Road Trip from Chicago to The Great Smoky Mountains

Why Smoky?
The most visited National Park in the country needs no commentary from my side to extoll its virtues.

For the detail oriented folks, here is the link to know all about it.

One of many Smokey overlooks with panoramic views

How to Plan your visit?

•  For accommodation, I would highly recommend going for one of the innumerous cottages and cabins on offer at Airbnb/VRBO. As a reference, you should be looking at places near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, since most of the touristy attractions are spread across the aforementioned cities.

Our neighing neighbors, as seen from our countryside cottage

• Run through the emergency checklist.

• Run though the tech essentials to turbo-charge your road trips.

•  Choose your activities and places to visit. We did the following in a 4 day trip: rafting at Lower Pigeon River; hiking at Laurel Falls; visiting Cades Cove, Gatlinburg downtown including Skylift and The Little River Scenic Drive.

• Other notable places to visit:

River Tubing at The River Rat Main Outpost.
Clingmans Dom – highest point at Smoky with stunning views.
Gretto Falls – 2.5 mile round-trip trek to the waterfalls.
Cummins Waterfall – This one is technically outside smoky but quite adventurous 

Tip: Smoky has a plethora of hiking options and finding the right one could be a stretch. I use as my trail guide and have found their trail inventories well-equipped, here is the link to other hiking options at Smoky –

Our Trip from Naperville

June 18-21, 2021

Road Trip
Naperville to Eminence, MO.
600 miles, took around 11 hours with multiple breaks and a huge traffic jam at I-75.

We reserved this cottage at Sevierville, Tennessee via VRBO.

Day 1 – The Drive and the Cottage

Rise and shine – We left sharp at 6 AM in our Durango R/T to kick-start our first summer road trip of 2021.


The first stop was at a coffee joint at Lafayette, Indiana.


After a quick pit-stop at Louisville, KY to feed our V8 engine hauling us; we had lunch at Taco Bell in Lexington city.

Tip: Rather than towing a ton of groceries from home, do it near the destination. We did ours at the Walmart store at Knoxville which was around 30 mins away from our cottage.

The Cottage

The views from our cottage did not disappoint. Its not every day that you see horses frolicking from your front-yard.


Day 2 – The Gatlinburg Skylift and the White Water Rafting

After a filling continental breakfast, we left for Gatlinburg to visit the Skylift, one of the most coveted places in Smoky.

The Skylift

We parked at Gatlinburg Skylift Park itself to save time (20$ a day parking) and hobbled over to the ticket counter.

The ride was smooth and once at the top, plenty of panoramic views were on offer.


And the glass bridge was totally worth the hype!

Gatlinburg Downtown

We then strolled in Gatlinburg downtown and visited Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum before the hunger pangs kicked in.

Good part – Gatlinburg has a ton of restaurants.
Bad part – Every one of them was brimming with people. So, it took us couple of hours to have lunch.

Tip: If you are a vegetarian, best to carry your own food or plan ahead with the restaurants where you want to eat. We did not see many vegetarian options there.

White Water Rafting

We had rafting reservation at Lower Pigeon River which was in jeopardy thanks to a chock-a-block jam in Gatlinburg. Thanks to SMO rafting team who did us a solid by pushing our reservation otherwise we would have kissed our rafting money good-bye.

The rafting trip itself was impeccable – gentle 1.5 hour ride with Class 1/2 rapids. We saw kids as young as 4 years in the rafts. Most of the folks in our raft had little to no experience as well and this trip was a great way to expose them to the world of white-water rafting.


Sky Bridge at Night

We went back to our cottage to recharge the batteries and then went for Skylift again, to take advantage of the night views.

The Skylift ride, the glass bridge glimmering with the kaleidoscopic views of the city, everything seemed magical in the nocturnal obscurity.





It was almost 10:30 PM by the time we got off the Skylift and finding food was a huge pain at that time in Gatlinburg. Luckily, we found this hidden pearl called Bigfoot Philly Cheesesteaks. The chicken cheesesteak was really amazing.


Day 3 – The Laurel Falls Hike and Cades Cove

Our first adventure of the day was the hike at Laurel Waterfalls, one of the highly trafficked trails in the Smoky Mountains. We choose this because of the easy length (2 miles) and prospects of seeing bear (which did not happen :/ ).–2


The incline was mostly easy but there were some tight spots as we neared the waterfall and the sign board reminded us of the lurking danger.


Once we reached the falls, there were couple of spots to soothe the sore legs in cold water, here’s the main water drop –


Here is the other water drop, this needed a short climb downwards from the main fall. There were less people in the bottom fall, which was a relief.


Here’s a slow-mo depicting the drop –

Little River Scenic Drive

The Little River Scenic Drive was at a few minutes drive from Laurel Falls and it is best to visit them together. After cruising through the few miles of the road which meanders along the Little River, we parked here and spent couple of hours on the river, enjoying the stream of cool flowing water.

Tip: Would highly recommend carrying picnic chairs and some water floats for kids to enjoy the stream.


Another Tip: The Little River Scenic Drive is full of tiny little splash pods. Here’s what we saw on the way but never stopped due to lack of time:

The Sinks – popular waterfall.
The Townsend Wye – popular swimming spot.
The River Rat Water Tubing Outpost – river tubing, swimming and cliff jumping, highly recommended.

Cades Cove

The last stop of the day was the Cades Cove. We had one wish still left unfulfilled, which was to see a live bear in action and based on reviews, Cades Cove had the highest probability to see it happen. So, there we went…

Cades Cove is a 11 mile loop road famous for its wild life sightings and also boasts of several hiking opportunities inside the area. It is highly trafficked with narrow lanes and sometimes you could be stuck behind hoards of cars so please plan at least couple of hours for the visit.

There are a few log cabins and churches too which were constructed in the 1800s.






The Bear Sighting

Just when we were returning back from the Cades Cove, all disappointed, we saw a ton of cars stopped on the side and people flocking near the woods.

And there it was – a mama bear.

PXL_20210620_224446910 (1)

The 3 cubs were on the near-by trees –


Here’s the proof of our bear sighting –

We wrapped up the day with a sumptuous dinner here at Curry N More.

Day 4 – The Drive Back

10 hours and several stops later, we were back where we started. Here’s the Google Timeline chronicling our ride back home.



Please share your thoughts on this post or your own Smoky Mountain Trip ideas in the comments section.

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