Where There’s Smoke
Cutting a swath across the lower eastern edge of Tennessee and into the western corner of North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountain range is marked by stunning peaks and vistas, as well as an endless number of tiny pockets to explore. And while the range itself is worth traversing, the towns and villages that sit at its fringe and in its core are brimming with the many charms of mountain culture. At the northern edge, you’ll discover one of the nation’s most beloved cured ham outfits as well as a renowned resort, while the peaks offer their own secrets, like an equal parts challenge-to-reward, day-long hike, as well as unbeatable mountain views. Meanwhile, the namesake fog that regularly shrouds the mountaintops only adds to the region’s magic.
START IN KNOXVILLE
Technically part of the foothills of this mountain range, Knoxville is just hilly enough to feel like an entrance to them. It’s also brimming with mountain culture, a growing brewery scene, and restaurants that celebrate Appalachian cuisine. Find it done right at J.C. Holdway, where James Beard Award-winning chef Joseph Lenn stretches his local roots to incorporate Korean chili paste into his Carolina vinegar sauce and add sweet-and-sour sausage to a plate of mussels.
MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE RANGE
Take time to meander the back roads for stops at gems like Benton’s Country Hams. The scent of hickory wood will call you over to Allan and Sharon Benton’s roadside shop where the team produces world-renowned bacon and hams. Further into the foothills, in Maryville, Tennessee, you’ll find McQueen Pottery, where Leanne McQueen spins handcrafted dining pieces. That’s also close to Blackberry Farm, the venerated farm retreat where the onsite garden provides many of the heirloom vegetables that appear on chef Cassidee Dabney’s Appalachian-focused menu. For just a sip of the resort’s talents, make your way to the Blackberry Farm Brewery taproom, where old-world style brews are handcrafted and poured to taste.
HEAD INTO THE HEART
Gatlinburg is the bustling mountain town at the doorstep of the Smokies. One of the smartest ways to enjoy it is by heading up: Anakeesta is a spacious, mountain-top park accessible by chair lift (or “chondola”) from the center of town. Once there, you can traverse a sixteen-bridge treetop skywalk, ride on a mountain coaster, or simply soak in the views while sipping a local pint at the Cliff Top Grill and Bar. Back in town, the Greenbrier brings modern dining to the mountain. Look for in-house dry-aged steaks as well as a strong selection of whiskeys. Then, book a stay at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa where rustic luxury blends with family fun. There’s an indoor water park, mini golf, and zipline for the kids and the Serenity Spa and Mountain Top pool bar for mom and dad.
If you’d rather lace up and get outdoors, one of the area’s most rewarding hikes is up to Mount LeConte, the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. LeConte Lodge sits near the summit at 6,593 feet. Once you make the trek (the only way there is by foot), a collection of rough-hewn structures and a simple and reliable meal of roast beef and potatoes await. If a resort is more your speed, head toward Waynesville, North Carolina, at edge of the Smokies where the Swag, a tucked-away 14-room resort is perched along a ridge at 5,000 feet. The all-inclusive experience includes meals prepared in part from an on-property garden and purveyors from nearby farms, rustic yet comfortable rooms complete with wood-burning fireplaces, and hiking guides at the ready.
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