THE BEST TRIPS DON’T HAVE TO BE FAR FROM HOME.
SOMETIMES, TAKING A SHORT TRIP TO THE MOUNTAINS CAN OPEN YOUR EYES TO THE BEAUTY THAT’S RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU.
Day 1: Drive to Tennessee, Antique Shop, Relax at the Cabin
Day 2: Hike Mount LeConte, Relax at the Cabin
Day 3: Recover in AM, Explore/Shop in Townsend, Hike Abram Falls, Relax at the Cabin
Day 4: Drive through Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Walk to Clingmans Dome, Hike Andrew’s Bald, Relax at the Cabin
Day 5: Drive Home
From Southern Illinois, where my mom and I live, it is about a 6-6.5 hour drive to Townsend, Tennessee. For some, that may be far, but for us it’s easy compared to our normal 13 hour drives to visit family in Austin, Texas. I had heard many people from southern Illinois talk about going to the Smoky Mountains my whole life, but it was always Gatlinburg, or Pigeon Forge. Townsend is considered the “quiet side of the Smokys”, so we figured we would give it a shot. We left about 7:00 am and had an easy drive east for our quick mom-daughter holiday. Also…if you didn’t know…Cracker Barrel is a must for road trips in the U.S. It just is.
The cabin was easy to find and exactly as pictured in the photos. It was a steep climb up a gravel road in a semi-residential area nestled amongst other cabins close by, but just far enough to feel secluded. We were on a tight budget and were looking for something around $100 per night or less. I started my search on Air B&B and HomeAway, but wasn’t having much luck with our budget. So, I just did a google search and that’s where I found the Riverview cabin. As usual, I searched and searched and searched for the right one. Read reviews, looked at photos, and it took me a few weeks to find the right one. At $99 per night this was it. It had a full kitchen, bathroom, fireplace, hot tub, large deck, gas grill, a place for outdoor dining, large bed, wifi, TV…you name it. It was CLEAN and very well maintained. It even has a walkway down to the river where you can sit and have a fire, or in the summer you could get in the water! It wasn’t quite warm enough for us to get in, but in the summer it would be PRIME for laying out on the rocks and enjoying the water.
Townsend was exactly how I imagined it. A small, quiet, mountain town with curvy roads, antique shops, restaurants with signs boasting about their home cookin’, and lots of cabins. After we unloaded the car and got a bit settled in at the cabin it was around 4:00pm. Not quite enough time for a hike, or the right time to eat supper, but enough time to get out and do some antique shopping. My sister claims that I am a hoarder, but I beg to differ. My husband and I LOVE antiques. We love looking at them, finding them, learning about them, refurbishing them, visiting new shops in new towns, but most of all, we love seeing them in our home. I know what antique store I purchased all of them at and I probably have a story about each of them too. Antiques are a pretty big part of my life. Anyway, Townsend and Maryville (the nearest town, right off of the interstate) are FULL of antique shops. I was actually counting them on the drive in. We went to a few, I found some things (of course) and we headed back to the cabin to start up the grill, get in the hot tub, have a few drinks, and relax in our mountain cabin.
The second day was the day I had really been looking forward to and essentially what I based this entire trip around. A colleague of mine who is an avid hiker and kayaker was telling me about how often she travels to the Smokys. She was of course, shocked that I had never been there and proceeded to tell me about this trail that she recently hiked and how beautiful it was. She texted me the link to the trail information and and when I saw the photos, I was sold. I had to do this trail. So, I immediately proposed the idea to my mom and sister and they were on board. Trip to the Smokys and Mt. Leconte trail it was! Below you can see the map and elevation profile of this trail. It is one of the most challenging trails I have done. I wouldn’t put it in the category of “all ability levels”, but I also wouldn’t say it’s off limits for people don’t consider themselves hikers. My mom and I hike frequently, but my younger sister does not. She was worried at first when I told her it was 11 miles up a mountain, but she did it….she did the whole thing like a champ. So, it’s a tricky one to label.
Note: This hike will require you to take extra water, food, and hiking poles(if possible). I packed a 2.5L water bladder, sandwich, chips, a couple Larabars, and and apple (I ate and drank it ALL). A bottle of water just won’t cut it on this one. I finished 2.5 liters just on the way up and filled the bladder from the well at the top of the mountain. So cold and so delicious, by the way.
Although we got up really early, we somehow managed to get a late start on the hike. I think it’s because we were enjoying our coffee on the deck for a little too long. We stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to grab a map and make sure we were starting at the right spot. The ranger informed us that most people do not hike all the way up and back in the same day, but we decided to do it anyway and we got on the trail at about 10:45am. The beginning of the trails follows the water and is highly trafficked. I was actually somewhat disappointed at the beginning because it was so crowded and felt like a tourist destination because of all the people. There are a few log bridges to cross and a really neat stairwell carved out of the cave. This part of the trail would be great for families to do as it is easy and there are lots of places for kids to explore along the trail. You can turn around after the stairs in the cave or you can continue on.
