by Donald Anthony
How does a town of 3500 handle over 100,000 visitors a year? Well for Gatlinburg the answer is easy: while they recognize that the main attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains, they seem to have enough parties, parades and projects that spread the people out.
Gatlinburg is a small town born against its will (the town's founder did not want the town named after him) and that had tourists thrust on them when the park was established. All this fun is packed in a small area in a valley that forms the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains. There are restaurants, amusements, souvenir shops and even “bible history exhibit” crammed like exhibits in a carnival show. The foresight and planning of the town’s layout allows the town's trolleys to function well and the nominal fees make them easily usable. Remember on all of our trips a little research can go a long way to enjoyment with no negative surprises.
At the edge of town, close to the park entrance (on the quiet side of town), is the place where I stayed, The Hilton Inn. It is one of the newest hotels built in town. Fresh, clean and spanking brand new! There is even a trolley stop, right out the front door, for the red line to get onto the main strip area just a few blocks away. Walk-able but who wants to walk on vacation. I'd rather park in the back of the hotel and don't move the car. The days for hiking in the park will come soon enough and even then a properly used car is a benefit. This first night we walked over to Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que for a pulled pork dinner. This was to pack away energy for a hiking visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And after eating like it was our last meal, energy for the week would not appear to be an issue. It has been here since 1991 and doesn't look like its slowing down.
After a Hilton good morning breakfast, (How I could eat after last night's meal!) we went into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a short drive to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Here we sat for an orientation movie that gave the history of the park from a dream to reality and got an idea of the many varieties of fauna and flora that it was established to preserve. Oue first hike of the week was: The “Fighting Creek” Nature Trail to several cabins and home sites. This was a short hike but gave a taste of the parks purpose. “Just looking and no destroying” is the motto of the day, with a lot to look at.
The Sugarlands Valley Trail is one of the handicapped accessible hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. What makes it handicapped access able is the auto parking close to the trail head, slight elevations along the trail, and the concrete ground cover. There is wheelchair accessibility to the views, plants and exhibits. This might even be a great way for “first timers” to ease into the hiking experience. With a big appetite after the walks, we went to No Way Jose's Cantina for a Mexican lunch. The location is right across from the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and the transit hub. Bottom line is good food, great location for a mid-day stop.
An unusual feature in Gatlinburg is the numbering of street lights and the color coded trolley system. Just about all exhibits and amusements are referred to by “light number address” can be accessed by a trolley route that can be picked up at various lights. The trolleys, I am told, run a “diesel” fuel that contains 20% vegetable oil. Now don't go sniffing the tailpipe for French fries but that is pretty green as far as municipal transit goes anywhere.
Many folks take a walk to the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and then stop by the Trolley interchange at the base of the building to go on to their next amusement. In the Aquarium is this season is a special theme: "lethal weapons" showing the most dangerous fish in their collection in a unified exhibit. Just one pass though the halls and you just might not go back in the water so go through again to learn more. Its education in a fun fashion so you will probably get smarter just wandering around the fish tanks, but read the signs and impress your friends at a party. The Ripley organization has several exhibits in town including the “Believe It or Not”. So the afternoon can be well spent with Mr. Ripley.
The following day we took a hayride trip through Cades Cove, a one time area of working farms and homes. In the early part of the 20th Century, when land was being accumulated for the park the government bought, condemned or was given many parcels of land for public use..
While Cades Cove with its historic cabins, farmhouses and churches and be visited on its own, the orientation film at Sugarlands Visitor Center sets the visitor up to see a living history in “your face”. When the park land was being established and the land accumulated many families had to sell their property to the government. Some were allowed to stay in the building only for their lifetime just as they were in the 1930's with no modernization or improvements. Imagine a little residential development today, all facilities and buildings, homesteads and graveyards frozen in time until the residents just “died off” or moved away. We took a hayride on the 11 mile circular road through the cove and got an overview of the layout of the area.
I had a little sad feeling for the displaced people who sacrificed their happiness for us. The rangers of the times decided what buildings were to remain, and be maintained, and what were to be demolished since they did not “fit” into the goals at that time. Cades Cove is the result of those policies and is a representation of what the housing and family life were like in the Great Smoky Mountains. The homes are open for exploring but checkout the Sugarland Visitor Center to get a better feel for the real people who lived on these real farms.
Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens offers bible dioramas of major scenes from the story of the Christ. The scenes are done in a tasteful fashion but are geared mostly to a younger crowd; which might be good for a starting point or an introduction. The exhibits may not for everybody. At break one of the art director asked me how I like the sets and told me the "last supper" tableau was “allegedly” an originally diorama from the 1964 World's Fair in New York. While I can't verify that, I do imagine that while message has not changed the costumes were cleaned. A lot of workmanship is in each scene and the faces show individual character.
Going up the mountains that boarder the town is Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort & Amusement Park. This appears to me to be one of the best values in town. Although it was set up to take advantage of the skiing opportunities, the off season seems to actually offer more fun particularly for the none-skier. There is an initial tram up the mountain and then a transfer to a ski lift. This puts you really up in the clouds and gives a wide view of the Smokies and the town. The complex contains a year round ice skating rink, amusement center and small zoo with black bears and otters. It really is rare to see a bear in the park and it's against the law to annoy them so this is the best if not the only opportunity to see them. At Ober Gatlinburg the animals are thisclose.
And if you did see one in the park, shouldn't close enough to see the color of their eyes. Now the people, who do stop in the road, leave their cars and try to tough the bears apparently deserve their own zoo for the danger and annoyance they have caused.
Probably the "most untapped" amusement is the "Space Needle". At first it looks like a typical amusement game store but goes past all that and take the ride to the top, the observation platform. Then laid out before you is the entire town of Gatlinburg.
While there are many amusements in town the "Ripley" organization appears to utilize the 10 million visitors the most. At last count they have eight exhibits but I am certain that by the time this article is published there will probably at least one or two more. Several folks I spoke with noted that Ripley seems to update, modernize and change them so a yearly visit seems to always present something new. But with them in town there is a whole lot to do before entering the park or perhaps after a park visit. After all for some folks hiking and being in the mountains is enjoyable but too much of a good thing...
The Hillbilly golf for example is a quaint mountainside attraction. Note I said mountainside because it is really built on the side of a mountain. It has a long funicular railroad trip to get to the top of the course and then you miniature golf your way down on various pathways and a short trip to the street.
After your relaxing miniature golf game, catch the trolley for a little taste of the "Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community". It is a major street (serviced by the Blue Trolley line) and has over 100 individual home style workshops of various crafts ranging from painting, woodwork, brooms, jewelry, and painting. And there are over a dozen more craft styles that reflect the local mountain community.
We took a little side trip to the Gatlinburg Golf Course just to see the infamous 12th hole. And the infamous reputation really does reflect this hole. Known as the “Sky Hi”, the putting green is a 200 foot drop and 194 yards away. Standing at the tee I barely saw the flag below me. I watched a several people tee off the mountainside into the “wild blue yonder” then mumble something unintelligible, and frown as they watched the ball travel down, down, down, down to the hole. (I wondered why the ball did not dive deep in to the green.) When they drove down the hillside to the green they seemed to enjoy the experience.
Hard Rock Café Gatlinburg is one of those “must go” destinations for dinner. I understand that, up to this point, Gatlinburg is the only one with a wedding chapel. The food was up to my standards: good and big portions. In the Hard Rock the decorations are a major attraction and the wait staff is well versed in their descriptions. I particularly liked the mortgage application signed by Keith Moon of The Doors.
Park Grill Steakhouse with the Moonshine Steak is a monument to eating well. This is one of the few times I wished for a larger stomachs to eat more steak. Aahh, the memories of good food.
I checked with Yahoo and found that Gatlinburg is almost the same distance from New York City as Quebec. I’ve been to Quebec several times so I guess I owe Gatlinburg another visit.
Hilton Inn – http://www.gatlinburg.hilton.hgi.com
Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que & KJ's Saloon -http://www.bennetts-bbq.com
Great Smoky Mountains National Park - http://www.nps.gov/grsm
Sugarlands Visitor Center - http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm
Great Smokey Arts and Crafts Community - http://www.gatlinburgcrafts.com
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – http://www.ripleysaquariumof thesmokies.com
Hard Rock Café Gatlinburg - http://www.hardrock.com/locations/cafes3/cafe.aspx?LocationID=54&MIBEnumID=3
Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens - http://www.christinthesmokies.com
Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort & Amusement Park- http://www.obergatlinburg.com
No Way Jose's Cantina - http://www.nowayjosescantina.com
Cades Cove - http"//www.cadescove.net
Gatlinburg Golf Course - http://www.golf.gatlinburg-tn.com
Park Grill Steakhouse – http://www.parkgrillgatlinburg.com