Skip to main content

It's the Best of Places

And the worst of places. Welcome to Tennessee. There are a lot of hate-filled religious wackos here, too much litter along the highways, and the country's absolute worst drivers. Driving highway 40 from Nashville to Knoxville was the #1 worst segment of my entire nomad life so far for the sole reason that people here drive like complete assholes. It wasn't the volume of traffic or the road or weather conditions or even one or two bad apples. It was pure, shitty collective human behavior for almost three hours.  

But also, this state has incredible food and music; Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga are great places to live; the winters are mild; and the Great Smoky Mountains are lush and green in the best magical, scary forest kind of way. At the very least, you should visit the park, and when you do, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Don't go to the most popular trails after 8 AM. There were 12.1 million visitors to this park in 2020, compared to the next most popular - Yellowstone - which has 3.1 million. Great Smoky Mountains also has only one-fourth the land area that Yellowstone does. So, yeah, that's a lot of people for the area. The park is piloting reservations for the most popular hikes, like Laurel Falls.

Do go out on off-peak hours and find less popular trails. Aside from the popular Alum Cave (which I got up early to do), most trails I hiked had only a handful of other people. I went out after work, arriving at trailheads around 5:30 and never had any trouble finding parking. There are over 800 miles of beautiful trails in Smoky, and most people that come here aren't serious hikers. 

Don't stay in Pigeon Forge. Those millions of visitors all stay in Pigeon Forge and go to horrible attractions like Biblical Times dinner theater, Bush's Beans visitor center, and the Hatfield/McCoys re-enactments. Also, the streets are an absolute disaster. You'll crawl along at two miles per hour and have to contend with Segways and golf carts too. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

Do stay in Wears Valley. This delightful little town is only six miles from Pigeon Forge but worlds apart. There are two wineries, several cafes, a coffee shop, a distillery, and a food truck court. The Metcalf Bottoms picnic area and entrance to the national park will be 5-10 minutes from your rental, and no trucks, RVs, trailers, etc are allowed through that entrance, which is really nice. Several hiking trails go off right from that area, but you'll have two dozen more trails less than 20 minute total drive from your rental. Wears Valley is also in the center of the park's northern boundary, so you'll be equidistance from the west and east trails. Also, look at this fabulous wrap-around porch I had on my rental. I sat out on the porch swing every single night. And if you can't make Wears Valley work, Townsend is a really good option too.

Don't shop at the Wears Valley General Store. They fly the Confederate flag.

Do shop at the Mountain Brothers General Store. It's only a mile down the road and they don't fly the Confederate flag. 

Don't bring your dog. All these trails and none of them are dog friendly. Such a shame, especially considering that you can take horses on some trails and there are plenty of horse apples left over from riders. For the dog ban reason alone, I could never live here. Smoky rangers need to look at how Acadia and Hot Springs national parks have made room for dogs on trails.

Do consider becoming a trail runner. This place is a trail runner's dream. Like I said, most trails have very few people, yet you have beautifully groomed trails on rolling hills with enough roots and rocks to be interesting and keep your brain engaged, but not to make them really technical. My left knee is still a disaster (probably time to go for some imaging) but, wow, this place makes me want to fly. 

Don't gawk at the little people. Yes, you can go to Pigeon Forge (which I already said not to) and watch microwrestling, which boasts that gawking at little people like they are sideshow attractions is "great fun for the entire family". No. Little people, power to you. It's your body; you do what you want with it. But there is no reason anyone is going to watch this other than to make fun of people for physical traits they cannot change. I never want to associate with anyone who would go to something like that.

Do keep your eyes peeled for bears to gawk at. Bears have been causing a few issues in Smoky this year. I went out jogging every evening with a very loud personal alarm in one hand and a pole in the other, in case I ran into a bear. If I lived there full time, I'd run with bear spray. I also broke the cardinal rule of not playing music out loud like all the jerks in Colorado who blast their music when there are tons of other people around or they are above treeline where there are no predators to worry about. But when I rolled up to the parking areas in Smoky and was the only car and I knew I was going to be out in that thick forest where a bear could be 20 feet away and I'd have no idea, I needed to make some noise. I even sang aloud on one trail. But a healthy dose of fear of nature and understanding your place in the pecking order is part of the appeal of trail running. All those trails essentially to myself was magnificent. (Also, don't feed the wildlife. A fed bear is a dead bear. Stay away. You deserve all the fines and jail time if you engage with them.

Don't go to Dollywood. Because it's in Pigeon Forge.

Do donate to Dolly Parton's charitable foundations. Because she's good people.

woman in front of mountain overlook