Almost from the time it was established in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been America’s most visited national park. No surprise here—it is, after all, stunningly beautiful, and what really runs up its visitor numbers is the fact that half of the country’s population lives within a one-day drive plus, and unlike most national parks, there is no admission fee.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is the gateway to Great Smokies Mountain National Park. Nearly half of the nearly 9 million visitors who come to visit the Smokies each year pass through Gatlinburg, this small (pop: 3,500) southern Appalachian Mountains town that goes way out of its way to make the most of the traffic it gets by offering just about anything anyone can think of to lure tourists.
That’s the knock on this town—that it is too touristy. Its streets are lined with T-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, fudge shops, wax museums, and museums housing items such as salt and pepper shakers.
You’ll find a good selection of miniature golf courses—even one offering “Hillbilly Golf”—plus a few lift rides, a few little wedding chapels, and an abundance of pancake restaurants.
There are also lots of made-up “attractions,” such as a “Mystery Mansion,” where you can walk through a maze of mirrors on floors that creak and a “Space Needle” that takes you up a few stories for a view of town streets and distant mountains.
Actually, the fudge and the pancakes are good and there are some interesting attractions, most notably Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Visitors glide through a 340-foot long acrylic tunnel on a moving walkway in this 115,000 square-foot, million-gallon wonder where they can take in close-up views of sharks, sea horses, piranhas, giant octopuses, and other fascinating marine life.
Arts and Crafts
Right across from the aquarium is another place well worth checking out—the Arrowcraft Shop, a late ’30s mountain-style cabin that sells handicrafts made by members of the highly regarded nonprofit educational Southern Highland Handicraft Guild.
Folk arts and handicrafts make the best souvenirs from a visit to Gatlinburg, and another good place to check them out is in the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, about 10 minutes from downtown, where you can not only buy original hand-made items but also watch craftsmen working on them.
If arts and crafts hold great appeal for you, consider visiting during the Great Smoky Mountain Arts & Craft Show event the town puts on each spring. Each summer there’s a Craftsmen’s Fair, as well other events as a Wildlife Expo and a midnight Fourth of July parade. In the fall, events include a Great Southern Collectible Expo, a Gem and Jewelry Show, and an Antiquefest. In the winter months, the town takes on a different look by decorating its streets with an ongoing display of more than 2 million lights.
But, unless they have friends or family here, few come to Gatlinburg just to visit the town. Visitors come here to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg’s convenient location makes it easily the most popular place to stay for anyone who wants to take in the park’s highlights.
A Nature Lover’s Paradise
From Gatlinburg into the park takes only minutes. Suddenly you find yourself in an 800-square-mile preserve that includes the largest deciduous forest area in the East and more species of plants than any other defined area of North America. More than 50 types of mammals inhabit the park, and it is one of the best places in the country for observing black bears in their natural environment.
This nature lover’s paradise with its stunning scenery that includes rushing mountain streams and waterfalls is a wonderful place for camping or biking or hiking; it offers more than 900 miles of trails. Fishing is outstanding; Smokies streams are abundant with trout that can be fished for year-round.
You can also get a feel for the lifestyle of mountain pioneers by exploring some of the more than 70 authentic pioneer buildings that dot the park.
The most popular thing to see and do in the park is to visit Cades Cove, an isolated valley first settled by European-Americans back during the first term of President James Monroe. You do this by driving on an 11-mile, one-way road that features 19 marked stops, mostly for viewing historic structures. Odds of seeing a black bear are good, and you may also see deer or turkey or possibly one of the elk that has been reintroduced into the park.
If you want to avoid the crowds of downtown Gatlinburg but don’t want to be too far from the park, you might want to do what we did and stay at the nearby Park Vista Hotel, a hilltop high-rise that offers regular shuttles to and from town and beautiful mountain vistas.
On our last day in Gatlinburg, when we exited the driveway of the Park Vista we turned left and within a couple of minutes were in the park and then on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a seven-mile one-way loop road through a lush forest that is often overlooked by park visitors.
The Roaring Fork trail is every bit as pretty as the Cades Cove one, and it, too, includes scenic streams and historic structures, including a grist mill and a couple of log cabins. After the end of the trail we were back in Gatlinburg. Before heading home, we pulled into a parking lot, where to the right was that salt and pepper shaker museum and to the left was one of the town’s many pancake houses. We opted for the pancakes. They were very good, just right for our farewell to the beautiful Smokies.
If You Go
Information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park: See NPS.gov/grsm/index.htm
Best times to visit: July and October are generally considered the best months to visit.
Guidebooks: “Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park Travel Guide” is a good choice.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents.