"A lot of people come in and they believe there may not be a Gatlinburg at all to come to. A lot canceled vacations,” says local business owner Eric Hensley in USA Today in March. Gatlinburg businessman Ken Kooch adds that much of the reporting on the November wildfires in Sevier County makes it sound like everything is gone.
But in fact, the majority of attractions, restaurants, lodging and even the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sustained minimal damage. As Jim Gaines reports in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “though hundreds of cabins in the wooded hills were lost -- about 2,400 structures burned county-wide -- all the major attractions survived, and most hotels came through with no or partial damage.”
As a result, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are working hard to counter images and news stories focusing on the destruction. Travel planning websites such as Gatlinburg.com and Mypigeonforge.com assure potential visitors that shops, restaurants and hotels are open and ready for business. A handy travel map on the Mypigeonforge.com home page makes it easy to see that Pigeon Forge is easily accessible from many US cities (scroll to the green map and city chart).
Tourism is critical to the Sevier County area. According to Nashville Public Radio, “Gatlinburg is a city of just 4,000 full-time residents, but it has about 12 million visitors each year. Officials say the industry accounts for nearly three-quarters of the city's jobs and brought in $620 million in tax revenue last year.” Pigeon Forge, with about 6,000 residents, has about 10 million annual visitors.
Lots to See and Do
- Festivals and events happen year-round from the Gatlinburg Beans and Cornbread Festival in May to Pigeon Forge’s Winterfest to Tennessee Smokies minor-league baseball games in nearby Kodak. Find dates and details about these and other events in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
- Attractions abound including Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, arts and crafts shopping in Gatlinburg, Ober Gatlinburg resort and others (check out Trip Advisor’s top 10 and “hidden gems” lists for more ideas). John D. Ivanko’s two-part article on Gatlinburg eco-tourism on Mother Earth News’s blog highlights activities including guided nature treks, birding, zip lining, fly fishing and locally-sourced cuisine.
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park has something for everyone: hiking, camping, fishing, ranger-led walks, historic cabins, wildflowers and even auto touring. The park’s four visitor centers are good starting points to talk with a ranger, get a map or see a schedule of events.
- A total solar eclipse will happen on August 21, 2017, when the moon will pass between the earth and the sun. The eclipse will be visible along a 67-mile wide path across part of the United States, including the western portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Viewing spots in the park include Cade’s Cove and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
- This year marks the 40th anniversary of Smoky Mountain Field School, a series of non-credit courses taught by experts in ecology, natural history, biology and environmental stewardship. This joint program of the University of Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes indoor workshops and outdoor exploration. You can see the full course catalog and register online at the Field School website.
Or, Help Without Leaving Home
- Donations are still being accepted for the Sevier County Community Fund and the Gatlinburg Relief Fund. Learn about both of these at the Mountain Tough Recovery Team website.
- Your shopping dollars support local businesses in Gatlinburg even when you buy online. This handy guide to shopping in Gatlinburg includes arts and crafts galleries, specialty foods, jewelry, clothing, hiking and fishing gear, and more. Many shops have websites for ordering or take orders by phone.
As they say in Sevier County, the mountains are calling. The message? We’re still here, so come on and visit.