We come to the Smokies – or any vacation destination – for different reasons.
Some of us want the familiar. We want to go back to the places our parents took us or revisit the spots where our family made its best memories to see if we can do it again.
Vacation dollars are precious, vacation days even more so. Many people only get 10 vacation days a year. Therefore, if one day is spent chasing a unique adventure, you might find yourself with a precious day wasted.
There’s a reason you find so much repetition in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and really much of East Tennessee. How many pancake houses do we really need?
How many mini golf courses or moonshine distilleries or go-cart tracks are enough to sate the demand?
Conversely, some of us want to spend our vacation chasing something new. A new experience we’ve never done. Maybe try new food we’ve never tasted.
Go back to the same mountain? The same beach? The same hotel?
Been there. Done that. But is it possible to chase a truly unique experience?
Area Deals and Discounts
Subscribe to our newsletter and we will instantly deliver the best area discounts to your inbox.
What makes a destination truly unique?
Is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies unique? What if we include the penguin march? And what about the Gatlinburg Space Needle? Does the existence of a bigger and better one on the other side of North America negate its unique credibility?
What about Ober Gatlinburg and its Aerial Tramway? It’s certainly a unique view for TN visitors in their cabins watching the tramway make its trip back and forth.
There’s a reason the truly unique places like the Elvis Museum or the museum that celebrated Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall Fame are gone. Certainly, there is safety and money in consumer demand.
Unique? That’s as much of a risk for the business as it is for the traveler seeking it.
But unique does exist in the Smoky Mountains. With this in mind, we offer our list of the best places and experiences where you can find it.
15. Visit a moonshine distillery
I don’t want to belabor the semantics of the word unique. There are approximately 20 million legal moonshine distilleries in Sevier County alone.
Moonshine is a regional tradition but isn’t unique to the mountains or the Smokies. I look at it this way. To pick up a jar of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey – apple pie if you want to be authentic – in the mountains of the Smokies where moonshining is a cliché and an art and a way of life is a unique experience.
I don’t recommend visitors to the region try to make the experience overly authentic. Moonshine is still made the old-fashioned way – illegally – deep in the hills and hollers all around.
But real moonshine is a product best sought and purchased through people you know and trust. Poorly made moonshine can affect your health, and disreputable dealers could lure you to a quiet spot and relieve you of your travelin’ money.
I suppose getting robbed by an outlaw moonshiner is a unique vacation experience, but I think it’s one you’re better off avoiding.
14. Hillbilly Golf
Again, it is possible to find the unique among the mundane.
There are dozens of mini-golf and putt-putt places in Sevier County. However, there are none played on the side of a mountain like Hillbilly Golf in Gatlinburg.
13. The SkyBridge in Gatlinburg
When something is the longest, the tallest, the highest on the continent, we’re going to go ahead and call it unique to the area.
The Gatlinburg SkyBridge at Skylift Park is billed as the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. While this may be true, I haven’t measured it, so we’re gonna take their word for it.
At almost 700 feet across a deep valley, the bridge – which features glass panels where you can look down if peeing down your leg while standing 500 feet above Gatlinburg was on your bucket list – offers spectacular views of Gatlinburg and the national park beyond.
12. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Mountains. Trees. Streams.
Taken as pieces, the GSMNP is not unique. There are literally neighboring forests essentially made of the same mountain range that offer very similar experiences. But taken as a whole, there is nothing quite like the Smokies.
We will discuss individual places and experiences further down the list, but get deep into the mountains and you’ll find something you’ve never seen before.
11. Sugarlands Visitor Center
This is the perfect launching point for your Smokies adventure. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is something thousands of tourists drive past.
As a result, they are neglecting a wealth of information about the mountains, history and ways to milk the most out of your experiences. Want to build a unique mountain adventure?
The visitor center is the place to start.
10. Cades Cove
I take Cades Cove and the Loop Road for granted. I’ve ridden it countless times. I have walked to the cabins, made the hike to the waterfalls and explored the various twists and turns.
