3 Must Go Spots in the Smokies for First-time Visitors

Often this blog contains information for seasonal events or “hidden gem” locations that returning visitors may not yet have experienced. But a farflung friend recently asked me where to visit in the National Park after they settle into their Smoky mountain cabin rental for their first trip to the area. With that in mind,  please consider these suggestions, based on what your family most wants to experience in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park while here in Sevier County.
If you want to go “into the forest” of the mountains while driving or hiking, consider:
1. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
One of our favorites because of its easy access, basically go to the heart of Gatlinburg, and turn left at the convention center. This paved, 6-mile, one-way driving loop has multiple stopping points to spend as much or as little time as you desire. Historic sites of farm homesteads, cabins, and mills dot the trail, water streams are abundant throughout, and there are multiple spots for open vista overlooks. There are also trailhead starts for Rainbow, Baskins Creek, and Grotto Falls (each is lovely, all are popular, start early and hike well).
Thoughtful tip: please take a water break. Stop, get out of the car, (just sit if you can’t hike) and absorb the serenity of the natural white noise that the rushing water provides. Completely addictive. The picture above was taken with feet in the water at marker #9 in late summer.
Link for additional information:    http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/roaringfork.htm
If you want open vistas without steep mountain climbing or leaving the car, and truly hope to see wildlife in its habitat:
2. Cades Cove
Located closest to Townsend, Tennessee, this 11-mile loop road wanders through valleys and hillsides, with long-range, pastoral, picturesque mountain views. The area is very popular, and often crowded on the weekends. It has many historic buildings, and is a great day trip activity. Everyone visits the Cable Mill area, but please also choose to stop and explore one of the churches and attached cemeteries for a step back in time. Go early or late for best opportunity to see animals along the loop.
Thoughtful tip: On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the loop is open only to bikes and pedestrians till 10 am in season. It’s a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the scenery car free!
Lastly, if you are one who must be able to say you have “been to the top”:
3. Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap
To reach both of these locations, go straight through Gatlinburg into the park and keep going. Newfound Gap Road itself is a great scenic drive, and the substantial Gap parking area is on the way to the dome, where you can see mountain views and the original park dedication site, without hiking. Or drive the extra few miles to reach the trailhead for the highest point in the national park:  Clingman’s Dome, which ends at the concrete lookout observation tower at 6,643 feet above sea level. The paved trail is only a half mile, but quite steep. If possible, go on a clear day, since distance visibility can reach many miles in all directions. Mountain haze impacts viewing distances substantially when it is present.
Thoughtful tip: Take a jacket just in case. No kidding. Even in summer, that elevation can be up to 20 degrees cooler than valley areas like Pigeon Forge. Forest and mountain views become far less enjoyable if you are uncomfortably chilly.
Last thought for new visitors in this post: buy those small guidebooklets that the National Park Service provides. They can be purchased online in advance, or in an honor box or visitor center at most park locations. For coffee change (usually a dollar or two), the in-depth information is well worth it, and helps you know the historical “who and what” along with the “where” you are standing.
Here’s a link for a starter kit, and you can also buy single brochures with all proceeds benefitting the park:
I know for certain that once you visit the Great Smoky Mountains, you will want to return. Come visit us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals very soon!

Best Questions to Ask Customer Service About a Cabin Rental

It’s so much more than a hotel room. Vacation cabin living has so many advantages. Cabins are managed by rental agencies, and are usually individually owned. Owners of a family retreat are often just as concerned about guests’ treatment of their getaway, as you are concerned about renting the best choice for your family’s unique vacation requirements.

Matching your desires with the right property begins with perusing a website’s availability calendar, images and videos, along with the detailed information regarding a home’s interior and view. The easiest way to assure that you match a specific cabin’s experience to your vacation expectations is to make a great list of questions and talk to our customer service at Volunteer Cabin Rentals. It is in no one’s best interest for you to be surprised or disappointed. We truly want your stay with us to be a lovely getaway you’ll want to repeat!

