Read Now, Travel Later
COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.
Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!
There are exactly two ways to get from Gatlinburg to Asheville: the boring route and the scenic route. One involves travel on an interstate highway while the other involves the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Can you guess which route I’m about to layout for you in this road trip itinerary?
The fastest route from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina is to take Interstate 40 through a gap in the mountains. That drive takes a little under two hours and is so boring I’m starting to yawn just typing this. Honestly, though, I find the route a little bit exciting because the narrow 16-mile gorge through the mountains that includes a tunnel and site of a significant rockslide.
But if you want the most exciting option, I suggest a road trip along the scenic route from Gatlinburg, through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, and on to Asheville. I dare you to convince me that’s not the most scenic route.
In recent years Gatlinburg has been busting at the seams with tourists. However, it’s still entirely possible to find a quiet corner for an exciting evening in the mountains. Take a ride on the chair lift to visit the highest mountain peak with Anakeesta, go for a walk on the bridges suspended between trees on the Treetop Skywalk, and have dinner at Clifftop Bar & Grill with the best view in town.
Down on the ground, wade through the pedestrians along Parkway to Sugarlands Distillery for one of the most entertaining moonshine experiences in the state. If you want to find some of the most exciting shopping head over to the Village Shops, located beside the best place in town to get breakfast at Pancake Pantry. Take a walk through Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies for a spectacular display of ocean life in the heart of the mountains.
I like to end many days in Gatlinburg at a restaurant with a dual nature. Big Daddy’s Pizzeria and Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que have one thing in common: the lobby. Walk inside the front door and choose left for a savory barbeque with house-made sauces or right for wood fired pizza and mouthwatering garlic bites.
Where to Stay in Gatlinburg
Remember the old game of pin the tail on the donkey? Stop anywhere on Parkway. Close your eyes. Spin around three times real fast and point your finger. I guarantee when you open your eyes, you’ll be looking at a hotel or resort.
Baymont Gatlinburg on the River is a fantastic hotel on the quiet end of downtown Gatlinburg. The hotel has riverfront rooms with balconies, a rooftop terrace with a narrow view of Mount LeConte, and an indoor swimming pool.
Another budget-friendly option, and one of my personal favorites, is Sidney James Mountain Lodge. Granted, the furnishings in the rooms could use an update. But the bed was comfortable, location fantastic, and the two-story indoor pool is unmatched in Gatlinburg.
Hampton Inn has one of the best free hot breakfast spreads of any hotel chain I’ve visited. The comfortable and modern rooms are just the start of a great stay here; the indoor swimming pool, outdoor hot tub, and secluded patio finish it off.
Bearskin Lodge on the River is located along River Road, my favorite place in Gatlinburg for finding lodging. On this end of town, it’s easy to get in and out via the Gatlinburg Bypass, the national park is just minutes away even on the worst of days for traffic, and it’s easy to get anywhere in town along River Road. The hotel has large, beautifully furnished rooms and suites that are perfect for solo travelers, couples, or families alike.
A favorite of mine that I’ve stayed at many times, and through many brand changes, is SureStay Plus Hotel by Best Western. It’s located on the opposite side of the creek from the Bearskin Lodge, so it’s still an excellent location for anything you want to do in town. The Creekside rooms are large, and all have a private balcony for enjoying the peacefulness away from the hustle and bustle of Parkway.
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Sugarlands Visitor Center
Mere minutes after leaving Gatlinburg behind the lush trees of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park envelope you like walking into a cave of greenery. The hordes of pedestrians, trudging traffic, and blinking signals are left behind as the adventure on this road trip begins.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the primary source for information about the national park in Gatlinburg. There is plenty of room for parking personal vehicles and RVs, and in 2018 the park added a few EV charging stations. Inside the visitor center, you’ll find brochures and maps, park rangers to answer questions, a small museum, and a beautiful gift shop where I’ve bought many books.
One of the best-kept secret waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The 0.75-mile Cataract Falls Trail begins near the restrooms and winds along Fighting Creek. At the end of the trail is the 25’ tall cascading waterfall.
Carlos Campbell Overlook
This scenic overlook provides a stunning view of Mount Le Conte, frequently shrouded in a cloud at the very top. At 6,594’, the mountain is one of the highest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains range.
