Gatlinburg, Tennessee–A Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare

I’m taking a break this week from my usual essays about Pleistocene Georgia to write a travelogue of a vacation my family forced upon me.  For my daughter’s 15th birthday my wife promised her a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a crowded tourist trap, bordering the north end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is itself an overhyped haven for wildlife.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The sidewalks are jammed with tourists from early morning till midnight, and they come from all over the world, including Ohio, Louisiana, Iowa, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Japan, and Germany.  Little shops and stores, like cigars crammed inside a tin can, stand in line on both sides of the confusing winding streets, beckoning the tourists to throw money their way.  There’s a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Store, a Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a wax museum, a celebrity car museum, a hat and cowboy boot outlet, a country western bar, pancake houses and barbecue restaurants, a McDonalds, and untold other high, low, and middle end stores.  All this exists but with precious little parking.   There are no alleys in between the stores and no parking lots in front or to the sides of the businesses.  We found a parking lot in back of one museum that cost us $10.  My wife is disabled and I didn’t want to have to wheel her chair across town.  Gatlinburg’s not that big–I recommend (if tourist traps are your cup of tea) to hike downtown from your motel, or you can take one of the trolleys.  The streets are interspersed with rights of way for walking tourists, but out-of-town motorists don’t realize this, creating a dangerous hazard.  Other motorists disregarded the pedestrian rights of way, until they saw me stopping.

My daughter chose to throw our money away at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum

I found this freak show rather lame and outdated, but I guess it’s ok for kids.  There’s nothing here surprising to a person well versed in science and history.

This is a hairball from a pig.  The poor animal must have coughed its lungs up to get this out.

This is a photo of me next to a replica of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to ever live.  In a boxing match between us it would’ve been hard for me to land punches above the belt.

This poster of spiderman is made out of real spider webs.  Amazing!

This is a medieval chastity belt.  I bet men found a way to overcome this.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Mark Gelbart Eats an Eyeball–Believe it…or Not

We ate supper one night at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, an overpriced tourist trap restaurant.  They serve trout 13 different ways.  The sides were nothing special–frozen crinkle cut french fries, the driest hushpuppies I ever ate, and bottled salad dressing.  The trout was good–I wolfed down a whole crispy fried one.  This was the first time I’d ever eaten a fish with the head left on.  I made Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods proud when I dared to eat a fish’s eyeball.  It tasted strong, much fishier than the flesh, and I could feel the solid texture of the lens on my tongue.  I didn’t eat the other eyeball and don’t recommend eating them, unless starvation is imminent.

We ate lunch at the Flying Pig Smokehouse.  The prices here were more family friendly, and the barbecue genuine.  The apple cinnamon barbecue sauce went well with smoky pork.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I highly recommend this park for those interested in botany.  Situated as it is in the middle of eastern North America and with varying elevations, plant species diversity is high.  There are plants that prefer warm climate growing next to species with cold climate affinities, much like what grew further south in Georgia during the Ice Age.  I found hemlock, white pine, loblolly pine, white oak, chestnut oak, northern red oak, beech, birch, elm, tulip, red maple, box elder, buckeye, sweetgum, sycamore, hickory, bigleaf magnolia, and black walnut.  The large numbers of black walnut within the park boundaries surprised me.  This tree’s wood is prized by furniture makers.  It’s rare outside the park, though it formerly was a common species of our eastern deciduous forest.  Rhodadendron was common in the understory.

This is the view from Newfound Gap.  The mountains are literally smoking.

Meigs Falls

Rhodadendron in the center of the photo.

This is a potential bear den next to the Appalachian trail.  When large mature trees fall, the roots rip up caverns, making it easy for bears and other critters to dig deeper tunnels.  This part of the trail was busy and noisy.  We were sandwiched between a motorcycle convention in the parking lot and a hiker playing loud music.

I do not recommend Great Smoky Mountains National Park for tourists interested in wildlife viewing.  By far the most common large mammal species in the park is Homo sapiens–the park is badly overcrowded.  The main highway #441 that bisects the park has bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I even got stuck in a traffic jam.  Supposedly, the park holds 6,000 white tail deer, 1600 black bear, 600 wild boar, and 100 elk.  The only mammals I saw were an estimated 40,000 people and one gray squirrel–a bitter disappointment.  Supposedly, 200 species of birds reside in the park.  I saw 5, and they were species commonly seen in Augusta, Georgia where I live.

