A Taste of the Smoky Mountains

My first culinary experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains were pretty pedestrain. When I was a teenager, my friends and I would end backpacking trips by invading the Gatlinburg Taco Bell and feasting on Burrito Supremes.

These days, my hikes involve much better fare, and this fall The Adventure Post Team spent a week hiking, eating and drinking our way through Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg.

Here’s a rundown of our favorite eating and drinking experiences, plus recommendations on trails to explore to build up your appetite…

 

Brendas Bunion

 

Lunch at the Charlies Bunion outcrop on the Appalachian Trail

Yeah, its name is gnarly, but this rocky vantage point provides one of the most magnificent views on the Appalachian Trail. If you hit the trail mid-morning, you can reach the Bunion by lunchtime. One you’re there, you can scramble to the top of a boulder and eat with a grand view of ridges running to the horizon. Before we set out on our hike to Charlies Bunion, we picked up tasty sandwiches at Old Dad’s General Store near the number 10 stoplight in Gatlinburg. Ordering is similar to Subway—you can choose your bread, meat, veggies, etc. Best of all, they start making sandwiches at 7 a.m., so you can drop by on your way to the trailhead.

Work up your appetite: Hike from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion.Wendy @ Charlies Bunion

This 8.8-mile round trip begins at the large Newfound Gap parking area and climbs a ridgeline to deliver you to Charlies Bunion. While this section of trail can be crowded on weekends and in high season, we did it mid-week and thought it was pretty peaceful. Also, if you’re not familiar with the AT, this offers a good taste of the trail, and a side path visits a typical AT shelter where thru-hikers hunker down for the night. Keep in mind that this hike begins at an elevation of around 5,000 feet and climbs above 6,000 feet, so you’ll get your exercise, and temperatures will be cooler.



Trout House

Dinner at the Smoky Mountain Trout House

Located on the edge of town, far from the glitz of the main drag, the Smoky Mountain Trout House ain’t fancy, but it was one of the best restaurants we visited during the week. In fact, we liked it so much that we went there twice. Inside you’ll find a modest dining room with only a dozen or so tables, but back in the kitchen they make magic happen. Whether you get it smoked, grilled or cooked in moonshine, the trout is fantastic. Plus, the coleslaw (served as a first course) is refreshing, and they go easy on the mayo so it’s not too rich. Plus, you’ll thank us after you’ve ordered the corn pudding, which is more like a sweet, creamy dessert.

Work up your appetite: Hike the Maddron Bald trail to Albright grove.MaddronBald

This 7-mile round trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park takes you through an old-growth stand of towering hemlocks and poplars, and it will give you a sense of what the forest was like before it was heavily logged in the early 20th Century. Also, a little ways in you can visit an old pioneer cemetery and Baxter Cabin, a one-room log and stone structure built in 1889. Here, on this eastern side of the National Park, you’ll enjoy much more peace and quiet than you’ll find on the western side, which draws far more tourists.



Sugarlands

Mid-day Moonshine at Ole Smoky & Sugarlands Distilleries

Before Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, pioneers illegally made moonshine in remote mountain pockets, such as Greenbrier Cove. But in 2010, Ole Smoky became the first legal moonshine distillery to open in Gatlinburg, and now moonshine is a main attraction in town. At a handful of distilleries along the main drag, you can taste small samples of full-proof moonshine, or less potent concoctions with flavors like Sweet Tea and Pumpkin Pie.

Around Noon, we began our moonshine crawl at Ole Smoky, where you can not only sample the goods, but also purchase moonshine and souvenirs in a retail shop that’s staged as well as any Disney store. If the moonshine makes you dizzy, just head outside to the large music stage and sit in a rocking chair to enjoy an endless stream of top-notch live bluegrass.

