After the Smoke Cleared: 3 Years After the Gatlinburg Fires

Damage to vehicles and surrounding structures from the 2016 wildfires. Photo Courtesy of Haley Jarnagin

November of 2016 brought the largest wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s history, marking the largest natural disaster in Tennessee’s history. Now, three years later, the Smokies are recovering. Several species of plants and animals are thriving in the post-fire forests, new and old destinations both in and outside of the park are seeing an influx of visitors, and researchers and scientists are studying the effects on fungi, salamanders, soil content and more.

After an exceptional drought, over 150 active fires were burning in the state of Tennessee in November of 2016. Due to an extreme windstorm, embers from a fire that was being monitored and was first started by humans playing with matches spread throughout the mountains, eventually burning about one percent of parkland. In roughly 30 percent of the burned areas, visitors to the Smoky Mountains can observe parts of the burn zone, particularly the appearance of the Chimney Tops, which now shows one of the very few instances of a bare rock summit in the park.

Animals currently thriving in the young, post-fire forests include bats, black bear, bobcats, coyotes, fox, mice, owls, rabbits, snakes, lizards, turkey, white-tailed deer, indigo buntings, downy and hairy woodpeckers, prairie warblers, and red-tailed hawks. Additional, flora like the Table Mountain pine, whose armored and resinous cones require a big, hot forest fire to open and disperse it’s seed, are one of the first plants to regrow in the fire areas. Mountain laurel, jewelweed and other native plant species are thriving in the heath bald, burned areas.

Chimney Tops, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Photo Courtesy of Tripadvisor

Hikes to See wildfire impacts:

Table Mountain Pine regrowing along the Bullhead Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Photo Courtesy of Peter Wimberg

Old Sugarlands Trail from Cherokee Orchard Road (COR) to NP Headquarters

  • Distance: 4.4 miles—COR, hike in 2.2 miles to old CCC camp, return to COR
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Cherokee Orchard Rd—Rainbow Falls/Bullhead Trailhead
  • What You Will See: From the Old Sugarlands Trail visitors can see Bullhead Trail, traversing some of the most significantly burned park acreage. Bullhead Trail has remained closed since the 2016 fires. Table mountain pines are flourishing here.

Baskins Creek Trail from Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to Baskins Creek Falls

Baskins Creek Falls.
Photo Courtesy of
  • Distance: 3.2 Miles
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • What You Will See: Some of the most badly burnt forest in the park, recovering with briar, jewelweed, and Table Mountain Pine. A beautiful waterfall awaits at the top.

Attractions in the Smoky Mountains

The fires of 2016 did not physically damage many attractions in the Smoky Mountains. A few restaurants in the Gatlinburg area, like the Alamo, were a total loss and have been rebuilt and several new attractions have moved into town, like the Gatlinburg Sky Bridge and Anakeesta. If it’s been a few years since you’ve visited the Gatlinburg area, we highly recommend coming back and checking out all the new things town has to offer, plus revisit your old favorites.

Additionally, if you haven’t been whitewater rafting with Big Creek Expeditions in the past three years, you will notice a huge change to our outpost. Unfortunately, six weeks before the fires struck Gatlinburg, we lost our outpost to fire as well. Our owner, an architect-turned-river-guide-turned-owner has rebuilt our business with passion. We now boast the newest boats and safety gear on the Pigeon River, a beautiful retail shop and check in office designed by our owner with the best in whitewater retail selections, and a dedicated, professional and hardworking staff. We would love for you to come check out the new and improved outpost and let us be a part of your Smoky Mountain memories. Visit out webpage to learn more.

Sources that contributed to this blog post include Smokies Life Magazine,  Vol. 13 #2, Smokies Guide, Fall 2019 

Whitewater Rafting in the Great Smoky Mountains: A First-Timer’s Perspective

Vickie and her family rafting on the Pigeon River with Big Creek Expeditions

The Mckenzie family came whitewater rafting with Big Creek Expeditions in August of 2019. Read below to hear Vickie’s perspective, in her own words, on her first time rafting experience:

“My kids are very adventurous. I’m not sure where they get that from. I’m a self proclaimed beach bum that would sit and watch ocean waves all day given the chance. My husband enjoys the quietness of a evening in the woods in a tree stand. We live on a cattle farm about an hour from Myrtle Beach and usually take one trip a year to the mountains. 
This year however, after my daughter learned about white water rafting from her friend, we took 2 trips. Our winter trip is always busy with skiing, snow tubing and just enjoying the beauty of the mountains, so this trip was going to be a little different. We set to find a white water rafting trip that would satisfy my two adventure seekers. We ended up booking a trip with Big Creek Expeditions. 
The trip was amazing. Once we jumped in the raft and started down the river it was magical. The rapids were fun, the guide was awesome and our adventure was made better by all the interesting information we learned about the river and the area. My children laughed and giggled all the way down the river. As a mother of these two, I was a little nervous about possible danger, but as we started out I was completely at peace with the experience and knowledge of our guide. Not once was I worried. 
We also took advantage of the knowledge our guide had for the area. She told us of local places to hike, ride horses, swim and watch elk. We took advantage of most of her suggestions but we ran out of time. 
Over all my children enjoyed their very first rafting trip, they are asking to go back. And I’m sure we will. We loved every minute of it.  We have also discovered there is even more to do in the mountains in the summer than the winter, so now we will be making 2 trips each year and somehow soaking up all the nature we can during each trip. “
Vickie Mckenzie, Andrews, SC

