Must-Do Activities in the Tennessee Smokies This Fall
By Kelsey Thomas
The beginning of fall is such an exciting time in the Tennessee Smokies. The beauty of the leaves changing and the perfect weather makes for a perfect photo-opportunistic, nature-driven vacation. Whether you’re looking for exciting festivals to attend or would rather lay low and enjoy a relaxing hike in one of the nation’s most gorgeous national parks, you’ll never run out of things to do in the magnificent Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Here are our top 6 picks of events and activities to experience from now until the end of fall.
View Wildlife at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to view wildlife in the Tennessee Smokies. Some animals you may be able to see include white-tailed deer, black bear, elk, turkeys, woodchucks and many other animals. They have two open areas, Cataloochee and Cades Cove, that are perfect for wildlife viewing.
Sept. 24 – Oct. 30, 2021: Dollywood’s Harvest Festival
Dollywood, a popular theme park joint owned by Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Entertainment, is located in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metroplex in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Every fall, the park transforms into a magical experience filled with playful days and illuminated nights. The festival features various live performances, as well as artisans and craftsmen that can demonstrate and sell their crafts.
This annual October event, held at Ober Ski Mountain in Gatlinburg, celebrates the traditions of the original OktOBERfest in Munich, Germany. Featured will be daily shows, updated food menus and even an outdoor bier garden! Try different brews with a $20 beer card or enjoy a delicious salted pretzel while listening to live music.
Go Leaf Peeping in Gatlinburg
The Smoky Mountains are known for their breathtaking array of colors that are painted throughout the mountains during the fall season. Any time between late September to late October is the best time to see this colorful phenomenon. Refer to the Gatlinburg Fall Foliage Report to know exactly what type of fall colors to expect and when.
Oct. 10, 2021: 5th Annual Chalkfest at the Island of Pigeon Forge
Calling all artists, professional or aspiring! This themed chalk drawing competition is a fun way to tune into your artistic side in the Smokies. Artists may bring their own chalk or use the chalk provided at the event. Awards will be presented for multiple prize categories at the Ole Smoky Moonshine Stage.
Find the Photogenic Spots
You are going to want to take a picture of everything you see in the Smokies. From the various waterfalls, like Abrams Falls or Rainbow Falls, to lookout spots like Chimney Tops or Newfound Gap, you are destined to capture some stunning images. You could even make a trip itinerary of all the places you wish to photograph.
Throughout the year, people visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an array of outdoor activities. One of the most popular things to do is hiking. The park has hundreds of miles of trails that are perfect for a challenging trek or a scenic stroll that all ages and abilities can enjoy. If you are traveling to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with children, be sure to check out these kid-friendly hiking trails.
Kid-Friendly Hiking Trails at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
These hiking trails are an easier level of difficulty while still giving children a chance to immerse themselves in the park’s beautiful natural surroundings.
Abrams Falls Trail is five miles round trip. Access this trail from Cades Cove and follow it to the beautiful Abrams Falls waterfall. The whole family will love the sights and sounds of the water rushing over the 20-foot falls. Abrams Falls is the most voluminous waterfall within Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Kephart Prong Trail
Kephart Prong Trail is four miles round trip. The trail leads hikers through an old logging railway giving children a chance to learn more about the area’s history. Kephart Prong Trail follows along log bridges and a creek. Along the trail, kids will be able to spot plenty of wildlife, including salamanders, and wildflowers during the spring.
Laurel Falls Trail
Laurel Falls Trail is less than three miles round trip. One of the most popular hiking trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Laurel Falls trail is an easy, paved hike. This trail leads to the 80-foot tall Laurel Falls waterfall. While the trail is paved, many surfaces can be rough and uneven, so it is not recommended for strollers or wheelchairs.
