When I was younger, we took a sky lift into the Smoky Mountains. I remember the lift, and I remember the landing at the top, but I don’t remember much of anything else. So when I went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee recently, I was in awe of the Smokey Mountains. They were incredible, portentous if you’ll let me use a pretentious word. They were also free. There’s a lot of free things to do in the Smoky Mountains.
Years ago, North Carolina and Tennessee funded the Newfound Gap Road, a mountain pass that connects Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. North Carolina basically gave up the rights to the road by abandonment, but Tennessee offered to donate their portion on one condition: tolls would never be allowed on the road. So that’s why it’s free to travel.
But it’s not just the Newfound Gap Road that is free. There’s actually a lot of free fun in the Smoky Mountains to take advantage of when you’re there.
Free Fun In The Smoky Mountains
If you like to hike, the Smoky Mountains are perfect for you. There are over 850 miles of hiking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s estimated that it takes at least 1.5 hours per mile, so that’s over 53 days of hiking (assuming you hike without sleeping).
One of the most famous trails is the Appalachian Trail.
There are a lot of day trails available. If you do one of those, be sure to finish your hike by sunset (which varies by season). There are also overnight hikes you can do, but you will have to make sleeping arrangements and reservations, and get the appropriate permits, prior to your hike.
Before you hike, pick up a trail map so you can plan your route. You can purchase one for $1 or you can download a Smoky Mountains trail map.
It’s free to hike the trails, but it may cost you money to stay overnight, so keep that in mind while you budget for your trip.
Drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
Not into hiking? No worries. Just drive the Roaring Fork Motor Trail instead. The trail is 5.5 mile long, one-way, loop road allows you to see streams, historical cabins, and the mountain.
There are trails you can hike as well, so you can get the best of both worlds.
This trail is closed during the winter — and part of the spring. We went to Gatlinburg, TN in April and the trail had opened just a few days before we went. The area still had snow up until a few days before our trip, and this (as well as many other trails) are impossible and unsafe to access in winter weather.
Stop At The Sugarlands Visitors Center.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a visitors center as good as the Sugarlands Visitors Center. There is a full museum with taxidermy animals, plus local plants. There’s also a theater that shows a movie about the Great Smoky Mountains.
You can pick up trail maps and guide books for a nominal donation as well.
There’s also a full gift shop at the visitors center as well. You can pick up chocolate, water, books, magnets, and a passport book for other National Parks. That’s really fun if you plan on visiting more of them in your lifetime.
Also — and here’s a big one — the Sugarlands Visitor Center has a bathroom. So definitely use it. There’s also a Pokémon Go gym, in case you’re line me and actually still play.
Visit The State Line.
As your travel the Newfound Gap Road, you come to the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. There’s a sign there, which is a fun photo op, plus a large parking lot.
If you park there, you can stop at the Land of Blue Smoke lookout, one of the most scenic places in Smoky Mountains National Park. There’s also an entrance to the Appalachian Trail to hike.
But, my dad’s favorite part is the Rockefeller Memorial. From there, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood and dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940. What’s very cool is that you can actually stand where he stood.
That’s amazing to me. To be able to hold a paper that someone one touched in the past, or to be able to stand where someone was, it gives you this connection to them. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s my overwhelming feeling of nostalgia that I feel for everything, but that’s so cool to me.
Attend A Star Party.
The Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society puts on monthly Star Parties — and guests are welcome to attend.
The group will set up telescopes that you can use to look at the beauty of the skies. It’s asked that you use red lights instead of white lights, don’t smoke, and if you use bug spray, apply it far from the expensive telescope lenses.
Guests are welcome but keep in mind that you are a guest. Be respectful — and appreciative. Groups like this don’t have to open to visitors, so the fact that they do is very special.
Which of these free activities in the Smoky Mountains looks the most fun to you?