Offering fantastic access to Great Smoky National Park, a string of Tennessee towns offer attractions to enhance your park adventure. From art galleries to theater performances, plan on spending time outside the park in Maryville, Townsend, Alcoa, Friendsville, Louisville and Rockford. Here are four highlights. And a little-known secret? The Townsend entrance is the closest to Cades Cove, the most popular destination in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
1. Get Tickets for the Clayton Center for the Arts
Get a dose of the local art and performance scene in Maryville’s Clayton Center for the Arts, which celebrates the area’s rich arts and cultural heritage. You can see local and regional performances in theater and dance, adding a new dimension to your Great Smoky adventure. Inside, the Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theater seats 1,196. The Haslam Family Flex Theater can seat 200. www.Claytonartscenter.com
2. Sip Blue Goose Farm and Vineyards
Sip local wine at the Blue Goose Farm and Vineyards in Maryville. It’s a small, family-owned farm with a tasting room and a gift shop. The tasting room is in a small barn that once served the farm’s orchard barn. In the tasting room sample sweet and semi-sweet red and white muscadine wine, plus a selection of raspberry and blackberry fruit wines.
Visit at 3334 Old Niles Ferry Rd. in Maryville or bluegoosevineyards.com.
3. Discover History in Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center
Visiting a national park like Great Smoky Mountains National Park is awe-inspiring, but your experience becomes far more three-dimensional when you understand what gave rise to the people and culture surrounding the park. In fact, there were well-established towns within the park boundaries for year, so the park itself grew over time as people and mining and logging businesses were evicted and moved outside of the park. The park was established June 15, 1934.
Discover the rich stories and cultural history that spans 7,000 years at Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center www.GSMHeritageCenter.org.
“Cades Cove is the most visited spot in the Smoky Mountains, and it contains a rich history that many visitors don’t learn about through their drive or bike [ride] through the Loop,” says Bob Patterson, executive director of the center.
Beginning with Native Americans and ending with 1930, the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center fills on that history offering an interactive experience for travelers. It has 11 historic outbuildings, two galleries focusing on Native American and pioneer living, an Early Transportation Gallery covering the evolution of regional travel from footpaths to highways, a 500-seat amphitheater with views of the Smoky Mountains and a 100-seat auditorium.
“Heritage tourism is one of the fastest growing trends in the tourism industry – people don’t simply want to visit an area, they want to learn about its history, experience its culture and find what makes it unlike any other area in the world,” says Tami Vater, tourism director for the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Authority.
In the Native American and Pioneer galleries, you’ll find Native American artifacts, as well as replicas of Cherokee summer and winter housing. All items in the pioneer section are actual artifacts.
A highlight of 20th century history are the outbuildings that include the 1897 Cardwell cabin and an underground moonshine still donated by local Chuck Williams whose father used it to make moonshine in a secret underground spot at their home in Townsend. For years, local farmers produced moonshine from corn long before there were liquor stores.
Find more information at www.gsmheritagecenter.org
4. Visit a Piece of 1920s Americana
Located in downtown Maryville, the three-story Capitol Theatre building has experienced a renaissance. The lobby’s original oak floor and decorative black tiles have been painstakingly refurbished by local artist Heath Claiborne. But the transformation doesn’t stop there.
Treat yourself to dessert and coffee at the theater’s ice cream parlor with movie-themed booths such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. The walls are filled to the ceiling with classic movie props and replicas, from Marilyn Monroe’s dress to a working Ghostbusters proton pack. Or, in the main auditorium when no performances are happening, eat your ice cream while listening to classic movie soundtracks and looking at a starry backdrop.
On special days, guests can request personal tours of the hidden speakeasy beneath the theater. The Emerald Room, which is accessed via secret passages, is a 1920’s prohibition-era piano lounge and casino filled with authentic antiques. We won’t say whether it’s true, but rumors are a gangster named Oz hid the world’s largest emerald beneath the theater.
The Capitol Theatre’s Heath Claiborne Gallery
Prints and original paintings by Heath Claiborne hang in the first floor of the theater and are shown by appointment. The two sides of his work focus on Appalachian landscapes in the Smoky Mountains and surreal dreamscapes.
Claiborne’s story is just as interesting as his art and the building in which it hangs. In 2002, he and his wife collided with a tractor-trailer truck and were pulled from their burning vehicle. The accident made it gravely apparent how fragile life is, so he decided to pursue his dream of opening his own art studio and gallery. Visit Mr. Claiborne’s online art gallery at heathclaibornegallery.bookthecapitol.com