Established in the early 19th century by pioneer settlers from South Carolina, this east Tennessee mountain village blends small-town charm with just the right amount of kitsch and is surrounded by some of the most picturesque mountains east of the Mississippi, flush with footpaths, streams and old-growth forests. Use Gatlinburg as your base for exploring the mountains and hollers—where moonshine and country ham are still made the old-fashioned way.
In Gatlinburg it seems there are nearly as many pancake houses as full-time residents. Pancake Pantry was one of the first on the scene when it opened, in 1960. Now no trip to the mountains is complete without its feather-light flapjacks. They’re served all day long, giving you ample time to work through the 24 variations, including buttermilk, cornmeal and even French-style crepes. Further indulge your sweet tooth at the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, where they have been hand-pulling taffy right in the shop since 1952. Or pick up a box of hot doughnuts from The Donut Friar, a local institution since 1969. The staff starts turning out the dough at 5 a.m. every day, but they go quick, so arrive early.
Throughout town the rich arts-and-crafts heritage of Appalachia remains strong. Arrowcraft Shop, a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, sells the work of local artisans who practice the techniques of their ancestors: weaving, basketry, pottery, woodcarving and glassmaking. Founded in 1926, Arrowcraft originally helped families in the remote reaches of the mountains sell their creations. Today it helps ensure that traditional arts are passed on to the next generation. Robert Alewine and his son Mark throw and glaze ceramics by hand at Alewine Pottery, a 30-year-old family business. You can stock up on their clay kitchenware and home decor, including mugs, baking dishes and vases, or invest in an Appalachian “face jug,” a mountain pottery tradition.
Get into the spirit of the region by sampling some of the local brews. Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery claims to be the most visited distillery in the country. When you go you can watch the entire process—from corn mash to white lightning. As part of the tour, visitors get a free taste of the wares. Try the 100-proof original, or go for the lower-octane stuff with ’shines in flavors ranging from apple pie to butterscotch to sweet tea. At Sugarlands Distilling Company the distillers use an artisanal stone burr mill to grind grains, like corn and rye, into meal that they mix with fresh water from the Great Smoky Mountains and cook in a copper-pot still. Visitors are welcome to go behind the scenes, but you have to book your tour in advance. Be sure to check out their Legends Series, spirits made by some of the great moonshiners of our time, such as Marvin “Jim Tom” Hedrick. And both Ole Smoky and Sugarlands sell their ’shine in the requisite mason jars.
Winter in this town means it’s time to ski. At Ober Gatlinburg take the aerial tramway, which features one of the largest cable cars in the country, to the top of Mount Harrison for panoramic views of the burg and the Smokies. Trams depart downtown every 20 minutes. Once on the mountain you can ski, snowboard and tube to your heart’s content. Even though this area usually gets ample snowfall throughout the winter, the park makes snow continuously all season long.
For dinner the Smoky Mountain Trout House specializes in rainbow trout from the Smokies prepared just about any way you can imagine: fried, grilled, stuffed, almandine, even lacquered with a moonshine glaze. Just outside town The Restaurant at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek changes its menu daily, but expect to find dishes such as beef flat iron with wild mushrooms and truffled parsnip puree. Settle in for the night in the cozy dining room, which has a fireplace and sunset views of Mount LeConte.
There’s a reason this area is called the Smokies. As you meander along the serpentine roads, you’ll see a soft blue haze hovering just below the peaks and shrouding the valley like a thin layer of pulled cotton. From a distance it looks as if low-burning wood fires in the mountains were giving off wisps of smoke, even on a clear day. You’ll find hiking trails throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but one of the best ways to get a sense of the mountains’ wonder is to take a drive, what’s known in this area as a car hike.
Though many roads are closed in winter because of the possibility of inclement weather, Cades Cove, near Townsend, gets you into the heart of nature in every season. The 11-mile loop is slow-paced, and it can take up to 4 hours to make your way past three small churches, barns, a working gristmill and log cabins scattered beneath towering trees. Other than the handful of structures throughout the park, the area remains untouched by man and lets you see how weather and time have shaped this mountain paradise. Along the way keep your eyes peeled for black bears, white-tailed deer, coyotes and, if you’re lucky, even an elk. Pick up a picnic for your journey from Miss Lily’s Café, in Townsend, just 5 minutes from the Cades Cove loop road entrance. Try the homemade chicken salad; it’s the stuff of local legend and comes tucked into a tender croissant. This family-owned restaurant prides itself, and rightly so, on from-scratch breads and desserts that range from indulgent chocolate brownies and freshly baked cookies to flaky-crust pies and sinfully rich cakes. Just remember: Don’t feed the bears.
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