15 Unique Things To Do in the Smoky Mountains, According to a Local

a glassbridge at skypark

When it comes to unique experiences in the Smoky Mountains – it doesn't get much better than walking across a glass bridge in the mountains (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Looking for something unique you can’t do anywhere else while in the Smoky Mountains? Let me be your guide

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. 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 much of East Tennessee. How many pancake houses do we 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 or the same hotel? Been there and done that. But is it possible to chase a truly unique experience? As someone who has lived in the Smokies for the better part of 35 years, I’ve seen and done just about all of it. And I can confidently answer, yes! In this article, I’ll share some of my best suggestions.

sugarlands in gatlinburg tn exterior
There are several places to try some ‘shine in the Smokies. One of the most popular is Sugarlands (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

1. Visit a Tennessee 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. But 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. My favorite distilleries are Ole Smoky and Sugarlands. Ole Smoky has multiple locations throughout Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Sugarlands is located in downtown Gatlinburg at 805 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll likely have to pay for parking and walk to most attractions in downtown Gatlinburg. Free parking is much more abundant in Pigeon Forge.

An incline cart at Hillbilly golf
The incline at Hillbilly Golf takes riders to the top of a mountain to play (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

2. Hillbilly Golf

Again, it is possible to find the unique among the mundane. Of course, 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. One some holes, the mountain itself becomes the “obstacle”. It’s unlike any mini-golf you’ll experience elsewhere. Editor’s Note: Hillbilly Golf closes seasonally (in the winter), so always check the website or call ahead before you go. Hillbilly Golf is located at 340 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738 in downtown Gatlinburg. Paid parking is available on-site.

Gatlinburg SkyBridge at Dusk
The Gatlinburg SkyBridge at dusk (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

3. 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 SkyPark 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. SkyPark is located at 765 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. It’s located in downtown Gatlinburg, so expect to pay for parking at a nearby lot.

Fog over the Great Smoky Mountains
There is no other park quite like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Robert Gubbins/shutterstock.com)

4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mountains. Trees. Streams. Taken as pieces, the GSMNP is not unique. There are 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. Just don’t forget to grab Park It Foward parking pass before you go if you plan on getting out of your car. And as always, we recommending starting any journey into the park at Sugarlands Visitor Center (more on this below).

Sugarlands Visitor Center
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is a great place to start your adventure (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

5. 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. Sugarlands Visitor Center is located at 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. You can even buy a parking pass at this location.

The Cades Cove Mill
The historic Cades Cove Mill is a step back in time (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

6. Cades Cove

I take Cades Cove (Google Maps) 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. You can see the mountains as they were, wild and free. And feel what it was like as they were tamed. Plus, if you ride the loop, it’s a great way to visit the park without having to buy a parking pass.

Rich Mountain Rd Signage
Rich Mountain Road is a one-way road that is rather mountainous (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

7. 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.

a buiding yet to be restored at elkmont
Elkmont is full of history and features cabins that are being restored (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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 (Google Maps) is the perfect base for exploring the mountains as they are today and the mountains as they were.

The AT at Clingmans Dome
You can get a taste of the AT by walking some of the trail at Clingsmans Dome (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

9. Step foot on the Appalachian Trail

Sometimes I fantasize about getting into shape and hiking the Appalachian Trail. 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 feel 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.

Grotto Falls
Grotto Falls can be accessed along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (photo by Andrew S/shutterstock.com)

10. 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 also 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. To drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail just set your GPS to 117 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Want a unique experience? Try the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

11. 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. Do you want a unique experience? Surely, this is it. The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum is located at 461 Brookside Village Way, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Free parking is available on-site.

The Wood Whittlers shop in the Arts and Crafts Community in Gatlinburg
The Wood Whittlers is part of the Arts and Crafts Community in Gatlinburg (photo by Bill Burris/TheSmokies.com)

12. 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. Ample free parking is available throughout the loop. To visit the Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community just set your GPS to 668 Glades Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738.

entrance to parrot mountain in the smokies
The entrance to Parrot Mountain and Garden of Eden (photo by Kim Grayson/TheSmokies.com)

13. 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. Parrot Mountain is located at 1471 McCarter Hollow Rd, Pigeon Forge, TN 37862. Free parking is available on-site.

The Dollywood Entrance Sign
Dollywood is one of the best theme parks in the country (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com

14. Dollywood

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 certainly represents an amazing achievement in planning and executing that plan to perfection. Dollywood is located at 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863. Paid parking with trolley transport into the park is available on-site.

Clingmans Dome observation tower
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

15. Clingmans Dome

Clingmans Dome (Google Maps), 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? Just don’t forget to purchase a parking pass before you go.

What is your favorite unique to the Smokies activity? Let us know in the comments!

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