Gatlinburg Sparkles This Autumn
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.