There’s an old tunnel near Clingmans Dome, but it’s not exactly “under” it.
You won’t readily find this old hiker’s tunnel on Google maps. It pre-dates the tower itself.
It’s a former hiker’s underpass most commonly known as the Thomas Divide Tunnel.
But it is also referred to as the “Thomas Ridge Tunnel”, the “Old Mule Tunnel” or simply “The Hiker’s Tunnel”.
The tunnel was constructed in the mid to late 1930s by a group of young men known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. The tunnel is made of locally sourced stone and features an ornate archway on either side of the road.
According to the Great Smoky Mountains Association, it is speculated that the tunnel is a relic of a section of the Thomas Divide Trail that connected the Appalachian Trail on the far side of Clingmans Dome Road.
The completion of Clingmans Dome Road required rerouting the trail. One option could have been rerouting the trail to cross Clingmans Dome Road on the roadbed. However, engineers decided to build the tunnel under the road.
Alternatively, the Association also speculates that it’s possible the tunnel was constructed for equestrian use. Some records show that it was used as a mule trail tunnel.
What was the Mission ’66 initiative?
In the 1960s, the tunnel was cut off from the original trail and stranded due to the Mission ’66 initiative.
It was the initiative’s mission to improve infrastructure across the entire national park system.
That led to the rerouting of several old roads to improve overall driving conditions, including the upper section of Newfound Gap Road. This rerouting cut off the old trail, forcing the trailhead to be relocated further south.
That’s why you won’t happen upon it unless you’re looking for it. It’s no longer part of any regular path or hiking trail.
It simply leads to a cliff with a beautiful view where the other side of the trail once existed.
Today, it serves as one of the hidden gems around the Smoky Mountains that hikers enjoy finding.
It’s an iconic landmark, a forgotten relic that is fun to discover, like the old springhouse from the Voorheis estate or relics from the ghost town in the Elkmont area.
The first time I set foot in Pigeon Forge was 1987.
A 12-year-old Hoosier, I came to the South with my aunt and uncle. We played mini-golf, stayed in what was then a nice hotel (it’s gone significantly downhill) and did other things popular with tourists in the region at the time.
I don’t remember any desire to go to Dollywood, even though certainly I knew who Dolly Parton was – chiefly through her movies playing over and over again on HBO.
In fact, HBO is the reason I thought Dabney Coleman was the biggest actor in the world.
Dollywood would have only been a year old at the time – having converted from Silver Dollar City in 1985. It was still making its mark on the national scene. As a kid, the idea of Dollywood was still kind of strange. Dolly was a big star, but she wasn’t exactly Walt Disney.
Four years later, my step-dad got transferred to East Tennessee, and Pigeon Forge went from being an exotic – for Hoosiers – vacation locale to basically my backyard.
Dollywood tips and tricks
In the intervening years, Dollywood had already made great strides, beginning a 30-year journey from curiosity to a legitimately great theme park.
And as Dollywood has grown, I have as well. Over the years, I have learned to adopt certain tips and tricks to make going to Dollywood even more fun.
Here are a few tips only the insiders know that can make your trip better.
During peak hours, traffic in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg can steal tiny pieces of your soul.
Did you go on vacation for mind-numbing hours of debilitating gridlock? Oops. Sorry.
Sevier County officials, and presumably the Tennessee Department of Transportation, have done a lot of work to open up the entrances and help move people through. However, there are still plenty of times it’d be quicker to walk the length of the main drag than try and drive it.
Depending on where you’re coming from, there are some shortcuts.
The best way to get to Dollywood when the traffic is bad is to take Highway 411, which you can access from the east or north from I-40 at Newport or from the south or west by taking the Chapman Highway exit off I-40 in Knoxville.
Either way, take 411 to the intersection with Veterans Boulevard.
This used to be a little-known backroad, used only by locals, but the road has been widened and provides a bunch of lanes heading to the park. More people know about it, more people use it, but it is still vastly superior to taking the Parkway.
If you’re staying in Pigeon Forge proper, the Veterans Boulevard shortcut is useless. Instead, you might want to consider Teaster Lane if you can get to it.
