For years, Crystal has wanted to visit the Great Smoky Mountains. In her youth, she passed through the region on a road trip, but had not visited as an adult. Being mountain lovers, we felt it was time to remedy this oversight. We were experiencing a warm September, as we headed off on our Smoky Mountain Road Trip. The weather in Kansas City had been filled with sunshine and lots of yard work. The Appalachian Mountains were preparing for the inflow of the remnants of Hurricane Florence, which had made landfall in the Carolinas. Knowing what was coming, we were able to plan accordingly. We were prepared for Rainy Days and Fun Days ahead.
Hitting the Road
While some would opt to fly to Gatlinburg, from Kansas City, we choose to drive whenever feasible. Knowing that we would be on the road for around 11 hours total, we decided to break up our drive into manageable pieces. Heading out after work on a Friday, we logged the first leg of the trip and spent the night in Illinois. Cruising a northern route, allowed us to pass through southern Indiana and into Kentucky. The sunshine had our spirits high, as we stopped to pick up some research material for potential future destinations. After many scenic stops, and a slow progression through Pigeon Forge, we finally arrived in Gatlinburg by Saturday evening.
First of Many
The next morning we woke to find that the rains had arrived, as well. Our lodging was just a block off of the main strip, so we had tons of options for dining, shopping, and entertainment. From our research, we had noticed an amazingly high number of pancake restaurants. It was decided that it would be fun to see how many we could sample, so our first breakfast was at Pancake Pantry. Since the early 1960’s, this flapjack house has been serving up stacks to customers from near and far. This was a great start to our Pancake Tour of Gatlinburg. (You can see more of our pancake stops here.)
The rain was fairly light, and we were well prepared for it. After spending so much time in the car, we wanted to stretch our legs for a bit. We decided to explore some of the strip. Window shopping is fun for a while, but fortunately many of the shops open up on Sundays. We popped in a few and explored their inventories. Most of the people we met were in a positive mood, even with the weather. We were settling into a relaxed state, and knew it was time to get going on our itinerary.
Rainy Days and Fun Days
Midday was approaching, so it was time to head to lunch. Even though the rain had increased in intensity, we were still impressed with the beauty of the region. Having the Great Smoky Mountains as a backdrop seemed to make Gatlinburg magical. As we made our way toward lunch, we watched some birds in Le Conte Creek.
Brightening Our Day
When life serves up a gray day, we have found that visiting a colorful restaurant will brighten our mood. No Way Jose’s Mexican Cantina is a local chain with three locations. A survey of people on some East Tennessee Facebook groups identified this as a good option. Wanting to mix up our cuisine choices, we picked this one to be our Mexican food destination. Since this day was completely dedicated to pedestrian activities, we decided to enjoy a couple of adult beverages. In the end, this place ended up being a great choice for affordable food and drinks, and bonus points for being located within walking distance. (Read more about Jose’s here.)
Rainy Day turned Fun Day
Since we were already open to suggestions from our connections, our next choice was an easy one. Just across the street from lunch is the Ripley’s Aquarium. This looked like a great place to spend some quality time and get out of the rain. While there is plenty of moisture on the inside, it’s reserved for the specimens on display. We enjoyed exploring all of the exhibits and touch tanks. There were even a couple of surprises awaiting us. (You can read more about the aquarium here.)
More to Explore
We spent quite a while in the aquarium, and by the time we left the rain had subsided. Strolling down the strip, we happened upon a quiet alcove filled with shops. Avoiding puddles, we kept our umbrella handy just in case. Downtown Gatlinburg is very family friendly, and filled with plenty to explore. It seemed like we kept finding these little sets of shops tucked away from view, so be sure to investigate fully.
By dinnertime, the showers had started again. While they weren’t hard enough to drive everyone inside, they were still a nuisance. Now seemed like a good time to head back indoors and grab some dinner. Mellow Mushroom caught our eye with their groovy color scheme. Inside, we clambered up the stairs that led to their second story location. Here, we had another chance to dabble in some adult beverages. I had just finished sampling some of the local moonshine, so we passed on this opportunity. We ended up discovering some really good pizza at a restaurant chain that we will be able to visit during other road trips (You can read more about Mellow Mushroom here.)