If you are new to Wears Valley, Tennessee cabin rentals in the Smoky Mountains, here are several questions to consider for your discussion with our friendly agents.

1. Location
Though most companies don’t supply exact addresses prior to stay for security purposes, general area information is always available.
Privacy: Is the location in a rental resort neighborhood, or is it secluded? Is it quiet or noisy; is there any construction occurring in the general vicinity?
View: With that great view, are the roads and driveway paved or gravel, steep inclined, or curvy mountain roads? How many vehicles can the parking area at the cabin accommodate?

Necessities: Where is the nearest grocery or discount store for purchasing staples?
Directions: These are typically provided at check-in. My best advice is to make sure that you understand them clearly before attempting to follow them. If at all possible, try not to make your first attempt at finding your secluded mountain cabin after dark. Unfamiliar rural roads can be both confusing and intimidating.

2. Amenities
Each cabin has an amenities listing provided, which we work hard to provide as accurate and complete as possible. Sometimes changes may be made by an owner and not communicated to our office. Sometimes a previous guest may damage or remove an item without notification (could we tell you some stories!).  Both cleaning and maintenance staffs perform routine circuit inspections of each location as part of their many responsibilities, but small items not readily obvious (like a burned-out bulb or broken kitchen tool) can be overlooked periodically. If any issues arise that need correction, we do our best to address them in a most timely manner.
Special event? Mobility issues? Pet-friendly locations desired?  Ask questions about units that can accommodate your specific needs.
What are the detailed instructions for use of the WIFI system? Instructions for using satellite television?
Who do you call if something breaks?

My thoughts are that if the small details matter to you, make sure you have answers (before arriving) regarding those small details to avoid frustration. Volunteer Cabin Rentals has professionally managed cabins for many years, and our people and standards have built a loyal family of repeat guests. We want you to join us for a wonderful stay in a mountain home away from home.

Questions? Please don’t hesitate to ask. We are happy to answer, and hope that you will join us here soon!

Saddle Up! for Country Western Style in the Smokies

 Big hat, no cattle? Ever wonder whether you could cut it on a dude ranch? If you plan to investigate cabin rentals in Wears Valley for the weekend following Valentine’s Day next month, consider also rounding up a good time by visiting the Saddle Up! event at the LeConte Center in Pigeon Forge during your stay.

This is the 14th year that folks from all walks of life have the opportunity to sample all things Western. Learn more about cowboy life beginning Wednesday, February 19th and ending Sunday, February 23rd. There are multiple free events and also some fee-paid concerts and activities.

First, put your heels up for the music. If you are curious about how lyrics and melodies are put together, attend the songwriters’ symposium. Come absorb fiddle and guitar styles, or some western swing demonstrated by national artists. The entertainment list includes Belinda Gail, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ray Doyle and other multi-talented performer/songwriters.

Sop up some history with cowboy stories and Western images. There is plenty to experience throughout the four-day event.

Then chow down on the hearty food: try sampling cornbread,  or indulge in a satisfying meal straight from the chuckwagon. You’ll be darn pleased you did.  The event ends with a special cowboy church service on Sunday.

So if you’ve never gotten closer to cowboy life than a guided horseback ride, give it a try. If you already enjoy the Western lifestyle, I am certain you are already planning to attend. For a more detailed list of schedule events for Saddle Up!, check this link: https://www.etouches.com/ehome/71876/142500/

There’s always something unique to do in our area, and never any reason to be bored. Pack your boots, and come join in!

Something for Everyone at Wilderness Wildlife Week, Pigeon Forge

You come to a Pigeon Forge cabin to relax, enjoy the view, and forget everyday life for a few days. Why not take a few moments of your vacation to learn more about the beautiful wilderness surrounding you here? If your family likes a little mental stimulation while relaxing, have we got a deal for you! Choose from over 300 programs with more than 200 experts covering so many topics, there is absolutely something that would interest you. There is plenty to see and do for all ages, children through seniors. Oh, and it is all FREE.

