Eastern Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountain National Park
An Eastern Tennessee Man-cation: In Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, 9 million visitors show up every year
By Max Hartshorne
I’ve traveled the world and the US a lot over the past twelve years, but I’d never seen what turned out to be the third most visited place in the entire US. Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is easy to drive through, attracts nine million yearly visitors. I never even knew it was there.
But these traveling hordes are not just going to Eastern Tennessee for the park. The three small towns of Sevierville, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have developed a galaxy of entertainment, specially-themed restaurants with dinner shows, and an array of nature-based activities that cater to old and the young alike.
Sweet Tea, Dear
You just can’t be expecting cocktails and wine lists—in the five days that I visited restaurants for lunch and dinner in all three towns, the only liquor I tasted was moonshine, made at the Great Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg. Oh, and a few beers at a ballgame.
But as a New Englander who is used to his dinnertime wine and favorite beers at every stop, it was refreshing for me to experience life in the country’s bible belt.
It’s a place were patrons get up and dance wildly to banjo music in a country cooking restaurant while sipping sweet ice tea. Dance like crazy, laugh like kids and do it all without the benefit of adult beverages. Refreshing!
After our five-day marathon of very manly activities, I came away amazed at how much there really is to do in these three burgs, none of which has more than 20,000 residents. The main drags of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville (pronounced Se-VERE-ville) are four-lane divided highways with blaring signs declaring all manner of entertainment. DINNER THEATRE! ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET! TITANIC! HOUSE OF PANCAKES!
It felt like Branson and Las Vegas mashed into a few small towns. But I was eager to get away from the four-lane highway and begin to experience Tennessee. It didn’t take long, just a turn onto a small winding road past hollows and shacks on cinder blocks.
800 Acres of Forest
Soon we were in the cool green Great Smoky National Forest that spans 800 square miles. More than 10,000 species have been discovered in the pastures and woods of the park, and some scientists expect to find up to 90,000 someday.
The park is on the southern edge of the part of the east coast where during the ice age, the glaciers stopped. Because of this, hundreds of species of trees and animals live here that were pushed here in ancient times. It’s a spectacular park with some of the prettiest vistas and roadside scenes I’ve ever seen.
The nearest big airport is Knoxville, about an hour away. Probably the second biggest business here after tourism is the Oak Ridge Laboratory, about 30 miles from Knoxville, where geniuses figure out nuclear secrets.
On our agenda during the trip was an exhausting list of man-centric activities. I love keeping busy, so it was my kind of itinerary. First up, a baseball game between the Tennessee Smokies and the Montgomery Biscuits, at the Ballfield.
Any minor league game is more about the mascots, the gimmicks than the actual game, and this was no exception. It’s America’s pastime of course, and we enjoyed being able to get right down next to the players, as you can often do in an uncrowded minor league park.
Hitting the Links
We had lots of things to do the next day, and our first stop was a pair of golf links. The Sevierville Golf Club features two 18-hole championship courses: The Highlands, a par 70 that winds through lush rolling hills and fresh water mountain ponds and The River, a par 72 plays along and across the Little Pigeon River.
It had been a while since I last swung a club, but what a nice place to get reacquainted with the manly art of golf. After a pleasant repast in Mulligans, the club's restaurant, it was time to hit the trees.
At Climbworks, one of a staggering 11 zipline courses in the Sevierville area, it was a perfect day to climb trees and zip along with views of the Great Smoky Mountains on three sides around us. The owners of this course developed a braking system for the ziplines that works well to slow down zippers just when its needed. Down below the zip line we watched mountain bikes make their descent on a trail. That was our next adventure.
The mountain biking trail at Climbworks is truly extraordinary. First a slow windy ascent, and even though we are gaining about 1000 feet of elevation, in our granny gears it wasn't that hard of a climb. I kept thinking as I sweated and pedaled, you have to work for your reward.
And when we reached the top and began flying down the trail, it was all
so worth it!
There is also a bridge made of wood that circles in a spiral with banked turns. What a ride!
Museums in Sevierville
Eastern Tennessee has plenty of things to do, even if the weather isn't cooperating. We discovered three fascinating museums in Sevierville, all with their own manly twist. First was the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, where full-size warbirds and hundreds of aviation artifacts are on display.
Another great rainy day stop is the Floyd Garrett Muscle Car Museum, which houses row upon row of cars that make you druel. Well, that's what happens to many men, anyway!
