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Tennessee travelblog: The Christmas Place & Hillbilly Golf

Riley Argyle, 13, stands on one of the holes of Hillbilly Golf. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)
Riley Argyle, 13, stands on one of the holes of Hillbilly Golf. (Photo by Tricia Tramel)

On the north side of Gatlinburg is an example of American capitalism at its finest. Along U.S. 441, before you get to Parkway, the main drag where hordes of people convene, someone owned a little slice of real estate, up against a mountain.

Maybe 20 feet deep. Maybe 50 feet wide. Not enough to land to do much of anything with. Except construct a Gatlinburg landmark that’s been going strong for 46 years.

It’s called Hillbilly Golf, and we played Friday in our final full day in the Smoky Mountains.

Friday was a catch-all day. Anything that had slipped by, unscheduled and unseen, we tried to squeeze in. The girls had all kinds of shops they wanted to see, and the most impressive was the Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, a shopping experience of connected buildings that look like a Swiss village and all are related to Christmas.

Decorations, ornaments, trees, unique items – including some fake snow that stuns you when you grab it out of a bin and it’s cold to the touch. Even a Santa house with Mr. and Mrs. Claus on board for greetings and photos. It’s crazy, and it’s open 362 days a year, drawing millions of visitors.

We also went to the Apple Barn, a place I hadn’t even heard of until my brother texted me mid-day Friday. Apple Barn is actually in Sevierville’s city limits, just across the river from Pigeon Forge, and it’s an enterprise of a mill with a general store, a renowned restaurant and a cider bar selling apple treats, all in a pastoral setting straight out of a Hallmark movie.

We were in no position to eat a meal, but we ordered two dozen apple fritters on which to snack, and they were glorious. If we ever come back to the Smokies, we’ll dine at the Apple Barn.

We also toured some craft villages on the edge of Gatlinburg that are not so unique and not so popular and did not draw rave reviews from Trish the Dish. Not everything enterprise makes it in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

But Hillbilly Golf has made it for 46 years. On that small stretch of real estate sits a stand that rents out putters and golf balls, and for $12.99 per adult, you can play miniature golf high above Gatlinburg. An incline lift takes customers 300 feet to the top of the mountain, where two 18-hole courses have been carved out among the Smokies.

You start at the top and play downward. After 18 holes, you’ve made it about halfway down the mountain, and the incline picks you up and gently takes you back to street level.

Everytime we passed it this week, the line was long, and now we know why. For one thing, it’s a Gatlinburg tradition. For another, the lift system makes for slow transportation. Customers constantly are waiting to get on the incline both ways. Our wait to board to ascend the mountain was about 10 minutes. Our wait to descend the mountain was about 20 minutes.

But it was fun. Miniature golf is miniature golf. But playing it amid the trees on the side of a Smoky Mountain is not something you do every day.

And along the way, we learned a lot about the great Gatlinburg fire of 2016.

A series of complex wildfires broke out three Novembers ago and killed at least 14 people. The fires burned more than 16,000 acres, the majority inside the national park. More than 2,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Gatlinburg recovered from the wildfires rather quickly; tourism returned en masse.

But atop Hillbilly Golf are a variety of signs explaining how close the fires came, including the line where the fires stopped. Hillbilly Golf lost several massive trees.

It’s sort of scary to think of these mountains being on fire. When you read about wildfires from the safety of frontier Oklahoma, it’s one thing. When you rent a cabin on a little piece of flat land on the side of a mountain, accessible only by a severe-grade driveway, you gain a little appreciation for the dangers of wildfires. Getting in a hurry on the side of a mountain is not the same as getting in a hurry in the plains.

So it’s a blessing that despite the tragedy, Gatlinburg largely was spared. It was not so earlier this century, when a fire ravaged the Ripley’s Believe It or Not building and wiped out most of a city block. Fire is something I guess you just live with in the mountains.

After golf, we took one last loop through Gatlinburg, because we had promised Riley some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I dropped off a crew on the side of the street, and they went in. I circled them around and picked them back up. Hard to park in Gatlinburg.

We got back to the cabin, made homemade pizza for a late dinner and started packing. It’s time to head home.

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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 ›