95% of the park is a closed canopy forest; the balance is meadow.  Some of the forested area is old growth.  Large mammal populations are low in old growth forests, and what little lives there is hidden in the trees.  No timbering is allowed so mast-producing trees, such as oaks,  are being shaded out by less productive trees.  Coupled with the loss of the chestnuts to the blight in the last century, this means there is little food available for large mammals.  Moreover, most of the areas in the park that are favorable for wildlife viewing were closed. Cades Cove, Roaring Fork, and Clingman’s Dome were all closed either for maintenance or due to rock slides.  Cataloochee Valley, on the eastern side of the park where the elk were re-introduced, is remote and difficult to access.  It’s at the end of a long, winding, unpaved road that’s steep and has a speed limit of 5 mph.  Because my wife’s disabled, I was nervous about continuing on this road.  If our car broke down, it would’ve been a disaster because she couldn’t walk back to civilization.  So I turned back.

I didn’t even see any interesting small mammals.  Red squirrels, also known as chickarees, inhabit the park as well as chipmunks and woodchucks.  None of these species live near Augusta, but alas I didn’t see them here either.

I did see lots of butterflies, especially eastern tiger swallowtails.  Their larvae feed on many of the tree species so common here.  I also saw two different kinds of butterflies from the Pieridae family.

The museum at the park welcome center had many fine stuffed specimens.  The museum affords about the only opportunity for a visitor ot see animals in the park.

I did catch a whiff of a nearby skunk at Newfound Gap.  It didn’t smell as bad as our hotel room which I nicknamed the Armpit Motel.

This is a tulip tree trunk.  Large, mature tulip trees are a dominant tree in the park.  None I saw approached this is circumference.  Most people don’t realize that much of the original forest in this area was leveled by 1910.   The forest now consists of second growth.

This is the biggest bald faced hornets next I’ve ever seen.  They’re a marvel of insect engineering.

Supposedly, this is a trout stream.  The waters are clear but I saw no fish, turtles, frogs, or fish-eating birds.  Don’t expect to catch trout here.  The only trout left in the area are grown on fish farms.

Admittedly, I’m a cynic.  I suspected the park administration exaggerated mammal population estimates to encourage tourism.  So to prove to myself that animals actually live in the park, I looked for tourist videos of wildlife in the park on youtube as evidence that they weren’t just making these figures up.   I don’t have direct links but do a search at for “Bear breaks into car at Clingman’s Dome,” “Cades Cove black bear,” and “Elk in the Cataloochee Valley.”  Note how incredibly ignorant some of the tourists act around bears.  The footage of bears tearing up logs while looking for termites, and another of one digging up a yellow jacket nest is interesting.  The video of a bull elk bugling, while the rest of the herd rests behind a flock of turkeys is the kind of scene I had hoped to see.

Overall, I think the park is poorly managed and underfunded.  The current ratio of closed canopy forest to meadow limits quality wildlife habitat and viewing.  Selective tree cutting, as practiced by native Americans, would improve both.  Bison, wild horses, cougars, and wolves should be re-introduced.


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15 Responses to “Gatlinburg, Tennessee–A Tale of a Tourist Trap Nightmare”

  1. cultureschlock Says:

    Hi Mark — Enjoyed your recap of the Tacky-saturated gates to nature! Thought you might be amused by this celebration of people who deliberately seek out tourist traps:



  2. Lee Says:

    Yes, Gatlinburg is a tourist trap…but mild compared to nearby Pigeon Forge!

    As far as wildlife in GSMNP goes, I disagree wholeheartedly with your assessment. I have seen all of the large mammal species you mention…fairly regularly. I don’t keep up with bird species, but have seen many. And the park is a trout mecca. The trout fishing there is outstanding.

    You should re-think your decision about visiting Cataloochee. The dirt road from the NC side isn’t really very steep, although it is curvy. It’s a good road. Cataloochee valley itself is very flat, beautiful, and full of wildlife. I can’t imagine *not* being able to see elk there in the evenings.

    Red wolves were re-introduced into the park in 1991, but they did not establish a viable population. I never saw them, but I did hear one one evening while camping in the park about 15 years ago.

    Regarding funding: I would support charging admission to the park, and for fishing licenses, as they do in Yellowstone. As it stands, the park itself receives little in the way of direct funds from the visitors.

  3. markgelbart Says:

    I think the red wolves were removed by humans. Their introduction was an experiment.

    We already give funding to the park through tax dollars.