Top 5 Reasons Groups Love Rafting at Big Creek Expeditions

UGA Department of Agriculture Ambassador’s enjoying a group team-building trip in July 2019

#1. Creating lifelong memories in a beautiful setting

A rainbow at Lost Guide Rapid on the Pigeon River

Big Creek Expeditions outpost is located on the quieter side of the Smoky Mountains in Hartford, Tennessee, just a short drive from the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville area. As the Pigeon River cuts it’s way through the gorge, guests can enjoy breathtaking mountain views, wildlife sightings, wildflower, and the joy that comes with a trip in the world’s natural playground. A rafting trip is sure to be the best adventure on your visit to the mountains and will leave you and your group with stories to tell for years to come.

“This was the highlight of our trip…(my kids) had an absolute blast – the scenery was spectacular .”

Mistie T, TripAdvisor

#2. Exceptional Customer Service

From initial contact through the check-in process to your river trip and departure, you will see what sets us apart from other outfitter: our staff. We truly love what we do and aim for each guest to leave our outpost with a permanent smile on their face. Going above and beyond to accommodate you, no group is too small or large for Big Creek Expeditions and our family. Check out what our guests have to say on Google Reviews (insert URL)

#3. Experienced Guides and New Safety Equipment

A group enjoying whitewater rafting with Big Creek Expeditions

We are known for having the most experienced staff on the river. On average, our guides have 10+ years of experience. What does that mean to you? We know what we are doing. Our guides will provide you with a safe, exciting trip, while showing you and your group the time of your lives. Additionally, we have the newest, updated boats, PFDs (lifejackets), helmets and paddles, Additionally, our outpost was recently rebuilt and houses our retail store, check in counter and photo desk. The facilities are clean, new, and well maintained, ensuring you have the best experience on your trip from start to finish!

#4. All Ages and Experience Levels

Rafting is a great group activity for all ages

Groups love rafting with Big Creek Expeditions because we have trips for a variety of age groups. Check out our Scenic Float trip for those who want to spend a day on the river, but are not prepared for the action of our Whitewater Trip. Trips are for ages 3 and up with no experience necessary. For a more thrilling adventure, we allow guests ages 8 and up to go on our Whitewater Trip, featuring beginner class III-IV whitewater rapids to keep you and your group smiling.

#5. Specialized Pricing for Groups

If you’re traveling with a wedding party, sorority/fraternity, club, scout group, youth group, church, family, or co-workers on a corporate retreat, you can qualify for specialized discounts on reservations made for groups of 10 or more people. Big Creek Expeditions rafting trips are budget-friendly for any group wanting to make lifelong memories and strengthen their groups camaraderie, trust and confidence. Call us for pricing at 877-642-RAFT.

Tennessee Whitewater Rafting and Camping

One of the best ways to experience the Great Smoky Mountain’s beauty is outside, under the stars, sitting around a campfire and swapping stories that will be retold for years to come. Add a babbling river or creek and short access to hiking trails, and you have the recipe for an outdoor adventure in the Smoky Mountains that will leave you wanting to come back again as soon as possible. Below are some of my favorite rafting activities and camping spots in the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville areas.


1. Big Creek Expeditions Whitewater Rafting

Guests enjoying a whitewater rafting trip with Big Creek Expeditions near Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville

Big Creek Expeditions offers trips on two sections of the Pigeon River. Trips on this section launch at the TN/NC state line, with surrounding views of the mountains and the historic hydroelectric powerhouse that feeds water into the river. Within minutes of launching from the put-in, guests will find themselves paddling into their first Class III rapid of the day; the aptly named Powerhouse Rapid. An experienced, professional guide will navigate your group down the 5.5 miles of river where you will experience a total of 10 Class III rapids and 3 Class IV rapids. With rapid names like Lost Guide, Double-Reactionary, and Snapdragon, guests can expect plenty of excitement on this trip. There will still be time between the rapids to take in the views, soak up some sun and have a swim before finishing the trip back at our outpost.

  • Minimum Age: 8 Years Old
  • Average Cost: $33/Person + Taxes/Fees
  • Experience Level: No Experience Necessary

2. Big Creek Expeditions Scenic Float

The Pigeon River, located in Hartford, Tennessee, is surrounded by stunning mountains, wildlife and beauty!

