I may be a bit biased in saying this, but the Great Smoky Mountains, Cherokee National Forest and Pisgah National Forest are by far one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places I have experienced. Having moved here when I was 11 years old, I have been awarded an opportunity to dive into the wild parts of these mountains, plunder the streams, find hidden gems and backpack overnight along the Appalachian Trail. Below I have highlighted three MUST DO activities in the trifecta of the Smokies, Cherokee and Pisgah Forests—my personal “Do Not Miss” list of some pretty epic unknown spots.
Respect these places, for they are my home and the home of the tiniest, yet largest of ecosystems. If you’re new to outdoor experiences in wild places, learn more about how to Leave No Trace.
The Great Smoky Mountain’s natural Dollywood can be found on The Pigeon River. Located in Hartford, Tennessee—the closest whitewater rafting to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville area, this river is nestled on the quieter side of the Smokies. The 11 mile section is broken up into two separate adventures for people to choose from: Whitewater Rafting Trip featuring class I-IV rapids or a Scenic Float trip featuring class I-II rapids. There are some restrictions for the trip, for example, guests have to be at least 8 years old to go on the Whitewater Rafting Trip and 3 years old to go on the Scenic Float Trip. No previous experience is necessary! Rafting is the Smoky Mountain way to cool off from the summer heat, bond with your family and friends by creating life lasting memories, and truly experience the absolute best that the Great Smoky Mountains has to offer—by playing outside. People often say that rafting adventures are the highlight of their trips (and super affordable, too).
Why Big Creek Expeditions? As a smaller company, Big Creek Expeditions is owner-operated with a staff that feels more like family than co-workers. Passionate people that love what they do are never truly working, and for the folks at Big Creek, they love what they do and it shows. Perhaps some of the nicest people you could meet work there. Also, they boast some of the most experienced and professional staff on the river that know how to stay safe and have a drenching, adventurous whitewater experience—or let you sit back, relax, and soak in the beauty and sunshine on your Scenic Float Trip.
Located in the Big Creek section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an easy trail winding it’s way 1.7 miles into the mountains, where guests can find swimming holes galore. My personal favorite is Midnight Hole, where the width of Big Creek is constricted by large Sandstone boulders creating one of the most phenomenal swimming holes I have ever seen. Jump off the 10 foot boulders into the cool, crisp, clear water of Big Creek. The water is crystal clear and you can see trout swimming in the waters. Pack a picnic to enjoy creek side. As always, be sure to clean up after yourself. Not even a half mile up the trail from Midnight Hole is Mouse Creek Falls, a gorgeous Smoky Mountain waterfall.
When reflecting on my most magical memories in the local area, Max Patch continuously saturates my mind. The panoramic, breathtaking views, the sunrises and sunsets, the intersecting Appalachian Trail, the best kite-flying and picnic destination, the camping, the wildflowers abound and Carolina warblers chirping, the stars—my, how I love Max Patch. Beyond what I’ve just highlighted, Max Patch continues to draw me in because my best fur friend, Cascade, is welcome on the trails, so long as I clean up after him. Max Patch is a spectacular mountain bald boasting 360-degree panoramic views of the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachian Trail (AT) bisects Max Patch Mountain, allowing visitors an opportunity to knock a few of the 2,000+ AT miles off their belts. Perhaps the most spectacular place to watch a sunset after a visit to Western North Carolina or East Tennessee.
The hike to the top is very mild. Start at the trailhead sign and choose to go left (0.4 miles to the summit) or right (0.3 miles to the summit). Follow the trail to the top and you’ll be there! Currently most of the land on Max Patch bald is being preserved to help rebuild the habitat for Carolina Warblers and Monarch Butterflies. Please be sure to remain on marked trails to help preserve their habitat.