Please investigate attending the events of Wilderness Wildlife Week, for one or several programs. An annual festival since 1991, this week of interesting presentations, seminars, free hikes, field trips and other activities is a “do not miss” if you are in the area.
Wilderness Wildlife Week occurs Saturday, January 25 to Saturday, February 1, 2014. Sit in warm comfort at the new LeConte Center listening to an expert teach you far more than you thought, or put one foot in front of the other on a guided winter hike tour.

Want to try something new?
-Begin to play a dulcimer, banjo, guitar, ukelele, or spoons.
-Learn photography techniques, how to use a map and compass, how to raise butterflies.
-Make a quill pen, basket, jewelry, carving, or painting.
-Try dowsing, clogging, old Harp singing, or weather signs.

Want to increase your knowledge?
History-heritage classes of local sites, event, and people; Civil War, Appalachian music, Native American stories
Outdoor activities-Appalachian Trail, hiking, fly fishing, wildflowers, trees.
Animals-bears, wolves, bugs, possums, woodpeckers, birds, and more.

Have kids in the family?
Kid’s Track-try cartooning, old time toys, several bears activities, blindfold surprise, garbage pizza, hiking, and more.

These are just a few of the classes at LeConte Center. There is so much more available. Come join the over 20,000 people from several countries who enjoy this festival.

Me? Think I might take on the strenuous old time dessert tasting class, for starters.

For complete information on classes and seminars, the experts and exhibitors attending, and a complete booklet with listings information, check out

Avoid These 4 Things in the Smokies

There are so many voices spouting lists of things to do here in the Smokies, perhaps it’s also beneficial to know about a few things that you should consider avoiding while vacationing in your Smoky Mountain cabin and enjoying the surrounding area.

1. Chain restaurants and stores: Yes, it is predictable and comforting to know it will be the same. But do you really want to do on vacation exactly what you can do at home? Maybe you need to pick up just a few items, or maybe your child will eat chicken nuggets from only that restaurant. That’s a given. But please, take advantage of all the locally-owned eateries and merchants that offer great versions of whatever you may crave: like authentic Thai, Southern family-style food, or handcrafted artisan gifts. You won’t be disappointed, and might even make a memory in the process: that place you “found” and the fun of the discovery. National chains-if you need them, we certainly do have them, in abundance.

2. Visitor center masquerade: This may be a no-brainer for most, but just in case: those places labeled “tourist information, visitor center, or free tickets” are far more interested in pitching timeshare vacations to you than providing helpful information. Nothing against timeshares and condo clubs, but I find the false facade to be annoying and deceptive, and so should you. So unless you can withstand a hard-sell presentation, make sure your visitor center stops are the official city-sponsored locations.
Here are the local links to help you find them:

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Pigeon Forge

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Gatlinburg Information

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Information:
Smoky Mountains Visitor Center, located at Smokies Baseball Stadium at exit 407
Sugarlands Visitor Center, just inside the National Park

3. Crowds (thinking like a typical tourist): Of course there are times when you want to be in the throng celebrating (Dollywood opening parade, anyone?). But if you choose a more unpredictable schedule, you will have some amazing experiences without too much company. For example, Cades Cove loop in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is often very congested at noon on a weekend day, with too many trying to “enjoy nature” at the same time. Why not try being there at daybreak? Catch the serenity, the morning mist, the early rising animals and deer? All with an almost private viewing, even in high season. Think off hours (and even off season) whenever possible in your planning, and you’ll have more freedom to enjoy special spots as they were intended.