Porters Creek Trail
Porters Creek Trail is two miles round trip. Just six miles east of Gatlinburg, the Porters Flat is located in the Greenbrier Cove where the first European settlers arrived in the late 1700s. This trail offers plenty of history, including a cantilevered barn, springhouse, cabin and more remnants of from life centuries ago. Nature has taken over much of this trail and now hardwood forests fill much of the landscape.
Finger Lickin’ Food with a Side of Southern Hospitality
A vacation to the Tennessee Smoky Mountains can be the ultimate getaway. With adventure around every corner, you’ll need to refuel. Delicious dining options abound in the cities surrounding the Smoky Mountains. Satisfy your craving for your favorite comfort foods, down-home barbecue and other southern staples. Then, tempt your taste buds with new flavors that chefs in the Smokies are cooking up to appeal to our ever-changing palates.
Whether you’re taking in the fall foliage or the flowers in full bloom on a warm sunny day, enjoy your meal while basking in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. From babbling streams to the natural wildlife, visitors can expect to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature during their meal.
Barbecue in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains
Towering brisket sandwiches, pulled pork simmering in sauce and slow-smoked ribs. These are the types of dishes you can expect to eat in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Local pitmasters take their craft very seriously. They are dedicated to serving locals and visitors only the most mouth-watering barbecue. The Smokies tend to follow the flavors of Carolina-style barbecue, using more vinegar and tomato-based sauces. Whether you prefer a dry rub or a rack of ribs slathered in sauce, you’ll understand why Tennessee serves up award-winning barbecue.
“We take barbecue very seriously,” says Kelly Johnson, co-owner of Johnson Family Restaurants. “We’ve been doing barbecue for over 27 years.”
At Bennett’s Pit BBQ you can expect a meal that is tender and packed with flavor. Bennett’s uses the “low and slow” technique for cooking barbecue. Their chicken, chopped pork, ribs and beef brisket are basted in their signature sauce, then smoked over hickory wood for 6–14 hours to get the meat fall-off-the-bone tender.
Barbecue traditions run in the family at Buddy’s Bar-B-Q in Sevierville. Since 1972, Buddy’s has been serving up barbecue favorites across east Tennessee. Try one of the filling barbecue dinners or a sandwich with pork, chicken, ham or turkey. Buddy’s also specializes in home-style meals.
Southern Staples in the Smokies
Another cuisine that’s sure to get your taste buds watering is classic Southern cooking. Start your day off with a warm buttermilk biscuit, topped with thick gravy. Or, enjoy eggs over easy with a couple of slices of country ham. While most of the country may only enjoy ham during the holidays, a country ham is prominent in Southern kitchens and restaurants.
To properly enjoy chicken in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains it has to be hot and fried. The fried chicken recipes you’ll find in local restaurants have been passed down from generations. A foundation of Southern cooking, fried chicken can be mild and topped with hot sauce or blazing with flavors and spices.
From the land to the sea, catfish is another popular protein you’ll find on Southern plates. Much like chicken, this fresh catch is best served battered and fried.
Visitors come from far and wide to get a plate of tasty sides and a hearty meat. In Southern restaurants, this is called a “meat and three.” Your meal is not complete without a piece of sweet cornbread, a serving of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese or another delicious side dish.
“Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and country fried steak,” Johnson says, “we feel like those are our heritage here and it’s important to do them right.”
Mama’s Farmhouse in Pigeon Forge takes family-style dining to the next level. They serve up large, all-you-can-eat portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Enjoy their made-from-scratch, award-winning biscuits, topped with homemade fruit butter, or crispy pieces of fried chicken until you and your family are stuffed.
Dinner with a View of the Smoky Mountains
Don’t limit your Tennessee Smokies dining experience to just the Southern comforts and barbecue. Wine and dine over an upscale meal in a restaurant filled with rustic charm, that maintains the comfort of the Smoky Mountains. From rotisserie chicken to fresh-caught seafood, you’ll enjoy an intimate meal while overlooking the vast mountain range.
