Hiking the Easy Trails of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN

Hurricane Joaquin was whipping up chaos along the lower Atlantic coast. As of last week, forecasts predicted heavy rainstorms, including inundation of the Great Smokies where we were headed. Plans we had for hiking around the Gatlinburg area of Tennessee hung in the balance as we contemplated our next move from the relative calm of Nashville. Suddenly, the prediction for Gatlinburg improved—occasional showers. We decided to go ahead with the original plan.

My wife’s cousin and her husband, whom I’ll collectively call JnJ, met us in Gatlinburg. Wonderful for us because, having taken many a hike in the Smokies, they took us to several of their favorite spots.

Clingmans Dome

At 6643ft, the highest point in the Smokies (and Tennessee) is Clingmans Dome. You can hike to it as part of the Appalachian Trail or from other trails within the park. For most people, it’s a “mere” half-mile from a parking lot. JnJ warned us that it’s not a sure bet to get a clear view of the surrounding area from Clingmans, which frequently is shrouded in the blue mist or fog for which the Smokies are famous. The afternoon that we went was no exception. The mist got heavier as we climbed higher. That wasn’t the only obstacle. I quickly got winded along the way, because of the high altitude and punishing grade (average 13%). The 45-foot observation tower at the summit is reached by a curving ramp that describes a giant arc. It straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Unfortunately, what surely is visible is the severe ecological damage done to Fraser firs by a non-native insect (balsam woolly adelgid). It’s hard to miss the trees’ ghostly remains.

Observation tower, Clingman's Dome

Observation tower, Clingmans Dome

On the way down, there was enough of a clearing through the fog for a brilliant sunset, framed by the distant mountains and clouds.

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Sunset, Clingmans Dome trail

Laurel Falls Trail

The most popular hike in the park is the Laurel Falls Trail. It’s so popular that the chance of finding a parking space in the trailhead lot will be almost impossible if you don’t arrive by mid-morning. Paved though uneven over its 1¼-mile distance, the trail is accessible for most anyone. Along the way, the last of the season’s wildflowers were in bloom— purple asters and gentians. The big payoff is arguably the park’s most beautiful waterfall, Laurel Falls. Lots of other people were already there when we arrived. Like us, they were admiring the upper part of the falls. The waters tumble over a broad rocky terrace into a wide pool that, on the other side of a foot bridge, drains over a ledge to become the fall’s lower portion.

Wild aster

Purple aster

Purple gentian


Fall color

Fall color

Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls

Little River Trail

The best was saved for last. Another of JnJ’s favorite hikes is the Little River Trail, near the Elkmont campground. It first passes by long-vacated resort cottages. Because of their deterioration, they’re currently off limits to the public. The Park Service plans to restore them at some point.

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

Shuttered cottage near the Little River Trail parking lot

The trail parallels the Little River for roughly 5.5 miles. The course is flat and wide over quite a distance, making for an extremely easy walk. Because of the sheer number of boulders in the river, there is an endless number of whitewater activity, pools and mini-waterfalls. We saw two men fly-fishing in the river. Even if peak wildflower season had long gone, the trail was gorgeous nonetheless, passing through magnificent stands of hardwood trees, the silence only interrupted by babbling river sounds and our own conversations.

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

A wide gravel path parallels Little River

Filtered light in this or any forest is mysterious, almost mystical. There is a solitude and quiet here removed from the bustle of nearby Gatlinburg.

Hardwood forest

Forest mystery and beauty


Poplar canopy

We made it to Huskey Branch Falls before turning back. The vantage point in the image below required clambering uphill from the trail over very slippery rocks. I lost my footing partway up and have lacerations on my arm as reward.


Huskey Branch Falls


Athens in Nashville: The Parthenon

A young girl no older than twelve was looking up and said to her friend, “I see Poseidon, but where’s Hermes?” The precocious youngster was admiring a pediment of The Parthenon here in Nashville.

Unknown to many, it is an exact replica of the famous ancient Greek structure of Athens as it would have originally appeared, before the ravages of time, war and pollution. The Nashville Parthenon was first built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centenniel Exposition, selected as the centerpiece over many other ideas in keeping with Nashville’s moniker as the “Athens of the South.” I plead ignorance, because I had no idea that such a replica existed, let alone within the United States. My wife and I wanted to make it a destination as much as the Grand Ole Opry while we were visiting Music City.