4. Bottleneck still under construction: Even we locals will be glad when construction traffic snarls here are relieved, hopefully substantially complete by the end of 2014. Already much improved, Highway 66/Winfield Dunn Parkway from exit 407 at I-40 to Sevierville was never originally designed to carry the volume of traffic that it handles today. Most of this major artery has been widened to six lanes (three each way), but the final center phase of widening near and over the French Broad River bridge is still in progress. This creates a bottleneck during high volume traffic times, which causes backups in either direction based on volume.
Of course, there will always be delays in our area on major holidays, but to zoom through with the least amount of logjam, don’t arrive on Friday afternoon (about 12-4pm) or leave on Sunday afternoon (about 11 am-2pm). My suggestion for a smoother weekend is to arrive early if possible, and leave late. Have a Sunday lunch before you leave town. It’s much better to enjoy a meal with family than to spend that same amount of time idling in traffic, wouldn’t you agree?

Perhaps these are simplistic, but I believe that avoiding a few key irritants can make for a substantially better vacation. If you want the experienced opinions of locals regarding specific spots to try, don’t hesitate to ask us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals. We are glad to help you enjoy our hometown as much as we do. Come stay with us! We hope to see you soon.

Think About Snow Before You Go

Thanksgiving week snow, Smoky Mountains, Tennessee November 2013


Recently I read about some young hikers that were rescued by helicopter from the Appalachian Trail nearby here. They were unprepared for snow, ice, and freezing temperatures and became stranded.

Don’t let this happen to you in your cabin rental in Pigeon Forge. Most rentals are independently owned, and are located in resort rental communities with homeowners’ associations. Some are located hillside in rural areas. Our local roads are regularly maintained, and pose no unusual issues under regular conditions.

Yet weather changes quickly in our hill and valley topography, and roads in higher elevations can have radically different conditions from those on the main artery Parkway. Some people from elsewhere laugh at the bread and milk runs to the store that occur here in Tennessee with predicted winter precipitation. Most local municipalities have adequate, but not substantial, equipment for road treatment. It does not make good fiscal policy to overspend for such, when inclement conditions are so infrequent, and ongoing continual snowfall does not exist.

Our bigger foe here is ice. Snow typically lasts from 2 to 4 days, if that. But wet weather and snow melt from mild daytime temperatures freezes overnight into black ice, a thin glossy layer that just appears wet, but is only suitable for skating. Often tree-lined, shady lanes, and areas where hillside runoff occurs can remain dangerously slick for days, when all else is completely dry. Add the factor of an incline, and it doesn’t take a physics major to see that your vehicle can easily become a very expensive Red Flyer sled. Trust us, an icy mountain road has zero in common with a flat, snowplowed road elsewhere.

Most rental communities have association-paid road clearing equipment for our infrequent snow conditions. But not all locations have it, and some rural roads have gravel drives, sharp turns and narrow widths. Roads are often steep and curvy to get to that home with the outstanding mountain views that everyone covets.

A rental company cannot guarantee your arrival or safety if you choose to traverse tough roads without proper equipment. Typically 4-wheel drive and chains are necessary, and even these may not be sufficient in icy conditions.

So, know before you go. If winter weather is a possibility, bring a proper vehicle for mountain climbing, with extras like chains, sand and other appropriate emergency items. If you have questions regarding your specific reservation and the road policies of its location, please call our guest services before you arrive with any issues you would like to discuss. We are glad to help you plan all the details. Neither of us wants your next trip to be delayed, derailed, or inadvertently extended by a beautiful mountain snowfall.

Don’t be caught mountainside in the proverbial tee shirt and sneakers, call us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals today.

A Little Vegas in Tennessee for New Year’s Eve

Want to end your year with a big and somewhat unusual bang? Something free and suitable for the whole family? With 26 years of celebration practice, Gatlinburg’s New Year’s Eve Spectacular is a popular tradition for many. The event is completely free, and is clustered around light #8 in Galtinburg, the intersection of Parkway and the Heritage Motor Nature Trail.