It runs parallel to the Parkway and connects to the other end of Veterans Boulevard. It won’t help if you’re on the Southwest side of Pigeon Forge or coming from Gatlinburg, but it’s still a useful road.
The whole building-upon-an-already-existing site was great except for some of the transportation logistics.
There’s plenty of parking at Dollywood, but the tram system to and from park to parking lot can be one of the closest things to a disappointment you’ll find under less-than-ideal circumstances.
The drivers are great and friendly, but it’s just an outdated way to move people. Imagine you and 100 of your new best friends cramming in a disorganized queue and freezing to death waiting for an open-air ride back to the car in December.
There’s a fairly easy way to avoid all that mess. Straight cash.
Standard parking is $20. Preferred parking is $35.
You’re already laying down serious cash just to get in the park and enjoy the day. The upgrade to park close, avoid the queue crush and not have to ride the tram is the best deal they offer.
But here’s the real pro-tip: Gold season passholders receive FREE standard parking and a discount on preferred.
So if your family is considering season passes this year, consider making at least one of those passes a gold pass to enjoy the free parking benefit – plus a variety of lodging, ticket and in-park discounts including food.
One word of caution: The preferred lot is on top of a mountain. The walk down to the exclusive entrance can be a bit rough on the knees, but the climb back is brutal if you have mobility issues.
If you’re staying in Pigeon Forge, with a $3 wristband, you can also catch a trolley to Patriot Park and then transfer to a trolley to Dollywood.
Bonus pro-tip: Guests staying at DreamMore receive complimentary shuttle service to both Dollywood and Splash Country. That’s right, they get to skip this whole parking nonsense altogether. The more you know …
For additional parking information, check out the Dollywood website.
Remember, whichever way you park, booking with Tripster can sometimes save you a few bucks off of your admission ticket.
3. Plan ahead for a lot of walking
Look, many amusement parks have the good luck and/or foresight to be built on a relatively flat piece of land.
One of Disney’s best ideas was building his park on the flat second story. You walk up a little at the entrance and then never realize the Magic Kingdom is set on a roof.
Dollywood ain’t that. There are hills, mountains, dips, dives and hollers.
Plan your footwear accordingly. If you have mobility issues, they have scooters for rent, but on busy days they can get a little scarce.
If you’re wondering whether or not to bring your chair or rent one, I’d say bring it.
4. Take advantage of the free water at Dollywood
If you’re at Dollywood, there’s a good chance it’s hot and humid.
For those of us from the area, it’s part of life in the South, but if you’re visiting from somewhere with a less sticky, thick summer environment, it can be a bit of an adjustment.
Throw in the walking up and down hills and hollers and you’re going to need to replace some sweat.
Dollywood recognizes this and also knows it’s not a fantastic look to have patrons dropping left and right from heatstroke. As such, the park offers complimentary cups of water at all park restaurants and most food outlets. All you have to do is ask.
Dollywood also allows guests to bring their own water into the park.
Also, water fountains are located near all restrooms.
5. Purchase refillable mugs and snacks
Dollywood is a family-centric park. They also understand how expenses like food and beverage tend to add up once inside the park, especially for larger families.
But never fear – Dollywood offers a variety of refillable drink and snack options that will keep the entire family hydrated and well-fed throughout the day without breaking the bank.
Refillable options include:
Refillable souvenir mugs can be reused multiple times per season. You can even bring in souvenir mugs from previous seasons, but the discount isn’t quite as good.
You can also refill those popcorn buckets with pork rinds for a reduced price.
6. Have your kids measured at the park entrance
This little nugget is a huge time-saver.
If you have kids old enough to enjoy some of the rides at Dollywood, your first stop once inside the park should be at Dollywood’s centralized measuring station.
The measuring station is across from the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame Showstreet.
At the measuring station, a Dollywood host will measure your child and give them a color-coded wristband.
The color codes correspond with signs at each ride in the park that indicate whether or not your child will be tall enough to ride before you waste an hour in line only to be turned away in disappointment.
There’s a reason Dollywood is known as the “Friendliest Park in the World” and a large part of that reason is the little things like ride cubbies.