The Parthenon is imposing when you see it standing on a broad, raised mound in the center of Centenniel Park. We approached it from the western end (the back). The Doric columns are more massive than I expected and immediately exhibit their unique, slightly convex feature where they’re widest partway up from the base before tapering to the top (entasis), a characteristic that I vaguely recall from a college class in Western Civilization.

Doric columns with enstatic curvature.

Doric columns with entastic curvature.

Eastern pediment

Eastern pediment

Inside is another surprise, the towering statue of Athena Parthenos. It was fashioned under commission by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire and completed in 1990. It is a re-imagining of the original statue in the Greek Parthenon. Because the original has long since disappeared, the newer version is obviously not an exact reproduction, but there are descriptions of it by ancient historians and purported replicas as smaller statues and images on coins. The original was placed in the inner chamber (naos) of the Greek Parthenon. Nashville did the same.

Athena Parthenos

Athena Parthenos

Athena Parthenos’ wardrobe, headdress and shield, as well as the statue of Nike in her right palm, are gilded in 23.75-karat gold. (The original was supposed to have been gold-plated.) At almost 42ft in height, it is the tallest indoor statue in the Western world. Winged Nike in her palm alone is 6ft tall. I was amazed even by the enormous shield with its exquisite detail.

Athena's shield

Athena’s shield

The Nashville Parthenon also functions as a gallery for modern art in its lower level. It shouldn’t be missed by any visitor to Nashville.

Tennessee Fire: Nashville’s Hot Fried Chicken

Other than barbecue, no other food evokes the South more than fried chicken. Southern cooks all have their secret recipes, the Colonel notwithstanding. I was going to be in Nashville. Eating its hot fried chicken is as essential as going to The Grand Ole Opry and the Parthenon.

As the story goes, the dish was concocted by a jilted lover who figured she’d teach her womanizing boyfriend a lesson by serving him a surprise breakfast. She slathered fried chicken with a nuclear paste made with plenty of cayenne pepper. As it turned out, presumably without so much as a missed heartbeat, Thornton Prince loved the chicken so much that he convinced his brothers to help him perfect their own recipe and open a restaurant in the 1930s. It eventually became Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which went on to become a Nashville institution. Today, it is run by Prince’s great-niece Andre.

How spicy is the chicken? How does the proportion of 3 tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper to a tablespoon of lard sound? The chicken is served on top of white bread which soaks up the Godzilla sauce and grease, with sliced sour pickles served on the side.

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish

Bolton’s is set back in what looks like a narrow parking lot, except the lot is completely blocked off. Customers can park along a row of spots just north of the restaurant, which looks to be made of cinder blocks. The interior has been freshly painted in black and red. The paint was so fresh the men’s restroom door had to be propped open to air out the paint fumes. When you place your order at the window, you’re given a number and you get seated. Since the chicken is made-to-order, it takes about 20 minutes to get your food.



Bolton’s claims to make one of the spiciest fried chickens in Nashville. I ordered mine extra-hot. The chicken leg quarter arrived at the table in two shades of red, a distinct dark red paste layer and a brighter red dusting on top. Perhaps the ‘extra-hot’ has a generous sprinkling of cayenne pepper? The skin was ultra-crispy.

With my first bite …

The pain was searing.
It was like injections of wasp venom by a thousand tiny needles jabbed into my tongue.
Tears welled up in my eyes.
My lips and tongue burned relentlessly.
Noxious gases went up my nose and felt like fire flaring out of my nostrils.
I gulped down cold water.
When that didn’t help, I tried to douse the flames with cole slaw.
I blew my nose once, maybe twice.
I sat for a moment to recover.
This shit is f–king hot!

Then I took my second bite … And so it went until the gasping end. Underneath the radioactive shield, the chicken meat itself was very moist and, from what I could tell, tasty. Buttermilk does wonders for fried chicken. Wow, did I get an endorphin rush. I can’t say I enjoyed myself. The pain detracted from giving the chicken its proper due. For now, I’ll say it was good (☆☆½); the rating might’ve been higher if I had been able to taste the chicken.

Extra-hot chicken leg quarter

But, this experience changed my plan. After meeting more than my match, I no longer was going to order extra-hot anywhere else.

