Straddled at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most divine national parks one can visit in the United States.
The rich biodiversity, an abundance of hiking trails, mind-blowing views of the mountain ridges, waterfalls, forests and whatnot - all of this with free entry to the park allures packs of budget travelers every year. Let’s top it up with some unique and cheap experiences in the nearby towns, and you and your partner have got a superb itinerary that won’t burn a hole in the pocket.
Newfound Gap Road - Drive and Hike
Start your Smoky adventure driving the most scenic road of the park, the Newfound Gap Road aka Route 441. This route runs between Gatlinburg in Tennessee and Cherokee in North Carolina. National park geeks can stop at the Sugarlands and Oconaluftee Visitor Centers on each end respectively for information displays and passport stamps.
Many hiking trailheads cross or begin off this route, so keep your hiking boots on all the time. The multitude of overlooks with breathtaking views along this 33-mile road may fill up your phone’s storage with photos quicker than you think. Also, if you’re lucky or smart to take this trip in the fall season, observe how the fauna and the colors of the leaves vary throughout the drive.
The best way to experience the smokiness of the Smokies is by going to the highest point of the national park on a cloudy day, the Clingman’s Dome.
At about 6600 feet, being enveloped in clouds is mesmerizing. If you’re there on a sunny day, the sweeping views of the park will leave you speechless. To reach the dome, you will have to walk for about half a mile from the parking lot on a paved road.
Clingman’s Dome is the ultimate spot for a couple’s photo during sunrise or sunset. I hope you don’t mind the cold at the top either of those times. Even if you do, just hug each other.
- The road to the dome is closed from December 1 to April 1 accounting for winter conditions at higher elevations.
- The ramp to the observation tower was under repair for a long time and was only completed in August 2018. Since it is currently inaccessible due to smart tip no. 1, I expect hoards of visitors over the Spring and Summer of 2019.
- This is the best sunrise and sunset spot in the park.
- At either of these times, the traffic on the road to the dome can get very slow since it is single-laned.
- Also, the tower capacity is low leading to overcrowding.
- To capture nature's most extraordinary display from the front seat, plan to park your car at least one hour before the predicted time.
Another great place to gaze at dramatic landscapes of fog flowing over mountain ridge tops is the Newfound Gap. At almost 5000 feet, it is the lowest drivable pass in the Smokies. An Appalachian Trail crossing and magnificent views from a large parking lot bring a lot of crowds to this point.
If you and your partner are history buffs, you have to stand on the Rockefeller Memorial. It is a monument atop the border lines of Tennessee and North Carolina that acknowledges John D. Rockefeller’s donation of $5 million to buy the land for this park.
Bike the Cades Cove
After exploring the peaks, it’s time to get a sense of the lowlands of Smokies. The Cades Cove is a picturesque valley rich in both history and wildlife.
The 11-mile long Cades Cove loop is a fun ride for partners looking to absorb the cove’s beauty on a pair of bikes. Bikes can be rented from the campground store for $15 for a couple of hours.
Once on the bikes, go up and down the well-paved roads feeling a fresh breeze on your faces. Stop at the churches, mills, barns and other restored historic structures along the path.
If you can’t bike, tour this paradise with some country music playing in your car. Be assured to be amazed looking at the passing green meadows and high mountain tops in a single view. Most importantly, ride safe and don’t fall! Or make others fall.
- Pick a free map of the cove from the campground store before your ride.
- Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane are the two-way roads that can be used to cut the loop and return. So, don’t fret about committing to the entire loop in advance.
- There are a few hikes that originate from the loop such as the Abrams Falls Trail. Account for the time and cost to return the bikes in advance if you plan to hike.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Roaring Fork motor trail is a romantic side trip for couples who want to take in the forest feels of Smokies up close. On this 5 and a half mile loop, you’ll find mountain streams, tall trees, wildflowers, side trails, and lovely waterfalls.
To understand the meaning of its name, drive this trail during or after a heavy rainfall. We suggest you spend at least two hours on this auto tour. This trail closes down in December which shouldn’t affect the leaf peekers.
Also, keep in mind that this is a one-way loop, so there’s no turning back. End the trail with a stop at Ely’s Mill to appreciate the local craft and antiques at this store.
Looks like we’ve covered the major highlights of the Smokies so far. Let’s see what’s there to do beyond the boundaries of this park.
Zorbing at Outdoor Gravity Park
The mountain town of Pigeon Forge is only 10 miles away from the Smokies. It offers a few unique experiences for its visitors to try. Like Zorbing!
Outdoor Gravity Park has 3 sloped tracks. One has a focus on zigzags, while the second is all about rolling at a fast speed. As a pair, you must do the third one which is a blend of both. You’re in for some sweet coziness mixed with a splish splash adventure. Make sure you carry an extra pair of clothes.
The waiting lines for this tumbling adventure can get really long, especially on long weekends but when the tickets cost only $15 per person on Groupon, it’s hard to say no to the wait.
Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
Next up is the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster. The name might give you an impression that you’ll be coasting amidst the Great Smoky Mountains. Although that’s not the case, it’s close enough.
Located in Pigeon Forge, this is a one of a kind alpine coaster riding through the hill with enough twists and turns to thrill you up. The speed can be controlled by the drivers. The maximum attainable speed is 27 mph. You and your better half can attempt to synchronize the velocities of your solo coasters but be mindful of their no bumping policy.
Notice the spooky Halloween decoration on the sides if you plan to do this in Fall. Groupon, the money saver let us do this for only $15 per ticket, so it’s a great bang for the buck.
The Island in Pigeon Forge
The last thing on this list is an amusement park. But wait, it’s a shopping complex too. And an entertainment center. And has ample restaurants, bars, and food carts. Not to forget the free parking and free entry. Welcome to the Island in Pigeon Forge!
This island runs a water fountain show every 30 minutes and is absolutely free to watch. The local shops are really unique and fun to window shop. There are tons of rides and activities in the park to choose from.
You could spin on The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, test your acrophobia on the Ropes course or get lost in the Mirror Maze. In an attempt to explore beyond 3 dimensions, we experienced the 7D Adventure Ride which only cost us $15 for two rides per person, thanks to Groupon, once again!
So those are the top 8 things to do on a budget with your partner in and around the Smokies. Hope you have a great time. Happy Exploring!