Essential guide for renting the best cabin in the Smoky Mountains
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For anyone searching for the most authentic travel experience while visiting the Smoky Mountains, a cabin is the way to go. Cabins provide a much cozier feel than a hotel, allowing guests the opportunity to cook, entertain, hang out by the fireplace and get the true mountain experience. However, booking a cabin can be a little overwhelming: Where should we stay? Which rental company should we go through? How secluded will our cabin be? What amenities do we want? The list goes on and on. This handy guide is here to break it down for you.
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Let’s start with the basics. The Smoky Mountains National Park — which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina — receives more than 11 million visitors per year, making it the most-visited national park by a landslide. This is due, in part, to the fact that it is a manageable driving distance from the majority of the Eastern U.S. Now, when it comes to selecting your lodging in the Smokies, there are several different options — rustic or luxury, nestled in solitude or close to everything, winter getaway or summer excursion, etc.
Much like the endless amount of pancake restaurants in the area (trust me, there are a lot), there are many different cabin rental companies from which to choose. Some of the ones I’ve rented from in the past include Little Valley Mountain Resort, Aunt Bug’s Cabin Rentals, American Patriot Getaways and — on my most recent visit — Amazing Views Cabin Rentals. It all comes down to what area you want to be in, what amenities you’re looking for, your budget and how far in advance you book. So, let’s start by identifying the main areas of town to help you select where you want to stay.
While the Smoky Mountains extend into North Carolina, we’ll just be focusing here on the Tennessee portion, as that’s where the majority of tourists stay while visiting the area. The Tennessee region of the Smokies consists of several different neighborhoods, so it’s important to know what sets each of them apart from the others.
Staying in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is one of the most popular towns, bordering the national park and filled with a ton of family-friendly activities, including Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies as well as restaurants with delicious food and breathtaking views. Gatlinburg, which is about 40 miles southeast of Knoxville, Tennessee, is considered the gateway to the Smoky Mountains National Park. Closest to the trails, this town is compact and very walkable. There’s also the Gatlinburg Trolley, a publicly-funded public transit system that caters to visitors and tourists. Gatlinburg is a magical place to visit during the holidays: From November to February, the entire downtown is decorated with lights for the annual Winterfest Celebration.
A home base in Pigeon Forge
The most commercialized and family-friendly area of the Smokies, Pigeon Forge offers a wide variety of attractions for every member of the family, including the Dollywood amusement park, dinner theaters, mini-golf and more. This tourist hot spot is a great location to book a cabin, as it’s close driving distance to almost anything you can imagine, yet still has many mountains where the cabins can feel nice and secluded. Keep in mind, directions in this area are given based on stoplights, so familiarize yourself with the main roads when researching cabins.
Checking out Sevierville
It’s tough to tell where Sevierville ends and Pigeon Forge begins, as they’re very similar. Sevierville is home to some incredible putt-putt courses, breweries, shopping outlets, a Minor League Baseball park and more. All-in-all, it has the same vibe as Pigeon Forge, with a lot of attractions on the main parkway, and the option for secluded cabins nearby. It’s worth noting that Sevierville is closer to Knoxville, and therefore a little further away from the actual national park, but not by much.
Give Townsend a try
Identifying itself as “the peaceful side of the Smokies,” Townsend offers guests a no-frills experience to truly feel like you’re living the tranquil mountain life. There are no fancy Ferris wheels or mini-golf courses in Townsend, just some nice, relaxing cabins nestled in the mountains, surrounded by wildlife and breathtaking views.
Navigating the area
One thing you’ll notice when looking for a cabin rental is that the exact address likely won’t be listed anywhere. This is common to protect the privacy of the locations. Cabin rental companies typically don’t release the exact address until a deposit has been made, so feel free to ask the rental company the exact location via phone before booking.
On my recent cabin stay in the Smokies, I booked through Amazing Views Cabin Rentals of the Smokies and got a three-bedroom cabin in Pigeon Forge. This was a family reunion trip with a visit to Dollywood, so our main requirement was the proximity to the theme park. We had a very easy booking experience — I was able to sign the guest rental agreement and submit all paperwork (including a picture of my driver’s license) via an online portal. The specific cabin also included express check-in, which means we didn’t have to stop at any office to pick up keys. Instead, the cabin itself had a keypad that we were given the code to once we got in town (via a quick phone call to the rental company).
It’s important to know what you want when it comes to amenities during your cabin stay. Many of them offer an extensive list of amenities on their websites, and you can filter your search accordingly when booking.
A cabin’s aesthetic is big for me. To feel like I’m getting the full experience, I always opt for cabins with rustic, wooden interiors (bonus points if the cabin has black bear memorabilia and handmade wooden furniture such as light fixtures and dining room tables). When booking, you’ll also likely come across options that look like “normal” home interiors, but I always prefer more woodsy designs.
