Ep. 62 – Free Things in the Smokies and Parking in Gatlinburg

SHOW #62  May 11, 2015


This week on Episode 62 Smoky Mountains Radio,The best free things to do in and around the Smokies, Parking in Gatlinburg, and Welcome Centers! Let’s go!


It is Monday, May 11, 2015 and this is Episode 62 of Smoky Mountains Radio.  Happy late mothers day to all you moms out there….but especially mine. So glad to be with you all once again this week.  I’m Mike, and i’ll be your guide around the 800 plus square miles of the Smoky Mountains and the 150 square miles of towns that border the parks.  If need info about coming to the Smokies, you will find it here.  Put my 40 years of experience to work for you to have the best vacation possible.

I invite you to check out our website SmokyMountainsRadio.com to get all the information you need about your trip to the Smokies. You can contact me directly by emailing me at mike@smokymountansradio.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/smokymountainsradio or on twitter @smokies_radio.  You can also call the listener line at 865-325 9784.  Finally, of course, every one of our shows can be found on the website for you to stream or download. Of course, you can make sure you get episodes the moment they are released by subscribing to the show via iTunes or stitcher.  Leave me a review while you are there.  Those links can also be found on the site .  If you have anything you would like me to cover on the show, please feel free to contact me at any time.  Again, all the ways to reach me are right on the website at SmokyMountainsRadio.com

And with housekeeping out of the way, let’s get on with the show!

Best Free Stuff to do in the Smokies

It used to be that taking a vacation in the Smokies was not overly expensive.  There has almost been things to do besides going into the mountains that will cost you, but the options today are almost limitless, as is what you will pay for the privilege.  The average family of four coming to the Smokies for four days will spend on average a total of $1200.  That is pretty pricey, but it often goes much higher.  And unlike most places that you vacation, lodging is often not the priciest part of a stay in the Smokies.  The biggest expenditure for the average tourist is attractions.  There are a ton of them and they are often priced pretty high, and there are not usually multi-pass, inclusive passes, meaning that buying a ticket to the aquarium does not get you on the Space Needle, for example.  Most of the things are not expensive by themselves, but when you do two or three things in a single trip, that is when the issues occur.

Personally, I have seen myself spending much more in recent years in the park and around town, and when that happens, you look harder for things that do not cost money.  So today, I am going to give you my list of the best free things to do in and around the Smokies.

#10 – People Watching:  People watching is interesting at almost any destination, but it is really interesting in the towns around the Smokies.  After observing some interesting characters at breakfast, I turned to the lady at the front desk that worked there.  She simply said, “we take all kinds here.”  That is really true of this area.  You will see rich people, poor people, white/black/brown, you name it.  All kinds are here in one place, and it can be…..entertaining.  My favorite thing to do is sit on one of the balconies at a restaurant in Gatlinburg and just watch the people go by.  You will see it all folks.  Trust me.

#9 – Free Breakfast:  This one is not necessarily universal, but many of the hotels and cabins in the Smokies offer a free pancake breakfast for staying there.  What you can get is pretty limited, but it is free.  Less than a 1/3 of people actually redeem this perk.  Check and see if it is offered where you are staying.

#8 – Festivals:  One of the great things about the area around the Smokies is there is almost always something going on.  Sometimes it is a classic car show.  Sometimes it is an outdoor festival.  Sometimes it is fireworks or parades.  The point is, there is almost always some kind of event happening here, and most of them are free to attend.  Check the city websites around the Smokies for the most up to date events.

#7 – The Arts and Crafts Community – Just outside Gatlinburg is the Arts and Crafts Community.  There are tons of things to buy here, but it is fun to just see local artists and artisans make their items and see what is on display.  It is one of the great windows into an era of the Smokies gone by.

#6 – Park Visitor Centers – There is so much to see at these places, and they are all different.  There are museum exhibits, working mills, movies, and a ton more that cost you nothing.  There are also souvenir shops of course, but those will cost you.  And if you have been to just one, go to a different one.  They all offer something different.  Each piece of the puzzle helps put together the Great Smoky Mountains.

#5 – Music in the Streets:  This is most prominent in Gatlinburg, but does happen in other places from time to time.  There is free music all over the Smoky Mountains.  You will find some great Bluegrass bands on the streets, at shops, in performance centers, at events, and everywhere in between.  Nearly all of these events cost nothing but your time.  And a large portion of the performers are locals, so you get that flare on top of the music.  Occasionally, places bring in bigger and more recognizable names, and again, often it is free.

#4 – Ranger Programs: Visit any park visitor center and find out what is offered.  There are guided hikes, discussion about the park, kid’s activities, and much more.  There is at least one thing going on nearly every day.  And many days, there are multiple things.  Again, free and great.