Once again, the rain had subsided, but the skies were threatening to open back up at any time. We decided to look for a little indoor entertainment, as we strolled down the strip. About a block away, we happened upon Circus Golf. This multi-attraction site looked promising for a silly time. Inside, we found that the mini-golf course is illuminated with black light, which made for some colorful fun. After playing a round, we decided to add a try at their Shoot’em Up Cinema. This attraction had us mounting up to try our skills at a modern day shooting gallery. While Crystal may get the upper hand at miniature golf, I have a dead-eye aim when it comes to shooting games. Score one point for each of us.
Rinse and Repeat
While the rain may have had us dodging in and out of shops, it made for great sleeping weather. We rose the next day to gray skies, but the rain seemed to be holding off. Breakfast meant another round of hot cakes, this time at Atrium Pancakes. It quickly became apparent that we would run out of mornings, before we ran out of pancake options.
Our First Smoky Excursion
The forecast still called for showers, so our jumbled itinerary had a day that would be perfect for intermittent rain. With a window of two or three hours before the rain, we decided to enjoy our first cruise into Great Smoky Mountain National Park. After a quick stop at the welcome center, we made our way toward Cherokee, North Carolina. Along the way, we enjoyed the amazing views that come with a Smoky Mountain Road Trip.
Just Dropping In
The average time to pass through the park is estimated at around one hour, but we were in no hurry. The plan was to see some of the sights that were along the way. If you follow our Instagram account, you probably saw Crystal’s excitement when we spotted our first black bear. (You can follow out our Instagram account here.) Once we made it into Cherokee, we decided to stop for lunch. We weren’t sure how long our museum visit would take, but we didn’t want hunger to interfere. We found this family owned deli just a few blocks from our destination. Front Porch Cakery & Deli offers some interesting twists on many standard dishes. It was definitely a good find.
Getting to the Roots
Ever since we began planning this trip, a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian had been high on our list. While I am unsure of any Native Indian in my bloodline, Crystal’s is a little easier to identify. Her family bloodline has a significant amount of Cherokee, so this stop was especially poignant. As we explored the museum, we found ourselves walking through the history of this proud people. Even through all of their trials, they have survived. It was an honor to have the opportunity to visit this museum. (You can read more about this museum here.)
Smoky Mountain Road Trip Discoveries
After our tour of the museum, we spent a little time exploring some of the shops in Cherokee. The road back to Gatlinburg gave us another look at the national park. Cruising through the winding roads, we noticed the numerous creeks that run within view of the road. Many of these were swollen from the recent rains, which made them all the more beautiful. We stopped at a couple points that offered easy access to the water’s edge. There are certainly tons of selfie spots dotted all through the park.
Back in town, it was time to pick a dinner spot. Since this trip wasn’t quite like our other destinations, we were allowing ourselves to pick our dining spots on the fly. Our trip was designed to have us in Gatlinburg during weekdays in the middle of September. We assumed this would be less busy, since schools had started back up. When we arrived back in Gatlinburg, on this Monday evening, we noticed a slew of tour buses delivering crowds at the nearby hotels and lodges. It looks like we weren’t going to have the city to ourselves. Spotting a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, we realized that we had only dined at the one in New Orleans. It seemed like a good time to test this place out again.
To avoid the swelling crowd, we had dined earlier than normal. This left us plenty of time for some evening exploring. The Gatlinburg Strip stays busy until around 9:30, when the crowds begin thinning. We had seen the unusual structure for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and decided to stop by for a visit. Inside we found lots of oddities and interesting factoids. This place has quite a few interactive exhibits, so we found ourselves acting like a couple of kids. (You can see some of the exhibits in this Ripley’s article.)
After our Ripley’s visit, we headed back out onto the strip for some more exploration. We passed by another moonshine outlet, where inside we saw plenty of people bellying up to the bar for their free samples. The shops were filled with souvenir shoppers looking for mementos to remember their own Smoky Mountain Road Trip. For us, we were just soaking in the rainy days and fun days that we were experiencing in this mountain town. We dropped into another one of the indoor mini-golf attractions that dot the strip, and played a quick round. By now, we weren’t worrying about keeping score, but just enjoying our time together. With a third of our trip concluded, it was time to get rest up for more adventure.