With over 11.4 million annual visitors, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country – seeing as many visitors as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon combined! A popular national park can sometimes mean big crowds during busy times of year. If you’re looking to see the park and want a little solitude, you should check out our advice from the locals. Find our favorite hidden gems and experience the quieter side of the Smokies!
Elkmont Troll Bridge
Elkmont has recently gained fame as the secret ghost town of the Smokies. This once very wealthy community of vacation homes is beginning to see renovation from the park service, and is still accessible to the public.
In the days before the national park was established, this community was popular among the wealthy city dwellers of Maryville and Knoxville. Once boasting two separate country clubs, summertime residents of the area would take the train from the city. It is said that the two country clubs were so exclusive that often times members of opposing clubs wouldn’t even ride together in the same train car!
To reach the historic homes, follow the signs to Elkmont Campground. Once you turn in off Little River Road, drive back past the campground and follow the signs for Little River and Jake’s Creek Trailhead.
Park your car in the lower parking lot at Little River Trail. You’ll only need to venture in on trail about 100 feet and take a small side trail on your right with stone walls toward the water to find it! This historic bridge used to connect two cabins in the area – the second and third cabins on the road to be exact!
In recent years, the park service has removed many of the more dilapidated structures. While exploring the homes is tempting, it’s important to not trespass. Many of the buildings still standing in this area are unstable for the time being. Admire them from the road or the nearby yards.
Walker Sister’s Cabin
While the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1928, many people don’t realize that people were living in the Smokies up until the 1990s! Some inhabitants of the land that now comprises the park were allowed to stay in their homes, despite being annexed into the park. The Walker Sisters were among those people. Living in their cabin in Little Greenbrier until the 1960s, the Walker sisters lived a primitive lifestyle while the world around them modernized.
You can visit this beautiful cabin with outbuildings from Metcalf Bottoms, easily accessed from Townsend, TN – “the quiet side of the Smokies”.
To reach the Walker Sister’s Cabin, you’ll have two options:
- Take the Metcalf Bottoms Trail. This trail is located on Wear Cove Road, just over the wooden vehicle bridge from the campground. This option adds an additional 1.5 miles round trip.
- Park at the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse parking area. This is a one-lane road with two-way traffic and can be busy in the peak of summer and fall, so plan accordingly.
To reach the cabin from the Schoolhouse, take the Little Brier Gap Trail. This trail is an old road bed. It’s wide and well-worn, making a great walk for all the members of your family. Enjoy the sounds of the nearby streams as you hike. It is approximately 1.1 miles from the schoolhouse to the Walker Sister’s Cabin.
When you head back to the homesite, you’ll pass the springhouse and corn crib on your way. Feel free to explore the grounds of the old farm and imagine what it was like for these five sisters living in the cove.
Return back to your car the way you came.
After taking your walk, have a few snacks or a meal together at the first-come, first-serve picnic area. There are 122 picnic sites, each with tables and a charcoal grill. There is no fee to use the picnic area.
Find out more details about the Walker Sisters, their cabin, and their legacy here.
Spruce Flats Falls
The Smokies is home to many waterfalls, but sometimes trekking to a waterfall can be crowded. Spruce Flats Falls is a wonderful hidden gem just outside of the Tremont Institute.
This area is steeped in history of some of the Smokies’ original inhabitants and was even the site of a CCC camp.
From the parking lot at the Tremont Institute, head up the hill approximately 25 yards. You’ll see the Buckeye Trail heads off to the right. Take this trail to reach your destination.
The Buckeye Trail is not on any park map, but don’t worry – it’s easy to follow. The wide and well-worn path travels uphill, steeply in spots, and can be rocky and root-filled. When you reach the top of the first hill, stop and take in the view of the lumbering Rocky Top and the Appalachian Trail – the large mountain looming above you.
From here, head downhill now, walking down a unique foot log and making your way carefully through the roots. The rushing sound of the waterfall gets louder as you reach your destination.
Spruce Flats Falls is a series of cascades – a total of four – with a total drop of approximately 30 feet. Many visitors prefer to enjoy the top two tiers. It’s a great place to cool off on a warm summer afternoon.
Return to your vehicle the way you came. The trail is approximately 1.6 miles round trip.
Find out more about the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont here.
The national park isn’t the only place you’ll find a scenic drive with mountain views! The Foothills Parkway is only a short drive from the Townsend entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Take Highway 321 from Townsend toward Maryville; or, enjoy the new Foothills Parkway Extension from Wears Valley. When you reach the older part of the Parkway, follow the signs to Look Rock.
Look for the trail head on the west side of the Parkway. A short 0.5 mile walk on a paved trail will take you to a breathtaking view at the observation tower. The tower offers visibility up to 40 miles on a clear day! You’ll even see Clingman’s Dome – the highest point in Tennessee.
This trail is approximately 1 mile round trip. It is also the only pet-friendly trail on our list. Make sure to keep Fido on a leash!
After exploring some of the hidden gems of the Smokies, you may have worked up a great appetite. Be sure to check out our list of local favorite restaurants to not miss while you’re staying in the area.
Finished with supper? Head back to your amazing cabin! American Patriot Getaways offers cabins from studio style all the way up to 13 bedroom sprawling homes that sleep over 40 people. There’s truly something for every Smokies visitor when you book with APG! Why not look for a secluded Gatlinburg cabin to get that true “secret Smokies spot” feeling?