Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains

Genie Davis August 5, 2011 No Comments

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What’s sweet as fudge, gooey as cotton candy, has as many tourists as Disneyland, is on the edge of a major national park, and pretty far off a major highway? Why that would be Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Ringed by the Le Conte and Sugarland Mountains, the Big Ride and Grape Ridge, Gatlinburg is in a lush, green valley, and seems to spill out of it with all of its old-fashioned tourist motels and restaurants.

Tourist kitsch at Pigeon Forge, TN

Kitsch was everywhere in Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge, where this Wonderworks attraction was located.

In order to reach this old fashioned, traffic filled, tourist town abutting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you have to drive off Route 40 and down through a more modern tourist enclave called Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, and Dollywood’s Splash Country – Dolly Parton’s down home answer to Disneyland. Here we discovered an enormous eye catching upside down building called Wonderwork, the facade to a giant games arcade with massive amounts of screaming happy children.

So am I recommending these activities to families? Well, if crowds, kitsch, and mid-range motels, buffet dinners and definitely not ready for Broadway dinner theater appeals – Pigeon Forge is the capital!

We came for the national park, and chose Gatlinburg as a closer stay. Years ago, family relatives had settled in on rocking chairs at boarding houses in Gatlinburg, and oddly enough, you’ll see some old fashioned hotels, with rockers on the porches, still located in town. We stayed at the modern Hilton Garden Inn just off the main drag. The rooms are not large, but all the amenities are in place, and the small hotel dining room offered the best food choices for us. If you like foot long hot dogs and corn on the cob on sticks, there are plenty of other choices in town.

We dined first, having arrived late in the day out of Nashville, and then set off to explore the town on foot. We found that although Gatlinburg may be a small town and have somewhat small town attractions, they’re not inexpensive. I spent as much on the Mystery Theater and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum here as I would’ve on an off Broadway play and dinner in New York. But I’m not really complaining. It was an experience we enjoyed and… probably won’t repeat.

The Mystery Theater – not much of a mystery. They tell you a ghost story, unrealistic mannequins and a stage set fall into darkness while a ghost story is told via recording. The kitsch made it amusing, but you can scratch that one off your list. Not so Ripleys. Although a chain, Ripley’s has always been fun, and offers unique, bizarre exhibits everywhere. I’ve let my kids persuade me to pay for exploring one of these attractions – Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Key West, Florida, home in LA, and in Gatlinburg. We especially enjoyed climbing into the giant chair that made us look like Thumbelina’s relatives. After seeing headless men and chambers of horrors (avoid the latter with smaller children), we were ready for some cotton candy, slightly oily fudge, famous sticky taffy, and a good look at the enormous collection of tee shirt stores that fill Gatlinburg’s main drag.

A view of the Great Smoky Mountains, TN

We loved splashing through puddles in this rainy National Park.

In the morning we headed into the park. Great Smoky Mountain National Park is misty with fog, has spectacular views and is green and wet. Over eight hundred miles long, the park has over fifty five inches of rainfall a year, even at lower elevations, thirty inches more at the top. Bring your rain poncho, regardless of the season. U.S. Highway 441 cuts through the park, providing access to many look out points and trail heads. Newfound Gap is in the center of the park, and it was here in 1940 that President Roosevelt dedicated the national park. Another historic part of the park is Cades Cove, a lovely valley that contains historic town buildings established before the community was absorbed into the park. The valley contains a number of log structures that our kids enjoyed exploring.  The John Oliver Cabin, both the Baptist and Methodist church and their adjacent cemeteries are well worth exploring. Our favorite was the Myers Barn.

At the other end of the park, we enjoyed look out points around and access to part of the Appalachian trail. Kids of all ages will enjoy the excitement of vast, forest filled views coming in and out of focus through mist and cloud. The park has a magical, lush green feeling that our kids really enjoyed – and be warned, our kids also greatly enjoyed splashing through puddles. If you’re driving a rental car instead of a family car on a cross country drive, you won’t mind the puddles as much.

Puddles splashed through, we also took a short hike at Clingman Dome, the highest elevation in the park. We walked out to the observation deck and after a passing rain shower, were rewarded with a grand view of tree, forest, hills and a rainbow. The park is almost entirely forested with old growth trees that were here long before European settlers arrived in America, and long before Gatlinburg began selling fudge to tourists.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling. www.geniedavis.com

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