Forget about a Rocky Mountain high, how about a Smoky Mountains shine? Exploring and traveling on my own is my identity and my trip to Eastern Tennessee was no different. Traveling solo in Gatlinburg (where I met up with a small group of bloggers for a bit) I inhaled the Smokies’ fresh mountain air, learned about some of the moonshine culture, explored caverns and almost got myself in trouble with the federal government!
Turned Away at Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project
My ultimate destination was Gatlinburg but after landing in Knoxville, I hopped off my Allegiant flight and ventured over to America’s Secret City, Oak Ridge. This is where I attempted to mosey into a highly-secured area because my mapping system led me there. I reasoned because the Manhattan Project is part of the National Park Service system, it MUST be open to the public. As I learned, it’s not. Read about my experience visiting Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Bringing Home a Part of the Smokies
Heading toward Gatlinburg, I stopped at Flea Traders Paradise in Sevierville because I LOVE flea markets. It was fun browsing the indoor and outdoor stalls where I saw everything from President Donald J. Trump buttons to ukuleles. Good thing I was flying because there were so many neat treasures at this market and one boutique really caught my eye – JD’s Terrariums and More.
J. DeCarmine, the owner, has been creating these terrariums for years and they are spectacular! They varied in size from pint-sized to five-gallon sized. I ended up bringing a small one back which contains a swatch of ground pine, I think. It’s very sweet with the layers of rocks, soil and greenery. Best of all, it’s low maintenance if I keep the cork top one!
Gatlinburg Attractions: Sugarlands Distilling Co.
The evening was spent learning about Sugarlands Distilling’s operation including distilling, bottling and of course, sampling and learning some recipes using moonshine. The next afternoon, I spent more time at the distillery on an in-depth tour which included learning about Roaming Man Tennessee Straight Rye Whiskey. Additional information about my experience at Sugarlands Distilling can be read in this post, “Sipping Shine with Sugarlands Distilling Co.”
And, ya never know who will show up at Sugarlands Distilling. Mark and Digger, moonshiners who are featured in Discovery’s Moonshiners, dropped in to meet fans. They provide moonshine consulting with the distillery and contracted with them to produce two spirits, Hazelnut Rum (OMG! This is amazing and I could drink this everyday) and Apple Rye moonshine, which is pretty tasty, too.
Mark Ramsey and Digger Manes have been distilling (illegally) since the 1970s and happened to be filming in the area the day they stopped in. And here’s a confession, I had no clue who they were but figured I should speak with them since everyone else seemed to know who they were. They were both proper Southern gentlemen and took time to meet with fans, pose for selfies and answer my goofy questions, such as what places should Gatlinburg visitors see? Sugarlands Distilling was the number one spot!
Gatlinburg Attractions: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Distilling moonshine is woven into the fabric of the Great Smoky Mountains’ culture. Many people in Gatlinburg are working hard to keep that connection alive and they represent different walks of life. One morning, I took a morning walk in the light rain along a river in Great Smoky Mountain National Park with Clayton Laprees, owner of Smoky Mountain Guides, an outfitter offering private park tours year-round.
When we drove through Sugarland Valley near the park’s main entrance, he said prior to the area becoming a park, 20 percent of the residents were moonshiners and the land’s limestone in which the water filtered through, made the area a “moonshiners paradise.” We ambled along the Little River and by the foundations of former cabins in Elkmont located in the upper Little River Valley of the national park. Visiting with a guide helped optimized time spent in the park. Many parking areas for trail heads were packed but he found the perfect spot for a walk.
Smoky Mountain Guides lead a variety of tours into the park but one I’m most interested in and will need to plan accordingly, is one to see the Synchronous Fireflies. During a specific period of time in the spring (mid-May – mid-June), thousands (maybe millions?) of male fireflies, aka lightning bugs, light up the forest in synchronization with amorous goals of impressing the females. Elkmont in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few places in the world known to have them.
It’s also the most popular and because of this, the National Park Service has a lottery to get and view them. Or, you can book a special trip with Smoky Mountain Guides. Someday I’ll get to see this luminous event!
On the day I left Gatlinburg, I headed into the park to drive through Cades Cove. I’ve driven this probably half-a-dozen times. It is still gorgeous and I notice something different each time ranging from the landscape to the historic buildings. It’s a one-way drive and may require some patience because if an animal makes an appearance, especially a bear, the slow-moving traffic comes to a stop. And, I was lucky enough to spot a black bear ambling around in a valley.
Gatlinburg Attractions: Tuckaleechee Caverns in nearby Townsend, Tenn.
“The seismograph upstairs can detect North Korea’s missile launches,” the young tour guide said while pointing to a group of cables running along the cavern wall.
I was about 480 feet below the Great Smokey Mountains exploring the Tuckaleechee Caverns in Townsend, Tenn., less an hour’s drive from Gatlinburg, and the seismograph was one of the nifty things to see during the tour. Mother Nature-made sights included stalactites, stalagmites, columns, a waterfalls and stream where I tasted the water.
What was fascinating was seeing plant life, although sparse, living in the light of manmade bulbs. According to the guide, visitors unknowingly carry seeds on their clothing which are released into the air, settle in front of the light, soak up the moisture and grow.
The caverns were discovered in the early 1850, although it’s believed Native Americans knew about them well prior to that. Tuckaleechee Caverns is one of 8,350 known Tennessee caves and the temperature is a cool 58 degrees making it the perfect place to chill out during summer.
Where to Eat in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg bursts with pancake places but I didn’t get a chance to enjoy one this go around, especially since the Hilton Garden Inn had a hearty breakfast. Notable dining experiences I had in Gatlinburg were a lovely dinner of Fresh Herb-Crusted Trout at Cherokee Grill in Calhoun’s Village which had a cozy yet sophisticated mountain lodge feel.
An equally lovely dinner was enjoyed at the Buckhorn Inn, a gorgeous B&B in a serene setting and stunning view of the Smokies. The group was originally to stay here but due to a nasty storm, electricity was knocked out and my accommodations were moved to the Hilton Garden Inn. A generator kept the kitchen and dining room open and full power was restored in the middle of dinner.
Smoky Mountain Brewery serves up a tasty lunch and I enjoyed the Thunder Road Burger which included blue cheese, bacon and Sweet & Spicy Thunder Road Sauce which pulled in all the flavors. I washed it down with some of the brewery’s brews.
Traveling Solo in Gatlinburg
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited U.S. national park and welcomes more than 9 million visitors annually. Gatlinburg, Tenn., is the perfect solo gateway destination into the park with a host of attractions, accommodations and good eats. I need to note that I visited in May 2017, about six months following the devastating Gatlinburg fires of Nov. 2016. Fourteen people perished and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the more than 16,000 acres of land consumed by fire. Areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park burned but no buildings were destroyed. Although I saw burned areas and destroyed buildings in Gatlinburg, it is very much open for business and ready to welcome visitors. Now go #FindYourPark and take a hike!
Bonus! Gatlinburg Attractions: Kitchen Kitsch and Dukes of Hazzard Nostalgia
I like scoping out the quirkiest, most off-beat sights and these two Gatlinburg Attractions are pretty quirky. It’s the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum and Cooter’s Place, a homage to the Dukes of Hazzard. Interested in learning more? I’ve summed them up in this post, “Quirky Gatlinburg Attractions: Kitchen-Kitsch and Homage to the Dukes of Hazzard.”
View additional photos from my trip to Gatlinburg on Flickr.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Sugarlands Distilling Co. but opinions are my own and they have not reviewed this content. This post contains affiliate links in order to support my traveling habit, this blog and my special needs dog.