Winter in the Smokies: the idea conjures up images of snow-covered cottages, smoke curling from chimneys – a veritable Christmas card scene. Colored lights sparkled; silver snowflakes glittered; Christmas carols floated on the chilly air … but Santa would have needed wheels rather than runners when I visited the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee last November.
America’s Most Visited National Park
Approximately 70 million people visited national parks last year – 10 million of those visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Covering more than 800 square miles of North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is known for stunning scenery and the characteristic blue haze that gave the mountains their name. Oh, and its biodiversity: with possibly as many as 100,000 kinds of living organisms, the park encompasses the largest collection of undisturbed old-growth trees east of the Mississippi, and animals abound, including more species of salamanders than any other place in the world.
The symbols of the park and its most iconic residents are the black bears. In the fall they participate in what is known as the “shuffle.” At this time, the bears feed almost non-stop, stocking up for hibernation, gaining from three to five pounds a day. (More like the “stuff-full!”)
With 150 trails in the park covering 800 miles (including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail) and 384 miles of mountain roads – there’s plenty of territory to travel.
The park has 10 campgrounds and more than 100 back-country sites, but the only lodging within its borders is LeConte Lodge – and that’s strictly for the sturdy, as it can only be reached by hiking at least five miles. There are no restaurants in the park either, although basic groceries are available. Not to worry: most visitors stay in nearby towns, and there are plenty of accommodations and eateries there.
The Three Ss: Suppin’, Sleepin’ and Shoppin’ Enterprises catering to these fundamental needs stretch from Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge to Sevierville, and it’s hard to tell where one town ends and the next begins. You’ll find high-end galleries and some gourmet restaurants, but the best choices in the area are home-cooked or home-created.
The level of crafts and folk arts you’ll find here is unparalleled. You’ll discover artists preserving traditional crafts – people such as Pastor Jimmy Morrow, a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, who creates folk dolls, makes kudzu baskets, paints in primitive folk style and tells amazing stories in a dialect that has almost disappeared from the country. I met him in Cosby at Maria Holloway’s Country Home Quilts.
Maria’s shop is a rainbow of fabrics but the highlight is a bed piled high with quilts; most are machine-pieced but hand-quilted by a select group of women who meet Maria’s high standards and have nigh-infinite patience. Among the beauties on the bed were a Postage Stamp quilt with more than 8,000 one-inch pieces, and a stunning Cathedral Window quilt that took more than 2,000 hours to complete.
Black bears do live in the mountains, but they aren’t alone. Hundreds of trolls can be found high on Rocky Top Trail at Five Arts Studios, where the Arensbak family creates figures with roots in Danish folklore. Ranging in height from 5 inches to 5 feet, these friendly forest folk are made primarily from natural materials found in the mountains.
Not far from Five Arts is the Carver Orchards with its 40,000 apple trees. Through the season, the market there will have 126 varieties of apples for sale. Do visit the Carver Applehouse Restaurant for home cooking accompanied by apple fritters and apple cider.
Another popular spot is the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant in Sevierville. Like Carver’s, you’ll find apple-inclusive favorites but lots of other good things, as well. For baked specialties, stop at the Old Mill Restaurant in Pigeon Forge. Try their biscuits and other delicious treats made from grains stone-ground in the 130-year-old mill next door. Prepare to stand in line at all three restaurants, a testimony to tastiness.
All sorts of accommodations are available – from the swanky Blackberry Farm (Walland) to very affordable motels. For bed and breakfast fans, the Buckhorn Inn (Gatlinburg) also offers gourmet dinners. For aerie elegance, check out Gracehill B&B (Townsend) – spectacular view. Also near Townsend, Richmont Inn B&B offers a great view, as well as an homage to Sequoyah and the Cherokees who once called this area home.
Traveling families will enjoy Wilderness at the Smokies Hotel and Waterpark Resort in Sevierville. Between the waterparks (indoors and outdoors) and the mega-arcade, it may be hard to get the kids out of the hotel.
More Than Mountains
There are, however, more attractions in the area than you can shake a stick at. Top of my list is Gatlinburg’s Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, rated in the world’s top five aquariums. This isn’t Colorado, but you’ll find skiing, snow tubing and ice-skating at Ober Gatlinburg. For grown-ups, there are wine tastings at Sugarland Cellars and moonshine tastings at Old Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg, with more at Old Smoky and Old Forge Distillery in Pigeon Forge.
Introduce yourself to Dolly Parton’s statue in Sevierville, then head for Pigeon Forge for her magnum opus, Dollywood. The big seasonal special, “Smoky Mountain Christmas,” runs through Jan. 3. Four million lights trim the buildings and trees, and a variety of shows feature holiday themes. Don’t miss the musical adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with holographic sprits including Dolly as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Her brand-new hotel, DreamMore Resort, is nearby – be sure to ask about special packages including theme park tickets.
For a cool Christmas drive-thru, visit Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland north of Sevierville. Hundreds of thousands of lights dance and twinkle to music, from pop songs and carols to the “Hallelujah Chorus.” In addition, there are a number of theaters in the region – much like you’d find in Branson.
So why not just go to Branson? There are many subtle, small distinctions, but the biggest difference is those gorgeous Smoky Mountains. I loved the area so much, I went back in February. No Christmas lights – but this time I found snow. And I found that – no matter what the season – this Smoky Mountain region is wonderful.
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