Hit the Road for a Little Elevated Air in the Great Smoky Mountains
Although one of the smallest towns in Tennessee (its population is less than 4,000), tiny Gatlinburg is one of the state's busiest tourist destinations. The reason for this popularity is the fantastic Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the US. Although straddling two different states, Gatlinburg seems to have the monopoly on the best scenic routes into the park, a fact that is easy to spot once you've arrived: everywhere you look there are hotels and entertainment facilities vying for attention. It's the perfect place from which to launch your adventure into the area's spectacular wilderness, and when you're done, there's no shortage of things to see and do in the town itself.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most-visited recreation areas in the country with more than 11 million tourists making the trek each year. Don't worry about overcrowding, though as the park covers more than 800 square miles and contains 850 miles of hiking trails and unpaved roads, so you should be able to find your own little slice of solitude somewhere. It is a vast forested region with impressive mountains reaching more than 6,500 feet high. Geologists say the building of what are now the Great Smokies began about a billion years ago. A central range of the Appalachians running east-west, the Smokies get their name from the mist that frequently rises out of the valleys like smoke signals. The climate of the Smokies tends to be very humid; this humidity reacts with vapor produced from an abundance of trees, mainly pine, that flourish in the region.
One of the prettiest parts of the Smoky Mountains, Sugarlands is a valley named after the area's once dominant sugar maple trees and is extremely popular as a day trip destination from Gatlinburg. The area stretches from the aptly-named Roaring Fork in the east, all the way to the slopes of Sugarland Mountain in the west and is overlooked by the 5,000-foot Mount le Conte. Sugarlands is particularly popular among hikers, who share the Old Sugarlands Trail with horse riders. A gentler trail leads from the Sugarlands Visitor Center and loops past the John Ownby Cabin, built in 1860. Not far away is Noah Ogle Place, a former homestead with an old barn, cabin, and mill.
The park also preserves more than 90 log buildings, including churches, barns, schools, and grist mills, offering a glimpse into Appalachian life more than 100 years ago when small communities called these valleys home.
If you get out of your car you can soon be in a remote cove where your closest neighbors are deer, bobcats, and black bears. Bears are the most famous animal in the park, but elk are also making the Smokies their home for the first time in 150 years.
One of the highlights is the park's flora, a mix of deciduous and conifer forests, as well as over 1,400 species of flowering plants including mountain magnolias, wild azaleas, mountain laurels, orchids and Rhododendrons.
In downtown Gatlinburg, the main thoroughfare, Parkway, is where most of the action is, and is home to as many mom-and-pop stores and restaurants as it is to big brand names. The Gatlinburg Space Needle is a 407′ observation tower that overlooks beautiful Gatlinburg and the surrounding Smoky Mountains. The view from the glass elevators is stunning. There is also a variety of live music venues featuring bluegrass, southern rock and good ole karaoke.
An aerial tram connects downtown Gatlinburg to Ober Gatlinburg, about 3 miles away. Ober Gatlinburg is an amusement park and ski area, located in the mountains overlooking Gatlinburg. The area contains a large mall with indoor amusements, a skating rink, snack bars, lounge and restaurant, and gift and clothing stores. Outside there is an alpine slide, the ski mountain coaster, a chair swing, a maze, mini golf and a scenic chairlift to the top of Mount Harrison, and kiddie rides.
Who says you can't have it all? You certainly can in Gatlinburg.