It’s a spectacular drive northward along Highway 441 from the town of Cherokee on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains National Park to Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side. In the lower elevations, spring wildflowers of mid-March — mostly trillium — popped from the ground, offering bits of color that soon disappeared as we climbed 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 proved that winter still hung on.
As my husband and I approached Gatlinburg, we passed a trail called Chimney Tops. Here we saw the first signs of the massive wildfires that ravaged East Tennessee and the park this past autumn.
Chimney Tops was ground zero, the place where the human-caused fires first began to smolder. The trunks of the trees were solemn and scarred black in places, but undergrowth was fast returning with the mild weather that enveloped the Southeast during January and February.
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Four months after the last flames of the wind-whipped, drought-fueled wildfires were finally doused by firefighters and rain, the phoenix that is Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville is rising from the ashes.
Because of the international spotlight the fires thrust upon this vacation haven for honeymooners and families, some believe that the area was obliterated.
But that’s not true.
This East Tennessee region is alive and well and thriving, and its message is essentially this: Come on down. Or over. Or up. Fly in. Drive in. Even hike in. The residents are open for business, and they welcome you with open arms.
“The perception is still out there that there’s nothing left to see, that it all burned up,” said 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 pointed out, because 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 were affected. But Downey said the horrific images splashed across the internet, television and newspapers made potential visitors believe that Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg were destroyed and that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited national park, was wiped off the map.
But no attractions or major hotels were destroyed, and the park is as hauntingly beautiful as ever. As we drove from Gatlinburg, the most southern of the three cities, through Pigeon Forge, and then to Sevierville in the north, everything looked much the same as it did when I visited a 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 had 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. We visited the new Titanic Museum and Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, as well as the circa-1830 grain mill that is one of the most iconic images of Pigeon Forge.
Gatlinburg’s iconic wedding chapels are ready for your “I do’s,” and honeymoon cabins, also beloved symbols of the region, are plentiful. We stayed in a lovely two-bedroom hilltop cabin at Eagles Ridge Resort in Pigeon Forge with nary a sign of the vestiges of the wildfires.
Nestled into the ancient mountains near Gatlinburg is the Sugarlands Visitor Center and headquarters. On our drive to Sugarlands, we rounded a curve and a turkey, his tail feathers in full fan, strutted his stuff in the middle of the road. It’s a good sign that the fires didn’t permanently scare off the wildlife.
At the headquarters, we talked to Dana Soehn, a management assistant in the public affairs office.
She said that of the 17,904 acres that burned, 11,410 were within the park, and another 6,494 were on private property.
“Those 11,410 acres represent only 2 percent of (the) 522,076-acre park,” Soehn said. “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 miles were affected. “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 called an “incredibly resilient ecological community,” will return, although some of it may take decades to regrow.
The Smokies, she said, 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 morning over breakfast at Crockett’s Breakfast Camp in Gatlinburg, where the huge portions are served in cast-iron skillets, we talked with Marci Claude, who is public relations manager of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.
She said that 2,400 structures were affected by the wildfires, and those were mostly homes, cabins and condominiums. Half of those were in Gatlinburg, where the mayor’s and city manager’s homes were 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 said. “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.”
“We’re open for business,” Downey said. “We’re fine, and we’re going to be fine.”
For more information
Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, Gatlinburg.com, 1-800-588-1817
Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, Mypigeonforge.com, 1-800-251-9100
Sevierville Chamber of Commerce, Visitsevierville.com, 1-888-738-4378
Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nps.gov, 865-436-1200
Where to stay
▪ Eagles Ridge Resort, Pigeon Forge, Eaglesridge.com, 1-866-369-2946. Log cabins and chalets.
▪ Wilderness at the Smokies, Sevierville, Wildernessatthesmokies.com, 1-877-325-9453. A family-oriented waterpark and resort that includes Stonehill Lodge, Riverlodge Suites and Sanctuary Villas.
▪ LeConte Lodge, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lecontelodge.com, 865-429-5704. Accessible only by hiking, LeConte Lodge is the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States.
Where to eat
▪ Crockett’s Breakfast Camp, Gatlinburg, Crockettsbreakfastcamp.com, 865-325-1403. Famous for the Huntcamp Skillet, a breakfast served in a cast-iron skillet.
▪ The Old Mill Restaurant and Old Mill Pottery House Cafe and Grill, Pigeon Forge, Old-mill.com, 865-429-3463 or 865-453-6002. Old-fashioned Southern food, including locally caught trout.
▪ Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant and Farmhouse Grill, Applewoodfarmhouserestaurant.com, 865-428-1222. Famous for Southern cooking, apple fritters and apple juleps.