Wears Valley: The Jackson Hole of the South?
I was more than a bit intrigued when a friend noted that Tennessee’s Wears Valley is becoming the “Jackson Hole of the South.”
Has The Wort Hotel’s famed Silver Dollar Bar opened a second location in Wears Valley? The hotel’s owners live in Knoxville, so maybe that’s a possibility…
Curiosity got the best of me, so I went to find out what my friend meant.
Wears Valley borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just like Jackson Hole fringes Grand Teton National Park. Early settlers, including the Wear Family, found much to love about this valley where black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace grow in profusion. Rustic barns and modest homes sit on fertile bottomland; creeks weave through cornfields and green pastures. Bountiful garden patches speak to the enterprising nature of the valley’s longtime residents. A sign for farm fresh eggs rests on the roadside near Pig Pen Hollow Road.
Highway 321, known locally as Wears Valley Road, runs the length of this 6-mile-long valley. It connects Townsend, the community of Wears Valley and Pigeon Forge. Lyon Springs Road branches off Highway 321 and leads directly to the national park’s Little Greenbriar School, multiple trailheads, and Metcalf Bottoms picnic area. For motorists departing Townsend, these roads provide a shorter route to Gatlinburg than going through Pigeon Forge.
Townsend and Blount County are often touted as the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” especially when compared to the high-voltage destinations of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville in Blount County. This moniker holds true about Wears Valley Road. On the Blount County end, forest and farmland edge the road once you drive away from the Townsend business district. Gracehill Bed and Breakfast, an award-winning accommodation with awe-inspiring views of the mountains, is perched atop Little Round Top Way. Privately owned cabins, many available as vacation rentals, are neatly tucked into mountain pockets or settled on hillsides. One timeworn log cabin, sitting near a leaning, weathered barn, appears to be original to early settlement.
Headrick Chapel, established in 1902, occupies a slope with neatly ordered grey headstones, many inscribed with dates of the 1800s. The white-frame structure supports a handsome bell tower. The interior has what is needed and nothing more: sturdy wooden benches, piano and pulpit. The chapel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A few miles across the county line, more and more businesses crop up and the road gets more congested with cars as I near Pigeon Forge. I face a wide selection of restaurants, ranging from country cooking to Italian to Cajun to barbecue. Elvira’s Café and Grandmother’s Kitchen serve ample portions for breakfast and lunch. A half dozen stores, including Mountain Brothers General Store, sell snacks, ice cream and fudge. I sample apple pie moonshine fudge at the Moonshine Ridge Store. Apple bits are soaked in ’shine before they are mixed into fudge laced in “likker.”
Kettle corn is prepared in huge vats at Smoky Mountain Farm and Garden, a fruit and produce barn owned by Tim and Mary Jo Hill. Tim has just returned from North Carolina with fresh apples. In fall, during peak leaf-peeping season, he will sell pumpkins, chrysanthemums, scarecrow decorations and many varieties of locally grown apples.
A row of black bear carvings beckons me to pull into Great American Carvers. The wooden statues, some as tall as 6 feet, bid me welcome, as does Tony Robison who crafts these figures with a chainsaw. His father, Carl, was also a wood carver. Tony has a small gallery to show his carved mantels, bedposts, doors and door frames. Black bears, perhaps the icon of the Smoky Mountains, are top sellers.
Furniture and art galleries along Wears Valley Road specialize in primitives, folk art and cabin décor items. Wears Valley Antique Gallery and Bears Valley Antiques sell vintage collectibles and furniture. A recreational sports outfitter, a zipline operator, and several RV parks are open for business. Sales and rental offices for cabins offer vacationers all the comforts and amenities they could desire.
After my ramble through Wears Valley I came up with a few similarities to Jackson Hole, though I think it’s a big stretch to put the two destinations on the same level. Horseback riding, hiking and fly-fishing are activities in both places, all enhanced by the beautiful mountain scenery.
Incidentally, the two destinations share a name problem. Jackson Hole got its name from David E. Jackson, one of the first trappers to discover the valley. The name went from Jackson’s Hole, to simply Jackson Hole. Locals in Sevier and Blount Counties say Wears Valley, though official government maps show Wear Valley.
Have you explored Wears Valley? Let me know in the comments!