The Great Smoky Mountains | An Epic Road Trip
This past fall our family took an epic road trip from Des Moines, Iowa to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. After a year where the majority of our traveling plans were halted due to the pandemic, we decided to think outside of the box and invest in Poppy the Popup Camper. Poppy was probably one of the biggest highlights that came out of 2020!
We took many small road trips with our popup throughout Iowa as we got acquainted with camping and what life living out of a popup was like. After several trips we decided to plan our longest and biggest camping trip ever to the Great Smoky Mountains.
We planned a 9-day trip beginning in Des Moines, Iowa with an overnight stop in Paoli, Indiana to visit Wilstem Wildlife Park and an overnight stop on our return in Rantoul, Illinois to kiss the reindeer at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch.
Camping in The Great Smoky Mountains
There are several options when camping in the Smoky Mountains. We traveled at the beginning of October and this is a very busy time of the year due to the foliage change. It is a beautiful time to visit, but make sure you plan ahead so you can get a spot!
We camped at Pigeon Forge Jellystone which was perfect for us. It offered tons of fun for the kids and was not far from Dollywood and other attractions in the area. Another important factor when traveling in a popup is bathrooms and showers as we do not have them in our camper. We were happy with their amenities!
One drawback with this camping location is the sites are fairly close together. Although we did not spend much time at our actual campsite during the day due to exploring and site seeing. This is something to think about before you book.
The Great Smoky Mountain Attractions
There is a ton to see and do in the Smoky Mountain area. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are two of the major cities in this area and reminded me of a lot of Branson. It is very touristy. What you decide to see and do in this area really depends on what your family enjoys. We really wanted to experience the Smoky Mountain National Park and skip the majority of touristy things, but definitely did experience some.
Anakeesta is definitely a unique and fun experience located in Gatlinburg. It is a ‘theme’ park, but not your typical theme park you may think of. When you arrive you will enjoy a scenic ride up the gondola. When you get to the top you can grab lunch or dinner at the Cliff Top restaurant or at any one of their other several dining options.
They also offer Dueling Zipline, Tree Canopy Trail, Rail Runner Coaster, shopping options, gem mining, Treehouse Village Playground, and much more.
Since the only way to enter Anakeesta is via the Gondola, make sure you plan to arrive right when they open. The line to go up fills up quickly!
The Cades Cove Loop is a 11-mile winding road through the Smoky Mountain National Park. This is not only a great spot to see wildlife (including bears!) it also has several historical buildings you can stop and visit along the way. When you enter the loop, you will receive a map and descriptions of the historical buildings. It is a one way loop, so when you enter you can not turn back. There are times that it is bumper to bumper and can take a long to go through, so plan accordingly. The day we visited it took us about an hour to drive through. It was not very busy.
If you are hoping to spot wildlife this is another spot to plan to arrive early! Another way to experience Cades Cove Loop is by horseback. Cades Cove Stables offers guided trail rides, carriage rides, and hayrides. This was a unique way to to get off the beaten path and see wildlife. We did see one baby bear!
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains and it is definitely worth the visit. It is a free attraction on top of that! It takes about an hour of lots of winding roads from downtown Gatlinburg. On a clear day, you can see over 100 miles, which is rare. It tends to get cloudy. We were very lucky the day we visited as there were few clouds and not much fog. The views were incredible. It is also located half in North Carolina, so if and a half in Tennessee. If you are a family who likes to cross states off your bucket list this is an easy one to cross off.
If you plan to visit Clingmans Dome I highly recommend visiting early. This attraction fills up quickly and it can be hard to find a parking spot. Once you park you will need to hike about 1/2 mile up a very steep hill to get to the tower. There are also lots of fun climbing opportunities which our kids enjoyed.
There are a ton of popular, favorite spots to visit within the Great Smoky National Park and because they are so beautiful they tend to get busy quickly. We discovered this fun resource, Off the Beaten Path from the National Park Service. It listed some great spots to visit that were not super crowded. We decided to check out Cosby and it was worth it!
The Cosby area included a lot of hiking options, and the kids favorite, rock climbing! There were huge rocks in the stream and we spent a good time sitting and listening and exploring. It was such a fun experience to take in the gorgeous area.
Our kids love amusement parks so we knew this was a must when we visited. On top of that, they had an amazing Halloween light display. I was very impressed by the beautiful setup. This alone made our trip to Dollywood worth it. You could definitely spend an entire day here, but we chose to go in the early afternoon since we knew we were staying late for the Halloween display.
Food + Drink
When we travel we love to experience local restaurants and breweries. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge is definitely filled with options! Here are a few of our favorites.
Gatlinburg Brewing Company was probably our favorite spot for local brews. They had some great one and their pizza was really, really good too. This was not far from the entrance to Anakeesta.
The Greenbrier Restaurant is an upscale restaurant located high up in the trees with beautiful views. We made our trip to the Smoky Mountains shortly after our 10-year wedding anniversary, so we treated ourselves to a special anniversary dinner. They had amazing cocktails and food. If you are lucky enough to have someone tagging along to watch your kids, highly recommend it!
This was an impulse stop, but I am so glad we stopped in. We tried a couple of their fancy drinks and they were tasty! It is also a great spot to purchase gifts for family and friends who love unique liquors.
The Old Mill Restaurant is located in Pigeon Forge and was a great lunch spot. The food and atmosphere reminded me a lot of Cracker Barrel. The kids enjoyed seeing the large mill and there was also a ton of shopping in the area.
We are big fans of trying local brews, so we could not miss the opportunity to check out THE Smoky Mountain Brewery. The beers were great and they offered yummy lunch options.