#3 – Free Samples:  Many or most of the stores that sell treats offer free samples.  There are so many fudge shops in the mountains that you could fill up on that alone.  But there is more.  There are taffy samples, chicken samples, and my favorite, booze samples.  In Gatlinburg in a distance of less than 1/2 mile, you can go three places to get samples of Moonshine and Whiskey.  That will get you feeling good in a heartbeat and it won’t cost you anything.  Of course, the samples are usually pretty good, so it may make you want to buy some.  It must work, or they wouldn’t keep doing it!

#2 – Old Homes and Structures:  There is so much to see from the past of the mountains that missing all the opportunities would be a mistake.  There are old homes, churches, cemeteries, and just about everything in between.  Some are from the 1700’s and some later, but they all give you a sense of the history of this place and what life was like…back in the day.  You can walk into and through most of these places, so you get the feeling of actually being transported to that time.  They are located all over the park, even though they are most abundant in Cades Cove.  Just check the park map or a ranger station for more details.

#1 – Hiking:  Was there any doubt that this was going to be #1?  The Smoky Mountains are one of the few parks in the U.S. that does not charge an admission fee.  You can hike any time, any day, as many times as you want and it doesn’t cost you a dime.  You simply can’t get the feeling of being in the Smoky Mountains any better way than walking one of the 900 miles of trails in this park.  People come here for the mountains, the views, the wildlife.  The towns are just a nice bonus.  Get out there and hike!

If you have an idea or think I have left one off the list that should have been on there, email me your best free idea at mike@smokymountainsradio.com

I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on smokymountainsradio.com

Parking in Gatlinburg

It is one of the most congested areas in the Smoky Mountains.  Gatlinburg, and more specifically, the Gatlinburg strip, only last for a few miles, but contains as many cars in many cases as any interstate near by.  To make matters more complicated, parking can be an absolute nightmare.  Unlike most shops, restaurants, and attractions in neighboring towns, each establishment does not have its own parking lot…in most cases.  This of course means that you will have to park your car and walk to where you eventually want to go.  And nope, you won’t find much in the way of free parking here.  So what I am going to do is give you some information and strategies for parking in Gatlinburg.

There are pay lots all over town.  There are signs that point you in the direction of the lots, but often they are not very helpful.  Just keep your eyes out for parking lots.  There are 16 at last count and they are located on main roads and side roads at the edges of town and in the center of town.  There is a good downloadable map at http://www.attractions-gatlinburg.com/_upload/maps/citymap3.jpg  I’ll put this link in this week’s show notes.

Basically, there are two different types of parking lots.  There are some that charge a fee for parking for the entire day, aka a flat fee lot, and then there are those that charge by the hour.  The most expensive lots tend to be the ones that are closest to the center of town.  They are also the ones that are privately owned instead of owned by the city.  There is no easy way to tell which lots are public or private if you aren’t used to being there, but they will all give you the rates either posted before you enter or an attendant will tell you.

If you are staying in town for only an hour or two, hourly lots most often give you the best deal.  If you are planning on staying in town for the whole day, go with a flat fee place.  If you want the best deal, park at the ends of town.  The further away from mid-town you go, the better the prices.  For example, I usually park at the parking garage just past the stop light for 321 towards Greenbrier on the left.  The rates are good since we rarely spend the whole day in town.  However, it can be quite a walk from the outside area lots to where you want to get. For example, if you park at the lot I usually park at that I just described and want to go to the mountain mall, it will take you at least 20 minutes to get there.  That can be a lot, especially when you consider that you have to backtrack all that way.  So if convenience is important to you, make sure you park close to midtown.  The most mid-town of all the lots is right next to the Ramada and Old Smoky Candy Kitchen.  That is your best bet.

Here is the drawback to parking in the middle of town.  Getting out of the parking lots can be a nightmare.  Traffic almost always comes to a standstill in both directions so you can wait for quite some time.  Most parking areas are not at traffic lights, so that is something to consider.  It is much easier getting out at the outside lots farther away from midtown.

Another thing you might want to consider is lots off the main street.  There are lots on River Road that are not too expensive and it is much easier to find parking and getting in and out of there.  There is also good parking up Historic Nature Trail Road at traffic light #8 near the Space Needle.  It is much easier to get in and out of lots there.  The parking can be just as expensive in this area as midtown though….FYI.

There are a few (a very few) places that you can park without paying if you are going to their stores or restaurants.  All of these places at the beginning or end of Gatlinburg.  And you can only park there during your time at their establishment.  Believe me, they do keep an eye on it.  Don’t park the car at the NOC, for example, and then spend the day out in town.  Your car won’t be there when you get back.

