According to the National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S., receiving over 11M visitors in 2017. This came as a bit of a surprise to us – given the notoriety and beauty of other parks in the west coast. But that shock quickly went up in smoke (see what we did there?!) after seeing the Great Smokies in person. She will inevitably captivate you with her signature rolling clouds as they gently envelop the park’s tallest peaks.
- 3 DAYS
Mid-60s and cloudy in September
The Dancing Bear Lodge
Dancing Bear Lodge
- 2 nights
After completing our tour of Nashville, we hopped in the car and drove 3 hours to neighboring Townsend, TN, to what would be our home base for the next 2 nights – Dancing Bear Lodge (cutest name ever!). We hit the road around 5PM which meant we were able to catch some amazing sunset vistas along our drive on I-40E. Nighttime had fallen by the time we got to Dancing Bear Lodge and, even in the darkness, we were instantly charmed. The hotel’s name made sense the moment we arrived – its entrance marked by a wooden arch that has statues of dancing bear cubs perched on top. A winding road then led us to the hotel’s 26 accommodations and restaurant, all nestled in the woods. Our cabin, named Jack Spruce, was the definition of “rustic comfort” – a traditional log cabin design, a porch and rocking chair, and a comfortably-sized bedroom and bathroom.
Bears are a consistent theme at the hotel and with due reason, as the Great Smokies are considered Black Bear Country. In each room, visitors will find important information to ensure the safety of both the wildlife and hotel guests. While we didn’t see any bears on our stay, we greatly appreciated the hotel’s efforts to ensure every guest cares for and respects the property’s natural surroundings and its furry inhabitants.
Hiking Alum Cave Trail To Mount Leconte
- 6 hrs
The next day, we woke up bright and early for our hike at the Great Smoky Mountains. After enjoying the free buffet breakfast offered in the hotel’s Appalachian Bistro, we took a 55-minute drive to the Alum Cave trailhead. Considered the best trail at the Smokies, as voted on by All Trails reviewers, the Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte is a 10.7-mile hike with a 3,008-foot elevation gain. A little over a mile into the hike, we came across the first of many photo opp spots along the trail, Arch Rock, an impressive natural arched rock formation. The trail takes you beneath the formation through a set of stairs that serve as an appropriate precursor to what comes next – an upward trek that, while a bit demanding, had us ooh’ing and aah’ing at the panoramic mountains views and rolling “smoky” clouds at a spot called Inspiration Point.
The inspiration definitely continued as we hit Alum Cave Bluffs, a large rock shelter of sorts that plenty of visitors use as a shaded resting spot with equally satisfying sights. We suggest that you take advantage of this pause to recharge as the hike to Mt. LeConte is pretty strenuous. By the time we got to the top, our calves were definitely on fire but that didn’t stop us from putting an extra .2 miles in to get to the Cliff Tops. Though visibility wasn’t great by the time we got up there, it was the perfect spot to recharge and get ready for the hike back!
Dinner at Appalachian Bistro
- 2-3 hrs
- Food & Drink
Needless to say, by the time we got back to the hotel, we were mentally and physically exhausted, and rather famished. Luckily for us, Dancing Bear Lodge has a delicious restaurant, the Appalachian Bistro, that was the ideal treat after a demanding day. We made a reservation ahead of time, as we didn’t know how easy it would be to get a table as a walk-in, and we were glad we did. The restaurant is most definitely a popular eatery – bustling with plenty of excitement by the time we schlepped our way (a short 1-minute walk from our cabin) to the restaurant.
After such a demanding but satisfying day, our body definitely craved delicious sustenance and that’s exactly what we got at the Bistro – starting with a local artisan cheese board of cumberland, dancing fern (everything dances at the Dancing Bear Lodge!), nickajack, coppinger, bellamy blue, and 3-mile honey. We also treated ourselves with a Bacon and Eggs appetizer that consisted of a smoked pork belly and a runny poached egg. Now for the entrées (yes, we were hungry!) – an Appalachian Hot Pot with a variety of shellfish, sausage, and wild rice, and a Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon over wild mushroom and corn risotto. Paired with a bottle of white wine from Willamette Valley Vineyards, this meal was the perfect end to an exhilarating and fulfilling day up in the Smokies.
Relaxing at the Dancing Bear Lodge & its Surroundings
- 2 hrs
While we had thought we would take another short morning hike at the Smokies before heading back home, we were definitely still feeling the exhaustion from the day before. We decided to have an easy going morning – first with a lazy breakfast at the Appalachian Bistro, followed by some relaxation on the outdoor hammocks outside of the restaurant. The post-meal nap was definitely well-deserved!
Afterwards, we headed down to the Apple Valley Mountain Village, right outside the main entrance of the hotel, and checked out the General Store where there were all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. The lazy morning also called for a second cup of coffee which we grabbed at the hotel’s The Dancing Bean Coffee House.
Lunch in Knoxville
- 2 hrs
- Food & Drink
Since we still had some time in our hands before our flight out of McGhee Tyson Airport in neighboring Alcoa, TN, we decided to go to nearby Knoxville (about 20 mins from the airport) for a no-frills lunch at Tupelo Honey, a restaurant chain that specializes in the “revival of Southern food.” Needless to say, the buttermilk fried chicken was a no brainer for this easy, no stress meal.
As we stepped out of the restaurant post-lunch, the Tennessee Woman Suffrage Movement Monument definitely caught our eye. Depicting 3 local Tennessean women instrumental in the movement for women’s voting rights in the state, the monument is part of downtown Knoxville’s Market Square – a pedestrian mall lined with plenty of shopping and food options. After a quick stroll along the promenade, we hopped in our rental car and said goodbye to Tennessee and everything it delighted us with!
- Cell service approaching and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is spotty/non-existent; Try to download or save directions into and out of the park ahead of time.
- At the top of Mt. LeConte hikers will find Mt. LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. It is accessible only by hiking but, trust us, it definitely looks worth the hike!
- It may seem appealing to want to get close to the cliff’s edge at the Cliff Tops for a stunning photo opp. We recommend you practice prudence – no picture is worth your safety.
Other places to visit
- Tuckaleechee Caverns
- Charlies Bunion via the Appalachian Trail
- Downtown Knoxville