East Tennessee vacation haven thrives in wake of wildfires
By MARY ANN ANDERSON | Tribune News Service | Published: March 31, 2017
It’s a spectacular drive northward along Highway 441 from small town of Cherokee on the North Carolina side of Smoky Mountains National Park to Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side. In the lower elevations, the spring wildflowers of mid-March -- mostly trillium -- pop from the ground, offering bits of color that soon disappear the higher we climb toward 5,046-foot Newfound Gap at the center of the park. At the highest elevations, patches of snow and ice among the fir and spruce trees prove that winter still hangs on.
As my husband, Roy, and I approach Gatlinburg on Highway 441, we pass a near a trail called Chimney Tops. It is here we see the first signs of the massive wildfires that ravaged East Tennessee and Smoky Mountains National Park this past autumn.
Chimney Tops, as it turns out, is ground zero, the place where the human-caused fires first began to smolder. The trunks of the trees, their tops bare in winter, are solemn and scarred black in places, but undergrowth is fast returning with the mild weather that enveloped the Southeast during January and February.
Four months after the last flames of the wind-whipped, drought-fueled monster wildfire were finally annihilated by firefighters and doused by rain, glorious rain, the phoenix that is Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville is rising from the ashes amid the shadows of the Smokies.
Because of the intense international spotlight the wildfires thrust upon this vacation haven for honeymooners and families alike, some believe that the entire area was completely obliterated and that there’s nothing left.
But that’s oh so untrue.
This entire East Tennessee region is alive and well and completely thriving, and its message is essentially this: Come on down. Or over. Or up. Fly in. Drive in. Even hike in. We’re open for business, and we welcome you with open arms.
“The perception is still out there that there’s nothing left to see, that it all burned up,” says Leon Downey, executive director of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “But the attractions are still operating, and the views from the parkway are still as beautiful as ever.”
That’s not to say there isn’t much damage, he points out, because as the entire world knows by now, there is plenty of it, primarily in Gatlinburg, with much of it in the cabin rental business.
In Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, none of the businesses are affected. But Downey also says it was the horrific images splashed across the internet, television and newspapers that made potential visitors believe that Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg were destroyed and that Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park, was wiped off the map.
But no attractions or major hotels are destroyed and the park is as hauntingly beautiful as ever. As Roy and I drive the Highway 441 strip between Gatlinburg, the most southern of the three cities, through Pigeon Forge, and then to Sevierville on the north, everything looks much the same as it did when I last visited some dozen years ago -- except now there’s much more to do.
The great attractions of Ober Gatlinburg, the only ski resort in Tennessee, and Dollywood have no damage and are fully operational. The Aquarium of the Smokies is right where it’s always been, and so are the Dixie Stampede and Splash Country Water Park. Roy and I visit the new Titanic Museum and Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, as well as the Old Mill, a circa-1830 grain mill that is one of the most iconic images of Pigeon Forge.
In fact, there are so many attractions, all lit by neon and bright lights, that I don’t think any one person could possibly see it all in a year’s time.
Gatlinburg’s iconic wedding chapels are ready for your “I do’s,” and honeymoon cabins, also beloved symbols of the region, are plentiful. As a matter of fact, we opted to stay in a lovely two-bedroom hilltop cabin at Eagles Ridge Resort in Pigeon Forge with nary a sign to be seen of the vestiges of wildfires.
When we visit, it is the beginning of spring break, although snowflakes are falling and would soon cloak and transform the Smokies into winter wonderland. For some, at least, the word has apparently gotten out that this region is indeed open for business, as the traffic, while not bumper to bumper, is heavy although navigable. The cars are sporting plates from Mississippi, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. There are more Florida tags than any other state, but mixed in, too, are plates from as far away as California and Washington to New York and Massachusetts.
