Mention the Smoky Mountains or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and bears are probably the first thing that come to mind.
Black bears, to be exact. The nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the last remaining places in the eastern U.S. where they live 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 we 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 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, Wyo., in-the-know locals advised us to look for elusive Grizzlies, which live in Yellowstone National Park. But those bears remained elusive.
Granted, we were at a disadvantage. We arrived in mid-March, when male Grizzlies only begin 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 limit Jackson Hole's bear craze, which continued 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 its bear potential more than any other. It's the whole state that seems to be in on it.
But there's one place I remember 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, even though the locals we spoke with promised they were "everywhere." They didn't also mention they were shy, particularly of tourists with large cameras and small kids.
But back to Gatlinburg, where we we spent a recent week in a vacation rental. 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.
If they have bears, I thought, show us.
We remained skeptical even as we passed signs warning of road construction that said, "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 wooden bear cub carving/toilet paper dispenser. Classy.
Gatlinburg is a true tourist town in every sense of the word, from the budget motels lining the highway to every imaginable chain restaurant, to 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 that Las Vegas, Reno and Branson, Mo., don't have -- and that's bears. We wouldn't have believed it unless we saw it ourselves, but on our second morning in our cabin, we noticed three dark shapes moving on the steep hill just outside our balcony.
And there they were: two yearlings under the watchful eye of their mother, playing in the rain.
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, deer, and at long last, a lone black bear.
On our way back to Gatlinburg, we got into a heated argument about the best bear towns in America. Our kids voted for Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains, but mostly because they don't remember California or Wyoming. I still thought Alaska was a better bear state, but then again, I'm a fan of Werner Herzog documentary films that involve the protagonist ending up as a Grizzly snack.
We could use a little help from you settling this question. Who's right about the bears?