Cradled by the half-million-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tenn., can be a perfect, if not also eco-luxurious, base camp, a cornucopia of discoveries for the arts and craft crowd, or a wacky diversionary stop on the way to or from an entrance to the most visited national parks in the United States.
Rushing rivers cut through Gatlinburg; streams traverse the downtown as frequently as you come upon taffy candy stores and more recently, whisky distilleries. During the spring, summer and fall, there always seems to be something in bloom.
A backdrop of the Smoky Mountains is a constant, with photo-worthy vistas but an open-air chairlift on Gatlinburg Sky Lift or Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway journey from downtown.
Due to its accessibility to millions of people living in the major cities in surrounding states and the appeal as one of the most richly biodiverse areas of the United States, the national park and Gatlinburg have long been the waypoint for the nature lovers and arts-and-craft seekers alike. Another big draw are the black bears themselves — about two for every square mile.
Sure, there are plenty of touristy attractions in Gatlinburg, like put-put golf. Hillbilly Golf, for example, is perched so precariously up the side of a mountain that you need a funicular train (custom-made from an old elevator) to access the course.
“We have to sometimes chase the bears off the green,” says manager Jim Howard, who makes sure generations of his golfers can play in peace. But with the city bordered by the park and a thriving arts-and-crafts scene, you’re but a few minutes’ drive away from solitude of the forests or folksy charm of artists’ workshops or studios.
This is a first of a two-part article featuring both the natural splendor and Appalachian craft celebrated in Gatlinburg as well as some foodie finds and eco-retreats I discovered with my wife, Lisa Kivirist, and son during a springtime escape after the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, North Carolina.
With the Fairs being regularly held in nearby Asheville every spring, Gatlinburg can make a green travel stop before or after.
“This is pretty much my dream job,” says Jamie Matzko, our guide with A Walk in the Woods, the area’s premier nature guide service since 1998.
“I get ‘Warbler neck’ from too much birding,” she adds with a laugh, now in her sixth season as a guide. The company’s guided trips cover a wide range of topics, including natural history, local human history covering the Cherokee and early settlers, wild animals and habitat, and medicinal and edible uses of wild plants and mushrooms.
By the end of our 4-hour hike in the mountains, our group of nine tasted black birch, chewed on sassafras, spotted Lady slippers, trillium, little brown jug and stitchwort wildflowers, added to our bird lists with a Blue-headed Vireo, traversed a wooden bridge over a rushing stream and surprised a salamander, among other things.
Salamanders, as it turns out, are the most feared predators in the park, eating more combined weight of their prey than any other species in the park, including the black bears.
“There are more than 100 species of trees in the park, more species than all of Northern Europe,” explains Jamie, before bending down to talk about another wildflower in bloom she spotted along our gently sloping trail. Our group meandered along an old path used by early homesteaders in the Greenbrier section of the park; our final destination, before returning back down, was the Fern Branch Waterfalls.
A brief drive outside Gatlinburg and adjacent to the park boundary, Climb Works offers a birds-eye view of the park as I soared above and through the treetops on a total of nine zip line runs that go by such names like Majestic, Wobbly Pine, Pirate’s Plank and Trickline. The fifth zip was the longest, at 1,200 feet, followed by the sixth zip, the highest, at 200 feet up in the air.
When asked how we stop at the end of each zip, “Fairy dust and unicorns,” laughs Nick Wagner, one of our two guides who could easily pass for a bearded and burly moonshine runner back in the day.
As the “receiver” at the end of our zip run, he explained Climb Works’ proprietary Kinetic Energy Absorber, or KEA for short, used to slow us down near the end of our ride. We just had to hold on.
Our other guide (the “sender”), Stone Spann, provided measured encouragement and a safety check, putting our group at ease atop the trees. Because we didn’t need to fuss with breaking ourselves, we just held onto the handle connected to the lines and enjoyed the views with the wind in our face and adrenalin rush of being suspended hundreds of feet off the ground. Three sky bridges connected us to several zip lines.
The final experience of the roughly three-hour trip was a forty-foot repel to the ground. Our group of nine included a couple sets of honeymooners plus a couple and sisters, half of which had never zipped before.
For the equally adventurous, Climb Works also offers a two-mile mountain bike trail crafted into the hillsides, complete with bridges, logs, berms and rollers.
While many hikes follow the cold rushing rivers in the park, we opted to try our hand as anglers with Smoky Mountain Angler, the oldest fly shop in Gatlinburg.
“We can catch fish anywhere,” proclaimed our guide, Chad Williams. He’s been leading some of the 500 guided half-day trips they lead every year on the roughly five hundred miles of fishable waters inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It’s not where you’re going, but how to read the water,” explains Chad, driving us to the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. “You don’t have to cast to catch up here. Ya know what I mean?”
Chad pulled off to the side of the road in what appeared to be no particularly special place and set each of us up with a five-weight, seven-foot-long fly rod and pheasant tale nymph fly bait with bobber. We fanned out and waded into the water as he pointed out the open patches of water where we should cast, letting our bait and bobber float downstream with the current.
While having fished the salt waters of the Florida Keys, casting around “structure or food,” fly fishing in the Smokies demanded a new approach that we quickly learned as the icy cold water pressed our waders close to our skin. We struggled to keep our footing against the swift current while casting.
“The first cast is the money — ya know what I mean,” coached Chad. Translated: our first cast offered the best chance to get a bite on the line, and, in the old days before the national park, dinner.
The trick, as it turns out for us newbies was to feel or see the slight tug, or jiggle of the bobber, to gently ease back to set the hook. A jerk on the line would send our hook and bait into a tree branch — where he had to untangle us (on more than one occasion). Amazingly, within a half hour of our first cast, each us hooked a brown or rainbow trout which we later released back into the clear waters.
We couldn’t visit the park without hiking to one of its many waterfalls. The trailhead for the popular Grotto Falls can be accessed off the fun, curvy and rugged Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail picked up just outside Gatlinburg.
Be prepared for smoking-hot break pads by the time you get off this one-way road on the way out. After a mile hike in through old-growth forest filled with towering hemlocks, we took turns walking behind the 25-foot high waterfall to cool down.
Read Part 2 here.
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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