We arrived a the Smokey Bear Campground on a Saturday, after our stress filled drive through the mountains. It was a relatively warm, sunny day. We had somehow avoided a major storm system due to hit Asheville. After we setup the trailer, inside and out, and made the animals happy, we headed into Gatlinburg with almost no idea what to expect. We don’t generally travel based on what’s in the towns we go to but rather what they’re near to – places like The Everglades, “anywhere with alligators” or the Smoky Mountains, so although we knew Gatlinburg was different by looking at it a bit on google maps, we had no idea what a circus of a town it would be.
We started by driving through the center of town, the street were filled with meandering tourists and their hyperactive kids, adorned with brightly colored spray paint tees, funnel cakes and bags full of quirky “Smoky Mountain” memorabilia. We decided to park in a garage at the farthest end or town and take our chances walking to find a place to eat. As usual, searching for places that have vegetarian food in a small tourist town can be hit or miss (usually miss) so we headed to a place that had pizza. It was appropriately called, Smoky Mountain Brewery, and oddly our waiter and several other people working there were German. In many ways Gatlinburg reminded me of the German settled Fredericksburg, Texas, though with a lot less reference to its German origins. Since it was a Saturday, the restaurant was full, as was every place in the 8 blocks of downtown Gatlinburg, from Fudge Shoppe to Olde Tyme Photo Studio (Gatlinburg has about 20 of these). The pizza was actually pretty good, a veggie with white sauce and lots of tobasco. We went home with leftovers and a little bewildered from all the sights and sounds. Compared to the places we usually stay, Gatlinburg was to us, like a dance party is to a slug .
Having previously been excited about seeing the Movie Car museum and the Ripley’s Believe it or Not franchise, we realized that just walking past these places was almost as good. One of Ripley’s many buildings had great and creepy animatronic circus folk outside, luring people in with their surreal, desaturated demeanors. And the Movie Car Museum had the Dukes of Hazard car and Herbie the Love Bug parked right in the doorway- what more could you want from a Museum that most likely holds none of the original cars anyway. I was more interested in a small dose of people watching, than the attractions themselves. Although the main event is that Gatlinburg is the “Gateway to the Smokies”, and that was the supposed reason many people were there, the majority of people didn’t seem like the “hiking in the mountains” types and I suspect many of them were on a little day trip from Pigeon Forge, where they went to Dollywood, watched hillbilly family feud reenactments like the Hatfield & McCoy theater show, went to the Titanic Museum and had Southern BBQ every day. This may some of my anti tourist sentiment. Travelers and tourists are very different. At the same time, I don’t really blame anyone for wanting to get the hell our of their routines, kids and all, and go somewhere where they can just tune out, I just wish people wouldn’t encourage the atrocities that happen in downtown Gatlinburg and main street Pigeon Forge. Off the main strip, Gatlinburg can be really pretty.
On Sunday, we headed straight for the park. We stopped at the Visitor Center where there was a small display of stuffed local flora and fauna, from poisonous plants to strange exotic flowers to the large and woolly, wild boar. From there we headed, whichever direction seemed interesting, and saw the signs for numerous trails, but the first one we pulled off the road for was probably my favorite. It was a seemingly uninteresting trail, but our first in the Smokies. It just sort of headed up a hill into the trees, no creek or cliff side to be seen, but the eerie lighting was great. The southern forests always make me think of epic and overly emotional independent films (sometimes horror films). Generally any film where the forests provides a creepy mood throughout (this is a good thing, I love movies). The climb took us to the top of a low peak with a fairly nice view. There was a small clearing with unmarked stones placed in rows, and for some reason, it took seeing a name on one of the stones to register that we had come across a cemetery – on a trail, on a mountain, in a National Forest. I imagined a family from 140 years ago who used to live on this land before it was a National Park, but the strangeness of a headstone from as recently as 1992 said whoever’s cemetery it was, was still somewhat around. We joked that someone must have snuck the body up the hill one night, headstone in tow, to put them in the family cemetery. How else does one get buried on National land? I know if I had 7 generations of family buried in a private cemetery in the Smoky Mountains with a great view I would.. somehow.. hmm.. maybe getting too morbid here.
The next place we came across was the Laurel Falls trail. There was actual parking for this trail, lots, and several cars already there. We brought only our regular walking shoes, mine flat black Keds and Ross with some worn out Asics. This didn’t actually matter though, the trail was relatively wide, paved and occupied by some of the larger and more elderly tourists that I thought I’d never see off the streets of Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, the trail wasn’t as short and easy as I expected. It was about 1.3 miles each way, a steady climb though with little to no risk to life or limb. Along the way we ran out of water, unprepared to need more than one bottle, and filled it from a small waterfall coming out of the rocks. When we reached Laurel Falls, there was a bridge over the water and about 15 people lingering about. Some resting, others taking photos. We looked around for a place to sit and opted for the more inaccessible lower falls, which could only be reached by maneuvering down a rocky cliff side trail, difficult with flat soled slippery shoes, but worth it to see the jealous faces of the people above who were unable or unwilling to climb down.
After Laurel Falls, we continued our drive into the park, finding a campsite we could never stay at (because of our need for internet for work), and stopped for a cold pizza picnic next to a postcard perfect creek – complete with a fly fishing Boy Scout and dorky swimming teenage girls (there weren’t many places to pull off the road). We watched the young boy continuously get his fly caught in the trees, and quietly laughed as we watched the girls’ sandals float down stream. The ants had left us alone and it was time to move on. We had time for one more trail before heading back to check on the animals. This trail was marked and had some parking, but was ultimately unchallenging. Really a perfect trail for the end of the day and a great place to see some of the flowers and insects of the park. The trail basically stayed on even ground, leading into an “open” meadow filled with amusingly placed fallen trees and enough sunlight for life to be interested in.
We headed home to our lonely pets after that. Dreading the work week ahead but with 3 more weekends in the Smokies to look forward to and a great view, we couldn’t complain too much. Our campsite, right across from the park, and neighbour with 15 bird feeders, would prove to be a great view while we worked.