Yes, Dollywood offers lockers in which you can store your valuables for a price near the entrance like every other park in the world.
But unlike others (I’m looking at you, Universal) Dollywood recognizes that you might have stuff you need throughout the day that you’d rather not take on a ride or store in a locker. And so, Dollywood offers ride cubbies – places where you can store your stuff.
Plus, ride cubbies are free.
They’re not necessarily secure (honor system is in play here), so if you have the Hope Diamond on you, you might want to consider an alternate storage method.
But still, it’s nice to be able to ride without clutching your sunglasses, or purse or whatever throughout.
8. See Dolly at Dollywood
This is the big one. Dolly will occasionally make appearances at the park to announce the latest big show or ride or something.
These occasions are hard to pinpoint in advance and may just come down to the luck of the draw.
The best shot to see Dolly is early in the year. Normally, there’s a media day at which Dolly (schedule permitting) kicks off the new year with a little show and song.
During the show, she also celebrates season passholders and makes several appearances in the park (weather permitting) including riding in the daily parade.
If you want to see Dolly, this is the best way to do it. Ask park officials when the passholder celebration is, and you’ll have a decent chance to see Dolly.
9. See Dolly in the wild (incognito) at Dollywood
Over the years, I have become friendly with several people who work at the park, both on the operations side and on the entertainment side.
All have told me it is the gospel truth that Dolly has been able to take off her persona – wig, makeup and fancy outfits – and take in the park without being noticed.
I have been told by many reliable sources this is true, but I’ve never heard of someone successfully spotting an incognito Dolly riding the Tennessee Tornado.
Still, it’s probably worth keeping your eyes peeled for a little Where’s Waldo action – Dollywood style.
If you plan a trip to Dollywood, remember to check Tripster to save a couple of dollars off admission.
Have you been to Dollywood? Give us your best tips in the comments.
7. What is the best time to see bears at Cades Cove?
Cades Cove offers an excellent chance to spot wildlife in their natural environment.
Bear, deer and elk, as well as raccoons, turkeys and coyotes, inhabit the mountains surrounding the valley. And they often traverse the wide fields in an effort to get from one side to the other, to graze or just enjoy the sun on their fur.
Deer sightings are frequent. Black bears are more common than they were 20 years ago and the elk are still a relatively recent reintroduction to the park and are rare. If you see an elk, count yourself among the lucky.
There’s a chance you can see wild animals any time of the day in the park but in the heat of the day, they tend to bed down and rest. They are more active in the mornings and evenings.
The vistas are breathtaking all the time, but when the sun begins to set in the west and cast its hues of oranges, yellows and reds across the valley onto the eastern mountains. It’s a sight you won’t forget.
6. How far is Cades Cove from Gatlinburg?
There are two ways to get to Cades Cove, coming in from Gatlinburg or from the Townsend entrance.
If you’re coming from Gatlinburg it might be a while before you get the chance to gas up.
If your gas tank is anywhere close to empty, take the right turn at the Wye and go into Townsend for gas. The 10-minute detour will be well worth your effort.
There are few worse feelings in the world than coming into the back half of the Loop and seeing that needle approaching “empty” as you’re stuck behind a line of tourists excitedly snapping pictures of a groundhog.
Cades Cove Loop road rage is a real thing … and it is ugly.
The Cades Cove Loop does not have an “address” per see.
But Cades Cove can also be found by plugging in “Cades Cove Loop Rd” into your GPS or Google Maps.
However, it is crucial to note that you will lose cell service on your way up the mountain. Consider printing or taking a screenshot of those directions before you leave town.
There’s a fantastic picnic area just outside the entrance to the park with plenty of shade and a creek running along either side.
But if you want the romantic Cades Cove experience, pack a picnic lunch and blanket, pick a spot on the first half of the Loop, get out of the car and climb over the barbed wire fence.
If you’re a little shy, maybe hike a bit and pick a spot out of the line of sight of the passing motorists, who will gawk. Let’s face it, they’re there to see animals and if the deer and bear are in the hills, you’re the next best thing they’ve got.
