Our elected leaders (we use that term loosely) can't agree on a budget, so the National Parks are closed starting from October 1st. This makes no sense whatsoever, but it is a fact. How long this will last is anyone's guess. Since this began on October 1 and October is the busiest month of the year for visiting the Smokies, we wanted to offer a few non-Park options for those of you who will be visiting us during the Park closure, as there are lots of options outside of the Park.
First, while the Park is closed, Highway 441 is open. Highway 441 goes from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC. This will take you past many scenic views, and while some pull off areas are closed, others are accessible, including the parking area at Newfound Gap, which is a great place to see the fall foliage. There is no access to Clingman's Dome, but at least you will be able to see the colors as the leaves change, as you drive along. Since this is the only road open in the National Park, you should expect delays if you choose this option. If you drive to Cherokee, you can see some Native America items, and visit the Casino. Just before you get to Cherokee, you will see the connection to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is open, and will have great fall colors, particularly in the later portion of October. You can take the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Asheville (see below for things to do in Asheville, NC) and then take I-40 West to return back to your cabin.
The Cherohala Skyway is open. Even though it goes through a National Forest, the road is maintained by the State, so it will remain open. This is an excellent drive, with great overlooks, and the highway at the highest point is at 5,000 feet above sea level, so you get a great look at the fall foliage. A combination of the trip down the Dragon (see below) and a return on the Skyway is a great way to see the foliage.
1. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center - this is a great museum with lots of interesting exhibits, and many outdoor cabins, similar to what you can see in Cades Cove. There is both an indoor and outdoor portion of the museum.
2. The Little River Train Museum - the Shay locomotive out front and the big water tower let you know where it's at. Inside the train station is a fascinating history of Townsend, the logging prior to the establishment of the National Park, and lots of stories about train wrecks. It's a great way to spend an hour or so.
3. Tuckaleechee Caverns - An excellent choice through November 15th. The Caverns are deep and there is a guided tour down to the underground river. Find out why this spot is used to measure earthquakes all over the world.
4. Horseback Riding - There are four horseback riding stables in Townsend. Take your pick as to which one you like, or try them all. This gives you a chance to get into the trees for a first hand look at the Fall Foliage, with one even taking you down to a waterfall. The folks at "Next to Heaven" also will rent you a horse that you can take out onto their mountain property without a guide, so you can explore all you like.
5. Fishing - The Little River comes right through Townsend, so you can fish from the banks or from the old bridge (or even the swinging bridge). The water is too cold for tubing in October, so it's just you and the fish.
6. Golfing at Laurel Valley Resort, which is less than 5 minutes from our cabins, and is a gorgeous course surrounded by mountains. Ask about their "Free Golf Monday" special. If you like to play different courses, there are two more in Maryville (within 25 minutes).
7. The Dulcimer Shop - this is always interesting and you'll likely hear lots of good music from Mike, the owner.
The Dragon is a nationally known highway, so called because of the 300+ curves over an 11 mile stretch. To access it, you will need to drive into Maryville. We can give you directions. All those turns are heaven for the motorcycle groups, but it is also a drive through a heavily wooded forest, so you can see some Fall Foliage on this drive as well. Once you have completed the drive, you aren't too far from Helen, Georgia. This cute little town has a Bavarian theme, as they want to be like a small German town. Since it's October, why not enjoy Octoberfest in the northern Georgia mountains. You should plan a full day for the drive as well as time to enjoy an Octoberfest beer or two, then visit the quaint shops of Helen. They also have a very nice city park on the hill overlooking the city which has lots of swings and other playthings for children of all ages. Our favorite store sells a wide variety of garden tools and hard to find items (kind of an upscale Sanford and Sons place). You can also return via the Cherohala Skyway, which has lots of fantastic overlooks to see panoramic views of fall foliage.
It is with caution that we recommend a trip to Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge / Sevierville due to the traffic. While there are many things to see and do, the traffic is a non-stop jam during October. It can take literally hours to transverse a few miles of road along the main drag. Due to the Park closure, you will need to take Wears Valley Road to reach all three cities.
1. Dixie Stampede (Pigeon Forge) - A dinner show with acrobatic horse riding. Very exciting!
2. Dollywood (Pigeon Forge) - Lots of amusement park rides for the children, and lots of singing and comedy shows for the adults.
3. Aquarium (Gatlinburg) - A great aquarium with walk through areas where you can see the fish overhead. Includes sharks!
4. Lumberjack Feud (Pigeon Forge) - A dinner theater show features some fast sawing lumberjacks and some campy humor.
5, Titanic Museum (Pigeon Forge) - A near full size replica of the famous ship with a historical feel to the inside tour with tour guides in period garb. The goal is to make you sense what it was like to be aboard the ill fated ship.
6. Wonderworks (Pigeon Forge) - In the same area as the Titanic is an building that appears to be upside down. This is mostly for kids/teens and has lots of fun things to do inside.
8. Bass Pro Shop (Sevierville) - Loads of outdoor gear
9. Knife Works (Sevierville) - many people marvel at the large collection of knifes and other tools
10. The Island Ferris Wheel - You can see it from far away as it towers over Pigeon Forge. This is next door to the Lumberjack Feud.
Farther Away (you can drive to one of these in the time you would wait in traffic in Pigeon Forge)
1. Biltmore House (Asheville, NC) - the largest private home in America. Outside the house are the gardens, a farm, bicycle trails, and many outdoor activities. Asheville is a very cool town, and you will be near the Arboretum and Western NC Farmers Market, both of which are great to visit. This is about a 2 hour drive via I-40.
2. Chattanooga - Downtown Chattanooga has a great Aquarium, Rock City, Ruby Falls, Incline Railway, and an art museum, as well as the Chattanooga Choo Choo, which has a fantastic model railroad layout. This is about a 2 hour drive via I-75.
2. Tennessee State Parks - while the National Park is closed, the State Parks are open! They offers cycling, fishing, and other activities.
b. Norris Dam - Lake City, TN (about 60 miles away) - you will also be near the Museum of Appalachia. The Museum is very interesting and is like our Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend, but with a larger collection of historical building, memorabilia, and animals (goats, chickens, turkey, peacock), most of which are roaming free.
c. Frozen Head - Wartburg, TN (about 65 miles away) - how can you go wrong with the combination of the names Frozen Head and Wartburg?
d. Panther Creek - Morristown, TN (about 60 miles away). This is about 1/2 way to the Bristol Motor Speedway, where you can visit the giant Nascar track.