It sits at the edge of the wilderness and calls itself the "host town" of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg, Tenn., is a booming resort community, with a conglomeration of motels, hotels, restaurants, gift shops, craft spots and wax museums that's hard to believe.
Located 40 miles southeast of Knoxville at the entrance to the Smokies, Gatlinburg is unique -- a town with a population of less than 3,000 that boasts it has enough lodging facilities to take care of 25,000 visitors on any given day.
And no matter when you visit Gatlinburg, it seems like all 25,000 are there.
Those who cry "tourist trap" at their first glance should remember that, despite its rather gaudy appearance, Gatlinburg serves as headquarters for just about everything a vacationer might need.
From the town, you can go up into the mountains only a mile away for hiking, biking, horseback riding, wildflower pilgrimages, nature tours, fishing or simply loafing and sightseeing.
There's also a championship golf course that advertises "every hole with a panoramic backdrop." Plenty of tennis, too, and most of the motels have swimming pools.
Take a skylift ride from the main street up Crockett Mountain for a view of the whole area. Or, ride the tramway more than two miles up Mount Harrison, where there's even skiing, on Astroturf, in the summer.
Gatlinburg has an up-and-coming chamber of commerce loaded with maps and literature on what to do and see in the Smokies as well as in the town. And two miles south of U.S. 441 is the Sugarlands Visitor Center with more ideas.
Gatlinburg itself is something else again. Parkway, the mile-long main street, is lined with shops, motels and eating places -- the shops ranging from junky-looking resort souvenir spots to those selling honest-to-goodness antiques and works of mountain craftsmen. New small malls keep popping up each year and the shopping district has branched out into a couple of side streets.
Night and day are made for browsing, with the big crush often coming after dark when tourists who have spent the day out in the Smokies descend upon the street, everybody in a holiday mood. There was a time when it took a half hour or more to drive through traffic from one end of downtown to the other, but now parking is banned and the jam is eased with two lanes open in each direction.
Arrows point to five parking areas within walking distance of the shopping district. Also new this year is the "Gatlinburg Trolley." These buses, built like trolly cars, take you around town with frequent stops for only 10 cents a ride.
Gatlinburg always has been known for its mountain crafts -- woodwork, furniture, leather, candles, etc. -- and you still can see artisans at work amid all this carnival atmosphere.
Gatlinburg is home for the Arrowmont Craft School and Center, affiliated with the University of Tennessee, and the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School, which long has helped call attention to native handicrafts. Both are located right downtown. Also, a couple of miles out on Rte. 73E is the Glade Toads Loop, where visitors may meet craftsmen of the area.
Probably the best place to see pottery made is at the Pigeon Forge Pottery, about six miles north on U.S. 441. The step-by-step process is fascinating and you can watch it close up. The pottery a decade ago was the main attraction in the village of Pigeon Forge. Now that community of some 1,800 is loaded with motels, fast-food spots, a water show and even a small theme park -- and you have to keep an eye out for the pottery a block off the main drag.
For detailed information on doings in the Smoky Mountain area, you can call the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce toll free. The number: 1--800--251-9868. Or write the chamber at 520 Parkway, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37738.