The Great Smokies: its very name conjures up artistry and folklore. The region’s stunning scenery and wildlife have attracted people for centuries. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S.; its popularity supports all kinds of tourist amenities in the surrounding counties.
These days, as the National Park Service calls it, “the remnants of Southern Appalachian culture” are also a lure. What’s surprising is its hidden, elegant and peaceful side.
What to do: Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers more than 800 miles, straddling Tennessee and North Carolina. Some 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through the park, where you can do remote backcountry hiking and camping. The park has four stables and 10 campgrounds. They have a “not so junior” ranger program, where people 13 years and up can take naturalist classes.
On the very edge of Gatlinburg is the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Arrowmont was founded a century ago by a benevolent sorority intent on bringing literacy and employability to the settlement now known as Gatlinburg. The sorority found commercial markets for the artisan crafts made there from such learned skills as basket making and woodworking. These days, Arrowmont’s many different types of classes are open to the public.
Arrowmont students live on 14 acres on the border of the Great Smoky National Park, for classes lasting a weekend or longer. Beginners learn next to experts, who are refreshing their skills. It is not unusual for a beginning student or novice to be sitting next to a famous artist with a PhD in textiles, for instance. Students spend time in cabins living the artist’s lifestyle, eating communally.
After Gatlinburg head to OberGatlinburg for skiing, tubing or just for the ride up the mountain. It promises to be an exhilarating experience. The scenic 15-minute tram ride runs to the summit of Mt. Harrison, passing many otherwise hidden vacation mansions en route. OberGatlinburg is open year-round with winter sports, restaurants, shops, and other amusements.
While in this part of Tennessee, pick up some Old Smoky Tennessee Moonshine, found in well-stocked liquor stores. Moonshine has been made in the area for 200 years, but legally only since 2009. It was the illegal moonshine that gave NASCAR its start. Sample all of Old Smoky’s flavors for free at their Gatlinburg distillery. Occasionally, they have live bluegrass bands performing.
Admittedly, it’s a mixed bag of people who go to outlet malls on vacation … and yet, they can look like a little piece of heaven, especially staring down hundreds of miles of mountains and finding that critical articles have not been packed. Sevierville’s Tanger Outlets is there to serve and it’s a great rainy day activity option as well as a place to sip a strongly desired Starbucks. Right in the middle of the shopping complex is a locally-owned steakhouse, The Chop House. Dressings are made in-house daily.
One of the iconic attractions in the area is Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park. She has clearly made an effort; the surrounding forest is pristine; she has preserved a historic church and set up artisan craft demos to make the park feel culturally relevant and non-commercial. There are musical shows in several genres, including an old-school Country Gospel show.
The Backstage Restaurant raises the bar for theme park restaurants: their Executive Chef graduated from the CIA and uses prized and popular local food products, such as ham from famed food producer Allen Benton.
Where to stay: Whether you’re a sizeable bunch — perhaps a family reunion or church group — or one of the stars performing at Dollywood, you’ll want to stay in one of the Dollywood Cabins. Some of the cabins have several bedrooms and baths, fireplaces, game rooms, decks, hot tub, and one even has an indoor heated pool.
Each cabin has a breathtaking mountain view where in the morning, you’ll see why they call this range the Smoky Mountains. The range is a rainforest and the moisture evaporating from the vegetation creates smoke in the sky.
Where to eat: It’s not just where to eat but what to eat and that would be trout, trout and more trout! Smoky Mountain Trout House hires local fishermen to provide fresh mountain trout daily. You can order it a dozen ways, including Trout Eisenhower, which is pan-fried “the old timey way” using home-made cornmeal breading and bacon flavorings. It’s served with bacon and butter sauce, along with a dish of sautéed mushrooms and onions.
Blount County, Tennessee calls itself “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies” and there, you’ll find several upscale resorts. Dancing Bear Lodge and Restaurant is one. It’s a setting of towering cathedral ceilings, fireplaces, mounted and stuffed game, and walls of natural stones and regional woods. The cuisine features Southern favorites with a locally sourced, gourmet twist, such as a daily variation on red beans and rice.