If you haven’t been to the Great Smoky Mountains in the last few years, you might not recognize its surrounding towns and cities.
Having survived and rebooted after the 2016 wildfires, the mountain communities and businesses have found new ways to harness Mother Nature, embracing the area’s natural beauty and linking it to adventure travel and leisure.
With new museums, shows and attractions popping up across the area, businesses from Townsend to Gatlinburg have incorporated nature into a variety of outdoor experiences from mountainside miniature golf to the mountaintop magic of Anakeesta with its treetop skybridge, the longest tree-based bridge in North America, offering adventure-seekers an 880-foot trek on a hanging bridge suspended 50-60 feet above the ground.
While Anakeesta, a place for outdoor adventurers and explorers, is relatively new, Hillbilly Golf has perched on the edge of Gatlinburg since Johnson City’s Shelby Boyd bought the hill it operates on in 1969.
Not sure what to place on the newly acquired land, Boyd sat at the base of the hill until the picture came together for how to create an immersive experience for guests that didn’t detract from the mountainous area.
“He didn’t turn the mountainside into a miniature golf course,” course manager Jim Howard says. “He put a miniature golf course on the mountainside.”
Boyd, who worked on the course until he was 93, built the course with little help, opening July 4, 1971. The course has stayed in the family since, with Boyd’s daughters taking over the property after his death.
Lifting guests on a tram to the top of the hill, players play one of two 18-hole mini golf courses for $12.99 (adults), $10.99 (seniors) or $8.99 (children 4-12) as they cascade down the hill before catching a tram the rest of the way down. Another game can be played for $5.
“It’s not like you’re playing golf,” Howard says. “It’s like you’re taking a walk through the woods, but you’re playing miniature golf as you go through.”
Respecting nature is at the forefront of everything Hillbilly Golf does, with wildlife like bears and deer expected to roam as needed and plants to grow naturally.
When the Chimney Tops 2 fire found its way into Gatlinburg in November 2016, the course was lucky enough to be spared from total destruction by a few feet, Howard explains, stopping just short of their course’s outer edges.
Damage was still evident, but instead of covering the fire’s marks from the course, Hillbilly Golf embraced the scars and marks to show mountain history. Markers are placed along the course to show signs of fire damage and at the tram’s entrance, and an art piece was made from the remains of melted golf clubs.
“We take what nature gives us and we use it to our advantage, respecting nature,” Howard says. “We don’t try to hide it.”
Anakeesta, a 70-acre mountaintop attraction at 576 Parkway, suffered its own Chimney Tops 2 fire destruction, delaying its completion and eventual opening to Sept. 1, 2017.
Seeing the burnt mountainside as an opportunity to aid in reforestation of the area, landscape architects Bob and Karen Bentz and Anakeesta’s full-time horticulturist David Montgomery helped design the 1700-foot Vista Gardens Walk.
“We chose this side of our mountain to build the Vista Gardens so we could bring back life to what was once our most scorched area from the fires,” marketing manager Erica Moore says, adding that 5,000 flowers, 800 shrubs and 400 trees have been planted as a part of the reforestation.
Guests are lifted up the mountain to the Vista Gardens and other Anakeesta attractions like a mountain coaster, skybridge and zipline via Chondola, either in an open-air chair or enclosed cabin.
In the fall, Anakeesta will offer another way for guests to reach the top, with the Ridge Rambler “adventure vehicle” set to take a forested path to help guests enjoy a scenic forest ride to the top. The Ridge Rambler, a large, flatbed truck with open-air row seating, will feature audio, sharing fun facts about the history, animals, forest and plant life of the Great Smoky Mountains.
“We have created a unique outdoor family experience by immersing guests of all ages in the beauty and nature of the great outdoors,” Moore explains, adding that the Anakeesta tagline rings true: “There is magic in the mountains.”
Guests aged 12-59 can experience the Chondola ride, gardens, treehouse village, memorial forest, an overlook and dining and shopping at the Firefly Village for $21.99; children 4-11 are $17.99 and seniors 60+ are $19.99. The mountain coaster and zipline are available for additional purchase.
Hoping to immerse guests in different ways to enjoy the mountain top through the Vista Gardens, a Treehouse Village Adventure and Memorial Forest Walk, Anakeesta guests are encouraged to put phones away and enjoy the mountainous area in real time.
“We are a unique and immersive outdoor experience that has something for the whole family to enjoy,” Moore adds. “I am truly honored to have been a part of building this wonderful outdoor attraction.”
Jennifer Duerer, co-owner and general manager of Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing, 205 Wears Valley Road in Townsend, also is pushing the phone-free experience.
“It’s a great way to leave your phone behind and just enjoy the views of the Smoky Mountains,” Duerer says. “It’s a great way to play in Mother Nature’s water park. Get out and play in your own backyard.”
Opened in 1995 by Duerer’s sister and husband, the business started with a bunch of old tubes that the couple borrowed from a man in the area. At the end of their first season, they had purchased the tubes and shed in which they were kept.
“Townsend has grown so much (since then),” Duerer adds. “You can do just about anything now.”
Duerer says a strong local following has helped build River Rat a reputation. Adults 13 years and older can enjoy tubing for $17, and children aged 4-12 can for $12. Children under 4 are free.
“More and more, people are finding Townsend. Maybe that’s in part because of River Rat,” Duerer says. “You don’t just drive through Townsend and say, ‘Oh, tubing sounds fun.’ You come to Townsend for tubing because it’s a great day trip.”
Hillbilly Golf also has seen growth, even as electronic devices have become more popular, Howard says.
“Everybody wants electronics and lights and buzzers and the most modern thing(s),” Howard says. “This is a small little golf course on the side of the mountain that just gets more and more popular every year, year after year.”
The golf course, which has seen hundreds of guests since its start, has a strong local and tourist following, Howard says, adding that the golf course has helped guests remember their loved ones by scattering ashes in a designated portion of the courses and adding names to rock walls throughout the course.
“This place has a lot of meaning for a lot of people,” Howard points out. “Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t stop us and say, ‘You know, my grandfather brought my father here when he was a kid. My father brought me here when I was a kid and now I’m bringing my children.’”
Hillbilly hopes to give back to the community by paying tribute to the farmers who owned the land before.
“(Boyd) respected nature, respected the lay of the land,” adding that wagons, water wells and tractors can all be seen on the course, and guests are encouraged “to crawl all over” the pieces.
“Everything appears authentic. There’s nothing fake about it; nothing plastic or artificial about it,” Howard says. “All the stuff that’s up here is the real deal.”
Hillbilly Golf isn’t the only attraction remembering those before them either. Anakeesta is built on the land used by the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for women that brought education and health care to a once-rural area.
“We are a family owned company that gives their guests a great value,” Moore says. “(We do this) in order to share lifelong memories with the ones they love.”