What is new this season is a free stage show, billed as “Witness the Impossible”, with a bit of glitz and sideshow flavor this year. Check out Superhuman Chad Netherland, who performs feats of impossible strength, that defy the laws of physics. These are man versus machine stunts, like the “Super Bike Hold”, keeping two motorcycles from speeding away with his bare hands. View a little of his ability at this link: http://www.youtube.com/chadnetherland

If brute strength doesn’t impress you, maybe matters of the mind will. Mentalist Bill Gladwell will also entertain with mind-bending twists and predictions. What he knows is sometimes beyond belief!  http://billgladwell.com/kwcm6tcazhiynncrwfk96spsblkkh3

This show is a fun addition to the live music and traditional countdown ball drop at midnight from the Space Needle. Let the kids stay up late with you to see the pyrotechnic spectacle of fireworks that rings in the coming year like nowhere else.

So leave that cozy Gatlinburg rental cabin for a short while, arrive early in town and have dinner, and then gear up for fun around 11 pm. Come enjoy the sights, crowds and festivities that are the annual New Year’s Eve Spectacular. Dust off those lyrics for Auld Lang Syne: singing it in the mountains with all of us is a great way to start the year!

Top Three Christmas Gifts to Buy on Vacation

So you are coming to vacation in a Smoky Mountains cabin rental, but feel guilty you aren’t already done with all your Christmas gift shopping? Help is right here. Here are some ideas for thoughtful gifts in small packages, that can be easily acquired while you are enjoying your vacation in our area.

1. Artisan Handmade Items-There are over 100 artists to choose from in the 8-mile loop that is the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community. Don’t overlook this source for original holiday gift giving. Choose jewelry, accessories, clothing, pottery, artwork, decorative items and much more. Plan your targeted shopping pass through the area at this link:

Unique. One of a kind. So much better than the infinity scarf from that chain store.

2. Food or Food-Related Gifts-There are so many local purveyors of delectable treats, narrowing those selections down is purely by preferences. To get started, here are a few branded area landmarks for gifts:

The Old Mill Gristmill Complex in Pigeon Forge-all sorts of baking mixes, kitchen pantry items, simple and deliciously rustic items. Lots to choose from while you enjoy your own tour and meal in one of the two restaurants.  http://www.old-mill.com/old-mill-pantry

Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, Gatlinburg-Located at 744 Parkway in downtown, this local institution has been a shrine to all things sugar for as long as I can remember. Chocolate turtles are called brown bears in this town. Wide selection to suite many tastes, and great for stocking stuffers. No website, but on Facebook, and really hard to miss at the entrance to the Village (another neat little shopping area).

Apple Barn Cider Mill and General Store Complex, Sevierville-For all things  country and apple, but much more is available in the multiple restaurants and stores of this complex.

3. Experience Gifts-For those that live within a few hours of our area, and can visit for a quick trip, experience gifts are a welcome and much anticipated gift item. Some quick ideas for you to stop by and buy gifts for one or a group:

For everyone: Dollywood or Splash Country day or season passes
For kids: Wonderworks tickets
For the sports nut: Smokies baseball tickets
For a thrillseeker, Xtreme Racing or Alpine Coaster tickets.
For entertainment: theater tickets, to laugh at the Comedy Barn, for example.

So, while enjoying yourself in the Smokies, pick up a few good things in small packages. Don’t forget to tie them up with brown paper and string. Done.

Wishing you wonderful family holidays together from all of us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals.

6 Reasons to be Addicted to the Tennessee Smoky Mountains

So many have come here before, and many more will arrive for a first-time visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. Having lived here for many years, I still never tire of the blessing of being a local where so many come for vacation. That said, once the mountains are a part of your bloodstream, you just feel the need to keep returning. Here are some of the main reasons why:

1. Gorgeous Landscape-Nature, oh how I love you! Any season, in any weather, a discerning eye can find something glorious every day in Sevier County, if you just choose to look. Even this morning while driving my son to school, absolutely everything was outlined in glistening hoarfrost. This frozen dew is as beautiful as fine snow, and as fleeting as the misty ground fog, all of which will be gone by sunny noon today. But it is this type of unexpected beauty that can take your breath away when you least expect it: rounding a curve and seeing a rolling hills vista, the vivid shades of red and gold in autumn, the cheerful twinkling lights in winter darkness, that tiny wildflower by the trail. Such natural glory never grows old.

