the 11 mile loop! I do wish we would have bought a specific Cades Cove Loop Map or Audio guide that they were selling at the beginning of the Loop. This would have given us more insight on the historical sites and trails. We mainly choose to do this drive to see a good portion of the park and to hike the Abrams Falls Trail. We also enjoyed the many stop offs for views and places to play in the creeks.
Wet Bottom Trail- This is a .02 mile trail off of the Cade Cove Loop. We pulled off at a stopping point that was almost empty just to stretch our legs and let some cars pass us. While we were there we saw this trailhead. This trail head connects to some other spots, but we just took the short trail to get some quite nature time. I am so glad we did, because this is actually where we saw our first bear! It was a black bear, like the one at the cabin, and as soon as it saw me, the bear just turned and walked the other way. I was so excited and shocked that I forgot to take a photo and just took a blurry video!
Abrams Falls Trail- This trail was also recommended by the ranger at Sugarlands Visitor Center. It was a moderately difficult trail, 2.5 miles to a waterfall and then 2.5 miles back. There was some elevation change and uneven terrain (mild rock maneuvering). I thought it was perfectly challenging for me. I did notice some people had hiking poles to help them as well! Judging by the parking lot I thought the trail might be a little crowded, but since it was a decent length and some people hung out at the waterfall, it wasn’t too crowded at all. The waterfall at the end was beautiful and a nice place to relax and have a snack! Even though there appears to be a great pool at the bottom there is no swimming due to a dangerous undercurrent.
DISTILLERY & BREWERIES
I like to try local foods and drinks wherever I go! There were three local watering holes that we visited!
Smoky Mountain Brewery- They have 4 locations in the area and we paid a visit to the Pigeon Forge restaurant. I had an excellent burger and tried samples of their Helles, Cherokee Red ale, and Black Bear Ale beers. Their Helles was my favorite! The restaurant was filling to a reduced capacity and all of the staff was wearing face masks.
YEE-HAW Brewing Co.- Located in a busy section of the Pigeon Forge strip, we has some appetizers and a beer flight here! I did love the atmosphere of this location as it felt like a beer pub! Even though the strip was busy, the brewery kept to a limited capacity and were also wearing face masks. They also had some Hand Sanitizer made by their local neighbors Ole Smoky Distillery. YEE-HAW Brewing Co. has 3 locations right now with another opening soon!
Tennessee Shine Co- We stopped at their Sevierville location on the way back from a hike one day just to check out what they had to offer. They offered free samples of their moonshine so we took part in a tasting! I was pleasantly surprised with their selection. I particularly loved the Peachy Peach and Choco Moo Shine! I bought some mini samplers to take home to share!
Overall, I would recommend a trip to the Smoky’s anytime! I do believe it is a closer to home option that could be a good choice for 2020 or 2021!
Are you ready to visit the Smoky's? Contact Brentwood Travel to start planning your trip today! Call 314-439-5700 or email us!
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