But, if you can get past the feeling of being on display, there are few more truly tranquil things in life, than finding a beautiful spot and just soaking in the beauty around you.
4. Is there cell service in Cades Cove?
There is no cell service in the Cove, on the way to the cove, or in the picnic area.
I repeat – there is no cell service.
In Cades Cove your cell phone is nothing more than a camera – and possibly a device to entertain yourself in the inevitable traffic jam that occurs when a family of deer grazes just off the road and people from all walks of life and around the world act like they’ve spotted a lion on safari.
3. Is Cades Cove open at night?
The Loop closes at sundown.
But a few lucky souls have experienced the Cove at nightfall, myself included, and it is a sight to behold.
In high school, my friend’s 15-year-old Volkswagen Cabriolet broke down at the entrance to Abrams Falls. It was a long wait for the Park Ranger to come, contact a tow truck and get the tow truck to us (thank God for AAA).
We spent much of the time lying on the VW’s hood and staring up at the stars.
I’ve lived in some rural places, far away from the lights of humanity, but I have never been closer to the stars than I was that night.
Of course, there are many places in the mountains where you can look up and see the sky, but I think it was that wide view, across the empty fields, unencumbered by trees or even the mountains.
I would have given anything for a telescope that night. But, then again, I’m not sure I really needed it.
Nearby Cades Cove Campground and Smokemont Campground are open year-round and require a reservation.
2. Are there shortcuts along the Cades Cove Loop?
There are two shortcuts along the Loop.
The first is only a mile or two in and cuts the 11-mile loop to 4 miles. Don’t take that one unless you’re hiking or biking and have decided the full thing is just too much.
The second shortcut, however, is a vital escape tool. There are two main factors to consider when assessing your need for the shortcut:
a. What do you want out of this trip?
If it’s sweeping views and magnificent vistas, the shortcut may be for you. The first half of the loop is by far the more visually impressive.
The view to the East is significantly better than the view to the West and much of the back half of the loop is spent in the woods.
It’s cool if you like that sort of thing, and there are plenty of things like the Cades Cove Nature Trail, the hike to Abrams Falls, a grist mill and a wide variety of pioneer cabins to check out.
But if you’re there for the vistas, by the time you get to the second shortcut, you’ve already seen the best the loop has to offer.
b. Cades Cove traffic
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world and there are days when all of those tourists decide it’s a perfect day to drive the loop.
I love the beauty and nature and all the cool things to see and do at Cades Cove.
But when you see a line of brake lights stretching off into the distance like it’s rush hour in Atlanta, it’s time to cut bait and get the hell out.
I’ve come close to exiting the family car and hiking back, promising to see my family if they ever make it through.
If the traffic is terrible and the cars are crawling, save yourself. Take the shortcut and get out. Ain’t no deer in the world worth all that.
1. What are the best Cades Cove hiking trails?
This one isn’t for everyone.
I can’t do it anymore, but when I was a young man, we used to hike the 5-mile round trip to Abrams Falls. Longer hikes to Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top also being at the Cove.
It’s just hard enough to make it an accomplishment and the reward is a beautiful waterfall and ice-cold water to cool off.
Be careful. Don’t get your shoes, pants or socks wet because the hike back is real and chafing is the devil’s work.
Abrams Falls is a highlight of any trip to the Cove and it’s one that can’t be seen from the backseat of a Hyundai.
What are YOUR best tips for Cades Cove? Let us know in the comments below.
There are experiences that are fairly universal to visitors to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Dollywood? Check. Ripley’s Aquarium? Sure thing. Max Patch? Huh?
You can visit East Tennessee dozens of times and have a lot of fun never getting off the beaten path.
But if you’re looking for a vacation experience a little bit out of the norm, then there are plenty of things to do in the mountains that don’t involve go-karts or watered-down “moonshine.”
Max Patch isn’t exactly a secret. But there are a lot of locals who either have a vague idea of Max Patch or have never heard of it at all.
It’s a bald in the Smokies that was pasture land for sheep and cattle in the 1800s. It is a treeless meadow on a mountaintop with a 360-degree view located in the Pisgah National Forest at the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
How do you access Max Patch?