But the most impressive museum we saw on our trip was one that's devoted to knives. It's not just the museum, but the setting that made our jaws drop--The Smoky Mountain Knife Works is a giant store full of some of the most amazing things for sale I've ever seen.
There are buckets of buttons worn by Civil War soldiers, tubs of coins used by ancient civilizations, all manner of fossils, Revolutionary war era coins, and money--it goes on and on.
I didn't want to leave my browsing, fascinated as I was by Hessian soldier buttons prison shanks and the like, but upstairs a knife expert named Michael Zavasky had more stories to share.
"A knife is what you make it," he told us, brandishing a four-foot long English cutlass. "Every man, woman and child once carried a knife."
I asked him which ones were the most valuable, and he pointed to a section of the museum devoted to the Biggest Name in Knives–the late Bill Moran. “His knives were made in the Damascus style,” Zavasky explained. “Iron sandwiched with steel, bent over and hammered again and again. That one has 2000 layers!” The cost of these sharp jewels he said was about $1000 an inch. - See more at: At Smoky Mountain Knife Works, a Staggering Assortment of…Everything
Dining in Sevierville
Every restaurant we went to was a family style one, with free refills of sweet and unsweet iced tea, and menus full of many of the same items. Here are some of Eastern Tennessee's own special menu items, which were consistently available everywhere we went.
Fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, strawberry cake, apple fritters, corn nuggets (with creamed corn inside), country-fried steak, white gravy, barbecue with tomato-based sauce, lots of pancakes and big rolls of paper towels instead of cloth napkins.
I particularly enjoyed the spirit I saw in Clint's BBQ and Country Cookin' where the country pickin' (with Clint himself up on stage) got the patrons dancing and laughing. It was much more fun than any family restaurant I've ever been to, and the pulled pork was tangy and delicious. At the Diner, another favorite was the elk burger washed down with sweet tea.
This is all pretty country, despite the overdeveloped strip with so many tourist and kitschy attractions. Seeing it from the air was a great way to capture it all. There are two companies that take tourists up for short helicopter rides to see the region from the air.
We joined Dan Hayne's Scenic Helicopter Tours to see the sites from up top. You can hire them to get you aloft for as few as nine minutes. Our journey was piloted by a twenty-something pilot who once did traffic reports in LA. He likes the scenery here much better.
It was a man-cation after all, so we had many more adventures to come. At Bluff Mountain ATV, they take tourists out in nose-to-tail excursions on powerful 450 cc four-wheelers, but not until a stern talking to in the form of an introductory video. After the movie was over, all I kept thinking was, I hope I don't break this thing!
We headed up a very rocky trail and motored up a winding series of roads to the top of Bluff Mountain. The best part was after we came back and the instructor decided I had learned how to ride the thing without killing myself.
His nod led to a full bore full speed zip back up the mountain trail at about 55 mph. Sweet! Just for fun, we drove the ATVs through a stream.
This part of the world would be a great place to take a family with kids. A friend remarked to me that he did just that, making a detour when they drive down to Georgia to visit the Wilderness at the Smokies Hotel and Waterpark resort.
On a hot day, there are few things kids like more than a big old water park, and this hotel has been built around both an outdoor and an indoor water park that would satisfy any kids love of the water. You can even check out of the 700-room hotel and spend the rest of the day in the water park without an extra charge.
Most of the visitors to this part of Tennessee also visit Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In these small towns, like in Sevierville, the tourist attractions are over the top, with billboards everywhere vying for tourist's dollars and attention. One billboard I kept noticing was the Hatfields and McCoy's dinner show, which takes place in a purpose-built theater that holds hundreds. Surprisingly, our host hadn't seen the show, so after dinner at Applewood Family Restaurant, we stopped in.
Ok, ok, it's about as hokey as it gets, with so many yeehaws and yippeeyayooyadays, it took the cliche of the hillbilly to new levels of absurdity. A woman we met who was born here said that sometimes people get upset with all of these stereotypes and jokes about local hillbillies. Yet others like this show capitalize on them, going even further with the dumb accents and jokes so it becomes a satire.
As she said to us, this IS who we are. So why not just embrace it, and while we're at it, why not make a little tourist profit from it too? Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are indeed touristy places and there are plenty of people here who wear overalls and baseball caps. It's a great place to visit--as nearly 11 million people find out each year.
Find out more about Sevierville at VisitSevierville.com
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.