Related: How to find the best Airbnb
Be wary of the condition of cabins that don’t have a lot of images listed on their website. If you’re interested in one of them, call the cabin rental company to ask why there aren’t more pictures and see if they can send more images.
What’s a cabin without a fireplace? If you’re visiting the Smoky Mountains in the fall or winter, a fireplace is essential. Many of the cabins in the area restrict the use of fireplaces during the spring and summer months, so set your expectations accordingly if visiting during that time. Many options offer fire pits as well (in addition to, or in place of, a fireplace), which can be used year-round. When booking, ask if the fireplace is wood-burning or gas and whether there’s firewood provided, if applicable.
Related: The best cards for home rentals
Hot tubs are another nonnegotiable for me. The majority of private cabins in the area offer hot tubs on their porches/decks. Many of them are even covered, which means you can still enjoy the hot tub in less-than-ideal weather. Hopping in the hot tub is the perfect way to relax at the end of a long day of hiking or exploring the mountains.
If you plan to cook during your cabin stay, be sure to reach out to the cabin company in advance to determine the extent of the cabin’s cookware and dishes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed at a cabin that didn’t have something I needed – a pizza cutter, casserole dishes, wine glasses, mixing bowls, salt and pepper shakers, etc. — and you usually don’t realize what’s missing until it’s too late. Check with the cabin in advance so you can plan accordingly and pack (or buy) what you need. Another thing I always look for in cabin kitchens is a big enough island or dining space for everyone. Inevitably, the kitchen is where people usually gather to converse, so I’m a big fan of a large island or dining room table with enough space to accommodate everyone without being in each other’s way.
Hair dryers are among the items that people often forget when packing for a cabin stay. If you’re like me, you’re very used to staying in hotels that provide hair dryers (and even irons and ironing boards) for you, so you never pack them. Cabins are a different story. Check with the company in advance and be sure to pack your own if you want them and they are not provided.
Parking at cabins in the Smoky Mountains can often be tricky. Make sure to ask about the parking situation in advance. I’ve stayed at multiple cabins that only had enough designated space for one automobile, resulting in us having to make other plans for the secondary cars (such as parking at nearby businesses). Ask how many spots are reserved for your unit when booking, and if there are any overflow lots nearby, so you can plan accordingly.
Another desirable amenity, if you plan to visit during the summer months, is access to a swimming pool. It might be harder to find a unit with a private swimming pool, given many cabins are built on the sides of the mountains, but many bookings offer access to community or neighborhood pools. A cabin I last visited in July had a great neighborhood pool just a brisk 5-minute walk away. It was nice and secluded, despite being open to the whole neighborhood. We lucked out and didn’t see any other guests utilizing it while we were there, so essentially had it all to ourselves.
Many cabins allow pets, but again, you’ll want to verify the policy with the rental company in advance. There are often additional fees or security deposits associated with pet-friendly cabins, so be sure to take that into account when budgeting.
The critters you don’t want during your cabin stay are raccoons and bears. Be sure to lock up your trash every evening to ensure these mountain creatures don’t go rifling through your garbage. Most cabins will have padlocked trash cans outside the unit.
Many of the larger cabins in the area have a built-in theater room that is perfect for a family movie night. If the one you’re interested in has a theater room, be sure to ask about HDMI hookups if you’d like to use it to project anything (an embarrassing photo slideshow for someone’s 40th birthday, itineraries for a work retreat, etc.). Also, check the capacity of seating in the room. And if you’re going to snuggle up for a movie night, be sure to ask if the cabin has extra blankets.
Game rooms are another amenity that is becoming common within cabin rentals. Almost any cabin you look at these days will come with some sort of arcade game, whether it’s a foosball table or Pac-Man, which can be great for the younger members (or just young-at-heart members) of your group.
Depending on the rental company you go with, many of the cabins also offer discounts to local attractions upon booking. A stay with Amazing Views Cabin Rentals came with a Luxury Pass rewards card, which offered discounts or free admission to certain attractions nearby for the duration of my stay. Some of the hottest attractions in the area where you might hope to get discounts are Dollywood, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the countless dinner shows, including Hatfield & McCoy’s and Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
If you don’t feel like hauling everyone in your party to the grocery store upon arriving at your cabin, consider grocery delivery. There are multiple options for it in the area, including Instacart and a local company, Smoky Mountain Grocery.
Best times to visit
October is the most popular time to visit the Smokies. Many visitors come to take advantage of the beautiful fall foliage, which typically peaks between the middle to end of October through the beginning of November (it generally depends on how much rainfall they’ve received and what the temperatures are like leading up to that time).
Due to the relatively mild temperatures year-round, the Smokies are great to visit in spring and summer as well. There really isn’t a “slow season” for tourism, but they see the most visitors during fall and winter.
