In the grand scheme of things, our lives are lived on a balance sheet. There is, after all, only so much time we are allotted.
The Great Pie Chart in the Sky will be filled with the mundane activities of our daily lives – our jobs and our hobbies.
The final ledger is complete with the sum of how we’ve chosen to live our life.
With little changes on a micro level, most people get a set number of vacations in their life – two a year if they’re lucky. And the allocation of that time is precious.
For example, I want to take my kids to Washington D.C., New York and the Great American West. When they’re older, I’d love for them to see Europe as I did.
But I also want them to go to the ocean, see Disney, and spend time with their relatives in Florida, Indiana and North Carolina. How do you balance that time? How do you decide?
Once that decision is made, another level of accounting is required: How do you spend that time? If this is likely going to be your only family vacation to the Smoky Mountains, the algebra changes.
The highlights become essential. If, however, you return to the mountains year after year, you can be more leisurely, more choosey in your planning. If you miss something, there’s always next year.
That math is what matters when planning your first trip to the Smokies. How long do you have? Are you likely to return? These are the things that factor heavily into the planning.
Here are our tips for the things you must do on your first trip to the Sevier County’s tourism Mecca.
1. Keep it simple, don’t skip the National Park
Ultimately, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are popular tourist destinations for a simple reason: The natural beauty of the mountains and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
If you’re coming here for the first time, that’s the thing that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Other places have theme parks, outlet malls and go-carts. They don’t all have Cades Cove. So go experience it.
Go for long drives. Soak in the beauty. It’s why the rest of it is here.
2. Do something silly, pick at least one cheesy museum or dinner show
After natural beauty, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are famous for the kitschy, the cheesy and the silly.
Go to Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, check out a lumberjack show or the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. Do something ridiculous and memorable. The people of the mountains don’t take themselves too seriously, neither should you.
3. Find some authentic live bluegrass music
Sure, you can drop a few dollars to hear acceptable covers of country music classics at one of the big show theaters in town.
That can be fun. But if you want to hear the music of the mountains, you’ve got to look a little harder.
Ask around for local venues that feature local artists. Gatlinburg will frequently hire musicians to perform live on the street.
These performances, in my opinion, are generally vastly superior to what you’ll hear in the tourist venues.
Dollywood is also good about providing both the slick, highly produced version of country music as well as the less showy, but sonically more interesting tones of mountain bluegrass.
4. Spend at least one day at Dollywood
It has benefited from a well-managed improvement plan going back more than 30 years now. Aside from the mountains, there is no more an authentic Pigeon Forge experience than going to Dollywood.
5. Enjoy a bit of playtime (go-karts, mini golf, etc)
The games in the region are – at least on the surface – for the kids.
But as a kid, my favorite times in Pigeon Forge involved my uncles on the go-kart tracks. They involved competing at mini golf.
They involved going to the arcade and dropping way too many quarters into zombie invasion games, skee-ball and air hockey. You want to create memorable family vacations? Remember what it was like when you were a kid and go play.
6. Get high (really high)
No, we’re not talking about all of the Cafe 420 shops that have sprung up as of late.
Get up into the air and see Gatlinburg from a different perspective.
Maybe you can go to Anakeesta for some of the best views of the mountains, or ride the funicular to Ober Gatlinburg.
You can get a thrill from the Gatlinburg Skybridge or drive Highway 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee for some breathtaking views.
The mountains are beautiful from the valleys, but they are an entirely different level of awe-inspiring from the peaks. If the weather is clear, get to Clingmans Dome. It will change your perspective.
What are you planning for your upcoming trip to the Smokies? Leave a comment below and a member of TheSmokies.com crew will reply. And let us know what you think of our suggestions!