The overlook is named after Carlos Campbell, who served as director of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce in the 1930s. Campbell was one of the dozens of people who were influential in getting Congress to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Have you heard of the Southern Sixers?
The Southern Sixers are all the mountain peaks above 6,000’ in elevation in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The entire list contains dozens of summits, and several of them are accessible by vehicle from nearby parking lots.
If you want to learn more about visiting these peaks, check out the Road Trip to the Southern Sixers for a complete road trip itinerary, list of mountain peaks, and information on reaching the summits.
Chimney Tops Overlook
At 4,800’, Chimney Tops is one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The 4.5-mile out and back Chimney Tops Trail ascends about 1,400’ to the exposed rocky tops of the mountain. The trail crosses several creeks along rustic footbridges in a dense forest.
The scenic overlook is located at the base of Chimney Tops and provides a stunning view of the towering mountain. The overlook includes a series of four pull-off parking areas.
Note: The end of the Chimney Tops Trail has been closed indefinitely because of damage caused to the mountain peak during the 2016 wildfires.
Newfound Gap Overlook
The midpoint of US Highway 441, locally called Newfound Gap Road, through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the Newfound Gap Overlook. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road here along with the North Carolina and Tennessee state line.
The overlook offers a mesmerizing view into the North Carolina side of the park, where you can see the winding road along the ridgeline far below. It’s often quite a bit cooler up there at nearly 2,000’ higher in elevation than surrounding towns.
Restrooms are located below the Appalachian Trail at one end of the parking lot.
At 6,643’ Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in both the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Tennessee. At that elevation, the weather is often unpredictable and chaotic. It took me three times visiting the summit before I ever saw more than a bank of clouds obscuring the landscape.
Clingman’s Dome Road is a 7-mile scenic route that starts near Newfound Gap Overlook and ends at a large parking area just below the summit of the mountain. The 1.2-mile Clingman’s Dome Trail begins at the edge of the parking lot and ascends 300’ in about half a mile to the observation tower on the summit.
Privy restrooms are located in the parking lot, and a visitor center on the trail has maps, brochures, and a small gift shop.
Mitchell vs. Clingman
In 1835 Elisha Mitchell, a geologist and professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, measured the height of a mountain called Black Dome. He determined it was the highest point east of the Mississippi River, estimating it to within 12’ of the official height determined years later by the U.S. Geological Survey.
However, that claim was disputed by a former student, Thomas Clingman. The former United States senator had made a career of measuring mountain peaks and believed the highest point in the east was actually a mountain called Smoky Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains.
In 1857 Mitchell returned to Black Dome to verify his measurements after the challenge made by Clingman. But during that journey, Mitchell fell off a waterfall and drowned in the water at the bottom.
In 1859 Smoky Dome was renamed Clingman’s Dome by Arnold Guyot, a good friend of Thomas Clingman, still claiming it was the tallest peak in the east. But in 1882, the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed Black Dome was the highest peak east of the Mississippi and renamed it Mount Mitchell.
Mount Mitchell is 41’ taller than Clingman’s Dome. Today Elisha Mitchell is buried on the summit of the mountain bearing his name.
Deep Creek Valley Overlook
The North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often overlooked, but don’t make that mistake. The Deep Creek Valley Overlook is one of the most stunning in the entire park. The overlook has a commanding view of the valley on the south edge of the park leading to the Deep Creek area in Bryson City.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is one of my favorite places to visit in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located near Cherokee, North Carolina, it is also an unofficial visitor for the Blue Ridge Parkway with maps, brochures, and information. The gift shop is top-notch and an excellent source for souvenirs and books.
Mountain Farm Museum
Behind the visitor center, the Mountain Farm Museum is a fantastic recreation of an early frontier farm typical of the area long before the national park was created. It’s a short walk along a flat path to explore the exhibits, including a massive barn, frontier home, and gardens.
Viewing the Elk
One of my favorite things to do at this visitor center is to watch the elk cross the large grassy field. It’s not a guaranteed event, but it is frequent enough to have gained the attention of travelers passing through.
