Forget the crowded overlooks and bustling Gatlinburg streets. The Smoky Mountains hold secret Hidden Gems – verdant valleys shrouded in mist, forgotten waterfalls off the maps, and starlit meadows where you can practically touch the sky.
It’s easy to forget that for thousands of years, these mountains held paths known only to Cherokee people and then settlers. Roads were a novelty that arrived only about 100 years ago. That means within the woods and old trails, treasures are waiting to be discovered.
As fun as it is to hunt for Easter Eggs in video games, we’re going to be transparent about how to find these hidden gems. Whether you’re looking for the troll bridge, fairy house, or tunnel under Clingman’s Dome, you’ll get the best directions available right here.
Elkmont Troll Bridge
Near the Elkmont Historic District on Little River Trail
A stone, moss-covered footbridge awaits on a side trail just a short distance from the start of the Little River Trail. The trail starts on the former site of Millionaire’s Row, where Knoxville’s elite had cottages and summer homes along the banks.
What we call the Elkmont Troll Bridge, Lindsay Young and his family called the footbridge that led to the home on the other side of the creek. Two fireplaces remain standing now, but the rest of the home was removed in the late 20th century.
To access the Troll Bridge, start the trail and walk about 1,000 feet. You’ll pass a massive fireplace and chimney on the left. A short distance from there, you’ll take the first right-side trail. That’s actually the former driveway of the Young Cabin. Within two minutes, you’ll walk right to the bridge.
Thomas Divide Tunnel
Located near the intersection of Clingman Dome Road & Newfound Gap Road
This is a tricky one to find if you don’t know where you are looking, so forget about starting at Clingman’s Dome or the Thomas Divide Trailhead. Another tricky aspect is that Clingman’s Dome Road, your access point to the hidden tunnel, is closed in winter.
The tunnel goes under Clingman’s Dome Road and was made for hikers to avoid crossing the busy highway. Several road and trail adjustments rendered it useless, but the tunnel is still there.
To find the tunnel, you’ll take Newfound Gap Road, 13.4 miles from Gatlinburg, past the Newfound Gap parking area and turn onto Clingman’s Dome Road. If you’re coming from Cherokee, that’s a 15.7-mile drive.
Less than 500 feet after the turn, you’ll see a small parking area on the right. You’ll walk the grassy area on the right side of the road about 400 feet just as the road starts to curve. Look for the stone railing that looks like a bridge. A small path quickly descends to the Hidden Tunnel.
This visit is quick, as the tunnel is gated off on the other side.
House of the Fairies
Twin Creek area of Great Smoky Mountain National Park
In 1928, Louis Vorheis bought 100 acres of land in what is now Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to the buildings and mansion he put there, Voorheis was fascinated with the power of water. He harnessed the “Twin Creeks” water and built a mill, fountains, and springhouse.
When you’re searching for the House of the Fairies, you’re looking for that springhouse. Moss-covered stairways among thick woods surround the stone structure tucked into the mountainside.
You can get there through two access points. First, take the Twin Creeks Trailhead from the Cherokee Orchard entrance in Gatlinburg. The trailhead is just to the right of the park entrance signs, with a 4.5 mile out and back trek. You can also park in the small pull-off right before Twin Creeks Research Lab Access Road.
In either event, you’ll walk past the Twin Creeks Science Center until you see the Discover Life in America building. A new sign to House of the Fairies points the way, but you’ll walk alongside a fence before a short trail takes you to the former Voorheis estate and House of the Fairies.
The Townsend Wye
Laurel Creek Rd & Little River Road, Townsend
Enter through the Townsend entrance, and you’ll come to a “Y” in the road. The Little River does a “Y” here as well. Several parking areas will take you to the Middle Prong of the Little River, where the river bed opens up a bit, providing access to the rocks, water, and picnic areas.
The “Y,” as it’s known, is a popular swimming hole and just barely falls into the “Hidden Gem of the Smokies” category.
It’s no surprise people want to cool off on a hot, humid summer day.
Old State Hwy 73 Scenic, Gatlinburg
From the “Y” in the road, turn east, and you’ll ride along an old railroad bed that brought tourists to the Elkmont area. After six miles of weaving through the hills, you’ll come to a parking area surrounded by stone accents.
