The park itself has upped its game with a major new visitor center at Oconaluftee in North Carolina that is well worth driving over the mountain to see. The visitor center includes an interactive museum that highlights the Smokies’ cultural heritage—everything from church goin’ to moonshine makin’, with lots more in-between. (To read more about exploring the national park, see the sidebar on Family Fun in the Smokies, the park’s newest guidebook.)
The Smokies’ Sevier County gateway towns—Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville—have also unveiled major new attractions, restaurants, and shops that change the landscape quite a bit. They range from the silly (talking outhouse, anyone?) to the sublime (the best Cuban sandwich this side of Tampa), but they’re all incredibly good fun.
This special section takes a look at some of the most notable of the new. So if you haven’t been south of exit 407 lately, go check it out for yourself.
Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud
This new Pigeon Forge dinner comedy show leaves no room for impartiality. You’re assigned a side from the get-go, which determines whether you’ll be cheering for the Hatfields or the McCoys for the next few hours. The plot is loosely based on those famous feuding kin in Kentucky, but in this more PC version, both sides win (without bloodshed). As you might expect, there’s plenty of singing, dancing, and comedy—and a performance by national-champion cloggers.
Dinner is strictly Southern fare: fried chicken and pulled pork barbeque with all the fixin’s. Come early so you can poke around all the whimsical mountaineer-themed fun stuff outside the theater and in the lobby. You can mingle with live barnyard animals, check out the world’s largest non-working moonshine still, and set a spell in a talking outhouse—not an experience you’ll soon forget. The dinner feud takes the place of the amazingly popular Black Bear Jamboree, long a fixture on the Parkway.
Info: (865) 908–7469; www.hatfieldmccoydinnerfeud.com.
Adventure Forest at Wilderness in the Smokies
The newest attraction at Wilderness at the Smokies water park resort in Sevierville doesn’t involve so much as a drop of water. It’s called the Adventure Forest, and unlike the resort’s three waterparks, it’s open to anyone (for a fee)—not just resort guests, although Wilderness guests do get reduced rates.
The highlights of this new indoor park include a three-story ropes course, a multi-level laser tag arena, miniature bowling, black-light miniature golf, a large central arcade, a snack bar, and a cooler-than-all-get-out laser maze complete with music and fog machines where you can get your James Bond on.
Info: (877) 325-9453; www.wildernessatthesmokies.com.
Food and Drink
Eating at Mama’s Farmhouse in Pigeon Forge is simple. You just sit down and chow down. There’s no ordering—your waitperson brings you platters of whatever is on the menu for that day. You just help yourself and pass the platter, family style. Want seconds? No problem. At Mama’s, you can eat as much as you want.
The Johnson family—who also own and run Sevier County favorites Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que, Alamo Steakhouse, and Big Daddy’s Pizza—wanted to design a restaurant that was reminiscent of the family matriarch’s cooking, so they not only set it up family-style, but also offer many southern staples, including fried chicken, country fried steak, meatloaf, ham, chicken and dumplings, fried fish, sweet potato casserole, green beans, okra, pinto beans, biscuits and cornbread, and lots more. Although the menu differs from day to day, for lunch or dinner you get two or three meats, four or five vegetables, and dessert. Every Sunday, Mama’s serves roast turkey and stuffing.
Mama’s is also open for breakfast, serving scrambled eggs, chicken tenders, cheese grits, home fries, sausage patties, bacon, sweet potato or buttermilk pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and other tempting treats.
Info: (865) 908-4646; www.mamasfarmhouse.com.
Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler
The first legal moonshine distillery in the state recently expanded its retail space in a major way, so now in addition to seeing how the hootch is cooked (according to a 100-year-old recipe), you can do some serious shopping in this Gatlinburg establishment. The merchandise includes a wide variety of clothing (the most fun: a t-shirt that says, “I don’t know Jack, but I know Shine”). You can also buy all sorts of gourmet vittles, including cherry moonshine jelly, moonshine barbeque sauce, moonshine mustards, and even so-called hillbilly caviar (better known as chow chow). They’ve even added a snack bar and a winery. The best part of the expansion, though, is the stage area in the central courtyard where bluegrass musicians play several times throughout the day. Slide into one of the many wooden rocking chairs and enjoy the show.
All that aside, the highlight of a visit to the Holler hasn’t changed: the moonshine tasting room, where you can sip on Ole Smoky Original Moonshine (100 proof un-aged corn whiskey), Old Smoky White Lightnin’ (a smoother 100-proof ’shine that’s been distilled six times), Ole Smoky Apple Pie Moonshine (a 40-proof ’shine that really does taste almost exactly like apple pie), and whatever seasonal flavors are currently on sale. Be sure to try the moonshine cherries—they’re soaked in ’shine and taste mighty fine.
