Serene Beauty. The Cades Cove area as seen from one of many scenic overlooks.
The Tennessee side of the Smokies region offers two distinct choices. If you’re after a gentle experience built around nature and history, explore Blount County. For shopping, concerts, amusements and fun galore, check out Sevier County.
The drive along Scenic Tenn. 73 into Townsend is just one of the reasons that 10 million or so visitors come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year. Heavily forested, it is a green tunnel that opens intermittently to allow glimpses of the impatient Little River. Always beyond and out of reach are the mountains, with smaller hills squatting against the charcoal outline of the massive range. You’re in the Tennessee Smokies.
The Quiet County
The Tennessee side of the Smokies has its quieter moments through Blount County and the towns of Townsend, Maryville and Alcoa. The county is sometimes called the “peaceful” part of the Tennessee Smokies. It has an entirely different sensibility altogether than the busier stretch in Sevier County, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Blount County is defined by cozy mountain cabins, nature appreciation and wildlife photography. Public recreational opportunities abound here, including six golf courses, 18 tennis courts, three swimming pools, seven playgrounds and three riding stables. There is a nine-mile fitness and bike trail interwoven through downtown Maryville and linking Alcoa’s Springbrook Park and Maryville’s Sandy Spring Park.
The abundance of back-deck hot tubs (there are more than 50 businesses in Blount County that rent cabins and cottages) suggests another reason visitors love booking a Smoky Mountain retreat: to play connect the stars and watch as the constellations emerge on a clear night, with the only nocturnal noise supplied by a symphony of crickets accompanied by the gurgling of the bubbles.
Some of the most scenic hiking this side of the Rockies is also found in the Smoky Mountains, specifically at Cades Cove, which is snugged down along the base of the Appalachian Mountains in east Tennessee. Even the drive, along the tree-lined roadway, is scenic.
At the Cades Cove Loop Road, a one-way, 11-mile driving tour with dramatic overlooks, the sightseeing and photography gets under way in earnest. Drivers follow the road to the John Oliver Place, built in 1826, and home to the cove’s first permanent white settler after the land was acquired by the state from the Cherokee Indians. Along with car passengers, there are bikers, hikers and horseback riders – all wildlife watchers and nature lovers – following the trails, hoping to see white-tailed deer, black bears, chipmunks, raccoons and even skunks.
The backdrop is the ever-present, multi-layered mountain range. In the foreground, hikers stop for a mountainside picnic. There are some 1,500 kinds of flowering plants in the park. A creek occasionally rushes into view before tumbling out of sight.
The loop passes a white-plank board church and a cemetery punctuated with red sprays and pink ribbons, and farther on, the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1839. Twenty years before that, the cove was acquired by the State of Tennessee as frontier country and the first few settlers began arriving. By 1850, the population had swelled to 685 before tapering off in 1869 to fewer than 270. A handful of structures stand in silent testimony to frontier life in the cove in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I think one of the most interesting things historically about the park is the fact that it has been continually occupied by people since the Woodland Indian period,” says Rebecca Vial, park ranger.
A clearing with visitor center and gift shop marks the halfway point of the loop. Here is the spot to buy a mason jar of chow chow, pepper relish, pear preserves or sourwood honey; proceeds from each purchase go to park maintenance. Beyond sits the John Cable Mill. Built in 1868, it is a pocket of living history in the midst of the 1,800-acre, open-air museum that is Cades Cove. The grist mill still grinds away, powered by fresh mountain water. A pioneer homestead shows off an old loom and the artifacts of a lifetime spent on the frontier. Other rustic abodes seen along the loop include the Dan Lawson Place, the Tipton Place and the Carter Shields Cabin. For more information on Cades Cove call 1-800-525-6834 or look up www.nps.gov/grsm/cchome.htm.
As a 4-year-old boy growing up in the Dry Valley area of Townsend, the late Bill Vananda played in and around the same cave system that Native Americans had discovered and explored more than a century before. Tuckaleechee Caverns now draws nearly 100,000 visitors each year to see its illuminated rock and crystal formations.
Vananda’s sons, Phillip and Steven, along with their families, operate the business their father started with partner Harry Myers in 1953.
