Though the pirate ships and dinner theatres are alluring, the outlet shopping appealing, the go-cart racing entertaining, the true draw of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the park itself.
Before the Sevier County night-time sky glowed giant Ferris wheels, flashing neon and questionable entertainment choices, people flocked to the region to see the wonders of what remains truly one of the world’s great beauties.
And one of the best ways to enjoy the Smoky Mountains region is with one of the many, easily accessible picnic areas in the park. If you’re new to the area – or like so many others – just visiting, here are some of the best places to take the family and enjoy a day cooking out near a mountain stream.
4. The Townsend Wye
The Wye isn’t a traditional picnic spot like some of the others on the list as it’s not specifically created for that purpose. The Wye, where branches of the Little River converge into a pool deep enough to swim, is located just beyond the Townsend entrance to the park on Lamar Alexander Parkway. It’s also accessible on Little River Gorge Road – which is the necessary route if you’re coming from Gatlinburg. (Fair warning: I hate that road. If you’ve got riders prone to car sickness, it’s terrible. It’s curvy and slightly claustrophobic. I’d recommend planning to stop at a couple of pull off for some pics and fresh air near a mountain stream).
The Wye is about the closest thing Blount County has to a beach. There’s a nice grassy knoll near the water and it’s a perfect spot to start a tubing float down the river. Several businesses in Townsend have sprung up providing the necessary materials and transportation for tourists, but the locals will bring a cooler full of their favorite beverages, a truck load of inner tubes and a guy with a truck and the short straw and have a big old time floating down the river toward Maryville.
A word of warning, we almost lost my Nanny once when she tried to tube the river in her 70s and got ahead of the pack in a current. Also my aunt decided not to go over a little waterfall and instead tried to stand up on the ledge and walk around. Don’t do that, either.
There are not any grills located at the Wye, making it a bad place for a cookout. But bring a lunch in a basket and a couple of towels and enjoy.
Location: Laurel Creek Rd & Little River Road, Townsend, TN 37882
Office Hours: Open Year Round
3. Cades Cove Picnic Area
This is a great place for a cookout. Just at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop – not far from the Wye – you can stop here and grill before seeing some of the grandest sights in the Smokies. The Cades Cove picnic area has a creek running along either side, doubling the number of picnic spots located next to water – which is an essential element to enjoying the Smokies. The stream isn’t deep enough for swimming or tubing, but it’s perfect for skipping rocks, wading and letting the little ones (with supervision) go exploring. The best spots go early so either be lucky or prepared. We always designate an early riser to go up and stake a claim to a spot just so we don’t end up with one of the landlocked sites.
Location: Cades Cove Loop Road, Townsend, TN 37882
Hours: Varies by season
Photo by John Gullion/The Smokies
2. Metcalf Bottoms
Now we’re talking some good tubing. Located near Wears Valley between Townsend and Pigeon Forge, Metcalf Bottoms is accessible in two ways.
- The dreaded Little River Gorge Road – which is only the preferred option if you’re coming from Gatlinburg.
- Wears Valley Road – Wears Valley has grown up commercially a bit over recent years but coming from either side, it still offers scenic views and decidedly less chance of someone puking in the backseat. Still, Wears Valley Road has a couple of serious curves so pay attention to the road signs, they ain’t bullshittin’.
Metcalf Bottoms is very accessible and like the other designated picnic areas clean, well maintained and a beautiful spot. It’s a little more wide open than some of the others, with room to toss a football or a Frisbee if you’re not too wild about it.
The park-provided grills are gigantic. If you have a big group, you may want to try and get two spots next to each other and coordinate.
The river is wider – and usually good for tubing – but not too deep. You can wade; skip rocks and well, frolic, without fear of being swept downstream (usually).
There aren’t commercial tubing vendors so if you take your own, make sure you plan a ride upstream. Also, the map appears tempting to tube all the way down to the Wye. Don’t do it. It’s a lot farther than it looks and the Sinks are down river. There’s a great spot to get out and take pictures of the series of waterfalls but don’t try to ride them. Every so often somebody gets it in their head to try and ride the Sinks, you usually read about them in the paper the next day. It doesn’t end well. If you’re tubing from Metcalf, you’re fine. Just make sure your pickup point is before the Sinks.
Location: Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area Rd N, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Hours: Open Year Round
Photo by John Gullion/The Smokies
1. Chimney Tops
Located on 441-S which connects Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina. The Chimney Tops Picnic Area, is the best of the best. It’s beautiful. Peaceful. With hiking trails and some of the best photo opportunities in the park. The West Prong of the Little River cascades down the mountain beside the picnic area, which offers many spots right up against the water. Again, sending a scouting party early to lay a claim is never a bad idea. There aren’t many bad spots in the picnic area, but there are some truly excellent ones.
When I was a younger man, one of my favorite things to do was try and cross the river without getting wet, jumping from the giant boulders exposed by eons of water flowing downstream. Now, I just get wet and help the kids. Be aware, you’re pretty far up stream here and the water runs cold even in July. Warm towels and a change of clothes for the little ones is never a bad idea as are shoes that can get wet.
I know Norman Maclean wrote about the bigger waters in Montana, but this spot always puts me in mind of “A River Runs Through It.” Also, make the time to ride across the mountains to Cherokee. It’s not that long of a drive and there are some magnificent views as well. It’s worth a trip.
Location: Chimney Tops, Tennessee 37738
Hours: Open Year Round
Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.