NEWSPAPERMAN Ernie Pyle, visiting Gatlinburg, Tenn., in 1940, found that gateway to the Smokies to be "an amazingly charming little city . . . all just like you'd want a mountain resort to be."

Pyle would barely recognize gaudy Gatlinburg today. Whatever charm it once had is smothered in crass commercialism that makes it seem like the Coney Island of the New South. And with 8,541,500 Americans seeking escape from their own crowded cities last year in this, the most visited national park, the solitude that Pyle found in the Smokies has become increasingly elusive, even for backcountry hikers.

Knowing none of this and beguiled by romantic notions about the Southern Appalachians, the three of us headed for the Smokies in mid-June. From Washington, we drove west to 181, stopping at an excellent non-profit museum in Strasburg, Va. AT Roanoke, we left the interstate for the slower, scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.

Our pretext for the trip was a weeklong workship my wife planned to take at Arrowmont, a nationally renowned crafts school founded in 1912 and affiliated with the University of Tennessee. Its low-key campus is an oasis of taste in this capital of kitsch.

The plan was to deposit my wife at Arrowmont for an intensive five days of warp-weighted weaving, a somewhat esoteric subject that defies simple explanation, while my 6-year-old son and I went camping in the mysterious mountains that boast the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.

After the three of us enjoyed a buffet supper (good food, reasonable prices) at Ogle's Restaurant, my son and I spent our first night in Gatlinburg at Ogle's Vacation Motel. Although the national chains have invaded Gatlinburg, a healthy slice of the tourist gold is being mined by old families like the Ogles, the Reagans and the Trenthams. Between them, these three names account for the ownership of nearly 20 motels.

After buying some supplies the next morning - at Ogle's supermarket - we set off for the Cades Cove campsite. Its most obvious advantage seemed to be its distance, 30 miles along a river road, from Gatlinburg.

We arrived around noon, prepared to pay our $4-per night. However, the National Park Service's computerized cash registers were "down." The trusting rangers, displaying a touch of humanity that constrasted with teh impersonal new technology, asked us to pay later when their piece of mechanical wizardry in the wilderness was again functioning.

Whatever notions I had of escaping crowds disappeared when we pitched our tent in one of the 160 sties that are jammed together at Cades Cove. The campsite, it turned out, is the Smokies' most developed. It has a grocery store, a sheltered amphitheater and a bicylcle concession. Throughout our stay, bike-riding youngsters happily splashed their way with abandon through the puddles of the campsite road system.

The cove, a large meadow in the mountains, contains an 11-mile loop road that promises a look at how people lived in the Smokies before their land and homes became a national resource, at wild turkeys and, at dusk, herds of grazing deer. The one-way loop road passes several log homes, a couple of churches and a collection of buildings centered around Cable Mill. None of the buildings is inhabited. When the Park Service moved in during the 1930s, most of the residents were moved out. Only a couple of families remain, as tenants of Uncle Sam. It is almost as if the government had destroyed the community to preserve it.

Following our intial drive around the cove, we returned to our campsite where my son made friends with the neighbor's kids. It was hard not to, since their tent trailer was parked only yards from our tent.

With our neighbors, a family from Panama City, Fla., we partook of the nightly programs the Park Service offers at campsite ampitheaters throughout the Smokies. We sat twice through the one about the stars (which my son kept calling "pastronomy"). The slide show was supposed to be followed by a star hike. But, as the ranger explained, the skies are too cloudy about 70 per cent of the summertime nights. Clear days, cool nights, brilliant foliage and fewer people mark the latter part of October, the least convenient visiting time for most families with school-age children.

For some reason, it had never dawned on me that the Smokies are named after the great amounts of haze and mist that envelop them. Therefore, we had packed neither raincoats nor umbrella and were ill-prepared for a week of rain that began with a 2.24-inch thunder-and-lightning deluge. Despite the weather, campsites generally filled up by mid-afternoon each day.)

The first night was marked also by a bear's visit to the campsite around 5:30 a.m., about which we learned later. Someone's ice chest careflesly left outside overnight had apparently been the attraction. We did not see our first bear, for which the Smokies are famous, until our fourth day. I was cooking supper at the Chimney Tops picnic area when the small-to-medium sized animal lumbered down the hillside, poked around a bit and lumbered back up.

Chimney Tops, also the name given to two nearly mountains, is on the main road that cuts through the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, N.C., a distance of 37 miles. The drive offers endless vistas on clear days. In more typical summer weather, the scene is of mist-shrouded mountains resembling an impressionist painting.