From Ole Smoky, we slipped down the street to the Sugarlands Distillery, where staff members dole out the jokes as they pour the moonshine and turn a tasting into a bit of a comedy show. The tastings are great fun for a group of friends, and it’s smart marketing for the distilleries—we all purchased something, and in our kitchen right now are bottles of Shine Nog (35 proof), and Pumpkin Pie (40 proof) moonshine from Ole Smoky as well as a bottle of 125-proof moonshine from the Doc Collier distillery. For “medicinal purposes,” we picked up a bottle of Ole Smoky Blue Flame that’s knock-you-off-your-seat 128 proof.

Prepare your stomach: Breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast CampPancake

If there’s a signature dish of the Smokies, it’s gotta be a stack of pancakes. In Gatlinburg, there are at least 7 pancake houses, and just as many in nearby Pigeon Forge. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as pancakes serve as a sponge to soak up all that moonshine during a mid-day distillery crawl. At Crockett’s Breakfast Camp in Gatlinburg they make pancakes as thick as spare tires. (If you’re health-conscious, try the buckwheat pancakes pictured here.) One bit of advice: Get to any pancake house early, because by late morning the lines to get in will stretch down the sidewalk.


Americana

Grilling on the Balcony of Your Mountain Cabin

Plenty of hotels line the streets of Gatlinburg, but we always prefer to rent a cabin in the hills just outside of town. This allows us to enjoy some solitude and cook our favorite meals, as many cabins have a full kitchen and a grill. For this trip, we stayed in the fantastic “Americana” cabin managed by Jackson Mountain Homes (Click here for rates and availability). In the early evenings, we lounged on a broad balcony and watched the sun set behind a towering ridge. One night we grilled chicken kabobs that we picked up as the nearby Food City, which is a decent-sized grocery store that stocks most of what you’ll need for preparing meals. Later in the evening, we would soak in the hot tub or shoot pool, or just relax in the cozy upstairs living room, which also has a fireplace for colder months.

Work up your appetite: Hike the Porters Creek TrailIMG_2318

This 8-mile out-and-back trip leads past an old pioneer settlement and follows a lively stream to visit a set of falls. During the first mile of the hike you follow a wide gravel path that runs beside the remnants of a farmstead from the early 1900s. As you pass a stone wall, look to the right for the Ownby Cemetery, where old tombstones—many just slabs of rock—date back to the early 20th Century. Continuing on, we crossed a wood foot bridge and scrambled down to rest on boulders amid little waterfalls and shallow pools. Further on, about two miles into the hike, look left to see the Fern Branch Falls, which drops about 60 feet down the face of the bluff. While many people turn around at this point, you can continues another 1.7 miles to where the path ends at a backcountry campsite.

Getting there: At the junction of 441 and 321 in Gatlinburg (Light 3), travel east on 321. Go 6 miles and turn right at the Great Smoky Mountain National Park entrance sign on the right. Drive 3.1 miles and continue straight at the road junction. Travel another mile to to reach the Porters Creek trailhead.


 

Park Grill

Dinner at Gatlinburg’s Park Grill

A spacious restaurant in downtown Gatlinburg, the popular Park Grill offers plenty of tasty dishes, from grilled trout to Moonshine Marinated Chicken. But one particular side dish is heavenly—the sweet potato with maple butter (pictured above). The sweet potatoes are like candy, and the rich, tangy maple butter is nearly a narcotic. Should you become addicted, don’t worry—you can take home a jar of maple butter for about 10 bucks.

Work up your appetite: Take a Climbworks zipline tourZipline1

We’re gonna guess that maple butter has a few calories. But, you can burn those off with Climbworks zipline tour. Over the course of two and a half hours, we soared through the treetops of fantastic hardwood forest near the National Park. Never touching the ground during the tour, we rode a series of lines that delivered us to platforms set high in the tree canopy. With unobstructed woodlands surrounding us, we got a very different and spectacular view of the forest.

Though ziplines require little skill and physical exertion, you’ll do a few crunches as you try to stick your landing at the end of a run. Plus, our enthusiastic (and very professional) guides challenged us to do one particular line while soaring backward and upside down. Heck, the adrenaline surge alone will burn off a bit of maple butter.

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