2. Mountain Activities-No matter your family’s age or size, there is something for everyone to enjoy outdoors in the mountains. Whether you slowly drive the Cades Cove Loop, zipline through a treetop canopy, or hike the toughest trail in the park, you can choose your level of immersion into nature. Making your choices is always a prioritization problem, because there is no way to see everything in one vacation! You will also want to revisit your personal favorite found spots in different seasons.

3. Ideal Location for Special Occasions-A secluded Smoky Mountain cabin rental is a prime location for whatever you plan to celebrate. From a romantic engagement to the wedding ceremony to an anniversary trip, a just the girls weekend to a family reunion to a holiday celebration, a youth group trip to a corporate retreat. Your plans can be met and expectations exceeded in the Smoky Mountains. Every time.

4. Valley Activities-If you are not enjoying the local natural outdoor wonders, there is still no reason ever to claim boredom. Mighty fine shopping of all types, theater show hopping, healthy or fattening dining of every cuisine, theme park thrills and putt putt skills can all be exercised happily. Repeatedly.

5. Relaxation Defined-The dictionary says to relax is “To make less tense. To reduce or stop work or effort. To release or bring relief from the effects of worry.” How do you escape? Relax here in any season: sink a chair in the shallow stream and read a book, or choose a crackling fireplace with popcorn and a movie. Create your own definition of doing nothing. Over and over.

6. Always a Reason to Return-That’s the addiction part. While rocking on the deck of your Wears Valley cabin, it is easy to make a list of “Next time I come, I want to try that”. Even we locals have a few things on that sort of list. There is something habit forming about so many choices available. Just talk to our repeat customers, who love the Smokies as much as we do. You may find yourself becoming one of those regulars soon. Come stay with VCR and fulfill your “mountain getaway fix”.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals.

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: Smoky Mountain Style!

Must. Not. Miss. Of course, there are many activities on your list while here in town. Of course, you plan to attend Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival at Dollywood, and enjoy the merry holiday environment created throughout the themepark. But please, make sure and attend this year’s stage production of Dollywood’s “A Christmas Carol”. The show is the only version of this classic tale anywhere that uses holographic technology for “special effects cast members” throughout the production. It is a Broadway-style musical with extravagant Victorian sets and costumes, and an 8-song original score written by Dolly herself. Playing at the Celebrity Theater inside the park, this 45-minute delight occurs 4 times daily at 2:30, 4:15, 6:15, and 8:00 pm.

The technology: holograms are integrated into the show with live performers interacting with them. One quickly forgets how amazing this technology is, and accepts the images as equal players with the rest of the cast. Guess what hometown favorite daughter plays the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past? Yes, it’s a Dolly hologram, and my only joking critique is that Dolly’s British accent needs a little work!

The story: The presentation stays true to Dickens’ original story line, so you can foreshadow the ending, and enjoy the lovely details if you are familiar with the narrative. Children enjoy it just as much as adults.

The music: Dolly’s creative talent is evident from start to finish in the original, joyful music of this production. For those who don’t know, Dolly is far more than a country singer! She is also a prolific songwriter of musicals and movie scores along with many hit songs, all to her credit. She has composed over 5,000 songs in 60+ years of writing melodies!

Other great Christmas performances also occur throughout the park at scheduled times. Christmas in the Smokies, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and O Holy Night are all worth attending. There are 20 rides and attractions, holiday food and crafts, and shopping to enjoy along with all else mentioned. Please check the event schedule on Dollywood’s website, since operating hours and showtimes vary during this season.

All of us at Volunteer Cabin Rentals wish your family a joyous celebration together this blessed season, and hope that you will choose our Pigeon Forge rental cabins as your holiday home away from home.

Don’t let yourself be a Scrooge. Come see old Ebenezer be redeemed with hope with a new twist: there is zero chance you will be disappointed!