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Tennessee travelblog: Fighting the crowds in Gatlinburg

Trish the Dish stands with granddaughters Tinley, Sadie and Riley Argyle high above Gatlinburg, Tennessee. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
Trish the Dish stands with granddaughters Tinley, Sadie and Riley Argyle high above Gatlinburg, Tennessee. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

Radford Gatlin came to a little Tennessee village called White Oak Flats in 1854. He opened a general store, and though he didn’t really get along with his neighbors, the village soon came to be known as Gatlinburg.

The name survived, even when Gatlin left town in 1859, bickering with residents over everything from roads to the Confederacy – most of Gatlinburg was pro-Union; he was not.

Gatlinburg slept along. In the early 20th century, the alumni of Pi Beta Phi fraternity voted to commemorate its 50th anniversary by building a school, providing education to an underserved area. It selected this region of Sevier County, Tennessee. No public schooling had existed in Gatlinburg.

The school opened in 1912. It joined six houses, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a Baptist church and some outlying log cabins, all of which served about 600 people. The school’s enrollment went from 33 to 134 rather quickly and also built a small market for crafts. The village had come to life but still was largely left alone.

Then came 1934. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park opened. An estimated 40,000 visitors passed through Gatlinburg. The next year, an estimated 500,000 came through. The cost of land in Gatlinburg increased from $50 an acre to $8,000 an acre.

Americans made pilgrimages to the national park and passed through Gatlinburg. Now it seems people make pilgrimages to Gatlinburg and pass through the national park. The park has more than 11 million visitors a year, and that many people and more seemed to be on Parkway, the main drag of Gatlinburg, on Monday afternoon.

Monday was our Gatlinburg day. We figured the weekends might be busier, so Monday might be a little light. But no. People were everywhere on a broiling day in which the temperature had to reach 90 degrees.

We strolled up and down the main drag, Parkway, with Trish the Dish and Haley checking out the shops, most of which are just tourist grabs but with a few unique businesses – Paula Deen has a cooking store in Gatlinburg – and the girls trying to figure out which adventures they wanted to try.

Gatlinburg is built for families. The Aquarium of the Smokies. Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, which burned in 1992 and reopened in 1995. Ober Gatlinburg ski resort, with a 30-minute aerial tram taking visitors to the summit. The Anakeesta nature adventure, which takes you up the mountain on ski lifts or gondolas to zip lines, a treehouse playhouse and swinging bridges. The Hollywood Stars Car Museum, which houses some of the vehicles made famous on television and film, including the 1960s Batmobile.

The girls chose a ropes course, where for $17 they could climb all day, so long as they didn’t return to the ground. It was a good deal. Riley went about 30 minutes, Tinley 40 and Sadie 45. Money well spent. They enjoyed it.

Their other adventure was the SkyLift Park, a Gatlinburg institution, which opened in the 1950s, taking visitors to the top of Crockett Mountain. It’s pricey -- $24 for adults, $17 for kids – but you can ride it all day, come and go.

The view going up is just OK, since you’re mostly just looking at the side of a mountain, but the view from the top is spectacular, looking out over the Gatlinburg valley and offering a perspective on the town you don’t get at street level. SkyLift Park at the top includes a variety of vantage points, including what is billed as the longest suspension bridge in North America. It takes you over to an observation deck. The mountaintop includes a gift shop/snack bar, with live nightly music from Thursday through Sunday.

Parkway is filled with restaurants and hotels and arcades and snack stands and souvenior shops. It even has a few adult businesses – some distilleries, which they market as moonshine shops, and even a couples lingerie store, which seems incredibly out of place.

Traffic crawls through town, and about every 100 yards is a crosswalk in which pedestrians have the right of way. So driving along Parkway’s mile-and-a-half or so commercial district is no way to get around. Gatlinburg has a trolley system up and down Parkway, as well for the surrounding areas, but it didn’t seem to be used much.

About 5 p.m., we grabbed dinner at Mellow Mushroom pizza, a southern chain we tried in Foley, Alabama, two years ago. It was good and solid and much-needed. The day had worn us out. While we were chomping down on pizza, a good rainstorm fell and cooled off the heat.

We made one last trip up the mountain in the skylift while the Dish and Haley hit a couple more stores, then we headed back to the cabin.

This time, the trip up the steep driveway went a little more smoothly. I did some more calculations, and I probably was too high on the 40-degree estimate of the slope. Probably more like 30 degrees. But still. You feel like you’re ascending a roller coaster, only you’re in a Ford Expedition on the side of the Smoky Mountains.

We staged a ping-pong tournament in the game room – it’s remarkable how playing ping pong is like riding a bicycle; you really don’t have to re-learn anything – and then retired in our mountain lair, here because the U.S. government wisely decided to preserve a huge chunk of the Smokys with a national park and because Gatlinburg has grown from a blacksmith shop to one of America’s favorite tourist attractions.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›