That said, there is the crown jewel of parking in Gatlinburg.  It is so illusive, so infrequent, and so impossible to get that you might not even know about it.  I’m talking about free parking.  That’s right.  Unless you are staying at a hotel on the strip, you can’t park your vehicle for free anywhere.  But in this one magical strip of road you actually can.  On Little River Road next to the aquarium at the back side of the Mountain Mall, there is free parking all along the right side of the road.  There are not many spots, and those that get them do not give them up.  Think parking in a major city like New York or D.C. and you are on track.  But if you catch the timing right, you might just grab a free spot.  Best times to get these spots are early in the morning, just after lunch between 2 and 3 o’clock, and after 8pm.  Outside of that, it will just turn into luck if you stumble upon an open spot.  Keep your eyes peeled though.  I will often go down that road just to check on an open spot.  Most times I come up empty, but you never know.

Hope that helps you out on your next trip out here.

I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on smokymountainsradio.com

Welcome Centers…Should you Stop?

You have seen them many times if you spend any times around the Smoky Mountains.  As you enter a town, there is a welcome center imploring you to stop.  Many cities around the nation have these, and let’s be honest, most of the time, you keep going.  The exception to that rule for me is driving into Florida.  They give you a free glass of orange juice there.  That’s kinda cool, right?  Maybe not, but I like it.  Other than that, I keep driving.  After all, if you need to know about it, you can find anything you need to know online now, right?

To a degree, I think that mentality holds up.  If you have researched the heck out of your trip, you probably aren’t going to find anything new or mind blowing that you don’t know about.  The nice thing about these places is that it is a one-stop shop.  There is information about everything the town has to offer.  When I was a kid, we used to pick up dozens and dozens of brochure books about attractions, restaurants, activities, etc.  You name it, we got it.  It made it easier to see what there was to do and make a choice of what we would do that trip.  But is there any other benefit besides that?

Yes!  Many of the booklets you can pick up are full of discounts.  Some will give you a meager 10% off a meal while others offer buy one get one free on a meal, attraction, or lodging.  Regardless, this adds up quickly and it is basically free money.  Pick them up and see what you could save.  There are also magazines and booklets that have a wide variety of attractions, lodging, and restaurants, again with discounts just waiting to be taken advantage of.  This is a little like Vegas if you have ever been.  Each casino has their own coupon book.  Sometimes it offers a free drink, free slot play, table dollars, souvenir, or discount on rooms.  It is crazy not to use these when you go.  The discounts are better in Vegas to be sure, but there are still some very good deals here, especially in the off or shoulder seasons.  So stop just for that if nothing else.

There are also people on hand that can give you information about events during your stay or help you figure out what you need to be sure to while you are here.  This obviously varies from town to town, but I have found these folks helpful 90% of the time.  They will also often have information about special events and how to make sure you don’t miss out on the action.

Some have small gift shops and others have displays or areas devoted to the history of the area.  It gives you some sense of the place you are about to visit before your journey begins and, in my opinion, can enhance your trip.  I don’t stop every time I drive into town, but probably do every third time or so just to see what is new.  Take the time and stop by on your next trip out to the Smokies.

I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on SmokyMountainsRadio.com

New Poll:

It’s been a few weeks since we have done a listener poll, so I thought we would put another one up this week.  Thanks to Curt for the reminder.  And thanks to Curt for idea.  And thanks to Curt for blowing my snake theory right out of the the water.  I really do think that it is still a pretty rare thing to see a snake, but Curt got a great picture of a snake right on the trail at the base of Laurel Falls.  And yep, he managed to even get one of the poisonous varieties in the photo.  He said it was a miracle that nobody ended up getting bit.  Yep, I have to agree.  But anyway, this week’s poll is sort of related to that, at least in a small sort of way.

This week, I want know what wildlife you want to see most when you get into the Smokies.  Is it the snakes, bears, elk, boars, deer, or even the lowly squirrel?  Make your voice heard in this week’s listener poll.  The poll can be found right on the homepage of SmokyMountainsRadio.com


It’s been great not only hearing from so many of you, but having conversations with you guys.  Getting to know you has been a whole lot of fun.  Thanks to Angela, Chip, Jake, Wes, Rob, Curt, and so many others for writing in with a question, comment, or whatever feedback you had.   Before we wrap up, I want to let you know to be sure to check out SmokyMountainsRadio.com for all your Smokies needs. Contact me all the ways on the website.  I’m glad to hear from each and every one of you.  I do want to take a second to plug the band that gave us our intro music and outdo music here on Smoky Mountains Radio.  The band is called “The Breakmen” and the song is is the excellent KM19.  Check out the band at their website at thebreakmen.com ….Until next time my friends, get GO TAKE A HIKE!




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