Cherokee is less garish than Gatlinburg, but not from not trying. The town is the capital of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, Indians who by hiding in the mountains managed to avoid the Trail of Tears march to Oklahoma forced on other Cherokees in the 1800s. The businesses in the town, supposedly owned or leased by Cherokees, play heavily on the Indian theme but in a way that might strike some as offensive. At one emporium, for example, an Indian dressed in Hollywood stereotype garb stands in front waving at tourists.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a non-profit enterprise located in a modern, new building, is worth a visit. It contains sound-and-slide shows depicting the tribe's history, language and legends. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children 6 to 13. Next door is a Cherokee crafts shop that featured on exhibit on basket-weaving during our visit.

Back inside the park, a few miles from Cherokee, we stopped at the Oconaluftee pioneer museum and frontier "farmstead." The farm contains several buildings that underscore the self-reliance of mountain people who did more than survive without electricity to pump their water, grind their corn and refrigerate their food.

At the Tennessee-North Carolina border is Newfound Gap, elevation 5,048 feet. It was here that we encountered Hare Krishnas from Atlanta, disguised in western dress, distributing literature and soliciting donations, and then hiked half a mile up a steep path that is part of the Appalachian Trail. Near Newfound Gap is the turn-off to Clingmans Dome, at 6,642 feet the highest point in the Smokies. But forget the panoramic view. Most summer days, the mist obscures all.

After two nights at Cades Cove, I decided it was time to move to Elkmont, a more centrally located campsite about six miles from the main Sugarlands Visitors Center. Teh campsite has more tent and trailer spaces than Cades Cove but they seem further apart. Our site was on a small bluff overlooking "Section K."

The Little River courses its way past the campsite, branching off at one point into a narrow stream. After watching the river from large boulders on its banks, we hiked up the stream and forded across. On the way back, calamity: I slipped on a mossy stone and lost my eyeglasses to the rapidly moving water.We were saved by a fellow camper standing nearby who fetched his fishing boots and found the glasses under a rock. Ironically, the overcrowding in the Smokies had been to our advantage. The stranger who found the glasses had been waiting two days to get on a backpacking trail, for which you must sign up in advance.

Back in business, we spent one morning on a five-mile drive just outside Gatlinburg. To my surprise and delight, the 10-mile-an-hour Cherokee Orchard-Roaring Ford "motor nature trail" was relatively untrafficked.

Just before the official beginning of the "motor trail"," we stopped at the Junglebook nature trail. The hike, guided by a 10-cent pamphlet available at the entrance, was through a lush forest with only scant reminders - a stone fence, a rotting board - that this was once a corn-growing farm.

The drive that followed, with several stops at more enduring remnants of pioneer homesteads, made the plastic of Gatlinburg only a few miles away seem like a mirage. Among the places in Gatlinburg we did not patronize: the American Historical Wax Museum, the World of the Unexplained Museum, Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the Space Needle, Gatlinburg Sky Lift, Ober Gatlinburg, Old Gatlinburg Mountaineer Museum, Mystery Hill, Cox's Antique Car Museum. Such attractions generally cost $2 and up for adults, $1 for kids. There is more of the same at Pigeon Force, a few miles north on Rte. 441, the road to Knoxville.

Despite the large number of "shoppes" in Gatlinburg, the town is not designed for pedestrians. Foot passage across "the Parkway," the main strip which is also Route 441, is at your own risk. Lights are spaced to accommodate cars, not people.

As part of the town's money-mania, even the sidewalk benches are advertisements for one attraction or another. All of this is apparently the way the town fathers want it. The local papers report that the city sign ordinance, having proven unenforceable, is being watered down. The proposed revision, however, had already run into criticism that it is too tough. Some further compromise was in the works at the time of our visit.

Gatlinburg, it seems, does have some scruples. This is, after all, the Bible Belt, and the selling of hard liquor and mixed drinks in restaurants is forbidden. "To make the most of this awkward situation," as one establishment puts it, most places provide set-ups for brown-bagging customers or become brown-bagging customers or become "clubs," which are non-exclusive.

You can tell this is a religious town because the big leathercraft store has "Jesus Is Lord" painted in big letters out Front, and there is a Christian Book store wedged between the Doll House shop and a barbecue and pizza joint. Not to mention Christus Gardens, a money-making "inspiring portrayal of the life of Christ" with "magnificant chorale music, perfectly blended with dramtic lighting."

Back at the Elkmont campsite, it was Friday morning and very wet. All the fathers in the campsite, it seemed, wanted out. Washing up in the men's room, one father told his son they would spend that night in a motel and then drive home. "What can we do in a motel we can't do here?" the son protested. "Stay dry and get a good night's sleep," was the reply.

Since water had leaked into our tent the previous afternoon, we had slept in our compact station wagon. The 6-year-old camper was ready to repeat the experience but was overruled. Instead, we spent our fifth night, joined by my wife, in a Gatlinburg motel.

Despite drawbacks from my vantage point, I knew our camping trip had been a huge success when the 6-year-old camper remarked as we drove away from the Smokies, "I miss both our campsite - both B53 and L2."