The second spot where you can turn around is also in a cave(a very large cave), and has incredible views! Great place to stop and have a snack, snap some photos and relax for a minute if you’d like. We saw lots of people having a picnic and just enjoying the views. There is a sign that will direct you to the left if you want to go to the Mount LeConte summit.
Once you turn left to hike up to the summit, it starts to get tough. About this time is when my mom had to find a hiking stick and my sister asked to use one of my trekking poles. Trekking poles make a HUGE difference in my level of endurance when hiking, they help my stability, provide extra grip when needed, and also prevent my hands from going numb after hanging down for so long. I was very thankful I brought them on this trip because they helped me get up those 1000 feet to the summit. From the left turn, it continues to get steeper and steeper. The landscape begins to change, the trail gets more narrow, and depending on the weather, you might see some snow at the top.
It starts to feel like you might not make it. We kept passing hikers going down that were telling us, “you’re almost there!” I think almost there is pretty subjective because we weren’t really almost there.Water was getting low, the temperature was getting cooler and cooler, we were getting hungry, and we were getting tired. As we went up the mountain, most spots were like the one pictured above where you had to hold on to the cable to get yourself up and keep yourself from falling on slippery rocks. In the picture below, there was a very tiny ledge you had to walk across (with a cable) to continue on the trail and I stopped here to get a really beautiful panoramic photo.
The entire way up, the views are breathtaking. I feel very fortunate that we were there when the weather was so perfect. I have heard that hiking this in rain, or when there is more snow on top is really tough and can be dangerous. In addition, if it is cloudy, the views aren’t as good. We had sunny skies, mild temperature, and nice cool breeze….a hikers dream come true.
Travel Tip: You can’t change the weather. I repeat, you CANNOT change the weather. So, always be prepared with a rain coat, layered clothing, and a good pair of hiking footwear.
Alright, so….we did finally make it to the summit even though the park ranger told us we wouldn’t make it and even though we felt like the top would never come. When you first arrive, you will see the LeConte Lodge. Note that this is not the spot where the best views are, but you should definitely walk around and check out the lodge. It’s really neat. There is a small sign on the right that will direct you up a bit further. You weave in and out a bit through a small path and it opens up to a large rock where you can sit and see for miles it seems. This spot is known for it’s perfect sunset viewing location. There were a few people relaxing, some eating lunch, a couple of guys having a cigar and drinking some whiskey, and us. It felt so good to have done something that’s a “bucket list” item when it comes to the Smoky Mountains. We did it. We stood at 6,593ft. The 3rd highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Together. Having my mom and my sister by my side was a really incredible feeling. I felt so lucky. So happy I planned this trip. So grateful that I have family to experience traveling with and so at peace with my life and how far I have come. I think hiking does that to you. It gives you this incredible sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, but also a sense of humility and thankfulness in the presence of nature and all of it’s wonder.
↓THIS is the view from the top↓
Note: If you want, you can hike up to the top, stay at the LeConte Lodge for the night, and then hike back the next day. Most of the people we ran into had done that or were doing that. However, I did hear from the hikers that booked the lodge for the evening that it is very difficult to get a reservation so make sure you get one early! LeConte Lodge provides dinner for the evening and breakfast the next morning. Be aware that this is not a luxury cabin. They are one room cabins with no running water or electricity. There is a water basin for a sponge bath and a kerosene lantern for light.
The entire 11 mile hike took us about 7 hours. Getting an earlier start would be helpful because you could spend more time enjoying the hike and stopping along the way. This will take up your day, but it is worth it. Be sure to pack lots of water, snacks, and wear hiking-appropriate clothing and shoes. We returned to the cabin for the evening to relax, have dinner, and celebrate with a few beers.
We were very sore from the Mt. LeConte trail so we decided to spend the morning relaxing at the cabin and spending some more time around Townsend. We starting the morning with coffee on the deck and headed to some more antique shops which is where I met Walter. There was this tiny antique store in a barn behind another antique store. My sister and I weren’t going to go in because I had already spent too much money on antiques, but we decided to go ahead and check it out. I found something, of course, and as I was checking out I noticed his little bulletin board with postcards from Scotland on it. I asked him if he had been to Scotland and he smiled and said, “oh yeah, that’s where I’m from!” You can imagine my excitement to tell him that I’d be visiting that summer. Walter liked to talk. He told us some wild stories about his family and friends from Scotland, how he got his visa, how easily his Scottish skin burned when he moved to the states, and liked to tell jokes. My favorite joke of his went like this after I told him we were visiting Edinburgh…”I’m actually from Glasgow, so of course I think it’s better than Edinburgh. Whenever I was feeling rather nasty, I would say to one of my buddies, ‘if you ever see a beautiful girl in Edinburgh…she’s a tourist!” It was so much fun chatting with him and it almost seemed meant to be that I ran into him at that tiny little antique shop in Tennessee. We finished up the afternoon at the Apple Valley Country Store and had their “world famous” chicken salad sandwich and pulled pork sandwich then headed to hike Abram Falls.