But this space up on the edge of the high mountains where settlers came and somehow survived is like an oasis in the wild.
The views of the valley when the sun is dancing in and out of the clouds are magnificent. It’s one of the places in the world where the laws of time and space can be loosed.
In fact, with the right bent of mind and enough imagination, you can travel through the eons.
You can envision what the native people saw and what the first settlers experienced. You can see the mountains as they were, wild and free. And feel what it was like as they were tamed.
9. Ride a real mountain road
My friend Jodi’s people were the last who lived in the Cove. Her dad Rex told me about having to ride the school bus out of the Cove on Rich Mountain Road.
I’ve ridden Rich Mountain Road in a car.
You couldn’t pay me enough to travel all those mountain switchbacks by bus. Still, the roads through the park are wide and safe.
Getting back onto those old mountain roads will give you another appreciation entirely for life in the early days of the park and before.
8. Camp at Elkmont
In the days before the National Park, Elkmont was a booming community near the Sevier Blount County line full of loggers and railmen.
It was also full of big money outsiders who came to play in the resorts built deep in the mountains.
Today, the Elkmont Campground is the perfect base for exploring the mountains as they are today and the mountains as they were.
7. Step foot on the Appalachian Trail
Sometimes I fantasize about getting into shape and hiking the AT. The idea of carving three or four months out of your life and walking from Georgia to Maine is romantic.
At least in the imagining. For those of us who will never actually hike the trail, it’s still worth the effort to set your foot on the path and fill the exhilaration of possibility.
Max Patch – at the North Carolina-Tennessee border – is a good spot for this but you can also get a taste of the trail near Clingmans Dome.
6. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The one-way motor trail is accessible off of Cherokee Orchard Road which starts near the Gatlinburg Space Needle.
The trail takes you past the remnants of the settlements of the original families of Gatlinburg and past some of the best hiking trails in the park.
It also leads to some of the most scenic waterfalls in the Eastern U.S.
Stop and take the brief and relatively manageable hike to Grotto Falls where you can follow the trail behind the water. Stay on the beaten path to see the poetically named Place of a Thousand Drips.
Excellent for wildlife viewing, the Motor Nature Trails is closed in the winter.
5. Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
There are many attractions in the Great Smoky Mountains of course. But only one of them is built entirely around salt and pepper shakers.
This Gatlinburg museum and gift shop is the high holy place for people who love unique sets of salt and pepper shakers. You want a unique experience? Surely, this is it.
4. Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community
The mountain people have a long tradition of excellent craftwork.
As a result, this guild of artists and crafters has created an eight-mile loop for visitors to experience – and buy – the best of Smoky Mountains arts and crafts.
3. Parrot Mountain and Garden of Eden
What? You’ve never seen a Smoky Mountain attraction that features tropical birds living in tiny English-style cottages and a beautiful garden tribute to the story of creation in the Bible?
Well, drive past Dollywood and you will see what may be the most unique attraction in the Smokies.
There’s only one Dolly Parton and there’s only one Dollywood.
Certainly, the 30-plus-year transition from a kitschy theme park to one of the best amusement parks in the world is a story that’s not told enough for my liking.
Dollywood, in fact, represents an amazing achievement in planning and executing that plan to perfection.
1. Clingmans Dome
Clingmans Dome, which may be soon known as Kuwahi, is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. It is an observation tower that nearly started a rumble between park-supporting organizations.
Great hiking, fantastic views and a perfect mountain drive? Indeed, all of that and more.
Clingmans Dome is accessible from May through November via the Newfound Gap Road where the monument dedicated to Laura Spellman Rockefeller sits.
It’s also the same spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood at the park’s dedication in 1940.
How many times can you say you’ve been to a place touched by the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers while on your way to one of the most scenic views in the world?
What is your favorite unique to the Smokies activity? Let us know in the comments!