Published on Jul 8, 2011
You hear a lot about "the next town" while you're conversing with other hikers. The town that gets the most hype is Damascus, VA and the town that gets the most flak is Gatlinburg, TN. So I'm here to set the record straight on both.
Gatlinburg: Unequivocally the biggest tourist trap that I've ever seen. Cheap and expensive knick-knack shops, confectionery galore, and fat tourists waddling down the sidewalk. But wait! What does this mean for hikers? Everyone seems to hate this town for vague reasons. I don't, I love it. Gatlinburg is all that they say, but the tourist do one thing well: Eat. This insatiable appetite has spawned a string of amazing restaurants. And if there's one thing every hiker loves, it's food. And you can get your fill in Gatlinburg!
Damascus: This small Virginia town grew up around the Appalachian Trail. Every year they host "Trail Days" which is a hiker-fest akin to what I imagine the summer of love was like in San Fransisco in the late '60's. As you enter the town, a sign reads, "Appalachain Trail-Welcome-Damascus, VA."
Right after the sign, there is a shelter much like the ones in the surrounding mountains. However, this one is different. A big sign adorns the inside reading, "No Camping." I thought it was interesting that at some point in the town's history, the leaders got together and decided that even though the town owes its livelihood to the AT, the shelter which was built to shelter AT hikers could no longer be used as a shelter. Instead it now stands as curiosity for people passing through that want to imagine what it's like to hike the trail. I imagine they look at this and marvel at how primitive it is. When I looked at it, I marveled at the ban on camping and wondered at what point tourist appeal surpassed function.
I digress. What do trail towns mean to me? Food, pure and simple. In my opinion, a good trail town has food and lots of it. Both Gatlinburg and Damascus rank high on my favorite towns. Many hikers disagree, but they're in it for the vibe, I'm just in it for the food.