A major landmark on the Appalachian Trail, it’s accessible from the North Carolina side from Hot Springs on NC 209, and from Exit 7 on the North Carolina side of I-40.
I’ve never come in that way and I’m told there’s quite a bit of gravel road involved. We took a third route, through Del Rio.
I have to believe, that either route is preferable to the route we took on a gravel road winding up mountains and along ridgebacks.
We didn’t know that when we set out to meet some relatives coming from the North Carolina side.
We simply followed the directions and set out for what we assumed was going to be a pleasant adventure in the mountains.
Is Max Patch easy to access?
Most mountaineering websites describe Max Patch as easy to access. I think that, in this case, easy is a relative term.
I would say if the weather has been rainy, don’t attempt to reach Max Patch from either side without a four-wheel drive.
And I’d get a fairly good idea of the predicted weather before taking a family for a picnic.
Is there cell service at Max Patch?
Because Max Patch is so remote, there’s no cell service so we printed out our directions and followed accordingly.
We drove to the tiny Cocke County community of Del Rio, to the aptly named Round Mountain Road.
It was evident we’d made a tactical error early on. But with no way to contact our family, we decided to press on.
We were never really in danger.
Is Round Mountain Road a scary drive?
Round Mountain Road isn’t one of those that hang along a precipice. But it is a windy mountain gravel road in the middle of nowhere. And our Ford Focus wasn’t exactly built for the job.
Every once in a while you read a story about someone following a Google Map glitch and driving into some precarious situation.
While I white-knuckled it past places like Rattlesnake Branch and Lemon Gap, I contemplated the possible headlines that might appear following our untimely demise.
The biggest issue was the uncertainty. Were we being led on a goose chase? If we were on the right road had we stayed on it?
Round Mountain Road had a few offshoots, usually unmarked. And while common sense dictated which gravel path was the main road, it felt like something of a crapshoot.
A couple of times we passed a car heading in the other direction and a smattering of summer cabins let us know we hadn’t left civilization entirely.
Although the feral donkey wandering alone amongst one nest of cabins suggested otherwise.
Around the Round Mountain Campground, we met a couple who assured us we were on the right path.
Eventually, we pulled into the small parking area, grateful for both the views before us and that we had survived to see them.
What time does Max Patch open and close?
Max Patch isn’t a place to come for a quick, pretty view.
It’s a place for lingering. And it’s perfect for a quiet picnic disconnected from the world, save for the few other souls who’ve come to get away.
It’s also a wonderful place to have a picnic, lounge, read a book and catch sunrises and sunsets, though I wouldn’t recommend trying the Del Rio assault under the cover of darkness.
Editor’s Note: On July 1, 2021, the Pisgah National Forest issued new restrictions. Specifically, a two-year ban on camping is in place to reduce congestion due to a significant increase in visitors to the area. As always, remove any trash and leave no trace. Pets are allowed but only with a leash. Group size is limited to 10 people. Visit the website to learn more.
The ban will continue until June 30, 2023.
Currently, Max Patch opens an hour before sunrise and closes an hour after sundown to hikers and picnickers. No fires or fireworks are allowed.
Can you view wildlife at Max Patch?
Wildlife viewing is possible at Max Patch. You will likely see elk and deer. You should treat bears with caution, as always, and again, there’s a least one feral donkey. Be careful, they bite.
How long is the hike for Match Patch?
The giant meadow atop a 4,600-foot summit comes with a 2.6-mile loop trail.
The views are some of the best in the mountains, better than even Cades Cove, in my opinion.
It’s the closest that many of us regular Joe’s will come to experiencing life on the Appalachian Trail.
What do you wear to Max Patch?
If you go in the non-summer months, remember fall arrives early and spring comes late in the higher elevations. It can be 10 degrees cooler there. So even on a scorching day at lower elevations, you may need to bring a jacket.
But, if you’re looking for an experience that doesn’t involve massive amounts of fellow tourists and truly offers a chance to disconnect, then Max Patch just might be the spot for you.
Have you ever been to Max Patch? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.