Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains
By Lynda McDaniel
[Fig. 43(2), Fig. 44(1), 46(1)] Hosting more than 800,000 visitors each year, this center is by far the busiest of the gateways to the Smokies, a reflection not only of the popularity of nearby trails but of the crowds drawn to other local attractions. As the sheer sales volume of its T-shirt shops attests, the bustling tourist town of Gatlinburg owes a large part of its thriving economy to dollars brought in by tourism. Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, home of Dollywood, are also within an easy drive.
The center is nestled in the Sugarlands Valley, home in pioneer times to a few scattered cabins and cornfields and reachable only by mule. The name of this once-remote valley comes from the abundance of maples that grow there, known to pioneers as "sugartrees" for their sap. The name that North Carolina settlers used for the valley, however, offers an interesting alternate perspective on its history: they called it "Moonshiner's Paradise."
Two short and easy trails lead off from Sugarlands. The 1-mile Sugarlands Self-guiding Nature Loop [Fig. 43(3)] serves as a good introduction to the wonders of the Smokies, especially after viewing the exhibits and orientation films inside the center. The 2-mile Gatlinburg Trail [Fig. 43(1)] winds past Park Headquarters to follow the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River into Gatlinburg. Hemlock, rhododendron, and mountain laurel grow along the banks, as well as American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and the spectacularly flowering Stewartia, or silky camellia (Stewartia malacondendron). The loud call of the belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) dipping above the waters has startled more than one of the local joggers and bikers who frequent this path. Swainson's warblers (Limnothlypis swainsonii) are sometimes summer residents of the rhododendron thickets near the visitor center.
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