After nearly 50 years as a singer, songwriter, musician, and actress, it’s a difficult task to pinpoint Dolly Parton’s greatest accomplishment. But hidden behind “Jolene” and the “Coat of Many Colors” is her role in a 1986 made-for-television movie, A Smoky Mountain Christmas. In this Snow White-inspired tale, Dolly portrays a country superstar who flees Hollywood to spend a quiet Christmas in her childhood home, the Great Smoky Mountains. But her plans take an unexpected turn, thanks to a charming brood of orphans, a handsome mountain man, a sleezy local sheriff, and, of course, an evil witch.
A Smoky Mountain Christmas may not have been in the running for any Oscar nominations, but something about Dolly’s musical tale of her roots captivated me as a child. And while my family knows the movie as one that persistently turns up each and every holiday season, I know it as the reason I made my first trip to America’s most visited national park.
Encompassing more than 522,000 acres of North Carolina and Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Since then, Americans have been flocking to this beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Mountains, eager to enjoy nearly 850 miles of trails, 2,115 miles of streams, and more than 100 species of native trees.
So if you make like Lorna Davis and find yourself escaping to the Smokies, here are some beautiful ways to spend three days.
Well, It Was Gatlinburg In Mid-July
Your long weekend begins on the northern edge of the national park, where the people of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have been living off Smoky Mountain tourism for nearly 80 years. What once was a small mountain hamlet has grown up into the capital of kitsch—a city of 4,000 people that somehow supports more than 20 wedding chapels and at least eight separate Ripley’s attractions.
If this sounds like a tourist trap to you, you’re absolutely correct. Good thing you’ve booked a condo at Deer Ridge Mountain Resort, a quiet hillside retreat 12 miles east of downtown Gatlinburg. With your own private kitchen and a terrace overlooking the foothills of the Smokies, the nightmare of the Hollywood Star Cars Museum will soon be a very distant memory (3710 Weber Road, Gatlinburg).
Today’s The Day The Teddy Bears Have Their Picnic
With a picnic lunch packed, enter the national park near Sugarlands Visitor Center and follow Little River Road to Cades Cove, a wide meadow valley perfectly framed by the surrounding mountains. One of the prime park locations for wildlife viewing, Cades Cove is the frequent home of white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, ground hogs, and turkeys. And with bike rentals available at the Cades Cove Campground Store, visitors can take in the view while cruising the 11-mile meadow loop road. But biking or not, be sure to find a scenic spot for lunch and keep your eyes peeled for bears.
If it’s a crystal clear day, head into the mountains on Newfound Gap Road, the winding pass that bisects the eastern and western regions of the park. Awaiting you up above is the 6,643-foot summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. A steep half-mile walk from the parking lot will bring you to a spectacular observation tower, from which you can see up to 100 miles on a clear day.
On the way back down Clingmans Dome Road, don’t be afraid to pull over and soak in some of the park’s most beautiful mountain vistas. And although the distant mountains may appear to be engulfed in smoke, what you’re really seeing is fog caused by the rapid cooling of warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico.
With a backpack full of water and picnic supplies, get an early start at the Alum Cave Trailhead on Newfound Gap Road. For the next 5.5 miles and 2,763 vertical feet, you’ll be scaling the summit of Mt. Le Conte, one of the most classic and beautiful trails in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Two miles in, you’ll reach Alum Cave, an 80-foot-tall concave bluff that offers spectacular views of its own. But it’s three miles later, just past the Le Conte Lodge, where you’ll find a cairn marking the location of High Top, the 6,593-foot summit of Mt. Le Conte. And while High Top itself doesn’t boast commanding mountain views, nearby Myrtle Point and Cliff Top are both known for their outstanding panoramas.
As Gatlinburg guards the northern entrance to the park, the southern reaches are bordered by the Qualla Boundary, an Indian reservation home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Following the discovery of gold on Native American lands in Georgia, President Andrew Jackson allowed for nearly 14,000 Cherokees to be forcibly removed to Arkansas and Oklahoma in 1838. While more than 4,000 would die on the Trail of Tears, a small band of Cherokees remained in North Carolina thanks in part to the efforts of their adviser and attorney, William Thomas, a successful businessman who had grown up among them.
Recover from a long day of hiking by exploring the Qualla Boundary by car—most notably, the southernmost stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Built to connect the Great Smoky Mountains with Shenandoah National Park, this 469-mile scenic parkway offers breathtaking views around each and every curve.
A.T. Phone Home
End the weekend on a high note by ascending Mt. Cammerer, the Thunderhead sandstone peak named for Arno Cammerer, former director of the National Park Service and an instrumental figure in establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Begin the morning at the northeastern Cosby Campground, and follow the Low Gap Trail for three miles before meeting up with the Appalachian Trail—71 miles of which run through the park. But the real attraction lies at the summit, where a historic stone fire tower, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937, lays claim to what many consider to be the best views in the Smokies. In other words, it’s the perfect place to bid this long weekend farewell.
A Few Notes
Although Dolly Parton enjoyed the Smokies at Christmas, consider planning your trip for spring or early summer, when the temperatures are warm, the wildflowers are in bloom, and the roads are consistently open. Autumn also sees one of the best foliage displays on the east coast.
Not in the mood for scaling mountain summits? Don’t forget that Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses nearly 2,115 miles of streams and one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern United States. So if you’re looking for a quiet afternoon of fly fishing, the possibilities here are endless.
Also, don’t underestimate the value of having your own kitchen at Deer Ridge Mountain Resort. By cooking your own meals, you’re not only saving money—you’re avoiding the tourist traps of downtown Gatlinburg. Seriously. Don’t test me on this one.
TITLE: The sunset at Deer Ridge Mountain Resort | SATURDAY: The view from Clingmans Dome Road; late afternoon at Deer Ridge; sunset at Deer Ridge | SUNDAY: The mountains south of Newfound Gap; the sun sets over the Smoky Mountain foothills.