Gatlinburg Sparkles This Au­tumn

RSWLiving - - Explore - BY NAN K. C HASE

Smart. Fun. Good look­ing. Doesn’t that sound like a dream date? In­deed, Gatlinburg, Ten­nessee, is the per­fect match for fam­i­lies in search of a mel­low va­ca­tion amidst the scenic splen­dor of Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park. Just park, walk and re­lax … or climb, zip and ski.

Then there’s the au­tumn leaf color blan­ket­ing the moun­tain­sides like a blaze-or­ange crazy quilt, the frosty morn­ings and crys­tal clear nights. The oom­pah-pah Ger­man bands and polka dances of Ok­to­ber­fest. Soon, the snow. I first fell in love with Gatlinburg a decade or more ago while study­ing the town’s in­no­va­tive mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices, es­sen­tial in a place with only 3,900 full-time res­i­dents but up to 12 mil­lion yearly vis­i­tors. Gatlinburg made it easy for me to lo­cate park­ing in that steep lit­tle val­ley and then set out on foot to en­joy the ameni­ties.

Ear­lier this year I returned to see how Gatlinburg had fared after a dev­as­tat­ing wild­fire roared through in Novem­ber 2016, killing 14 peo­ple and in­cin­er­at­ing 17,000 acres. Yet within days much of the down­town had re­opened. Six months later ma­jor re­pair-and-re­build projects were op­er­a­tional and some new at­trac­tions were get­ting ready for fall vis­i­tors.

Now what I heard was: “We’re moun­tain peo­ple. We’re tough,” or merely, “We’re moun­tain tough.” Mak­ing va­ca­tion­ers wel­come is the name of the game in Gatlinburg, and in that way noth­ing has changed.

Yup, I fell in love with Gatlinburg all over again, spend­ing two days ex­plor­ing the resur­gent town. Down­town Gatlinburg is neat as a pin― de­spite the many Ri­p­ley’s fran­chise prop­er­ties, sen­sory over­load bak­eries and le­gal moon­shine dis­til­leries lin­ing the main street.

Thanks to high-tech in­fra­struc­ture, so­lar-pow­ered refuse bins on the bustling thor­ough­fare can sig­nal a city garbage truck when full. The stop­lights are num­bered, so get­ting di­rec­tions to at­trac­tions and park­ing is a snap. The low-fare trol­ley bus is a bonus, and with no over­head wires, down­town the sky re­mains un­clut­tered. It’s a plea­sure to see how good man­age­ment and com­mu­nity spirit cre­ated this laid-back, user-friendly at­mos­phere … safe and quiet at night.

Mak­ing va­ca­tion­ers wel­come is the name of the game in Gatlinburg.

The sim­ple Gatlinburg Sky Lift is a nice way to get ori­ented.

If you are com­ing for na­ture in­stead, take heart! A main en­trance to Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park lies just a few steps away.

My re­cent visit be­gan with a drive on the 8-mile Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Com­mu­nity loop, which was spared by the fire. I stocked up on wo­ven place­mats and hand-dyed knit­ting yarn (sup­ple­mented at a weav­ing and spin­ning shop down­town).

Next … lunch. Leave your low-cal diet at home. Pan­cakes are a “thing” in Gatlinburg: stuffed, stacked, slathered and topped with whipped cream (or ba­con and eggs). Oof! But fun and eco­nom­i­cal at half a dozen pan­cake houses.

Then I went up to see Gatlinburg’s new­est out­door at­trac­tion. Ana­keesta is a 70-acre adventure play­ground reached by a chair­lift-gon­dola combo from down­town. The windswept moun­tain­top of­fers gor­geous views of the Smok­ies … plus zip lines, a tree­top canopy walk­way and other good­ies. Still to come: glamp­ing, or glam­our camp­ing in luxe tree­houses.

Other ski lifts also whisk vis­i­tors up Gatlinburg’s flanks. The sim­ple Gatlinburg Sky Lift is a

nice way to get ori­ented. And then there’s Ober Gatlinburg, the gon­dola ride only part of the ex­pe­ri­ence: At the top there’s a ski area, in­door ice rink, din­ing, shop­ping and enough other fam­ily friendly activities for a day.

After my night at the airy Court­yard Mar­riott and a huge omelet break­fast next door, I was ready to try some­thing new and ex­hil­a­rat­ing: a ride through the for­est on an elec­tric bike. As my guide, Andrew Wag­ner, ex­plained, “That power as­sist makes it so easy to just en­joy the woods without work­ing so hard.” He was right, and now I’m hooked on zip­ping silently among the giants of the for­est.

Sav­ing the best for last, I fin­ished up with an af­ter­noon hike in the Green­brier sec­tion of the na­tional park. Deep woods, a well-marked net­work of trails, del­i­cate wild­flow­ers.

And all along the way the crash-bang sym­phony of a cas­cad­ing moun­tain stream in full voice. Bliss!

Gatlinburg is a pageant of col­ors, ar­ti­san crafts and sea­sonal adventure in the foothills of Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park in Ten­nessee.

Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park is the coun­try's most vis­ited, draw­ing about 11 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors. The new Ana­keesta adventure park will use wild­fire dam­age to teach vis­i­tors about for­est ecol­ogy.

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