I had just started walking down a trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I was already feeling less stressed. The park’s fresh air, masses of trees and bubbling streams formed the perfect antidote to pandemic craziness.
As I walked, I recalled when I had turned off the interstate and into Sevierville, Tennessee, and first spotted the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance. “Your Smokies Start Here” — the tagline for the Sevierville Convention & Visitors Bureau — rings true.
Close to the national park and with many shopping, dining and activity options, Sevierville serves as an excellent base for group tours exploring the Smokies.
“Sevierville and Great Smoky Mountain area have been welcoming groups for many years, and we continue to provide valuable assistance to tour operators and planners alike,” said Tony Funderburg, director of sales & advertising for the Sevierville CVB. “Suggested itineraries, images and group planning assistance are all a part of what we offer.”
The great outdoors
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park, is known for the diversity of the plants and animals (30 species of salamanders, for example) within its 522,427 acres.
I stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get oriented. More than 800 miles of maintained trails make the park a hiker’s paradise. After taking the trail to Cataract Falls. I walked down a portion of the Gatlinburg Trail, which follows the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
A few miles from the visitor center is the trailhead to Laurel Falls. The 1.3-mile hike to the 80-foot waterfall is probably the park’s most popular hike. This trail is the longest of the park’s four paved trails.
Back in Sevierville, don’t forget about walks on the Sevierville Greenway and Trail system, which loops through many of the city’s scenic areas.
Feeling adventurous? Check out one of the zip line companies in the area. Horseback riding and rafting are other options.
Travel east of Sevierville to experience the underground beauty of Forbidden Caverns on an hourlong walking tour. The natural limestone cavern is full of interesting formations and a clear stream. From the early 1920s until 1943, the cave was used to make moonshine. Zach, our guide, noted that if you feel a drop of water during the tour, you’ve received a cave kiss, and it’s a sign of good luck.
The bronze Dolly Parton statue on the grounds of the Sevier County Courthouse is the perfect spot for a group photo. Parton, a singer, songwriter, actress, businessperson and philanthropist, considers Sevierville her hometown. In fact, Dolly performed her first paying gig at The Pines Theatre in Sevierville.
A walking tour of historic downtown Sevierville encompasses 40 points of interest — from jail bar grates to notable homes. See renovated buildings, the redone streetscape and two new murals.
From shine to lemurs
Illegally distilled liquor — moonshine — has been part of the Smokies ever since the first cornfield was planted. Now that making moonshine is legal in Tennessee (in a licensed distillery), the beverage has caught on in a big way. Tennessee Shine Co., Sevierville’s newest distillery, offers a moonshine tour and nifty interactive museum in addition to tastings.
“I think the popularity of moonshine is that it used to be illegal and now it’s legal,” said Melissa McCandless, manager of Tennessee Shine Co.’s Sevierville operation. She noted the family-operated and locally owned business distills its products in small batches. “I see the grain come in and leave as alcohol,” she said.
Sample a variety of more than 30 flavors, such as Moon Pie Banana Cream, the award-winning Apple Pie, Choco Moo Shine, Jalapeño Cornbread and Straight Off the Still.
The Tennessee Museum of Aviation features a collection of airworthy warbirds and aviation memorabilia. Jerry Hixson, a volunteer guide who served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter mechanic, showed me around the exhibit gallery and the giant hangar full of aircraft. Guided tours are available with a three-week notice.
Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo features over 600 live animals representing about 120 species from the rainforests of the world. Owner Bill Lucey said he hopes guests get a sense of the world’s biodiversity and are motivated to help protect living natural treasures.
“Shopportunities” are abundant in Sevierville. Tanger Outlets presents over 100 high-end outlets. Special services include a meet and greet and free coupon books for groups of 15 or more traveling together with a 24-hour notice.
At Smoky Mountains Knife Works, 108,000 square feet is packed with products — from kitchenware to fossils and from samurai swords to home accessories. And, of course, knives of every size and design imaginable. Check out the huge sword in the stone display.
Anchored by the Apple Barn and Cider Mill, Apple Barn Village offers a variety of apple- and food-related shops. Browse the general store (originally a real cattle barn), creamery, winery, hard cider house, candy factory, and a candle and Christmas shop. Enjoy a fried apple pie and a glass of cider. Taste the hard cider and wine. Plus, there are two very group-friendly restaurants: Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant and Applewood Farmhouse Grill.
Main Image: Dolly Parton statue Credit: Sevierville CVB