About an hour or two before sunset, the elk herd will begin crossing the large field as they casually graze. They will frequently cross the field and then meander across the road to disappear into the woods on the other side.
Nestled against the eastern edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee is a wonderful small town to explore during any road trip through the area. The Cherokee Indian Reservation is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, descendants of the few Cherokee who did not walk the Trail of Tears.
The Museum of the Cherokee Indian was one of the most educational museums I have ever visited. The museum is a chronological walk through the history of Native Americans in the Southeastern United States. It includes some of their fascinating origin stories for myths and legends. Across the street, the Qualla Arts and Crafts is a local artisans guild that sells the work of Cherokee living on the reservation.
Unto These Hills is a fantastic outdoor drama telling the story of the Cherokee from the first contact with Europeans to the Trail of Tears. Located at the Oconaluftee Indian Village, the official outdoor drama of North Carolina is something to see if you decide to spend a night in Cherokee.
Where to Stay in Cherokee
The biggest draw to Cherokee is Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, and that’s just a shame. The casino resort has a very lovely hotel, on-site restaurants, and even a little bit of shopping. But I recommend a few other places to stay while visiting Cherokee.
Cherokee/Great Smokies KOA is a fantastic riverfront campground just ten minutes from town. The campground includes several variations of cabins, RV sites with full hookups, and tent sites.
Smokemont Campground is located just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, about five minutes from the end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The campground features 142 sites for RVs and tents but includes no hookups of any kind. There are plenty of bathroom facilities but no showers.
Baymont Inn in Cherokee is a great budget-friendly hotel. The hotel includes King Rooms and Queen Rooms with either one or two queen beds. You’ll also find an outdoor swimming pool and free breakfast.
Super 8 in Cherokee doesn’t resemble any other Super 8 I’ve ever seen. It looks more like a condo rental, and the rooms feel like it, too. The budget-friendly hotel includes King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. Although the free breakfast leaves a lot to be desired, the seating area in a giant sunroom is just awesome.
Holiday Inn Express is located across the street from the casino and is a guarantee for a good night. The hotel includes King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and an Executive King Suite with a sleeper sofa. You’re also treated to a free breakfast each morning.
Blue Ridge Parkway Entrance
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway follows the ridge of the mountain chain across Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. It was initially conceived as a national scenic byway connecting Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s one of my favorite driving routes in the country and is always the route I drive from Cherokee to Asheville.
READ MORE: Road Trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway
There are no easily accessible gas stations between Cherokee and U.S. Highway 74 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and none at all between U.S. Highway 74 and Asheville.
Waterrock Knob at Milepost 451.2
Waterrock Knob is one of my favorite places to visit on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The parking lot on top of a flat hilltop offers a commanding view of mountains in all directions. The cool breeze and sudden silence invite visitors to one of the concrete picnic tables to enjoy a break from the road.
Privy restrooms and a visitor center with a small gift shop are available at Waterrock Knob. The steep 1.2-mile Waterrock Knob Trail climbs almost 500’ to the summit of Waterrock Knob at 6,292’, or you could hike just a few hundred feet to a nice scenic overlook just above the parking lot.
Richland Balsam Overlook at Milepost 431.4
At 6,053’ the Richland Balsam Overlook is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A ginormous sign on the side of the parking lot is a great place to snap a selfie or portrait to commemorate your high flyin’ adventure.
If you’re really up for an adventure, the 1.5-mile Richland Balsam Trail begins at the next scenic overlook on the Parkway and climbs about 400’ to the summit of Richland Balsam at 6,410’. It’s a strenuous trail, but the reward is a stunning view at the end.
Although the highest point is located at the Richland Balsam Overlook, it doesn’t have a magnificent view. Less than a mile further along the Parkway is the Cowee Mountain Overlook at Milepost 430.7. This is my favorite scenic overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway because it has an uninterrupted panorama view from the parking lot.
READ MORE: Road Trip to the Southern Sixers
Devil’s Courthouse Overlook at Milepost 422.4
The parking area at Devil’s Courthouse Overlook provides an impressive view of Devil’s Courthouse from the comfort of your car. But if you’re up for a hike, the 1-mile Devil’s Courthouse Trail includes a 300’ climb to the top of the rocky outcropping seen from the parking lot. The rocky trail is strenuous, but the reward is worth every step.
