For Labor Day weekend, I wanted to go somewhere but keep the trip relatively cheap since I've already taken trips to Hawaii and Aruba for the year. Dying for some cooler temps (My Chicago soul is BAKING in the 90 degrees Raleigh summers), I ended up crashing my boyfriend, Michael's guys trip to the Great Smoky Mountains (thanks, love you guys πŸ˜‚)

I used to hate the outdoors. As I grew older, I'm appreciating hiking more. It’s a chance to catch up with friends since there is no signal - only you, nature and the silence to kill over the next however many miles. Not to mention, it's all FREE.

The Great Smoky Mountains are located on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. For those who are also a Raleigh native, it was about a 5-hour drive. This was my first visit to a US National Park and let me tell you, I WAS BLOWN AWAY.

But enough about me, here's the fun stuff:

Where To Stay

There are plenty of hotels in the area but I highly, HIGHLY suggest staying in a cabin. They come in different sizes and some of them are as nice as hotels. We got one on Airbnb and it had a hot tub on the balcony, pool and arcade games, and mountain views.

We stayed in Gatlinburg since it is closer to the mountains and we were planning to be there pretty early for sunrise and late for sunset. Slightly further, Pigeon Forge is also very popular, with tons of attractions.


It was our first time here so we did the most popular hikes. That being said, if you're looking to escape and be one with nature, I wouldn't recommend any of these since they are all pretty busy throughout the day.

Pro Tip: Get there EARLY because parking lots fill up fast or you'll end up parking far down and adding another mile to your hike just to get to the beginning of the trail.

1. Clingman’s Dome

The Clingmans Dome Observation Tower Trail is a relatively easy one at 1.2 miles roundtrip, all paved. The top sits at 6,643 feet, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We went for sunset and stayed until it got dark to stargaze. Luckily, the night that we went was a new moon so we were able to see stars before even 9 pm and once it got pitch dark, we even saw the milky way with our naked eye (for those who don't know, that cloudy looking thing that you see in star photography)! We didn't have a DSLR to capture it but the experience was insane.

Pro Tip: It gets VERY COLD up there at night. Dress accordingly. I wish I brought a hat.

2. Cades Cove

The Cades Cove Loop Road is not a hike, but a 10.1 mile scenic drive. It's common to see wildlife here such as bears, does, wild turkeys, etc. along with mountains and green meadows. There are stops along to way to see churches and mills.

3. Laurel Falls

Hiking with a goal in mind helps to keep me motivated, especially if they end with a pretty waterfall. The hike to Laurel Falls is 2.3 miles roundtrip, the trail is paved.

Pro Tip: If you want a really good picture, you probably need to somewhat get into the water, which means wear waterproof shoes if you can.

4. Newfound Gap Overlook

The actual New Found Gap trail is 31.3 miles (lol no way that was happening) but we only wanted to see the views so we parked up at the New Found Gap Overlook for sunrise. If you are doing Clingman's Dome, this overlook is on the way up. This was the prettiest sunrise I have seen in my entire life.

Pro Tip: Some people camp out in the back of their Jeeps or vans in the parking lot of the overlook so they didn't have to wake up super early and make the drive up.

5. Alum Cave Bluff

The Alum Cave Trail is 4.4 miles long roundtrip, NOT paved. The first part of the hike is along the river. At around 1.3 miles, you will see the Arch Rock which is great for photo ops.

At around 2 miles, you'll hit Inspiration Point and I immediately could tell why.

We stopped at the Alum Cave Bluff and turned back but you can keep going to Mount LeCounte which is another 6 miles or so.


All activities are located within a strip where there are a ton of attractions and food. Most places were handing out samples of candy, fudge, etc. when we were walking by. A bunch of Ripley's Believe It or Not museums are here. We wanted to do the Gatlingburg Skylift Park but the lines wrapped around the block and it was too hot out so we said we'll go next time. When in Tennessee, we got to have some moonshine so that's the activity we did.

Moonshine Tasting 🍺

There are several places doing moonshine tasting but we ended up going to Ole Smoky Moonshine. They charge $5 to do the tasting which gives you a sample for almost all the flavors they have. I ended up buying the Apple Pie and Spicy Watermelon flavors.

Pigeon Forge

There are so many attractions here but since this was only a weekend trip, we didn't get to explore much. There are multiple dinner shows, several amusement parks, really unique museums, etc. Here are the couple of things we did get to.

Alpine Coaster 🎒

One of those coasters that take you through the mountains. I didn't take any videos or photos because I was terrified of losing my phone but this was a quick and fun activity. If you go at night, the course lights up in rainbow lights.

Pro Tip: I got tickets for half the price from Groupon.

Apple Barn 🍎

Apple pie, apple dumplings, apple butter, candy apples, apple scented candles, apple everything! This place has a ton of little shops all with products made from apples. I picked up some apple butter and a chocolate-caramel candy apple to take home and had the apple dumpling with vanilla ice cream as dessert.

Honestly, for a last-minute trip, this totally exceeded my expectations. I'm already plotting when I can go back next so I can keep exploring. Let me know in the comments what I have to add to my list next time!

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