A Getaway to Gatlinburg: What to see and do in Eastern Tennessee
John and I (and Elvis!) just recently got back from our first vacation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His family rented a cabin in Eastern Tennessee for a week, so we loaded Elvis up into the car for a road trip, and joined them for a little getaway! It was so nice to take a week off of work and explore someplace we've never been before. Most of our time was either spent enjoying cocktails and good food at the cabin, wandering around downtown Gatlinburg, or hiking through the Smoky Mountains. Even though I didn't catch a glimpse of any bears, there were still plenty of highlights throughout the week - including spending the morning of my 29th birthday hiking the Appalachian Trail! Read about some of the other highlights, including some of my pet-friendly (indicated with a 🐾 emoji) recommendations below!
Where to Stay:
As I mentioned above, John's parents had rented a cabin for the week. Here is the exact place we stayed: Sunset Lodge. The cabin is located in Sevierville, a city just North of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The place was clean, quaint, and pet-friendly! It had a fully-equipped kitchen, three bedrooms, four bathrooms and a hot tub! It was definitely in the mountains, which was cool but made for a nerve-racking drive anytime we were traveling to and from the cabin. The roads to get there were steep and narrow - I definitely recommend four-wheel drive if you are thinking about staying in this area and planning on driving/renting a car to get around!
If "living (driving) on the edge" isn't really the speed you're going for and aren't really feelings the Airbnb/cabin-in-the-mountains thing, there are also an abundance of hotels and/or resort options in the area, including some of your "touristy" places, like Margaritaville. We were pretty content with our secluded location, but staying at a hotel or resort would put you more in the middle of "all the action" if that's what you are looking for.
What to Do:
The Gatlinburg Skybridge was one of the top things on my "must-do" list while in Eastern Tennessee. It is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America and offers fantastic views of The Smoky Mountains! You can access the bridge by visiting SkyLift Park, which is located at the heart of downtown Gatlinburg. After buying tickets at the stand near the entrance, you then ride the open-air chairlift to the top of an 1,800-ft. overlook. Once at the top, you can walk across the 680 foot suspension bridge. I have to admit that the bridge wobbled and swayed more than I expected it to, but the views are definitely worth it. To make the experience extra thrilling, the Park recently doubled the number of clear glass-floor panels in the middle of the bridge at its midpoint. At a height of 150 feet, it definitely feels like you're walking across the sky!
Please note that this attraction is technically pet-friendly, and we did see some people with their dogs at the top, but I would only recommend taking your furry friend if you truly believe he/she could handle the ride on the ski-lift. We knew that Elvis would have too much anxiety and wouldn't be able to sit still for the potentially-dangerous ride, so we left him with John's parents while we did this.
Smoky Mountain National Park (Some trails = 🐾)
My adventure-seeking and nature-loving side of me definitely could not let myself visit Eastern Tennessee without spending time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is the most-visited National Park in the United States. We drove in and out of the park multiple times over the course of the week, and we never had to purchase a permit or pay entrance fees, which made this an extremely affordable activity! There are lots of trails to choose from in the park, including some that are for hiking and others that are drivable. If you are traveling with pets, be advised that National Parks are not as pre-friendly as you might assume. There are only two hiking paths where dogs are allowed, but one of them is located next to Downtown Gatlinburg, and Elvis loved it! Here are the two hikes John and I did during our visit:
Gatlinburg Trail 🐾
Gatlinburg Trail is one of the two pet-friendly trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (The Oconaluftee River Trail is the second which dogs are permitted on, but this trail was much farther away from our cabin so we did not hike it.) The Gatlinburg Trail is a 3.8 mile roundtrip hike. Entrances can be found at the Sugarlands Visitor Center or on River Road near Downtown Gatlinburg. It is known as a “point-to-point trail,” meaning you can begin your hike at either end of the trail. The terrain is relatively flat, making it an easy hike for you and your furry friend(s)! It rained the day that we took Elvis on the trail with us, but we still enjoyed the beautiful views of the river and Elvis loved the smells!
