Weekenders: Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s Winter Wonderland

This Smoky Mountain town is southern Appalachia’s unofficial capital of the season.

By Jennifer V. Cole

Established in the early 19th century by pioneer settlers from South Carolina, this east Tennessee mountain village blends small-town charm with just the right amount of kitsch and is surrounded by some of the most picturesque mountains east of the Mississippi, flush with footpaths, streams and old-growth forests. Use Gatlinburg as your base for exploring the mountains and hollers—where moonshine and country ham are still made the old-fashioned way.

Town Treasures

In Gatlinburg it seems there are nearly as many pancake houses as full-time residents. Pancake Pantry was one of the first on the scene when it opened, in 1960. Now no trip to the mountains is complete without its feather-light flapjacks. They’re served all day long, giving you ample time to work through the 24 variations, including buttermilk, cornmeal and even French-style crepes. Further indulge your sweet tooth at the Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen, where they have been hand-pulling taffy right in the shop since 1952. Or pick up a box of hot doughnuts from The Donut Friar, a local institution since 1969. The staff starts turning out the dough at 5 a.m. every day, but they go quick, so arrive early.

Throughout town the rich arts-and-crafts heritage of Appalachia remains strong. Arrowcraft Shop, a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, sells the work of local artisans who practice the techniques of their ancestors: weaving, basketry, pottery, woodcarving and glassmaking. Founded in 1926, Arrowcraft originally helped families in the remote reaches of the mountains sell their creations. Today it helps ensure that traditional arts are passed on to the next generation. Robert Alewine and his son Mark throw and glaze ceramics by hand at Alewine Pottery, a 30-year-old family business. You can stock up on their clay kitchenware and home decor, including mugs, baking dishes and vases, or invest in an Appalachian “face jug,” a mountain pottery tradition.

Get into the spirit of the region by sampling some of the local brews. Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery claims to be the most visited distillery in the country. When you go you can watch the entire process—from corn mash to white lightning. As part of the tour, visitors get a free taste of the wares. Try the 100-proof original, or go for the lower-octane stuff with ’shines in flavors ranging from apple pie to butterscotch to sweet tea. At Sugarlands Distilling Company the distillers use an artisanal stone burr mill to grind grains, like corn and rye, into meal that they mix with fresh water from the Great Smoky Mountains and cook in a copper-pot still. Visitors are welcome to go behind the scenes, but you have to book your tour in advance. Be sure to check out their Legends Series, spirits made by some of the great moonshiners of our time, such as Marvin “Jim Tom” Hedrick. And both Ole Smoky and Sugarlands sell their ’shine in the requisite mason jars.

Winter in this town means it’s time to ski. At Ober Gatlinburg take the aerial tramway, which features one of the largest cable cars in the country, to the top of Mount Harrison for panoramic views of the burg and the Smokies. Trams depart downtown every 20 minutes. Once on the mountain you can ski, snowboard and tube to your heart’s content. Even though this area usually gets ample snowfall throughout the winter, the park makes snow continuously all season long.

For dinner the Smoky Mountain Trout House specializes in rainbow trout from the Smokies prepared just about any way you can imagine: fried, grilled, stuffed, almandine, even lacquered with a moonshine glaze. Just outside town The Restaurant at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek changes its menu daily, but expect to find dishes such as beef flat iron with wild mushrooms and truffled parsnip puree. Settle in for the night in the cozy dining room, which has a fireplace and sunset views of Mount LeConte.

Farther Afield

In adjacent Pigeon Forge, whose main strip is peppered with putt-putt-golf courses and murder-mystery-dinner-theater locales, pay your respects to the big-haired queen of the South. At Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s namesake theme park, you can peel back the layers of her journey from an east Tennessee holler to the biggest stages of the world. Consider starting at the Smoky Mountain Home, a two-room replica of her Locust Ridge childhood house, for a true sense of her modest upbringing. Make your way to Dolly’s home on wheels, the longtime tour bus that shuttled her all around the country. In Dolly’s bedroom on the bus you’ll find the three clocks she kept—one set on Los Angeles time, one set for Nashville and one that always told the time in Dollywood. Don’t leave without visiting the Chasing Rainbows museum, full of behind-the-scenes collections, handwritten lyrics and memorabilia. Here the Backwoods Barbie showcases selects from her wardrobe, like her 9 to 5 costumes and sequined gowns.

Allan Benton is a legendary maker of ham and bacon who keeps chefs like David Chang and Sean Brock stocked with pork goodness. Pay a visit to his Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams headquarters, a low-slung cinderblock building in Madisonville where he hand-cures and smokes thick slabs of bacon so redolent of hickory, a single package can perfume your entire refrigerator. Chances are Allan himself will be on-site and offer to give you a tour of the hanging hams and his modest smokehouse.

A short drive away, Tsali Notch Vineyard specializes in wines made from muscadine, the South’s indigenous grape. You can stop by the vineyard, which packs 21 miles of trellises into 35 acres of the 202-acre estate. Take in views of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest, and tour the tasting room, set in a refurbished 19th-century farmhouse. Though most muscadine wines tend to be overly sweet, Tsali Notch produces vintages with greater complexity, including Chatsworth, a red muscadine wine with a fruity bouquet and a dry finish.

In Maryville, 40 miles west, Foothills Milling Company specializes in refined Southern fare. Look for staples, such as cornmeal-dusted fried green tomatoes topped with basil aioli, tomato chutney and goat cheese—a Southern-fried twist on the caprese salad. Fried quail is paired with a buttermilk pancake and drizzled with orange-jalapeño-maple syrup. Benton’s bacon spices the fried Gulf oysters with green onion remoulade.

