A local reveals his all-time favorite picnic spots in the Smoky Mountains
Though the pirate ships and dinner theatres are alluring, the outlet shopping appealing, the go-cart racing entertaining, the draw of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the park itself. 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. Therefore, if you are new to the area – or like so many others – just visiting, I wanted to take the time to recommend some of my personal favorite places to take the family and enjoy a day cooking out near a mountain stream.
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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. It’s 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. 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. I’d jump 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 upstream here and the water runs cold even in July. Warm towels and a change of clothes for the little ones are never a bad idea. And bring shoes that can get wet and dry easily. 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.
To find Chimney Tops, simply put Chimneys Picnic Area, Gatlinburg, TN 37738 into your GPS (or print off directions before you go like a pro – cell phone service is spotty in the mountains).
2. Metcalf Bottoms
Metcalf Bottoms is very accessible and like the other designated picnic areas clean, well-maintained and beautiful. It’s a little wider 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 and 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 downriver. There’s a great spot to get out and take pictures of the series of waterfalls. However, don’t try to ride them. Every so often somebody gets it in their head to try and ride the Sinks. Sadly, 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.
3. Cades Cove Picnic Area
This is a great place for a cookout. It’s at the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop – not far from the Wye. 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. That said, it’s perfect for a little 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.
4. The Townsend Wye
The Wye isn’t a traditional picnic spot like some of the others on the list. 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-offs for some pics and fresh air.)
The Wye is about the closest thing Blount County has to a beach. There’s a nice grassy knoll near the water. 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 find a guy with a truck and bring the cooler full of their favorite beverages with a supply of inner tubes to float 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.
Do note, there are no 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. What are your favorite picnic spots in the Smoky Mountains? Let me know in the comments below.