Appalachian Trail to Charlie's Bunion
Before we left on this trip, I was very excited to see that we were going to be so close to the Appalachian Trail. I'm a bit of an adventure-seeker at heart, and the experience of hiking on this trial - even just for a few miles - was enticing! My birthday happened to be during the week we were on this trip, so my one request for the day of was to get up relatively early and hike part of the Appalachian. Since John's parents would have to watch Elvis while we hiked, we didn't want to go on too long of a path but we still wanted to find a summit with views worth the effort. So after doing a bit of researched, we ended up deciding to do part of the Appalachian Trail that would take us to Charlie's Bunion, a picturesque stone outcrop in the Smokies. We got to the trailhead by parking at the Newfound Gap parking lot. (Note: This is a good-sized parking lot and was pretty empty when we arrived there around 7:45am, but it was completely filled with cars when we finished our hike ~3.5 hours later. Plan on getting there early if you want to find a parking spot!) The hike is 4 miles one-way to Charlie's Bunion (8 miles roundtrip). It has an elevation increase of 1,600 feet, and you do have to traverse some exposed cliffs and navigate over jagged rocks and lightly-flowing water. Because of all that, I would say this is a pretty strenuous hike (it was extra strenuous on us since we were trying to complete it quickly to get back for Elvis), but the challenge made is extra exhilarating and the views at the top were absolutely breathtaking! Since we started the hike as early as we did, we ended up getting the views to ourselves for ~10 minutes. The path does continue past Charlie's Bunion (in fact, the Appalachian Trail continues all the way to Mt. Katahdin in Maine), but after having a quick snack and re-hydrating with some water, we turned around and headed back down the same trail from which we came to get to our car. After all is said and done, this was hands-down my favorite experience from our trip.
Village Shops 🐾
If you find yourself wandering around downtown Gatlinburg, you need to spend some time exploring the Village Shops. This quaint little area is nestled right in the middle of the downtown strip and it a great place to do some shopping, try some yummy foods, or just sit and relax away from all of the "hustle and bustle" for a bit. The individual shops do not allow pets, but that being said - the outdoor square itself is very dog-friendly, and there are plenty of benches and tables around to sit at with your pup and enjoy a bite of takeout. I couldn't leave Gatlinburg without grabbing a donut from the Donut Friar (lauded "The Best Donuts in Tennessee). I got a "Friar's Special" and it was incredible!
What to Drink:
Moonshine Tastings 🐾
You definitely cannot visit Tennessee without sipping on some moonshine. Since we had Elvis with us on the day we wanted to do moonshine tastings, we opted for two pet-friendly distilleries:
Ole Smoky Moonshine was the first moonshine distillery that we wandered into while walking around downtown Gatlinburg. Elvis was immediately welcomed and was given all the attention he could ever ask for. After perusing the establishment for a few minutes, John and I did a shine tasting for $5 each. The tasting included both moonshine and whiskey. My favorite was definitely the apple pie moonshine, while I could have done without the mint chocolate chip whiskey (bleh!).
After our tasting at Ole Smoky Moonshine, we wandered into Sugarlands Distilling Company. Once again, Elvis was welcomed with open arms. This distillery was definitely busier than the other when we arrived. It's got a very rustic-feel to it and its walls were covered from floor to ceiling with jars of moonshine and other goodies. Just like Ole Smoky, this distillery offered shine tastings for $5.
Tennessee Cider Co. 🐾
Believe me when I say that we enjoyed plenty of drinks on this trip, and we didn't limit ourselves to only attending moonshine tastings. Across from the Village Shops is where you will find Tennessee Cider Co. We stopped in for a cider tasting, and Elvis was immediately showered with lots of their homemade dog treats! (I don't think he wanted to leave!) The ciders were delicious, and John and I both left with one of their frozen cider drinks!
In addition to pandemic-related reasons, we were a little limited with what we could do since we were traveling with Elvis. That being said, I was very happy about everything we were able to do during our week in Eastern Tennessee and it was the exact vacation I needed to recharge. If you're interested in some other ideas, here are a few other things I had on my list of possible things to do:
Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
Anakeesta - a great alternative to the Skybridge (also located downtown Gatlinburg)
Dollywood - bummed we couldn't go, but it required you to book tickets far in advance!
Smoky Mountain Brewery
Smoky Mountain Winery
More Smoky Mountain National Park
Cades Cove - a drivable, scenic route through the National Park with lots of history
Laurel Falls - a trail that takes you past of of the most popular waterfalls in the park
Clingman's Dome - the highest peak in the National Park (located in NC)
Mount Le Conte - slightly longer of a hike than Charlie's Bunion (2nd highest peak)
Looking to travel to Gatlinburg sometime soon? Drop any/all of your questions in the comments below! And as always, thanks for reading!