The Lodge at Buckberry Creek — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
The recent wildfires in Tennessee were devastating to the people of Sevier County, a tourist-driven area less than an hour away from Knoxville and surrounded by the breathtaking Smoky Mountains.
The rustically elegant Lodge at Buckberry Creek, affectionately referred to as the “Great Camp of the Smokies,” was burned to the ground but will be rebuilt, with its lone surviving rocking chair taking a place of honor. And, although the historic Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts lost some buildings, it’s up and running, continuing to inspire and promote creativity.
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his own home and business, says the best way to help these beautiful mountain communities is to “come back and visit us.” Luckily, the state’s number one attraction, Dollywood, was spared and will be open for the new season in March. Meanwhile, here are ten great places to visit right now.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
The country’s most visited national park is world-renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life and is located within a day’s drive of one third of the U.S. population. One of America’s 20 World Heritage Sites, it encompasses 800 square miles and showcases some of the most fascinating remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.
Stop in at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up maps or join a park ranger on a tour. Then head to historic Cades Cove, the park’s most popular destination – and keep an eye out for bears.
2. 5 Arts Studio
Arensbak Trolls at 5 Arts Studio — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
With the success of the DreamWorks movie of the same name, trolls have become celebrities in their own right, making this cozy studio/museum/shop outside of Gatlinburg a must-visit. Home of the Arensbak Trolls, 5 Arts Studio is a truly magical place where you can watch these mythical creatures come to life, lovingly crafted by hand out of natural materials from the nearby forests.
There are trolls for every personality, profession, hobby and occasion, and it’s easy to understand why they’ve become collector’s items since Ken Arensbak created the first one in 1959.
3. French Broad River Outpost Ranch
French Broad River Outpost Ranch — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
This all-inclusive dude ranch gives you the opportunity not just to ride horses through gorgeous country, but to get real hands-on experience grooming, saddling and bonding with them.
When you’re not with the horses, you can channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl on cattle drives or just take a nap on the porch after a delicious home-cooked meal. Hosts Shawn and Jo Ann Gannon are warm, welcoming and hilarious, and will make you feel like family.
4. Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community
Artist G. Webb — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
An eight-mile loop that’s home to more than 100 artist studios, this historic area of Gatlinburg has been designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail. Established in 1937, it is nationally recognized as the largest group of independent artisans in North America.
Meet the craftspeople and watch them whittle, carve, paint, sew and weave. A great place to buy authentic souvenirs, you can take home an original piece of one-of-a-kind art.
5. The Old Mill
Lunch at The Old Mill — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
A working tribute to the pioneer days of the Great Smoky Mountains, The Old Mill is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a hub of activity. Centered around the 200-year-old water-powered gristmill which can still turn out 1000 pounds of stone-ground grain a day, Old Mill Square features a variety of unique shops including the Old Mill General Store, Iron Mountain Metal Craft Shop, Old Mill Creamery and Pigeon River Pottery.
Take in the river view and the homemade comfort food at the Old Mill Restaurant, where guests are treated to a basket of mini muffins, Smoky Mountain Special Preserves, and sourwood honey with breakfast, and a basket of fritters and maple butter with lunch and dinner.
6. Outdoor Gravity Park
OGO for zorbing at Outdoor Gravity Park — Photo courtesy of Outdoor Gravity Park
If you’ve never tried zorbing, hang on! Invented in New Zealand, the sport involves slipping and sliding down a hill inside a giant transparent ball called an OGO. At the Outdoor Gravity Park in Pigeon Forge, four unique tracks provide a variety of zorbing experiences so you can roll alone or with friends. Choose the dry or wet version and don’t worry about the cold: in winter, warm water is used to make you feel like you’re in a rolling Jacuzzi.
7. The Island
The Island in Pigeon Forge — Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Tourist Development
You could happily be stranded for days at The Island, a new shopping and entertainment complex in Pigeon Forge. Book a room at the four-star Margaritaville Island Hotel (each room has a private balcony and, yes, a “frozen concoction” maker), then start exploring.
Take a ride on the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, enjoy dinner at Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen and pick up some goodies at Emery’s 5 & 10 (the oldest family-owned five and dime in the country). Then, depending on just how much of a change in attitude you need, plop yourself into the St. Somewhere Spa at the hotel for their signature Wastin’ Away massage or the Express 5 O’Clock Somewhere Mani/Pedi.
8. Titanic Museum
Titanic Museum — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Paying homage to the famous ship, a visit to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge is moving, sobering and fascinating. Upon entering, you're handed a boarding pass with the name of an actual passenger or crew member whose fate you will later discover in the Memorial Room.
The tragic journey becomes more real through interactive experiences like touching an iceberg, walking the $1 million exact replica of the Titanic’s Grand Staircase and navigating the sloping decks of the ship’s stern as the Titanic goes down.
9. Blackberry Farm
Blackberry Farm — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
This stunning retreat in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains is the perfect place to unwind, to get in touch with nature and to indulge your senses. Blackberry Farm is synonymous with simple luxury.
You can take classes, get spa treatments and participate in farm activities with adorable animals. Or you can just while away the hours in the resort’s signature rocking chairs, taking in the breathtaking views. Whether you opt for a room, a cottage or a house, you will never want to leave.
10. Tony Gore’s Smoky Mountain BBQ & Grill
Tony Gore and his famous desserts — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark
Size matters at this award-winning eatery, where the portion size is as legendary as the food. Bring the whole family so instead of having to decide between the ribs, pulled pork, chicken or catfish, you can taste them all. Start with an order of T’s Loaded Tater Chips, smothered in pulled pork, melted cheese and barbecue sauce. Best advice: Come hungry and wear your stretchy pants.