Below the parking lot and bridge, The Sinks waterfall awaits. The name comes from the “sink” that was created by loggers trying to push the timber along through a series of human-made waterfalls.
This is another swimming hole with cliffs and rocky ledges to enjoy.
SAFETY TIP: It’s worth noting that the National Park Service strongly discourages swimming in any water feature in the park. Rangers won’t prevent you from swimming or tubing, but several rescues have happened when the water levels were high. No lifeguards are at any swimming hole in the park.
The Road to Nowhere
Near Fontana Lake
The uncomfortable story of the Road to Nowhere starts just before the entrance to the park on Fontana Road. The sign on the hill reads, “Welcome to The Road to No-Where, A Broken Promise! 1943-?”
In brief summary, the building of Fontana Dam in the 1940s meant cities and roads would be flooded. The government promised a new road from Bryson City to Fontana. That 30-mile road ended at just seven miles, with an ominous tunnel now at the end of the line. The road literally leads nowhere.
To get there, take the Fontana Road entrance to GSMNP and drive 6.8 miles to the parking lot at the end of the trail. Walk 700 feet to the entrance of the tunnel.
This also happens to be one of the most “haunted” sections of the Smokies.
Harrisburg Covered Bridge
Harrisburg Road & Old Covered Bridge Road, Sevierville
On the backroads of Sevierville, covered bridge fans can find a hidden gem at Harrisburg Covered Bridge. It’s one of just a handful left in the state.
This bridge was built in 1875 and has undergone several restorations since then to keep it an active crossing and historical marker.
While it’s located in a neighborhood, visitors are welcome. A sign at the corner of Old Newport Highway and Harrisburg Road points you in the right direction. The bridge is just 2/10ths of a mile down the road.
The Walker Sisters Place
The cabin is in Wears Valley on Little Brier Gap Trail
Do you know a woman who is tenacious, resilient, and independent? Then you’ll want to hunt out the gem of the Walker Sisters Place in Wears Valley.
The Walkers lived in Little Greenbrier Cove, essentially building everything they needed to eat, wear, and entertain. The family was crafty in every respect, from creative meals harvested on their land to spinning cotton for clothing.
Of the 11 Walker children, six women lived with their father until he died in 1921. The sisters made a deal about a decade later when the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created. They could live there through a lifetime lease but couldn’t harvest, farm, or cut down trees.
Their ingenuity created the Five Sisters Cove, where visitors at the park could enjoy their homemade crafts, food, and writing. The sisters have been gone since the 1960s, but their homestead is still there.
You’ll walk to get there—Park at the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area, where you’ll pick up the Metcalf Bottoms Trail for about 0.6 miles where the schoolhouse their father built still sits. You can also take Little Greenbrier Road off of Wears Cove Gap Road to reach the schoolhouse.
From there, walk a mile on Little Brier Gap Trail until you reach the Walker Cabin spur trail. Just 2/10th of a mile around two curves, you’ll see the very home where six sisters refused to leave. The total length is four miles roundtrip.
Cades Cove Loop Road to John Oliver’s Cabin
Gregory’s Cave was once a tourist attraction, where the owner, JJ Gregory, charged for entrance. Evidence dating back thousands of years suggests people lived or mined here. The cave has also been used as an emergency shelter over the years.
To find the cave, take the somewhat obscured dirt road at John Oliver’s Cabin westward along the path. You’ll pass by remnants of a park amphitheater with two large picnic tables. After walking a little more than half a mile, you’ll see the cave face on the side of the mountain.
You won’t be able to go in very far as access is blocked off.
Hidden Gems Revealed
The beauty of the Smokies is that more caves, waterfalls, homes, and hidden treasures are sprinkled throughout the park. You can search for one of these hidden gems or find your own special place.
Other unique opportunities come on the Appalachian Trail, where you can stand with one foot in Tennessee and the other in North Carolina. Love a good white-knuckled road? Try the Tail of the Dragon with 318 turns across 11 miles. Even ghost story fans should take a side trail from the Tunnel of Nowhere to Noland Creek, one of the most haunted trails in the South.
The absolute best way to find the really secret spots – the ones that won’t make it on any internet story – is to ask the locals during one of your meals. That is if you can get them to share the information.