Or plan to have dinner farther up the road, in Townsend, at Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro. Executive chef Shelley Cooper builds on the traditional foodways of the region by giving them a modern twist and relying heavily on farm-fresh ingredients. Start with a whiskey cocktail punched up with seasonal shrubs, a bite of ginger beer and bitters. The Appalachian Lunchable, a playful take on a relish tray, highlights deviled eggs, pickled shrimp, benne seed bacon, pimiento cheese spread, rosemary biscuits, country ham and a rotating roster of pickled vegetables. Crispy branzino is served whole alongside speckled butter-bean cassoulet, grits from Adluh Mills and a pickled-green-tomato relish.

The Mountains

There’s a reason this area is called the Smokies. As you meander along the serpentine roads, you’ll see a soft blue haze hovering just below the peaks and shrouding the valley like a thin layer of pulled cotton. From a distance it looks as if low-burning wood fires in the mountains were giving off wisps of smoke, even on a clear day. You’ll find hiking trails throughout Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but one of the best ways to get a sense of the mountains’ wonder is to take a drive, what’s known in this area as a car hike. Though many roads are closed in winter because of the possibility of inclement weather, Cades Cove, near Townsend, gets you into the heart of nature in every season. The 11-mile loop is slow-paced, and it can take up to four hours to make your way past three small churches, barns, a working gristmill and log cabins scattered beneath towering trees. Other than the handful of structures throughout the park, the area remains untouched by man and lets you see how weather and time have shaped this mountain paradise. Along the way keep your eyes peeled for black bears, white-tailed deer, coyotes and, if you’re lucky, even an elk. Pick up a picnic for your journey from Miss Lily’s Café, in Townsend, just five minutes from the Cades Cove loop road entrance. Try the homemade chicken salad; it’s the stuff of local legend and comes tucked into a tender croissant. This family-owned restaurant prides itself, and rightly so, on from-scratch breads and desserts that range from indulgent chocolate brownies and freshly baked cookies to flaky-crust pies and sinfully rich cakes. Just remember: Don’t feed the bears.

Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams
2603 U.S. Hwy. 411 North, Madisonville; 423-442-5003; bentonscountryhams2.com
Cades Cove
865-448-2472; nps.gov
2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge; 800-365-5996; dollywood.com
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Rd.; 865-436-1200; nps.gov
Ober Gatlinburg
1001 Parkway; 865-436-5423; obergatlinburg.com
Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery
903 Parkway; 865-436-6995; olesmoky.com
Sugarlands Distilling Company
805 Parkway; 865-325-1355; sugarlandsdistilling.com
Tsali Notch Vineyard
140 Harrison Rd., Madisonville; 423-506-9895; tsalinotch.com
Alewine Pottery
623 Glades Rd.; 865-430-7828; alewinepottery.net
Arrowcraft Shop
576 Parkway; 865-436-4604; southernhighlandguild.org
Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen
744 Parkway; 865-436-4886; olesmokycandykitchen.com
Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro
7140 E. Lamar Alexander Pkwy., Townsend; 800-369-0111; dancingbearlodge.com; dinner for two, $110*
The Donut Friar
634 Parkway, Shop 15; 865-436-7306; the-donut-friar.com
Foothills Milling Company
315 Washington St. S., Maryville; 865-977-8434; foothillsmillingcompany.com; dinner for two, $75
Miss Lily’s Café
122 Depot Ave., Townsend; 865-448-1924; misslilyscafeandcatering.com; lunch for two, $30
Pancake Pantry
628 Parkway; 865-436-4724; breakfast for two, $20; pancakepantry.com
The Restaurant at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek
961 Campbell Lead Rd.; 865-430-8030; dinner for two, $150; buckberrylodge.com
Smoky Mountain Trout House
410 Parkway; 865-436-5416; gatlinburgtrouthouse.com; dinner for two, $70
RCI affiliated resorts in and near Gatlinburg include:
Laurel Crest 5485

You can fish or ride horses in Pigeon Forge. 2628 Laurel Crest Lane, Pigeon Forge
Member Review: “Clean units with modern appliances and furniture.”

MountainLoft Resort II 8883

Enjoy sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains. 110 Mountain Loft Dr., Gatlinburg
Member Review: “The staff is friendly and helpful.”

Wyndham Smoky Mountains 5993

One-, two- and three-bedroom units can accommodate up to 10 guests. 308 Collier Dr., Sevierville
Member Review: “A central location for the Pigeon Forge area.”

Oakmont Resort 2209

Don’t miss the weekly potluck dinner with live entertainment. 3062 Veterans Blvd., Pigeon Forge
Member Review: “It’s an easy drive to Gatlinburg and the mountains.”

Tree Tops Resort 2208

Rotate among the basketball, shuffleboard and racquetball courts. 290 Sherman Clabo Rd., Gatlinburg
Member Review: “Spacious and up-to-date.”

Sunrise Ridge Resort 3876

Conveniently located near Dollywood and plenty of shops. 2301 Ridge Rd., Pigeon Forge
Member Review: “Well-equipped units with great views.”

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Other vacation options:
Baskins Creek Condominiums by Wyndham Vacation Rentals

Roomy condominiums within walking distance of the town’s attractions. 215 Woliss Lane, Gatlinburg; 844-596-8289; baskinscreekcondo.com; doubles from $109 a night

Mountain Laurel Chalets

Rentals cabins near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 440 Ski Mountain Rd., Gatlinburg; 800-315-4965; mtnlaurelchalets.com; doubles from $119 a night

  • *Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2015