These days, after hiking through the outlet stores, exploring the chain restaurants and running the fake rapids at the "wilderness park" (now there's some irony), there's just so little time for watching the sunset from a 6,000-foot summit, cooking dinner over a backcountry fire or swimming below an 80-foot waterfall.
Case in point, one summer, quite a few years ago, I helped out a friend in his Gatlinburg store for a couple of months. The shop was located roughly one block from the entrance to GSMNP, and that summer I had at least one or two customers daily who would ask if there wasn't "some kind of park"—or occasionally, "little park"—nearby where they had "real bears." When I proceeded to tell them about the half-million-acre national park that lay a block from where they were standing; about its 850 miles of trails, 2,000 miles of streams, 1,800 or so wild bears and so on, many would appear shocked, usually mentioning how many years they had been coming to the "Smokies" without ever setting foot—wait for it—in the Smokies!
Reality check: there would be no Gatlinburg, no Pigeon Forge—no Dollywood—if it were not for the largest wilderness in the eastern United States located right next door. Why else does every third business in Sevier County have the word Smoky in its name? Okay, maybe not every third one, but you get my meaning.
There are lots of great places to see and things to do in what I call, "the real Smokies." Unfortunately, nowadays some of them are almost as crowded as a pancake house on a Sunday mornin'. So, I'll give you a few suggestions for others that are a little less known, thus a lot more enjoyable (depending, of course, on the season, the day of the week and whether or not our (your word here) federal government has the "Open" sign on.)
Easy waterfall hike: Grotto Falls, Trillium Gap Trail
Hike past old growth forest and follow the trail as it leads behind the waterfall. Located off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, near Gatlinburg.
Scenic vistas: Foothills Parkway, Chilhowie Mtn.
Excellent views of the western region of the Smokies. Accessed off Hwy. 321 just north of Townsend, TN.
Camping: Abram's Creek Campground
Very private and secluded, along beautiful Abram's Creek in the western area of the park. Fairly primitive with water and restrooms, though no hookups. 8 miles off Foothills Parkway (Chilhowie Mtn. section).
Trout fishing: Twentymile Creek
No crowds, just lots of wild rainbows and solitude. Near Twentymile Ranger Station, NC Hwy. 28
Wildlife viewing: Still Cades Cove
Don't go there! Road-rage capital of the Southeast. Okay, go—but you were warned. (Just kidding. Sort of.)
Realest of the Real: Albright Grove, Maddron Bald Trail
The Albright Grove is one of the last old growth groves of giant hemlock and tulip trees on the TN side of the park. Maddron Bald Trailhead off Hwy. 321 east of Gatlinburg.
Backcountry camping: Great Smokies TBD Scenic Campsite
This is a wild, remote site with large trees, nearby brook trout stream and no crowds. Its location is TBD—to be determined. Yep, you gotta discover this one yourself!