A robust glass of red wine and a tender steak represent quintessential fine dining. Alamo Steakhouse is known across the region for aging angus steaks to perfection over an open oak fire. These flavorful steaks are hand cut and seasoned in-house. Their professional meat cutters trim each and every steak to ensure the perfect amount of marbling.
While Ober Gatlinburg is best known for their thrilling attractions, they also have their own restaurant. Seasons of Ober Gatlinburg showcases a menu inspired by the flavors of the season. Enjoy a variety of hand-cut steaks, chicken and pork entrees, all grilled to perfection and served with homemade sides. Finish your fantastic meal with a signature dessert like the German-style French toast or Southern pecan pie.
The ski lodge atmosphere of Mountain Edge Grill offers a comfortable spot to dine and kick back. Watch a sporting event on one of their multiple TVs, then order a dish, fresh off the grill, like hamburgers and chicken. Their menu offers familiar favorites, but if you’re looking for something unique and rustic, try their half-pound buffalo burger.
For some well-known flavors that are sure to please the whole family, grab a slice at a local pizza joint. Big Daddy’s Pizza uses house-made dough, sauce and the freshest ingredients. Big Daddy’s is so committed to serving the freshest ingredients that they don’t even have a freezer on site. Watch your pie cook in a 550-degree wood-fired oven, then savor every tasty bite.
Family owned and operated since 1984, Geno’s Pizza has been serving locals and visitors at their three locations in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Kodak. Geno’s makes their fresh dough daily for your pizza pie. Try one of the specialty pizzas or get it “any way you want” by choosing from the many fresh ingredients available.
Whatever you choose for breakfast, lunch or dinner, be sure to save room for something sweet. Nothing will satisfy your sweet tooth like a slice of pie, homemade cake or one of the other desserts you’ll find made fresh. Try a piece of fresh fudge from Fudge Shoppe of the Smokies, with two locations in Gatlinburg.
While you’ll find a variety of tastes and flavors in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains, the one thing that these restaurants have in common is that they also serve up some good old fashioned Southern hospitality.
“There’s a bit of lore that country folks are friendly,” Johnson says. “We strive to serve excellent food with friendly service. We really want vacationers to feel welcome.”
With a variety of dining options, from authentic mountain cooking to seafood, steaks and international cuisine, you’ll have no problem finding a restaurant to fill your belly and make you smile.
Dinner and a Show: Dinner Theater near the Tennessee Smoky Mountains
Luxurious dinner theaters offer audiences entertaining performances and an exceptional dining experience. Enjoy a multiple-course dinner as you are entertained by a high-caliber show.
Watch as one of the longest running feuds in history comes to life as you enjoy dinner. The Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, in Pigeon Forge, is full of singing, dancing, feats of strength, jaw dropping stunts and side-splitting comedy. You’d think grandma is in the kitchen whipping up a feast when you see the portions brought to your table. You’ll love the fried chicken, pulled barbecue pork, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and specialty dessert.
With three shows to choose from, Pigeon Forge’s Great Smoky Mountain Murder Mystery Dinner Show offers suspense, comedy and a full menu. This three-course meal begins with soup, then a main course and cheesecake for dessert. The entrée includes boneless fried chicken, a savory pork loin, mashed potatoes, green beans and a dinner roll, but Murder Mystery has so much more. Kids will love their three-course dinner with chicken fingers. There are also vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and diabetic options as well to cater to every type of diner.
Incredible artwork, unique items designed by local craftsmen, antiques from a by-gone era and, of course, fun stores that will have something for everyone—you’ll love shopping near the Tennessee Smoky Mountains! The best part is bringing a piece of the Smokies home with you. The region contains tons of shopping excursions, from outlet stores with name-brand items to specialty shops with one-of-a-kind finds. Find that special souvenir for those back home—or the perfect keepsake for yourself. Designer clothes, home accessories, original art, tasty treats—the variety is endless!