As an aside, my wife picked the plain (i.e., no spice) fried fish (whiting). The fillets were very thin, which after frying produced fish that wasn’t very moist at all, almost dry. You could literally pick up an entire one without its bending. Thicker than the one coating the chicken, the batter was too crunchy. There was still a spicy sprinkling of cayenne pepper, which made us wonder what ’no spices’ meant. She enjoyed the yellow mustard and pickles as counterpoints to the fried fish. Even if the fish was tasty, it failed to impress. (☆☆)

Fried whiting

Fried whiting

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

I wanted to make sure I stopped at the place that started it all. The parking lot was completely full but luckily someone was just pulling out. Inside, there was a good lunch crowd. The walls were a vast sea of turquoise. Like at Bolton’s, you order at a small window and get a ticket. After I learned my lesson at Bolton’s, I got the ‘medium’ spicy chicken this time. It would give me better than even odds of tasting the chicken without cauterizing my taste buds.

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack

The word is that Prince’s, after a light dusting of flour, fries its chicken in lard, which explained why the skin was so flavorful. It was also shatteringly crispy. The chicken wasn’t as red all around as Bolton’s. The dark paste of cayenne and lard covered some of leg quarter, making me wonder if the hotter versions just have more paste. Even so, the hotness wasn’t just in the paste. The flesh was moist and tender. Two slices of white bread were underneath. Sour pickles were a good foil for the grease. This was a much better experience for me. (☆☆☆)

'Medium' hot chicken drumstick quarter

‘Medium’ hot chicken drumstick quarter

After the barbecue taste-off in Memphis, I grew weary of eating the same thing over and over. I had intended to try the chicken at 400 Degrees as well, but my spirit wasn’t in the chase any more. Instead, on Friday, my wife and I had New York-style pizza for lunch and Thai food for dinner.


I enjoyed the chicken, at least at Prince’s. Sensibility aside, I could never make a consistent diet of it though. It’s likely that, going along with my aging body, my tolerance for especially spicy foods is waning, so I would never get the extra-spicy chicken again. Nashville’s hot fried chicken is truly a regional specialty, one that seems confined to the city itself. There isn’t the plethora of restaurants that serve it like there are barbecue restaurants in Memphis, but enough are around to choose from.

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
2309A Franklin Pike
Nashville, TN 37204

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
123 Ewing Dr.
Nashville, TN

Porky Pleasure: Memphis Barbecue

Besides Graceland, there is another kind of Memphis excess that likewise should not be passed up. Lots of barbecue. Pig transformed into mountains of succulent ribs and sandwiches. No matter where you turn, you’re bound to run into a barbecue joint, the pungent, alluring aroma of meat slow-cooking over wood like a siren’s call to destroy disciplined diets.

Pig Sandwich

Memphis’ barbecued pork sandwich, known in these parts as pig sandwich, was first introduced back in the early ’20s at Leonard’s Pit Barbecue. Leonard Neuberger constructed a sandwich of chopped smoked pork shoulder, a big scoop of coleslaw and a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce. Unfortunately, because Leonard’s was far from downtown and only open for lunch throughout our stay, we weren’t able to get there.

Germantown Commissary

We were driving into the Memphis area rather late. We wanted to have dinner before checking in to our hotel. With the sun setting, we were still on I-40 when I saw the offramp for Germantown. I had on my list one of the highly regarded barbecue restaurants around Memphis called Germantown Commissary. Germantown is a well-to-do suburb of Memphis. When we got to the restaurant, parking was impossible. The lot only has spots for no more than a dozen cars. There was also non-existent street parking. Only after I circled around three times did a spot open up. Inside, there was a wait list (20 minutes). This is a very popular restaurant, even on Monday nights. Their motto: “So good y’ull slap yo mama!”

One of Germantown Commissary dining rooms

One of Germantown Commissary dining rooms

I ordered the BBQ Shoulder Sandwich, about which food critic Michael Stern wrote, “It would be a crime to come to the Commissary and NOT have pulled pork.” Adding a scoop of cole slaw, barbecued beans and deviled egg gets you the Sandwich Plate. You can have the pork chopped or pulled (default). The shredded pork didn’t have a lot of pork flavor, but it was moist. The sauce was a tad on the sweet side. An overall good sandwich (☆☆½), but not particularly memorable.

