Finding a Smoky Mountains refuge: A cabin in the woods in a pandemic

·6 min read

In a pandemic, what’s more appealing than a secluded cabin in the mountains?

Unless you count the Porcupine Mountains — aka The Porkies — in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which barely graze 2,000 feet, the only worthy mountain range in an easy day’s drive of Chicago is the Great Smoky Mountains. No rational person wants to fly unnecessarily right now.


Up early, race down Interstate Highway 65 to Indianapolis, over the Ohio River and on to Louisville, Kentucky, past the horse farms, late lunch (takeout) at the original Kentucky Fried Chicken in North Corbin, Kentucky, skirt Knoxville, buzz past the gasping-for-business outlet malls and go-carts of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, and you’re there.

You will, however, not be the only one with this idea.

The area around the Smoky Mountains is peppered with log-cabin accommodations. Not long ago, you’d most likely be renting from an East Tennessee local, but these days, the owner may well be a venture capitalist because financial publications have hailed investing where the demand from renters is virtually year-round: spring flowering, summer hiking toward cool waterfalls, fall colors, the iconic Smoky Mountain Christmas.

(As a favorite Smoky song goes: “Well I know there’s more snow up in Colorado than my roof will ever see/ But a tender Tennessee Christmas is the only one for me.”)

We’ve been down to the Smokies more than a dozen times (as longtime readers know), and I usually rent from Timber Tops, but these days a lot of self-managed cabins show up on Airbnb and even hotel sites like Expedia. I find the prices higher there and prefer to call a dedicated agency because you can usually negotiate another 10% or 15% off, especially if you are are a sweet-talker or staying for a full week or going at very short notice.

Ideally, you want to rent in one of two spots: just off the parkway between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Falls, affording some great Rocky Top-like views, or in Wears Valley, a few miles to the West. The latter area has been growing in popularity due to the new Foothills Parkway opening up, and many cabins there have you at the quieter (non-Gatlinburg) entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in less than 15 minutes. This summer and fall, you’ll want to be away from the tourist towns anyway, especially since Tennessee has not exactly distinguished itself in the mask-wearing department, so Wears Valley and straight to the park are good for those of us who believe in social distancing.

I’d even skip my beloved Dollywood this year (although it’s currently open at reduced capacity), even though that particular amusement park has no greater fan nor expert consumer than me. The Wild Eagle wing-coaster and the bluegrass music will still be there next year. And by then the charming park’s eponymous leader, Ms. Parton, will hopefully have seen her likeness replace every controversial statue in the South, being as her moral rectitude, philanthropy and hardscrabble charm are among the few things upon which all Americans can agree. And, by the way and contrary to the stereotype, most of the people of East Tennessee were on the Union side from the beginning.

Although the price points vary, few of these cabins lack a hot tub, a true Smoky pleasure after that eight-hour drive from Chicago. You’ll also likely find a small kitchen, a grill, an intimidating driveway, serviceable Wi-Fi, a deck (or three), a pool table for trashing those delicate teenage egos, maybe a fire pit (big these days, although I’ve never understood that preference since the whole area burned down in 2016) and a lot of bear decor.

You don’t need to eat out and take unnecessary risks (although, if you do, the affordable Alamo Steakhouse in Gatlinburg has the best outdoor seating). Just hit the nearest Food City store, and fire up the grill.

Speaking of black bears, the region’s signature but typically elusive attraction, the COVID-19 crisis seems to have made them notably more visible. Within a week in late June, we saw five of them. One was lumbering right outside our cabin, staring longingly at the trash can. In the park the following day, traffic stalled as a mom and two cubs played in the trees. And, on an evening drive through the gorgeous Cades Cove part of the national park, we watched two more young bears cavorting on a green field glistening with dew. They seemed not to have a care in the world.

In this emotional summer, the sight was enough to bring tears to your eyes.

And Styrofoam to your deck. Bears love hot-tub covers, which have the plastic foam in them. Our cover was devoured twice in a week. Who knew?

Such weirdness aside, the park feels like a safe place right now. This might reflect my constant worry that my two teenagers are not social distancing when they leave our house in Chicago, all our protestations and all their declarations notwithstanding. My strategy has involved the Smokies.

Whatever your age, and whether you are hiking to Laurel Falls, Abrams Falls (my favorite walk) or the Andrews Bald way up high, these mountains offer a kind of emotional balm this summer, especially if you rise early or go late in the evening. My 16-year-old noted early one morning, while out walking with his wheezing dad, that we were “basically, in a rainforest,” and he was not wrong. Unlike the mountain ranges to the north and west, the temperate climate in the Smokies means a wider variety of mammals, birds and insects and a different feeling from other hilly spots up north. It’s not quite Panama or Costa Rica or Nicaragua or Colombia, all offering rainforests to which I love to return, but you cannot drive to those majestical destinations right now. Not without unnecessary risk to you, and even to those who will serve your needs.

But you can make it to the Smoky Mountains with your loved ones and your masks. Zoom works just fine in the forest. Many mornings, I laughed as I watched my hard-toiling wife take down the wolf-cub art and move a weirdly timed Christmas tree before she positioned her laptop. Even then, she kept getting asked if she was leading her meetings from a sauna.

A small price to pay for clean, fresh air, relative solitude and, each evening, the promise of walking and talking along a soft trail filled with the sights, smells and sounds of the forest.

In the middle of the week, we even saw a double rainbow. Glistening against a backdrop of trees and peaks, the stunning sight caused a traffic jam of gawkers. Even the ranger pulled out his phone.

We’re all urban rationalists in my crew, but such things in the Smokies still make it feel like the future is brighter than we fear.

Note: Travelers who have spent time in Tennessee or a number of other states with increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases are required to quarantine for 14 days after entering or returning to the city of Chicago.


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