Full of tourist traps, Gatlinburg sounds like the kind of place you’d want to avoid if you’re around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But think twice: This small city at the foot of the park (the Sugarlands Visitor Center is just a mile from the town via both the Gatlinburg Bypass and U.S. Route 441), making it extremely accessible, and it has great options for food and shopping.
Here’s a day-trip primer to Gatlinburg, though stretching it out to a weekend is also recommended.
Hike: Old Sugarlands Trail
You don’t have to get deep into the park to get away from the crowds. This trail, a nice, moderate path that serves as a fine introduction to the Smokies, starts right near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. It’s about 3 miles or so each way, an up-and-back hike that heads uphill late in the approach trip, and descends swiftly in the return trip. Some of the forest is dense, especially in the summer, but highlights include ruins of an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp and, in the spring, wildflowers galore.
Eat: Little House of Pancakes
Gatlinburg is all about flapjacks. For the biggest bang for your buck, visit this unassuming place (807 East Parkway, 865/436-8784, 7am-2pm daily, under $15) that serves up the largest pancakes in town. The all-you-can-eat 16-inch ones will fill you up good after a hike.
Visit: Clingman’s Dome
Of course, you have to visit the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. The dome is accessible via Clingman’s Dome Road (open April-December). Park in the large lot, then begin a 0.5-mile walk up a paved walkway along with plenty more tourists. If you’d rather hike it, you can get to the dome from the Appalachian Trail; it’s a nine-mile walk up 3,000 feet from Newfound Gap (you’ll need a ride to the trailhead). The trail runs into the Sugarland Mountain Trail, which you can take north to the Mount Collins Shelter. Be sure you get back to the AT, however, and continue south until you reach Clingman’s Dome Road. Then join the many tourists as you walk to the site.
Note: It can be 10-20 degrees cooler than in the valleys while at the dome, and dense fog is always a possibility.
Shop: Mountain Farms Jelly Store
There are plenty of novelty shops in Gatlinburg, especially those that sell house signs and small gifts. If you’re looking to bring a lot of booty back to friends and family members, visit this market (458 Brookside Village Way, 865/436-4049, 9am-5pm daily) that has a deep selection of jellies, jams, pickles, and more.
Stay: Gatlinburg Inn
The most memorable stay in town is this historic hotel (755 Parkway, Gatlinburg, Tenn., 865/436-5133, $120-$220 summer), the site of the writing of the famous Osborne Brothers’ song “Rocky Top.” Grab a room with a balcony, but make your reservation early.
My first book, Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail, will be released on May 7. Please pre-order the book today to get your copy upon release!