The final steps of the trail lead to the exposed top of the overlook. A rock wall, built by the CCC decades ago, invites hikers to stay on the inside to enjoy the view. The uninterrupted panorama sweeps across the Parkway, parking lot, and mountains far beyond. It’s one of those places I had a hard time leaving.
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Black Balsam Overlook at Milepost 421.2
Located on a short spur road off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Black Balsam Overlook provides a stunning view and access to two of the Southern Sixers. Black Balsam Knob at 6,214’ and Sam Knob at 6,050’ are each within hiking distance for a day trip.
A 1.5-mile hike on the Art Loeb Trail ascends about 350’ to the summit of Black Balsam Knob. The 2.5-mile Sam Knob Trail traverses a grassy ridge with a final ascent of 500’ to the summit of Sam Knob.
Graveyard Fields at Milepost 418.8
Pull into the parking lot at Graveyard Fields, and you’ll see something quite rare on the Blue Ridge Parkway: a vast meadow without any trees. The peculiar destination wasn’t always like this.
In 1925, a fire swept across this area, leaving only charred remains of trees in its wake. To top it off, a savage storm moves through the area years later, toppling all the remaining trees and leaving only the tree stumps as a reminder of the forest that once thrived. The stumps resembled tombstones, leading to the name Graveyard Fields.
The 1.3-mile Graveyard Fields Loop Trail is one of the easiest hiking trails on the Parkway. The hike begins through a rhododendron tunnel to a short spur trail leading to Second Falls. The base of the 55’ cascading waterfall is a popular place for people to get their feet wet and lounge on the boulders. Portions of the loop trail are a wooden boardwalk, crossing the Yellowstone Prong from time to time, as it twists through the landscape and back to the parking lot.
The 40’ tall Upper Falls is located at the end of a 1.6-mile out and back hike on the Upper Falls Trail. Beginning along the Graveyard Fields Loop, this trail ascends about 200’ in elevation to the base of the waterfall at the far end of the meadows.
Cradle of Forestry Overlook at Milepost 411
A dead tree has long stood as a centurion in the corner of this gorgeous scenic overlook with a panorama vista. Far below, tucked away in the woods, is the Cradle of Forestry in America. It was the site of the first forestry school in America, started by George Vanderbilt of the Biltmore.
The scenic overlook provides a breathtaking view of the area called Cradle of Forestry in America, once completely owned by Vanderbilt but today part of Pisgah National Forest.
Mount Pisgah at Milepost 408.6
Built in 1964, the Pisgah Inn is the most breathtaking place to stay on the Blue Ridge Parkway. All of the rooms in the two-story building have a commanding view of the mountain landscape below, but I recommend a second-floor room for the best view.
The inn includes a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day of the week during the open season. Open to guests and visitors alike, the dining room offers a stunning view to go along with a great meal.
At the end of the parking lot from the inn is a small gift shop and a camp store with souvenirs, clothing, and some staple food items. There are restrooms located on the outside of the building.
Just down the Parkway from Pisgah Inn is a spur road leading to the Buck Spring Gap Overlook, featuring a short trail to the remains of Vanderbilt’s hunting cabin, and the Mount Pisgah Overlook, where you’ll find the trailhead for the 3.2-mile Mount Pisgah Trail. The trail is a strenuous hike with a 700’ ascent to the summit of Mount Pisgah, where you can enjoy a gorgeous panorama view from a small wooden observation deck.
The North Carolina Arboretum
There is always something beautiful to see The North Carolina Arboretum. Technically admission is free, but you’ll have to pay for parking as you enter the main gate just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Begin the adventure at the Education Center, where you’ll find restrooms, a small gift shop, ana rotating exhibit space. Head outside to the Bonzai Exhibition Garden, then start the long walk on the Grand Garden Promenade past several formal gardens to the Baker Exhibit Center. Eleven hiking trails wind across the 65-acre property, with about half of them open to foot traffic and mountain biking.
Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market
The Western North Carolina Farmer’s Market is the only non-sightseeing stop on this road trip itinerary. After a long drive, arriving in Asheville, it’s always great to pick up a few supplies. The farmer’s market is spread throughout two enclosed buildings with dozens of local vendors.