    I was on the road that leads to the Cataloochee Valley. If my wife wasn’t disabled, I would risk it, but I have to think of her well being. That road was winding and went straight up. Part of it isn’t even paved.

  4. TNstormjunkie Says:

    FWIW Black Walnut trees are not rare outside the park. I have lived all my life around East TN. Believe me they are too many of them

    • markgelbart Says:

      Once could never have too many black walnut trees. The nuts taste great and are a valuable commodity. My parents had a black walnut in their front yard for years before it died. I have not seen any other black walnuts any where else in Augusta, Georgia in the 33 years I’ve lived here and seldom see them anywhere.

  5. ScionBoo Says:

    I have never been to GSMNP in the summer. My husband and I always go in the winter, usually during the months of January and February. There are very few tourists in the park or in the tourist towns. You are much more likely to see wildlife (except for the hibernating bears) at that time of year. I have some videos I took from the overlooks along the Foothills Parkway, and the only sound one can hear is the wind rustling the trees. No vehicles for miles. Actually, I can’t remember ever being in a traffic jam in the Smokies (park or towns).

    Try going back during the winter. You might like it better. Bonus: Because it’s off-season, hotel rates are way cheap!

  6. Maricruz Kerby Says:

    Almost nothing better than a fishing joke. My cousin just shared this joke with me: How much fishing tackle can a man accumulate before his wife throws him out? I don’t know the answer but I think I’m nearly there.

  7. Rich Says:

    Such a negitive man….could not imagine making my daughters birthday so miserable….Im pretty sure Gatlinburg was formed for enjoyment(as Im sure was your daughters plan) not for people like you to make miserable for everyone involved….Everyone has an opinion and you have the right to have an opinion also….but Im getting ready to go there for a fun gettaway with my wife and I could have done without Reading yours….Maybe you should try to find good in the next thing you do with your family…If not for yourself do it for your Daughter im sure she would appreciate it!!!!

  8. Arlene O. Says:

    We decided to drive through the Smokies on our way home from Hilton Head to Michigan this past weekend, and thought staying in Gatlinburg would be a good idea. It was both our bad fortune and our good fortune to have arrived, quite by accident, in the late afternoon on the peak color weekend: good because the low light through the trees was beautiful, but bad because the traffic jam was horrendous — the last 12 miles of parkway going into Gatlinburg took us approximately two and a quarter hours! We saw a dozen elk in a meadow right off the parkway, and one dark blob as evening fell (when we were sitting in bumper to bumper traffic) that may or may not have been a bear, about 100 ft up a hillside from the parkway. Gatlinburg itself was also super-congested, and the type of ticky tacky tourist trap that doesn’t appeal to us. We got the last hotel room in town when we called from about 100 miles away. We ate at the Smoky Mountain Trout House and wouldn’t recommend it, either. But the foliage colors almost made the traffic worth it… almost.

  9. Arlene O. Says:

    Here are a few more details of our Saturday night in Gatlinburg. The room was $189 per night — way overpriced — but again, we were traveling through without realizing it was a peak time, and didn’t have a reservation until a few hours before our arrival. They wouldn’t give us a discounted rate (AAA or AARP) because it was a peak weekend. The room (at Fairfield Inn) was ok, but badly needed refreshing, especially at that price — furniture quite beaten up, for example. The trout at the SMTH was good other than being way too salty. My husband (not a trout eater) had a rib eye that was mostly fat. The cole slaw was excellent, though the other sides were very disappointing (twice-baked potato and Italian (flat) green beans). They serve beer and a few mediocre wines by the glass.

    I appreciated reading your comments about the park flora and fauna. Other than the elk, our experience was similar — but then, we were driving through in a line of cars, not walking/hiking, so it’s no wonder there were few critters in evidence.

    Thank you for your honest appraisal of the park and the town. I pretty much agree.

  10. Capt. Howdy Says:

    I had been going up there for years spending money and having fun, then spring of 2011 i decided to move there. I lived there for a month from April till may. All i got was low paying jobs no work there. A great place if you have lots of money. Good to visit for short periods, that keeps it fun and after that leave so you do not ruin your vision of it.

  11. Connie Justice Says:

    I have been going to this area since I was a small child and I never get tired of it. There are many beautiful places to visit while in the area. Cades Cove, Roaring Fork, Chattalogie Valley, Cherokee, and many others. The Great Smokey Mountains are full of wildlife all you have to do is look. As far as the park being underfunded you can thank the federal government for that. I would suggest this area to anyone for vacation. I have been going there for 60 years.

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