The Scenic Float is perfect for guests wanting to spend time on the water but not quite ready for the action of the Whitewater Rafting trip. As the river curves it’s way through the gorge, it calms down a bit and offers 5.5 miles of introductory Class I-II rapids. Guaranteed to help you take a break from the rush of life and slow down to relax while soaking up the sun. A fantastic way to spend the day with you and your group, especially young children or those timid about the Whitewater Rafting trip. Opportunities to see wildlife and various flora indigenous to the Smoky Mountains. Take a swim in the river to cool down from the summer heat, sit back, relax and let Big Creek Expeditions show you the best Tennessee rafting trip in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

Learn more at Big Creek Expeditions or by calling 877-642-7238


Camping with my beloved adventure buddy, Cascade

1. Foxfire Riverside Campground

At Fox Fire Riverside Campground, you’ll have your complete Smoky Mountains adventure available right at the campgrounds. Only 1/4 mile from the Hartford I-40 Exit 447 on 17 private acres bordering the Big Pigeon River. Nestled in the quiet foothills of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, this campground is a hidden gem. Picture yourself rafting on the Pigeon River and ending your day around a campfire under the stars swapping stories of your adventure.

Big Creek Expeditions’ outpost is located on at Foxfire Riverside Campground. Foxfire offers primitive tent sites, full RV hookups, and cabin rentals. Bundle a rafting trip with a camping trip and save big!

Click here to learn more!

2. Big Creek, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Midnight Hole, a popular swimming hole accessible by a short, easy 1.7 miles hike in Big Creek

Creeks in the Smokies are bountiful, but as it’s name suggests, Big Creek is much wider and has a more consistent flow (even during summer) than many of the other creeks you’ll find in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located roughly 10-15 minutes from the Big Creek Expeditions’ rafting outpost, camping here will allow guests access to waterfalls, swimming holes, and hiking trails. Some of our favorites include Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls. The campground at Big Creek is open from April 19-October 25 with primitive tent sites and restroom facilities. Spend a night (or several) under the stars away from the hustle and bustle in one of the most pristine sections of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Click here to learn more!

3. Cosby, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Cosby Creek runs through the Cosby section of the Great SMoky Mountain National Park

Cosby is an out-of-the-way area of the national park that is a favorite among locals and long-time Smokies visitors. Facilities include a campground that is almost never full and a picnic area that’s spacious and never too crowded. Ample opportunities to see wildflowers during spring, summer and fall, but the main draw for most people to the Cosby area is hiking. Hen Wallow Falls is a popular day hike, located just 2.1 miles from the Cosby Picnic Area and the 1.4 mile walk to Sutton Ridge Overlook offers spectacular views.

Pre-reserve camping sites by clicking here :

Please leave your firewood at home! Over 40 species of hardwood trees in the Great Smoky Mountain could be devastated by wood boring insects from Asia and Europe. Only certified, heat-treated firewood may be brought into the park. As always, dead and down wood may still be collected inside the park for campers. For more information, visit

Gatlinburg Rafting and Zipline

Big Creek Expeditions, an owner operated whitewater rafting outpost in Hartford, Tennessee is partnered with various outdoor excursion activities in the Smoky Mountains to offer our guests the BEST adventures in the area. To make the most of your trip to the mountains, rafting and ziplining are two fantastic ways to satisfy your thirst for adventure. Pair your Whitewater Rafting or Scenic Float trip with one of our zipline adventures to save the most time and money while making memories that will be the highlight of your trip to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville area. The best in Gatlinburg rafting and ziplining is with Big Creek Expeditions!

Adventure Park Ziplines

Adventure Park Zipline is located in Sevierville, Tennessee, across from the Tanger Outlet shopping center a roughly 45 minutes trip from our outpost in Hartford, Tennessee. Built on a 70-acre nature park and offering lines up to 2,500 feet long, Adventure Park is a family friendly zipline experience. Guests can enjoy seven thrilling lines while soaking in unique views from one hundred feet above. Beautiful scenery will surround you as you enjoy an introductory zipline experience. Perfect for groups, families, or individuals that want to zipline in the Smoky Mountains. For weight or age restrictions or to learn more, please visit our Package Page or call us at 877-642-7238. If you are looking for rafting and zipline trips, we have you covered.

Legacy Mountain Zipline

Legacy Mountain Zipline is located on 400 acres of beautiful land in Sevierville, Tennessee, a roughly 45 minutes drive from the Big Creek Expeditions rafting outpost. Offering a unique, high-flying, adventure-packed zipline experience with seven thrilling ziplines reaching speeds up to 50 MPH. A trip with Legacy Mountain and Big Creek Expeditions is sure to be the highlight of your vacation. Boasting 4.5 miles of ziplines, guests will soar above the treetops while enjoying views from 500 feet above ground, as well as traverse 3 rope bridges between zips. This trip is perfect for groups, families and individuals with a thirst for adventure. For weight limits and age restrictions or to learn more, please visit our Packages Page or call us at 877-642-7238. If you are looking for rafting and ziplining trips, we have you covered. Just want to zipline? You can book a zipline trip through our website and save big!

For the BEST in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Sevierville Rafting and Ziplines, book a trip with Big Creek Expeditions today!

A Local Perspective: Top 3 Must Do Activities in the Smoky Mountain Area

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.

Rafting with Big Creek Expeditions

Guests on the Class III-IV Pigeon River in Hartford, Tennessee

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.

Midnight Hole

Midnight Hole, a swimming spot in the Big Creek Section of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

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.

Max Patch

My dog, Cascade, enjoying a sunset on Max Patch

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.