From March 15 through November 15, visitors tour the mile-long path through the caverns to see the stalagmites, stalactites, stream passage and other formations that are as old as the surrounding mountains. They enter the cool, damp quiet of the cave, just off U.S. 321, and listen to the calcite dripping from the stalactites. For more information on Tuckaleechee Caverns call 423/448-2274.
The “Artist Laureate” of the Smokies
Tennessee’s first art gallery to be officially recognized by the state as an attraction is housed in a charming, window-box-trimmed log cabin built by the artist himself. Master painter Lee Roberson, a descendant of Cades Cove settlers and Cherokee Indians, is known worldwide for his charming snow scenes, including “At Peace,” “Cozy Night” and “In Your Dreams.” His paintings of landscapes, still lifes and wildlife are sold throughout the United States and in six foreign countries.
Every year, more than 100,000 visitors show up at the Lee Roberson Gallery located on a picturesque road off the scenic U.S. 321 in Townsend. The gallery is at the end of a winding, tree-lined stretch that opens to a clutch of restored log structures, most of which were built by Roberson. Inside the gallery, Roberson’s paintings seem to glow with the essence of life in the Smoky Mountain region. For more information on the Lee Roberson Gallery call 1-800-423-7341 or go to www.smokymtnmall.com/ mall/roberson.html.
A Good Soak
There are plenty of hot tubs to be found at the cabins and bed and breakfasts hunkered into the mountains, beginning with the aptly named Grace Hill Bed & Breakfast perched 2,500 feet up atop Little Round Top Mountain. The luxury digs sit at the end of a long and (thankfully) paved road that climbs skyward straight up the mountain. Inside the inn are tin ceilings, stained glass, walls of windows and original art. There is a library, laundry facilities, exercise room with complimentary snack area and a 360-degree view of Blount and Sevier counties as well as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more information call 865/448-3070.
“Bear”ly Rustic has dozens of log cabins with names like Cobblestone Manor, Fawn’s Rest and Lazy Bluff Lodge tucked in and around the mountains, in front of streams and near fishing ponds. Some have porch swings and screened porches, others have reading lofts and private balconies. All have hot tubs and mountain vistas. For more information call 1-888-448-6036.
Hot tubs are at the trim log cabins that dot the landscape surrounding the Maple Leaf Lodge. From the moment you arrive at the front door with its intricate tree carvings pressed to the glass, you know this lodge will deliver one memorable mountain vacation. A full country breakfast is served each morning; afternoon tea is rolled out at four o’clock each day. There are indoor and outdoor pools, outdoor barbecue pits and three miles of forested walking trails. Live mountain music, storytelling and hayrides headline the entertainment. For more information call 1-800-369-0111.
Locals like The Back Porch Restaurant and it’s easy to see why. The staff is friendly and they like to flash the kind of small-town smiles rarely seen in the big city. Salads, a soup of the day and steak burgers plus a daily special such as beef tips or chicken-fried steak are served with a couple of country-cooked sides, like turnip greens, cinnamon apples, mashed potatoes and pinto beans – all for under $10. The pecan cobbler with two moons of rich vanilla ice cream is decadently delicious. For more information call 865/448-6333.
Don’t let the neon cacti at Deadbeat Pete’s scare you off. The food is festive, fun and fast – but not too fast. Salads, monster burgers and Southwestern entrées, including Santa Fe Chicken and Deadbeat Pete’s Fajitas, make up an enthusiastic menu that can be served on the riverfront patio on a cool mountain evening. For more information call 865/448-0900.
Trailhead Steakhouse: This one stays crowded by word of visitors’ mouths. Organic salads, seafood, poultry and lots of grilled steaks keep visitors on their treks to the Smokies. Try the house dressing – just tangy enough – and the Alfredo mashed potatoes. For more information call 865/448-0166.
Pies and quilts
The small shopping center called Apple Valley Farm is the perfect place to stop for apple pie. At the Apple Valley Kitchen you can order a slice and head for one of the rockers on the front porch. At the Larry Burton Gallery you’ll find original prints, walking sticks and intricately designed handcrafted miniature houses, including a lodge, country store and barn. There is a replica of Cades Cove that sits under glass that is fun to see either before or after taking the drive on the loop. A quilt shop and combination crafts and country store are also fun for an afternoon’s browse. For more information call 865/448-9878.