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Gateways to the National Parks

Many National Parks within the United States are in isolated regions with limited development near them. This isolation adds to their charm by helping preserve their pristine nature. However, many parks have caused towns to be developed right at their doorsteps that heavily cater to the tourism industry that develops due to the parks. While this does lead to some loss of park’s natural charm, the trade off is that it allows visitors to enjoy an outdoor experience while still have access to modern amenities following each day in the park. Not all gateway towns are created in the same manner. While some offer little more than a gas station and few convenience stores; others have blossomed into communities that offer boutique shops, charming hotels, and great meals to enjoy after a full day on the hiking trail. With that spirit in mind, I would like to provide my opinion on my favorite National Park gateway towns that I have experienced throughout my travels.


Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Smokey Mountains National Park


These two towns are both located on the Tennessee side of Smokey Mountains National Park and offer two different experiences to visitors. Gatlinburg was designed as a “Las Vegas of the Smokies” with it’s central street being filled with variety shows and attractions ranging from musicals to magic shows. During my time in this town, I was able to take in their “Hatfield and McCoy” musical show, blending the region’s historical events with a modern twist designed for entertainment. While there was a bit of cheesiness to the show, it was still a pleasant way to enjoy an evening in the town and was enhanced by the fact that the show provided seating around dinner tables rather than auditorium-style seating and we were able to enjoy local recipes during the show. In addition to this show, we had also spent time in the city’s Titanic Museum, which was a recreation of the infamous ship located in the middle of the town that had been built as a museum. Attractions such as this or wax figure museum offer options for family entertainment if you wanted a break from the National Park for a day during your trip. The primary attraction that brings people to Gatlinburg is Dollywood, a full-scale amusement park located within the city that is complete with roller coasters and other fair rides.


Pigeon Forge provides a completely different experience. While there are still attractions such as the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Aquarium and the Hollywood Car Museum (my personal favorite); the attractions within this town are far less boisterous and are blended into a smaller town charm setting. This town is meant to create a cozy feeling that is more sub-due compared with it’s more extravagant neighbor in Gatlinburg. Sprinkled in between those attractions, there are small boutique shops offering things such as unique cheeses and local artists as well as several restaurants that offer great local BBQ. There is also an effort to incorporate the log-cabin western frontier architecture style within much of the town. While both towns were charming in their own way, Pigeon Forge had a larger appeal to my personal taste due to its laid-back feel complimenting the Smokey Mountains rising on the edge of the town’s limits.


Estes Park – Rocky Mountain National Park


Estes Park is like Pigeon Forge in many ways but offers even less shows and larger-scaled attractions (this is not meant as a negative). Estes Park leans even more towards the small-town mountain retreat experience while also incorporating many elements of western frontier architecture into it’s aesthetic. It’s main street offer’s amazing views of the Rocky Mountains towering over the entire town. Rather than shows or attractions, this town’s main street instead offers block after block of local restaurants, clothing stores, and art shops. One great separation that was noticed in this town was the lack of franchise or chain stores. While there are a few, most of the offerings within this town are locally owned “mom and pop” establishments which greatly adds to the character of this town. One of the standout dining experiences to me while I was traveling through this town was a local restaurant known as “Smokey Daves”. This was a local BBQ restaurant with home-made sauces and served an incredible variety of offerings such as sausage, brisket, and even bison ribs. This remains one of the best BBQ restaurants I have enjoyed in my travels across the United States. Another standout in this town is the Stanley Hotel. It is hard to miss this iconic hotel when you first enter the town. It is one of the largest structures in the town and located on an elevated hill making it stand out further while you are first entering this town. The Stanley Hotel is known as a haunted attraction and the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. The hotel leans into this by providing haunted tours regularly at night. I did make sure to stay the night in this hotel, which in addition to its reputation offers an incredible restaurant in the lobby and charming rose garden. For those traveling through Estes Park in the fall, you are also very likely to encounter herds of elk wandering through the town as the local elk population comes down from the mountains at this this time each year for their annual rut. Seeing a herd of 30 elk walking down the street as you enjoy your morning coffee is an amazing sight to behold.


Bar Harbor, Maine – Acadia National Park


In many ways, Bar Harbor is like Estes Park in that it provides a small town feel with limited franchise establishments that greatly adds to the town’s charm and character. Rather than the frontier architecture of Estes Park, Bar Habor offers colonial and Victorian revival styled architecture with it’s streets also filled with art shops, boutique stores, and restaurants. The food within Bar Harbor is one of its top attractions with the seafood being among the best in the country. The town’s location on the water allows it to acquire fresh seafood that is locally sourced. Cherrystone clams and New England clam chowder are a great meal to enjoy while staring out into the harbor or into the rising granite mountains that surround the town. The signature dish though, in this town is the lobster. One of the nation’s most luxurious seafood offers, Bar Harbor has this delicacy in large supply and offer’s it at every meal. I fondly recall one day in this town where we enjoyed a breakfast of lobster crepes, a lunch of lobster rolls, a country-boil lobster dinner, and wandered through town that night while enjoy a few scoops of lobster ice-cream (a butter-based flavor with bits of lobster in it). Bar Harbor also offers nice beaches to enjoy whether in the town itself or within Acadia National Park that this town acts as the gateway too. Among the best times to visit this park is during the fall where the landscape offers breathtaking views of the changing fall foliage. Due to the variety of trees and elevations in this park, visitors can see the mountain sides come alive in vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red. This is accented more by the pink granite that make up the mountains of Acadia National Park. My personal favorite to take in these views was from the top of nearby Cadillac Mountain that offers views of the fjord that blends blue ocean views that are surrounded by vibrant mountains overflowing with color.


Jackson Hole, Wyoming


Completing this list is Jackson Hole, Wyoming which acts as the gateway to Grand Tetons National Park also has many similarities to Estes Parks with its frontier character that are built around a town center that is known for its signature arches made entirely of elk horns. Franchise restaurants are also not found in the center of town which instead offers local establishments, although franchises can be found a bit further away from the town center. While Estes Park is surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, Jackson Hole is instead at the foot of a single mountain chain that is made up of five peaks. The smaller quantity of mountains is made up by the sheer size of these snow-capped peaks that are a joy to behold and easily visible from anywhere in the town. Jackson Hole is also the most accessible of these towns with a regional airport located just outside of the town. While this is a great location to visit any time of year, it is especially popular during the winter months when the Grand Teton Mountain range offers some of the country’s most popular ski experiences. While Grand Tetons National Park is located at the edge of town, visitors here also have easy access to Yellowstone National Park whose southern entrance is located an hour north of town.


While these are my favorite gateway towns, there have been several others that also stood out to me as destinations that are worth visiting and exploring. I look forward to sharing these other towns as well as future towns I plan on visiting with my readers in the hope that they offer ideas and inspirations for everyone to experience for themselves. But that is a story for another day…

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