What makes Great Smoky Mountains National Park so stunning is its natural setting that feels relatively untouched, by people. But let’s be honest. It’s the most-visited national park year after year, with 12 million people driving through its entrances annually. So, how do we go to Great Smoky but leave less of an environmental footprint? It’s been a big topic of conversation here at National Park Trips. And it has led to us uncovering a number of ways to tread lighter and sustainable travel. It includes dining at restaurants that serve locally produced food, staying in hotels that have made a commitment to being less wasteful and doing activities powered by our own feet. Here is an incredible 48-hour itinerary to enjoy the best of Great Smoky while being environmentally friendly.
Sleep at A Glamping Resort
Wake up to the sounds of birds and a creek gurgling through the forest in your safari-style tent at Under Canvas’ Great Smoky Mountains location. It’s just 20 minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Gatlinburg, Tenn. Under Canvas’ commitment to sustainability includes providing organic EO soap products and creating small, seasonal camps that blend in with their natural surroundings. And the whole experience of sleeping in safari-style tents aims, in part, to disconnect you from your phone and help you reconnect with nature and those around you. In fact, there is no WiFi at the camp, an absence which Under Canvas staffers term an “intentional inconvenience.”
Leave No Trace in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Before you head into the park, take a few moments to review Leave No Trace principles, a list of best practices for recreating outdoors. They include packing your apple core away rather than throwing it next to the trail. While fruit leftovers are biodegradable, they do not break down immediately, are not native to the area and are not healthy for native animals to eat. Remember you don’t want to see other hikers’ leftover food on the trail, either. Here’s an overview of the park’s entrances that includes a link to a park map.
Explore Clingmans Dome Area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Under Canvas is 15 minutes from Gatlinburg, which is where the popular Sugarlands Entrance is to the park. To explore the park, fill up your reusable water bottle before leaving camp. If everyone who visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2020 brought a single-use plastic water bottle with them, there would be a staggering 12.4 million plastic bottles in the local landfill. At the Sugarlands Entrance, you’ll find a water bottle refilling station at the visitor center.
Then take the 23-mile scenic drive to Clingmans Dome. A great way to reduce your footprint as you drive around the park? Visit in an electric vehicle. Find out where to charge it in the park and what to do while you’re waiting for it to charge at the park’s electric car charging stations.
After you park, hike a short one-mile round-trip to the top of Clingmans Dome to stand at 6,643 feet, the highest point in Tennessee and on the Appalachian Trail. If it is clear out and there’s not much pollution, you’ll be able to see into seven states. For a 3.6-mile hike, head to Andrews Bald from the same parking lot via Forney Ridge Trail. It’s the highest bald in the park. Balds are mountain summits covered by thick grassse or shrubs rather than trees. Otherwise, opt for a longer hike and cover as many miles as you want on the Appalachian Trail that crosses Clingmans Dome. For other hiking ideas, check out our hiking guide.
Discover Natural and Locally Made Products
When you’re finished exploring the park for the day, head to Gatlinburg. You can peruse and buy locally made goods at the Gatlinburg Arts & Crafts Community at 170 Glades Road. The best part? You can ride a trolley that you can get off and on along the eight-mile artisan loop that’s lined by more than 100 artist and maker studios, restaurants and bed and breakfasts. Head to the Gatlinburg Mass Transit Center and hop on a Yellow Trolley Route for $1 per person. On the trolley, you’ll leave less of a carbon imprint since you’re riding public transportation. Plus, you can get on and off, depending on what artists and crafts you want to see without the headache of parking.
Buying local means goods didn’t have to travel far distances, including across oceans, to get to the shop. At Nelson Farm TN’s store, which is in the first complex at the start of the eight-mile loop, you’ll find 100% natural lemongrass calendula goat milk soap, goat milk lotion and whipped body butter made with local beeswax. The goat milk and beeswax is from Nelson Farms in Townsend, Tenn., which pivoted from a traditional cattle raising and horse breeding operation to one where the Nelson family aims to live off the land, preserving their lines of heritage chickens, milking goats, raising honeybees and making natural products.
Eat Locally Sourced Food
For dinner, head back to Under Canvas for gourmet food served in an al fresco setting or head to Local Goat (www.localgoatpf.com) in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., 8 miles north of Gatlinburg. Local Goat specializes in locally sourced and sustainably raised ingredients, plus craft beer and drinks. You’ll find great Southern dishes here like the Fried Green Tomato appetizer with cornmeal-battered Grainger country green tomatoes, goat cheese, bacon jam and caramelized onions. For an entree, try the Flamed Grilled Salmon that’s made with wild caught salmon with house butter and mashed potatoes.
Explore Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Wake up and drive 53 miles to Townsend, Tenn., so you can explore the Cades Cove area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Don’t forget we have a guide to where you can charge your electric vehicle and what to do while you’re waiting for it to charge. The Cades Cove scenic drive brings the park’s pioneer history alive as you pass historic churches, homes and more. The most popular way to enter the Cades Cove Road is at its northeast corner where it becomes a one-way, counter-clockwise loop. Stop along the way at Abrams Trailhead for a five-mile hike that brings you to the 18-foot high Abrams Falls. The falls are named after a Cherokee chief whose village was located downstream.
You can also go on a guided day hike with a guide from Friends of the Smokies (friendsofthesmokies.org), a nonprofit that helps raise money for the park. Money raised from hikes helps fund trail work on popular park trails through the Trails Forever program.
Eat at an Authentic Farm-to-Table Restaurant in Townsend, Tenn.
After a day in the park, head to Appalachian Bistro at the Dancing Bear Lodge (dancingbearlodge.com) in Townsend five minutes outside of the park for an authentic farm-to-table dining experience. It’s open Wednesdays through Sundays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. and is located at 7140 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy. Chefs here use fresh produce that is grown on site, and source the highest quality local ingredients. And the menu reveals its sources. Take, for instance, the Squash and Corn Chowder that’s made with Dancing Bear garden squash, Amish Farm sweet corn, potatoes and basil. The Bistro Burger is made with 8 ounces of Brasstown beef, Sweetwater cheddar, garlic aioli, bacon-tomato jam and herbed steak fries.
Spend the Night in a Cabin at an Organic Farm
Head out of the park to check-in to Pioneer Cabins and Guest Farm (www.pioneercabins.com) in Townsend, Tenn., which is the closest town to the park’s famed Cades Cove area. Stay in one of five cabins on an organic farm that has a petting area with goats and chickens.. The cabins are spread across 12 acres, making them private with beautiful views. Some are larger than others with handicap access. Choose the one that fits your needs.
In the organic gardens, you may spot black and gold sweet corn, purple asparagus, cucumbers, peas, greens, Purple Peruvian and Yukon Gold potatoes and eight kinds of tomatoes. The owners use natural insect repellents like scented flowers and herbs around fruits and vegetables and make a mixture of herbs and water to spray on the plants as a natural repellent. You’ll enjoy fresh eggs and produce during your stay.
You can use the outdoor fitness center, spend time at the petting area and walk through a mile of trails on the property. Don’t miss spending time with Little Jack, the donkey who loves attention. Each cabin has high-speed internet, a BBQ grill, a large hot tub, fireplace and more.
Buy Carbon Credits
After putting some miles on your car, you can reduce your carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets. These offsets help sequester or reduce carbon emissions in various projects from forest management to emissions reduction to methane recovery. We use the Protect Our Winters carbon calculator and offset purchase tool (protectourwinters.org/cost-of-carbon/) to calculate the footprint of our vacations. You get to choose which project you want to support.