Coates Produce has long been my favorite to visit for their fresh fruit of the season and fantastic apple cider. Jarvis Produce has always been a great place to find McCutcheon’s brand of fruit butters, jams, and jellies. Between the two locally owned farms, I usually walk away with a bag full of goodies to keep me going on the road.
Located just outside of downtown Asheville the Biltmore is the largest mansions, and one of the most popular attractions, in the country. The 250-room French Renaissance mansion was built from 1889-1895 for George Vanderbilt. For the admission price, visitors get access to the grounds to explore the formal gardens and a guided tour of the mansion. Additional tours such as the Rooftop Tour can be purchased on arrival.
Begin a visit to the Biltmore with a tour of the mansion. Small groups of people at a time are taken on a 30-minute guided tour where you’ll learn about the building of the mansion and family history of the Vanderbilts. After touring the house, take a leisurely walk through the gardens where something is blooming most of the year.
Visit Antler Hill Village to enjoy shopping, dining, and live entertainment. You can drive yourself and hop on one of the free shuttle buses to experience this side of the Biltmore. While there, be sure to visit the winery to sample wine made from grapes grown on the property!
Asheville is the largest city in the western part of the state, and while it has a certain big city flair, make no mistake about it: Asheville is a friendly southern city in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Over the last decade, Asheville has grown a reputation as a craft beer city, touting the fact there are more craft breweries per capita than any other city in the country. That is still true today, but that’s not the only thing the city is known for. In recent years Asheville has grown in leaps and bounds as a food destination with world-class restaurants and mom and pop joints opening throughout the city, all serving some of the best food in the southeast.
Start a day exploring Asheville at the Grove Arcade, an enclosed shopping destination built in 1929 and featuring some of the most gorgeous architecture in the city. AtBattery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, you can order a glass of wine, grab a used book off a shelf, and sit in a comfortable leather armchair while savoring both. Located behind the Grove Arcade, Asheville Pinball Museum is a quirky place where a single admission price gets you in the door to play antique pinball machines for as long as you like!
Take a walk along Biltmore Avenue, the main street through downtown Asheville, for all the museums, shopping, and dining you could enjoy. Mast General Store is an excellent place for outdoor gear and clothing, and right next door, Cúrate is one of the top-rated restaurants in the city.
Explore Asheville 36 Montford Avenue, Asheville, NC | 828-258-6129 | www.exploreasheville.com
Where to Stay in Asheville
There are a lot of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds around the Asheville area. Where you stay is entirely dependent on what you want to do. I have listed here four areas I think would be best for an overnight stay while road tripping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Biltmore Village – U.S. Highway 25
Hampton Inn in the Biltmore Village area is another excellent place to stay close to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This hotel includes free on-site parking, an indoor swimming pool, free breakfast, and an on-site bar. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a King Room with a sleeper sofa.
The Holiday Inn & Suites is a great alternative int he Biltmore Village area. You’ll find an indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and an on-site bar. The hotel features Standard Rooms with a full bed, King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and an Executive Suite with a queen bed and sleeper sofa.
The Grand Bohemian Hotel is the height of luxury during your Blue Ridge Parkway road trip. The hotel features King Rooms and Queen Rooms with two queen beds. You’ll also find free on-site parking, an on-site bar, and a spa.
My top recommendation for lodging in Asheville during this road trip is the Village Hotel at Biltmore Estate. With free on-site parking, an outdoor swimming pool, an on-site bar serving local wines and spirits, and a spa, this would be the perfect place to take a day off from driving to enjoy some pampering.
A more secluded alternative would be The Inn at Biltmore Estate. The hotel has an outdoor swimming pool and free on-site parking, but the biggest draw is the Dining Room with regional cuisine for guests only and the Library Lounge with casual fine dining. The hotel features King Rooms with a mountain view and Double Rooms with two double beds.
My top recommendation for lodging in downtown Asheville is the Cambria Hotel. Located across the street from the Grove Arcade, it’s within walking distance of just about everything downtown. The hotel features King Rooms, Queen Rooms with two queen beds, and a luxurious Corner King Suite with sleeper sofa and private deck.