Gatlinburg is home to several malls and plazas, where you’ll discover one-of-a-kind shops that shape the character of the surrounding Smoky Mountains. Not only does Pigeon Forge have a massive outlet mall, there are also plenty of villages and quaint shops where you will find custom made products, fine jewelry, art galleries, vinyl records and much more. Sevierville has a popular shopping mall as well as lots of small retail areas which are home to a variety of stores and services, from clothing to hair salons. If you are searching for Smoky Mountains’ goodies and gifts, then head over to Townsend where you will find a plethora of locally owned shops offering a variety of unique items with that special Smokies touch. Wherever you decide to go near the Tennessee Smoky Mountains, shopping here is a fun and exciting adventure, and one of the reasons people find themselves coming back again and again.
High End Shops and Outlets near the Tennessee Smoky Mountains
Whether you have a keen appreciation for the finer things in life or just know how to spot a good deal, it’s easy to spend an entire day perusing the spectacular deals found in the outlet stores here. Adorn yourself with high-end favorites offered at low-end prices on designer outfits, jewelry, purses and shoes. Bring new life to your home with the most sought after brands in kitchenware and entertaining. Finally, treat yourself to a revitalizing makeover with the tremendous selection of top makeup brands, soothing body treatments and designer perfumes. These locations also have entertaining dinner theaters and top restaurants, so spend a whole day at the outlets!
Shop for Specialty Finds
Of course you’ll want to have that one particular item that reminds you of your unforgettable memories made in the Smokies each time it catches your eyes. Perhaps you’ll delight in an assortment of hand poured candles, a collection of mountain music reminiscent of your visit or a piece of accent furniture that mimics the rustic feel of Tennessee. Maybe it will be a piece of jewelry or a personalized Christmas ornament that brings a warm feeling to your heart. You’ll find an incredibly varied assortment of items inside the adorable specialty shops here. No matter which part of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains you are shopping in, it’s easy to discover a treasure that you know is special to our area.
Made in the Mountains
An alluring perk of shopping in the Smokies is that so many of the items found here are handcrafted by local artists and artisans. The Smokies contain various craft guilds, where talented artists can join together in revolutionizing the arts scene in Tennessee. Throughout the area, you will find a variety of galleries and shops filled with truly amazing arts and crafts symbolizing all that the Smoky Mountains stand for. When you purchase a hand-stitched quilt, a homemade bar of soap or a beautifully painted piece of art, you’re not only leaving with a quality piece of craftsmanship; you’re helping to support the local arts community, and that’s a purchase you can be proud of.
There are certain items that aren’t meant to last a lifetime. These delectable confections are found at many of shops here and may not last the car ride home. Bring a taste of the Smokies home with you by picking up a package of hand-dipped chocolates, a jar of specialty barbeque sauce or preserves, an assortment of nostalgic candy or a bottle of Tennessee-made moonshine. Don’t forget to grab some extra gourmet goodies for your friends back home!
Antique, Vintage and Consignment Shops near the Tennessee Smoky Mountains
The history of the Tennessee Smoky Mountains is a rich assortment of mountain pioneers, Cherokee heritage and colorful, Appalachian culture. Take a piece of this past home with you by visiting a local antique, vintage or consignment shop. A piece of pottery, a vintage leather sack, a hand-made toy—each item tells a story and will be a great reminder of your trip to the Smokies. You may even find a focal-point for your décor back home or a treasured piece of furniture, made right here. The craftsmanship of Tennessee will ensure that this is a piece that will continue to stand the test of time.
No matter where you make your purchases, you’ll find amazing deals, one-of-a-kind gifts and, as always, a level of sweet Southern customer service you won’t find anywhere else. Both you and your wallet will be completely satisfied after just one day of shopping in the Smokies!
If you are planning on enjoying the Smokies during the summer, be sure to visit during their annual tax-free weekend. During this time, you can purchase everything from clothes to computers without paying the sales tax!