Nestled into these ancient mountains near Gatlinburg is the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center and headquarters. On our drive along the parkway to Sugarlands, we round a curve and a turkey, a huge tom with his tail feathers in full fan, struts his stuff right in the middle of the road. He is a splendid specimen, apparently looking for love. The tom is doing a fine job of impressing the ladies, as my husband spots a couple of hens just off the roadway in the woods. It’s a good sign that the fires didn’t permanently scare off the wildlife.
At headquarters, we talk to Dana Soehn, a management assistant in the public affairs office.
She tells us that of the 17,904 total acres that burned, 11,410 were in parklands within the park’s boundary and another 6,494 were on private lands.
“Those 11,410 acres represent only 2 percent of (the) 522,076-acre park,” Soehn says. “Fortunately, the fire occurred outside of the growing season and most of the vegetation was dormant. As for the critters, most wildlife has the inborn ability to escape by burrowing underground, fleeing or flying away, so we have no anticipated losses among the threatened and endangered species in the park.”
She added that there was no fire damage to historical structures, and that of the park’s 848 trail miles, only 31 of those miles were affected, adding, “Sixteen trails suffered some damage but are now reopened. Only four trails will likely have long-term closures for further assessments for damage and stability and for repairs.”
The park forest, which she calls an “incredibly resilient ecological community,” will return, although some of it that sustained the highest degree of burn and which represents only a tiny, tiny percentage of the park, may take decades to regrow.
Soehn has been in Gatlinburg for 20 years, and her husband is Gatlinburg-born and raised.
“This is not just what I do for my job with the National Parks,” she says. “It’s a personal story for me. We are all very, very connected in the community. We are all walking step in step with our counterparts in Sevier County for the event itself, the fires, and now the recovery.”
She also says the key message is that park guests who have been visiting for years should know it’s still intact.
Says Soehn, “It’s a place where they made their memories, whether it was their favorite campground, or their favorite picnic area. No campgrounds were affected by this. No picnic areas were affected. All of those places and things that people came here to see and do in the Smokies are still here to experience just as they always have been.”
The Smokies, she says, is a “really special park” where people don’t just come once in their lifetime. “They come back repeatedly. It becomes a part of their family tradition where they come back year after year after year. We want to assure people that those places where they made their memories are still here.”
One cold morning over breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp in Gatlinburg, where the portions are huge and served in cast iron skillets, we meet and talk with Marci Claude, who is public relations manager of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She wants to clear the air of smoke, so to speak.
“The international media left the world with the impression that we were burned to the ground and that nothing was left,” she says. “That is simply not the case.”
She explains that all told some 2,400 structures were affected by the wildfires, and those were predominantly homes, cabins and condominiums. Half of those were in Gatlinburg, with Mayor Mike Werner and City Manager Cindy Ogle’s homes among those destroyed.
From the aftermath of what Claude termed a “historic and unprecedented wildfire” came an outpouring of support from around the world.
“People love Gatlinburg,” she states emphatically. “It’s a sentimental place that we hold in people’s hearts. We have 13 to 14 million visitors a year in our area. People are just drawn here because they love it. Generations of families travel here, and everyone wants to contribute something to rebuilding. But we have to recover from the perception that Gatlinburg is no longer here, because clearly we are.”
Claude says she fields calls from visitors from around the globe and must often separate fact from fiction.
“Some think that even the mountains burned to the ground,” she laughs. “But they’ve always been here and will always be here. And there’s no smoke smell left. It’s the myth versus the truth.”
All around the region, Downey reminds those who are planning a visit that there are plenty of accommodations in hotel and motel rooms, cabins and cottages, campground sites and condominiums. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one of the dizzying array of restaurants that numbers close to 300.
“We’re open for business,” Downey confirms. “We’re fine, and we’re going to be fine.”
Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in the heart of East Tennessee. The closest airport is McGhee-Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville and is served by Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier and United.
Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
Telephone toll-free 800-588-1817
Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism
Telephone toll-free 800-251-9100
Sevierville Chamber of Commerce
Telephone toll-free 888-738-4378
Sugarlands Visitor Center
Great Smoky Mountains National Park