As much inspired by the mountains, rivers and forests as serving the needs of the droves of visitors attracted to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year, Gatlinburg's arts and craft community, plus many of the hotels and restaurants, offer nourishment for the mind, body and soul.
The City of Gatlinburg spearheads efforts to keep things green, too. With the Gatlinburg Go Green initiative to help manage the impacts of millions of visitors every year, a massive recycling effort and composting plant have diverted about 70 percent of the waste from a landfill, electric charging stations have been set up at the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center, and one of Tennessee’s largest public transportation systems now serve about 800,000 riders per year. Even Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies sports a large photovoltaic system on the roof (the aquarium is, in fact, an interesting visit if you need a break from hiking in the park).
This article picks up after the ecotourism adventures end in the water, up in the treetops or on the ground at a waterfall, along a stream or hiking trail.
“I don’t just want to run folks through the steps of what goes into a mug, but rather turn into a teaching experience so everyone can get a better insight into our craft community and what it means for something to truly be ‘handmade’,” says Mike Fowler, a potter who has been operating Fowler’s Clay Works with his wife Cheryl since 2013.
At his studio, you can purchase his pottery items or make your own pottery mug in one of his hands-on workshops. Under his tutelage, we each threw our own hand-crafted mug, added our unique “fingernail line” and picked out our glaze. Our mugs were later fired twice, then sent to us in the mail after we returned home.
“We’ve gotten away from things being made one at a time,” adds Mike, who clearly loves his craft. He’s equally talented at sharing his skills in a way that’s accessible – even to novices like ourselves. “We can’t go forward in the country without going back,” he adds, with a smile. We couldn’t agree more, with the making of our mug rivaling the satisfaction we gain from growing our own food.
Fowler’s Pottery is one of the more than 120 artists’ studios, galleries, gift stores and food shops found on the eight-mile loop known as the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community located just outside the busy downtown area. Many of the studios feature working craftspeople or artists, sometimes spanning several generations. Wood carvings, paintings, furniture, brooms, pottery, candles, dulcimers, scrimshaw, quilts and numerous other items hand-crafted by the artisans has earned the community the distinction of being the largest independent gathering of artisans of its kind in North America.
Just up the road is the artists-owned Cliff Dwellers Gallery, first established in 1933 then moved to its present location along the Arts & Crafts Trail, re-opening in 1996. Besides showcasing various artwork and crafts, the gallery also offers workshops as a part of the Hands-on Gatlinburg event held every year “where visitors can walk away with their own hand-crafted memory of the area,” says part-owner and watercolor artist Louise Bales.
Since 1963, Randy Whaley has been whittling away wooden bird sculptures and other gifts made from local basswood. Now his son, Scott, works alongside him. He talks about how visitors walk through the wooden door into his rustic shop, remembering the time they came as a child. Now they bring their own kids to watch art being made in real time, by hand.
An article in MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine years ago actually inspired Darcy Lynn Shawver, the founder and CEO of Cherry Blossom Enterprises, to create the Cherry-Pit-Pac, a heating pad and cold pack made from cherry pits.
“My wife Darcy came up with the idea after reading an article in Mother Earth News,” says VP of operations, Mark Shawver. “The Cherry-Pit-Pac is a natural away to help relieve aches, pains and stress. You can heat it up in a microwave or freeze it for use as a cold pack.”
Chef Jason Milanich, it should be argued, is as much an artist as he is a cook, transforming the local-when-he-can-get-it ingredients into a tapestry of shapes, colors, textures and tastes. The Lodge at Buckberry Creek’s restaurant entices its patrons with farm-to-table dining not found anywhere else in Gatlinburg. It comes with a view of the mountains from the deck where we were attentively served.
With starters like BBQ Rock Shrimp & Grits with a house made BBQ and Midnight Moon cheese grits or Pork Belly made with fresh herb chimichurri and pickled red onion, we knew we couldn’t go wrong with an entrée like Pan Seared Black Drum with wilted rainbow chard and basil pesto butter. And we didn’t.
In the summer, they secure the famous, flavorful and local Grainger County tomatoes by the case and fresh North Carolina Red Trout. Fresh herbs are grown on site for their dishes and cocktail menu, both of which change with the seasons.
If you’ve just returned from a week hiking the Appalachian Trail that cuts through the park, perhaps sustaining yourself on freeze-dried meals, or if you’re in need a hearty and less fancy breakfast before heading out for a long day of hiking or fly fishing, Crockett’s Breakfast Camp hits the spot. Their Hungry Hunters Huntcamp Skillets for breakfast make lunch and dinner optional – you will be full!
Tucked across the street from the Cliff Branch of the Pigeon River, the Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg offers top notch eco-luxury with a downtown location perfect for walking or taking the Trolley everywhere. Once you park your car in their water pervious brick parking lot (preventing storm runoff), you won’t need it to get again until you head into the national park.
The Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg features a chemical-free saltwater whirlpool and indoor pool, employed local, natural building materials during the construction, and has numerous energy, water and waste conservation initiatives in place, making it the greenest place to sleep in the city. Their staff are super convivial and complimentary refreshments are plentiful in the lobby throughout the day.
For the truly adventurous, book way ahead and reserve your spot high atop Mount LeConte in the primitive LeConte Lodge with guest cabins made out of hand built, rough-hewn logs. Only accessible by foot, this quint refuge inside the park offers ambitious guests a hot meal and shower after the day-long trek in — and breakfast the next morning before their hike out.
The luxurious Lodge at Buckberry Creek, with its striking Adirondack architecture and rustic, camp-like feel, is another high-end option that doesn’t involve roughing it or hiking in. It’s situated on 26 acres overlooking Gatlinburg and offers a panoramic view of the mountains from the rooms and restaurant. Or you join the “mountain folk” and rent one of the hundreds of chalets, octagonal homes or cozy cabins that face the mountains and bring all your own provisions for meals.
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.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.