Abrams Falls is a 5.2 mile trail in Cades Cove. It is well maintained, heavily trafficked, and fairly easy to hike. It is very rocky, so proper footwear is a must and remember to hike carefully as there could be snakes crossing the trail (my sister almost stepped on one). Most of the trail follows Abrams creek, but the creek itself is inaccessible in most spots due to overgrowth and very slippery rocks. The trail is not a loop, so you hike to the falls and turn back the same way you came in. Unfortunately, you can’t swim in the falls due to the danger of the undercurrent, but you can get pretty close to the waterfall or dip your feet in. You should give yourself extra time to get to the trail head because you have to drive on the 4.8 mile, one-way Cades Cove loop to get to the trail head. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because the scenic drive is beautiful, but it’s not for those who don’t have much time. Although there are frequent pull of points, people driving this path are there to enjoy the scenery and are therefore driving slow. There are also many stops along the road to pull over and park for photos, get out and stretch your legs and look at the mountains, or explore the historic log buildings and houses (also free).
At this point we had hiked/walked almost 20 miles in 2 days. Although we were all a bit worn out, we came there to hike and explore the mountains so we planned another hike for our last full day. We decided to spend the morning taking a scenic drive from Townsend through the park into Pigeon Forge and then through Gatlinburg to check out those areas. As I had heard, they are quite touristy. If you are looking for a place near the Smoky Mountains where there are a lot of restaurants, shops, and things for kids to do, both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are great for that. However, if you are looking for something more rustic and out of the hustle and bustle, Townsend or Wears Valley would be a better fit. The scenic drive leaving Gatlinburg led us to a small BBQ joint called Boss Hogs BBQ Shack that had some of the best pulled pork and BBQ chicken I’ve ever had (maybe even better than Texas BBQ…maybe). If you’re in the Pigeon Forge area, it’s definitely worth a stop for lunch. You gotta have BBQ when you’re in Tennessee. Trust me.
After that, we headed to Clingman’s Dome to see the 360° views of Tennessee and North Carolina from the observation tower. Sitting at 6,643 feet, this tower is not to be missed. The 7 mile drive up the mountain on Clingman’s Dome Road is a bit scary if you are afraid of steep edges, or winding roads (my mom got a bit nervous in the passenger’s seat). Although most drivers follow speed limit recommendations, some drive fast up and down the road, so use precaution and drive slow. Once you get to the top, you will see a very large parking area where you can access multiple trail heads, go up to the observation tower, and see where the Appalachian Trail passes through. The hike to the observation tower is only a half mile and is paved, but is quite steep. Take your time and bask in the views on the way up.
↓THIS is just one of the views from the observation tower↓
After being in awe of mountain views for miles, literally, we walked down to the Forney Ridge Trail to get to Andrew’s Bald. This is a short, 3.5 mile trail that goes through the rocky Forney Ridge, through fairytale like forests, and opens up to a large grassy meadow with high elevation views. At our time of visit, in early April, not much had bloomed on the bald yet, but I’ve read that it is quite beautiful in late spring and summer. Again, this trail was rocky and muddy in spots, so proper footwear is important.
↓View from the beginning of the Forney Ridge Trail ↓
The day you have to go home is always bittersweet (more bitter for me, typically). You’ve had a wonderful time and want to stay longer, but you also miss your own bed. Let’s be serious. On this trip, however, it was sweet for me. I felt completely and utterly happy that I got to spend 5 days in the mountains with my mom and my sister. The weather was perfect, the cabin was exactly what I was looking for, there were beers to drink and burgers on the grill, the hiking was life changing, and I was already planning another trip back. The Great Smoky Mountains exceeded my expectations and made me realize that I didn’t need to go very far to have the perfect vacation. Take a trip to the mountains!
What to bring:
- Hiking Boots
- Trekking Poles(optional, but HIGHLY recommended)
- Small hiking backpack for snacks and water (5-10L pack with 1.5-2.5L hydration bladder is perfect )
- Camera(all of these photos were taken with my iPhone)
***all photos are mine unless stated otherwise***