If it’s snow you’re wanting to see, plan for the beginning of the year through the end of February. It’s rare for the whole area to be blanketed in snow, and when it does occur, it doesn’t usually stick around for long. Make sure to check with the cabin rental company to ensure the cabin you rent will still be accessible in inclement weather.
On my recent trip, Amazing Views Cabin Rentals very clearly outlined their policy online, as follows:
ROAD CONDITIONS: Mountain roads can be tough at times. We do not guarantee any road surface conditions. Most roads are well maintained but can be winding, steep and bumpy. Some units may have gravel drives or roads and it is very common to have some washed out areas, especially after rain or snow. Passenger vans, motorcycles, and trailers may not be able to access every home. Winter road conditions and maintenance are not guaranteed. You are responsible for transportation. We cannot provide any transportation for guests. Please remember you will be staying in the mountains. Weather conditions can be very unpredictable, and it is your responsibility to come fully prepared. We do not refund due to road conditions or the location of the properties on the mountains.
Things to do
It wouldn’t be a proper trip to the Smoky Mountains unless you partake in some fine Southern cuisine. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, in particular, are known for having a multitude of pancake houses, but the most iconic is the Pancake Pantry located on the strip in Gatlinburg. Lines frequently stretch out the door here, so I suggest arriving early and coming hungry. Other Smoky Mountain institutions worth checking out are the Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store in Sevierville (great to take kids and grandparents to), The Peddler Steakhouse in Gatlinburg if you’re looking for a nice dinner spot or The Old Mill Restaurant for some riverside dining with true Southern hospitality.
Hiking the national park is the most popular activity in the area. Staying at a cabin in the Smokies puts you near an endless amount of scenic trails. A few of my favorite trails (and the most popular) are the Chimney Tops Trail, Mount LeConte, Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove and Abrams Falls. Swing by the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg (2 miles south of traffic light 10) before hiking. If you tell a member of the staff the distance you can handle, degree of difficulty and what you want to see on your hike, they will provide trail suggestions specifically for you.
In addition to all the incredible attractions that each area of the Smokies offers, they also have some pretty incredible shopping options. Tanger outlet malls offer some of the best discount shopping in the area, as well as some great restaurants and mini-golf parks. Little River Outfitters in Townsend is a go-to fishing shop that also offers fly-fishing classes. And if you’re looking for the ultimate mountain supply store, check out NOC Gatlinburg outfitters for all your hiking, fishing, camping, and grilling needs and more.
When to book
The busiest time for tourism in the Smoky Mountains is fall and winter, so be sure to book early if you’re planning to visit during those times of the year, as well as over any holidays. The best deals for travel during those times of year are typically found six to nine months in advance. It’s also worth noting that many cabins have additional nightly fees that can add up pretty quickly. So, when comparing cabins, factor in the total cost after taxes and fees, not the base rate. Also, keep in mind many cabins have a two- or three-night minimum stay requirements. During lower tourism seasons, you can often find some good last-minute rates if your dates are flexible. Many cabin rental companies also will be more flexible with any minimum night requirements if they have gaps in bookings. Your best bet is to call the cabin rental company directly and inquire about any discounted rates.
When booking your cabin, consider utilizing the Chase Sapphire Reserve® to receive 3x on travel. Just be aware that not all cabin rentals will code as travel — sometimes they will code as “property management” or “real estate,” so you would not receive 3x points on those charges.
Mommy Points reported last year that bookings from VRBO did code as travel on her Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Also, the Chase travel portal offers many cabins for as few as 10,000 points per night, so be sure to do some research there to see if the cabin you like is bookable via points.
Wyndham Vacation Rentals also offers many cabin options on its Gatlinburg Cabins Online site.
The Points Guy cabin checklist
Keep this checklist handy when chatting with the cabin rental company before booking, to ensure there are no surprises and that the cabin you select is perfect for your needs.
- Parking: How much space is there and how steep is the driveway?
- Dishes/cookware: How many place settings does it come with? Are any spices, coffee filters, etc. provided?
- Is a hair dryer and/or iron provided?
- Is the cabin pet-friendly? If so, when was the last time it had a deep clean?
- Is the cabin kid-friendly? Do they have cribs/Pack ‘n Plays, etc.?
- How many extra linens are there for anyone who may be sleeping on couches?
- Fireplace: Wood-burning or gas logs?
- What time is check-in/check-out?
Cabins are the best way to get the most authentic Smoky Mountain experience, hands down. There’s nothing like curling up by the fire on a chilly fall evening surrounded by fall foliage with a fresh pot of chili cooking on the stove. I’ve rented cabins for numerous events in recent years – bachelorette parties, 30th birthday parties, family reunions, graduation parties and more.
Although the area has some incredible dining options and activities for the whole family/group, bring some board games, a few tried-and-true recipes and some great company and you’ll have everything you need for an unforgettable weekend in the Smokies.
Featured image by MoreISO/Getty Images.
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