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Free Things To Do in the Smokies for the Budget-Minded Traveler – Part 1

hiker on the Appalachian Trail at Graveyard Fields.

Waynesville, Maggie Valley, and Sylva Edition

This is part one of a five part series that will help stretch those vacation dollars a little further by exploring free things to do in the Smokies of North Carolina.

Going on vacation doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are our top picks for exploring the NC Smoky Mountains without spending a dime.

Free Things To Do In Waynesville

Visitors from around the country travel to Waynesville for its thriving art scene. Spend an entire day wandering through its numerous art galleries and showrooms.

Pennington T Art Gallery features the colored pencil drawings by the artist of the same name. She is especially well known for her depictions of regional landmarks, like Cold Mountain. You’ll also want to meet and talk to the talented artists whose crafts and artwork are rotating through the Mainstreet Artists Co-op. 

For a unique art experience, the Sculpture Garden and Gallery on Depot Street features the metal work of artist Grace Cathey, perfect for in-home or garden displays. Other North Main Street galleries include Earthworks Gallery, where kids can paint outside with their parents on Saturday nights, and Twigs and Leaves, which showcases over 145 regional artists. Both spaces spotlight nature-themed art.

Art After Dark takes place on the first Friday evening of each month from May through December. It’s a remarkable way to experience Waynesville’s art world. About 10 galleries in downtown Waynesville and the Historic Frog Level District participate in this vibrant art event featuring refreshments, live music, and artistic demonstrations. Look for the Art after Dark flags for participating galleries.

Maggie Valley No Cost Wildlife Adventures

The Cataloochee Valley just outside of Maggie Valley in the southeastern  part of the Great Smoky Mountains is best known for its thriving elk herd. But this wasn’t always the case. Elk were once under threat of extinction from loss of habitat and overhunting. In 2001 and 2002, 52 elk were reintroduced in the Great Smoky Mountains, and today they number about 200.

To reach the best viewing and photo opportunities, take Cove Creek Road off I-40 and follow the signs for 11 miles into Cataloochee Valley. Part of the enriching experience is seeing the numerous historical buildings, including churches, barns, and old mountain houses along the way.

For your safety and the well-being of the animals, stay at least 50 feet away and close to your car in case the encounter turns dangerous, especially around rutting males vying for female mates.

The Great Smoky Mountains are also home to some of the best skiing in the southeast, and now you can save on that family ski trip. Maggie Valley Vacations offers a Cataloochee Ski Area’s Kids Ski Free program. Learn the program details here

Save Some Money In Sylva

Sylva, in Jackson County, is a hotbed for free activities and fun. You could literally spend a week experiencing the best Sylva has to offer without spending a dime. At the center of the activity is the Jackson County Courthouse. The 1914 building itself is one of the best early examples of Neo-Classical Revival architecture and has been called “the most photographed courthouse” in the state. Another iconic photograph is the one you will take of downtown Sylva against the beautiful mountain backdrop from the top of the courthouse’s 107 steps.

Newly refurbished in 2011, the building’s lobby is now used by the Jackson County Arts Council gallery for rotating exhibits that explore the county’s mountain culture and history. The courthouse wing houses the Jackson County Genealogical Society and the Jackson County Historical Association’s museum.

Hugely popular with locals is the community room of the historic courthouse. This space is used for free community dances, music concerts, performances, and community theater. For a list of these activities, as well as free festivals and happenings around the county, visit the event calendar

The historic building is also home to the new Jackson County Public Library and its free events for all ages. Children and families can partake in programs like Rock and Read, where kids are invited to wiggle and dance and ARTragious, where children can really get creative. Even teens will want to get into the fun at Thursday’s Teen Time, where they eat snacks, play games, create art, or just hang out with new friends. Adults are invited to learn to crochet or knit during Thursday’s Sylva Stitchers and Friday afternoons are your chance to enjoy free, hit movie showings. See all of their happenings on their event calendar