Gatlinburg: Tee Time in Tennessee

A meadow provides habitat for wildlife inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A reintroduced bull elk peers through the lush forest.
photos by Lisa Ballard

Gatlinburg’s hillside miniature-golf course offers a reprieve from the crowds

I’m not xenophobic, but when I unexpectedly find myself amid hordes of strangers, I get a little panicky. It happened to me in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on our way into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).

I love large-landscape national parks. My husband, Jack, and I live near Yellowstone and often pick a national park as a travel-to destination. The Smokies were atop my wish list due to their reputation for fantastic hiking through wild rhododendron forests and the exceptional diversity of flora and fauna.

A meadow provides habitat for wildlife inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A meadow provides habitat for wildlife inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border and encompassing an area of 800 square miles, GSMNP is the most biodiverse national park in the United States. Scientists have cataloged 19,000 organisms and believe there may be another 100,000 more. And elk have been successfully reintroduced. Eastern elk! Now that was something we longed to see.

We weren’t the only ones. GSMNP is the most visited national park in the country, with about 11 million visitors annually, twice the number who tour Yellowstone. And they were all there the day we arrived!

As we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, slowly making our way past Dollywood, water parks, arcades and various Ripley’s
attractions, I could feel my throat closing up.

“Relax,” I silently reminded myself, but I gripped the armrests of my seat so hard, my fingers turned white.

Jack sensed my condition. He veered out of the endless traffic line and into the parking lot for Hillbilly Golf, a mini-golf course built on the side of a steep hillside that smacked of moonshine and Ma and Pa Kettle.

I feared the worst, but Hillbilly Golf turned out to be the best! After riding 300 feet skyward on the incline trolley, we putted our way past whiskey barrels, enormous trees and wobbly wagons. Tiger Woods I was not, but with each miss, I laughed so hard my sides hurt.

After an hour, we were back at street level. The crowds were still there, but they seemed less oppressive. If you can’t beat the tourists, join them. After all, we’re all tourists in one sense or another when we travel.


 

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