Info: (865) 436-6995; www.olesmokymoonshine.com.
Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café
Cheesecake is just part of the story at the Smoky Mountain Cheesecake Café, located in a perky little yellow building in northern Sevierville (just south of Knifeworks). Tina Zalva, who owns and runs the café with her husband Ron, creates more than 30 flavors of the sweet stuff, rotating what’s available on any given day. (But if you order a whole cheesecake with 24 hours’ notice, you can have your pick of any of her flavors.) Options include old-fashioned standards like plain cheesecake with fresh fruit, those borrowed from pies such as peanut butter and key lime, those made from candy and cookies like Oreo and Coconut Almond Joy, and creative combos like the Elvis, which has banana and peanut butter cream. Can’t decide? Then throw caloric caution to the wind and dive into Dawn’s Death by Chocolate, made with no less than three dark chocolates. Want something smaller? Tina also makes fabulous cheesecake cupcakes.
Delectable desserts aside, the café also serves hearty deli sandwiches and grilled burgers along with various coffee drinks. The highlight of the menu here is the Cuban sandwich, which is hands-down the best in the area; it’s made with homemade pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, mustard, and mayo layered on special Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Cuban Bakery in Tampa (the heart of Cuban culture in the United States). Or consider a Reuben, made with homemade corned beef. The café recently expanded its hours to include breakfast, offering Cuban toast, breakfast sandwiches, and bagels—not to mention a Cuban coffee drink called café con leche (a Cuban dark roast with steamed milk).
Info: (865) 771-0881; www.smokymountaincheesecake.com.
Gatlinburg, snuggled right up against the nation’s most popular national park, has long lacked a full-service outfitter—until now. First-class North Carolina-based Nantahala Outdoor Center now has a presence in town—in a huge lodge-like building (once occupied by the venerable Burning Bush restaurant) that’s a stone’s throw from the entrance to the national park. Heralded by a set of larger-than-life oars out front, the establishment has recently been renamed NOC Gatlinburg. Here, you can book kayaking and whitewater rafting trips on seven rivers as well as fly fishing and hiking guides—and you can even rent mountain bikes.
The building houses a 25-foot climbing wall, a swinging rope bridge, and a creative kid’s play area, not to mention a very impressive outdoor store. In fact, this is the largest retail store of any kind in town. Almost anything you could possibly need to explore the Smokies is for sale here, including outdoor gear, clothing, and hiking and camping equipment in addition to outdoor-themed toys, souvenirs, and even housewares. Even better, this is one of the few LEED-certified retail stores in the Smoky Mountain area, meaning that it was constructed using several energy-efficient and environmentally friendly practices. It’s nice to know that a place that will help you explore the Smokies is also in the forefront of helping to preserve them.
Info: (865) 277-8209; www.nocsgreatoutpost.com.
Family Fun in the Smokies—the Park’s Newest Guidebook
Sure, it’s got a silly face on the cover. But Family Fun in the Smokies: A Family-Friendly Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains is a seriously smart purchase for anyone visiting the nation’s most-popular national park. Written by Knoxville travel journalist Katy Koontz, this is also the newest guidebook to the park in print.
The book begins with all the vital background information any Smokies visitor would ever need to know: where to buy food and drinks, what to pack, seasonal highlights, how to get weather info, the park’s rules on pets—even the locations of all the park’s bathrooms and handicapped-accessible facilities.
The next chapter suggests itineraries—from half a day up to three days in the Smokies—and two additional chapters on the park’s animals and plants share plenty of tips on wildlife watching, spring wildflowers, and fall foliage. The bulk of the book describes all of the park’s family-fun activities, including scenic drives, day hikes and self-guiding nature trails, picnic spots, campgrounds, bike trails, horseback riding, visitor centers, junior ranger programs, and fishing.
Scattered throughout are fun park-related facts, first-rate maps, color photos, and lots of games (like Smokies-themed word searches and crossword puzzles). The back of the book has a useful family-fun geographic index.
Although the focus is families, Family Fun in the Smokies is a useful general reference for almost any visitor to the national park. And because the book is published by the nonprofit Great Smoky Mountain Association, every purchase benefits the park.
Where to find Family Fun in the Smokies: The book on sale for $11.95 in all park bookstores as well as on Great Smoky Mountains Association’s website (www.smokiesinformation.org). (Like most GSMA books, however, it’s not available on Amazon.) – Steven Friedlander