BBQ pork shoulder sandwich

BBQ pork shoulder sandwich

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Obtaining a #2 rating in a national barbecue survey conducted by People Magazine seems a mighty accomplishment, but it was done in 1989. The writer traveled throughout the country in search of the best. That was 26 years ago. I’d venture to say that a lot has changed in the national barbecue scene since then. Even so, Interstate comes up in BBQ conversations as one of Memphis’ outstanding restaurants. After a full day of exploring downtown Memphis on foot, we made it over to Interstate for dinner before heading back to the hotel.

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Their pig sandwich is chopped pork shoulder. Cole slaw, when it’s ordered, is put at the bottom of the sandwich. The meat is piled high and has good pork flavor. Interstate’s sauce is justifiably famous, not too sweet, tart and complex, with flavors of cumin and herbs. It’s impossible to pick the sandwich up to eat it without falling apart under its own weight. I enjoyed this more than Commissary’s. A very fine pig sandwich. (☆☆☆½)

Barbecued pork shoulder sandwich

Barbecued pork shoulder sandwich

Barbecued Ribs

Eating in Memphis would not be complete without barbecued ribs. The city is known both for its “wet” and “dry” styles. The “wet” versions use a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce, which can be applied before, during and after cooking. For “dry” ribs, spices and salt are rubbed on before cooking and served without sauce. Rib aficionados have their hotly defended preference.

Central BBQ

This place was under my radar. The first I heard of it was as a lunch stopover on a Memphis city tour, which, in my mind, was not necessarily an endorsement as such. Then, on our bus tour, the driver Willie told passengers that Central was his favorite BBQ joint. We went there on our lunch break.

Central BBQ

Central BBQ

The ribs were so tender, they broke apart just looking at them. I could easily cut the meat between the ribs with a butter knife. Trying to take a small bite likely as not would pull a big section of meat away from the bone. Here too are two different schools about how tender ribs should be, the other being that they should provide good chew and not pull away from the bone that easily. The sauce had the perfect balance of sweet and tart. These were the best BBQ ribs we’ve ever had. Oh, my! (☆☆☆☆)

Central BBQ's ribs

Central BBQ’s ribs

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

This restaurant has gotten so popular that locals refer to it simply as The Rendezvous. Our city tour guide mentioned it but added that his personal preference was “wet” ribs. Memphians have been customers for 77 years. The Rendezvous specializes in “dry” ribs, spices and herbs rubbed on them and cooked directly over charcoal, rather than slow-smoked over wood. This gives their ribs a chewier texture. The place is hard to find. Although the address is on 2nd Street, the entrance is actually in an alley between Monroe and Union. Furthermore, the restaurant is downstairs in a basement.

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous

Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

I was surprised at how well I loved these ribs. While regular and spicy barbecue sauces are in squeeze bottles at the table, the ribs need no embellishment, rather a nice change from “wet” ribs. They arrive at the table with a crusty dry rub exterior and sitting in a pool of vinegar, which is a surprisingly good accompaniment. Although these weren’t the tenderest of ribs, I could still cut between the bones with a plastic knife. These are ribs worth sinking your teeth into. (☆☆☆☆)

The Rendezvous' pork ribs

The Rendezvous’ pork ribs

Interstate Bar-B-Que

Interstate’s ribs are not as tender as Central’s nor as fatty. But that doesn’t mean theirs is sub-standard, because they are good. And like the pig sandwich, the sauce is just right, a little spicy, just sweet enough and tart. (☆☆☆)

Interstate Bar-B-Cue's pork ribs

Interstate Bar-B-Cue’s pork ribs


Memphis does have some fine barbecue joints. The ribs have been consistently good. And while the pig sandwiches have been good, I’ve decided I’m not a big fan of them. Being on a consistent barbecue diet gets old fast, even if done in the spirit of “research.”


A service that all four restaurants offers is shipping. This is made possible largely because both FedEx and UPS are headquartered in Memphis. Our city tour guide Willie related a rumor that the two giants were in merger talks. The new company would be called FedUp. (He was joking, of course.)

Central BBQ
147 E Butler Ave
Memphis, TN 38103

Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous
52 S. 2nd St.
Memphis, TN 38103

Germantown Commissary
2290 S Germantown Rd
Germantown, TN 38138

Interstate Bar-B-Cue
2265 S. Third St.
Memphis, TN 38109