Mention the Smoky Mountains, especially Gatlinburg, Tenn., and bears are probably the first thing that you’ll hear about.
Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern United States where they can be found in the wild.
But this Tennessee tourist town, where images, wood carvings and sculptures of black bears are literally everywhere, isn’t the only place that claims to be America’s bear capital.
A few years ago, after my family checked into our vacation rental in Big Bear Lake, Calif., we were greeted by a large black bear on our porch. No one could believe it. After all, we were just a short drive from Los Angeles, and you’d think the only creatures here would be, you know, animatronic.
But no, it turns out grizzlies (now long gone in the area) roamed these mountains more than a century ago. The black bears were actually introduced to the region in 1933, and can sometimes be seen lumbering through the neighborhoods foraging for food. And of course there’s the name: Big Bear Lake.
Other places promise bears. On several visits to Jackson Hole., in-the-know locals advised us to be on the lookout for the grizzlies that live in Yellowstone National Park. But those bears remained elusive, at least to us.
Granted, we were at a disadvantage. We arrived in mid-March, when male grizzlies are only beginning to emerge from hibernation (the females wait an extra month), so our chances of sighting a bear were slim. Still, that didn’t in any way curtail Jackson Hole’s bear craze, which continues uninterrupted without any seasonal pause. Bear murals, bear carvings, and bear-themed hotels are de rigueur in this Wyoming ski town.
And then there’s Alaska. I can’t think of one town in the Last Frontier that plays up the potential for bear encounters more than any other. The whole state seems to be in on it.
But there’s one place I can recall talking about bears more than any other: Girdwood, home of the underrated Alyeska ski resort. But even there, we were not meant to see any bears, despite promises that they were “everywhere.” The locals failed to mention that the bears were shy, particularly of tourists with large cameras and small kids.
By the time you’ve visited enough “Beartown U.S.A.s,” you roll your eyes when you see yet another place that claims to have bears. Or so we thought when we pulled up to our week-long vacation rental in Gatlinburg.
If they have bears, I thought, show us.
We remained skeptical even as we road construction signs that read, “Please bear with us.” (Bear with us — get it?) And I shook my head as I saw row after row of carved wooden bears doing all kinds of things. My favorite: The carved wooden bear cub toilet-paper dispenser. Classy.
Gatlinburg is a tourist town in every sense of the word, from the budget motels that line the highway to the proliferate chain restaurants to the five separate Ripley’s attractions. Oh yeah, and there’s a theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge. Maybe you’ve heard of Dollywood?
But there’s one thing Gatlinburg has going for it that Las Vegas, Reno and Branson, Mo., don’t — and that’s bears. We wouldn’t have believed it unless we saw it ourselves, but on the second morning of our stay, we noticed three dark shapes moving on the steep hill just beyond our balcony.
And there they were: two yearlings playing in the rain under their mother’s watchful eye.
Was it a fluke? Being a skeptic, I thought — nah, we just got lucky. But the next day, on an excursion into the national park, we hit the bear jackpot again. Driving along a scenic 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, we spotted wild turkey, some deer, and at long last, a lone black bear.
On our way back to Gatlinburg, the family got into a heated argument about what ranks as the best bear town in America. Our kids voted for Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains (probably because they don’t remember California or Wyoming), but I still think Alaska has it beat when it comes to bears. But then again, I’m a fan of the Werner Herzog documentary film that involves the protagonist ending up as a grizzly snack.
We could use a little help settling this question. Who’s right about the bears?
Photo: Beth Kochoian/My Shot