I’ve just returned from a fabulous trip to East Tennessee. How I ended up there is a story unto itself. Regardless of that, and keeping in mind my reticence to go in the first place, I was very pleasantly surprised by–well, pretty much everything. If you are thinking of some athletic personal challenges, or if you just need a great place to consider for a family vacation, this little corner of the world is ground zero for everything you could want.
East Tennessee is nestled betwixt Kentucky and West Virginia to the north, North Carolina to the East and the hill country of northern Georgia to the South. I learned about all this from my flight companion on the one hour or so plane ride from Reagan National ($300 on to McGhee Tyson Airport on American Airlines). He wore a “Make American Great Again” hat, and sported an unashamedly southern drawl. His last name was Armstrong, pronounced Ahhmstrong, as in from the Scottish Armstrongs who came over the Treaty Line in the mid-1700’s. When he told me he was a “rabid right wing policy wonk activist fighting for the rights of unborn babies at all stages of life”, all I could manage was a polite “Oh. Well how do you enjoy DC?”.
Having discovered a sort of common ground in our mutual love for history, I soon learned about his great excitement for the Starz TV Show Outlander. He watches each new episode with his wife (Who would’ve thought? I blushed thinking about this elderly gentleman taking in some of the scenes Outlander is so famous for, but then thought to myself “Kudos Mr. Armstrong. Kudos!”. There is alot of history depicted in the show. I get it….) We shared an animated conversation from take off to touch down that had little to do with ’45 and everything to do with how the Scots made themselves at home in the American heartland.
It was Mr. Ahmstrong [sp] who taught me the proper way to pronounce “Appalachia”, and who schooled me in the culture and geography of Tennessee. Tennessee is divided into three distinct regions. There is the comparatively flatter side of the state, with Nashville at it’s center, called West Tennessee. There is Middle Tennessee, an obvious situation. And then there is heaven-on-earth, East Tennessee. These are official terms, written into state law. You need to know them.
East Tennessee, anchored by Knoxville but perhaps best known as Dolly Parton’s birthplace and the location of her namesake Dollywood, as well as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is characterized by the most unusual and beautiful mountains. Steep, with deep hollows and sharply outlined ridges, the endlessly rolling hillsides are covered with a soft blanket of leafy deciduous trees. The color of the trees marks the change of seasons, and by association, the flow of tourism: acres upon acres of mountainside covered with pink and purple blooms in spring, a thousand shades of green in summer, a million shades of red, orange, yellow and brown in autumn.
The forest floor is a fairy’s emerald kingdom: wild rhododendrons, mountain laurel, ferns, trilliums, and grasses appear everywhere, as if spread in a magical carpet of soft green. Huge ancient rocks and twisted roots protrude as if fortresses and battlements. Waterfalls spring from hillsides as if the mountains are weeping. Rivers and “criks” rush down the hollows, singing their timeless songs of peace and tranquility.
What struck me most about the Smokies during my recent visit was that their glory, their beauty, is superfluous. In fact, (as should be the case in our everyday lives) the beauty of just one flower, one tree, one river, one facet of any given view, is secondary and even relatively meritless compared to the complicated, interwoven majesty of the forest as a whole.
Roots cling to rocky riverbeds. Limbs bend with the wind. Forest creatures creep and crawl in an endless parade of color and texture. Flowers blooming in impossible places are the most stunning reminder of rebirth and renewal. How anyone can walk into these forests and not want to conserve and protect them is beyond my comprehension.
Nevertheless, two years ago, Smoky Mountains National Park and especially Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, were threatened by a terrible fire. A deadly blaze, it killed 14 people, injured scores more, damaged more than 2000 structures and burned through 16,000 acres. It was reportedly caused by two boys dropping lit matches along Chimney Tops Trail during a period of extreme drought. The reason I mention this fire is because this region of Tennessee is 100% reliant on tourist dollars. In fact, visitors to the area bring in around $700 million in revenue annually. The people who live here largely work in the service industry. They are the waiters, the servers, the hotel clerks, the amusement park operators who feed their families on an hourly wage. When news of the fire hit, tourism dropped off and these families suffered.
But guess what! Dollywood was untouched. Gatlinburg was untouched. Only a small percentage of the park was burned. There is so much to see and do here, that fear of a lack of amenities shouldn’t hold anyone back! The cities of East Tennessee are working hard to make sure folks know they are in business and ready to welcome visitors. During my visit, hotels were sprucing up, new ones are being built, the airport was humming right along and everyone was primed for a successful summer.
If you haven’t been to East Tennessee, especially with kids, here are some good reasons to visit:
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park– I have already mentioned how beautiful it is. Take my word for it, you NEED to go. Listed as the most visited park in the USNP system, Great Smoky NP still doesn’t feel crowded, especially if you don’t mind getting off the beaten path.
2. The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens, Hollywood Star Cars Museum and of course, Cooters Place (home an indoor family fun center, putt putt golf, go-karts and a General Lee, may she never die) and the Arts & Crafts corridor between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinsburg: these are just a few of the unusual things to see in Gatlinburg. Don’t be afraid to try something new and unusual. At worst, you may groan. At best you might learn something new. I guarantee you will make memories for a lifetime!
3. Dollywood– How can you not? Perhaps Tennessee’s most famous attraction excepting Nashville, Dollywood offers amusement park rides, a waterpark, fantastic music festivals and besides all that, the opportunity to support the local economy. Dolly Parton herself frequently visits, you never know, you might get lucky enough to hear her sing. Her version of #Jolene with goddaughter Miley Cyrus is something indeed!
4. Take a hike- If you can get through East Tennessee without taking even a short walkabout, you are made of steel. If you are in the Gatlinburg area, I suggest Porters Creek Trail. At about 5 miles roundtrip if you go to the waterfall, it is flat, well groomed and has plenty of points of interest for the entire family: a gorgeous creek with stops for picnicking, a historic homestead, two hundred year old foundations of former farm sites, swarms of swallowtail butterflies, log bridges over rushing water, bowers of blooming rhododendrons and fairy kingdoms for miles. A tougher and equally beautiful hike is Chimney Tops. A bit tougher and longer still is Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and highest mountain in Tennessee (elev 6,643). You can drive to that one, if you must.
5. Dip your toes- As already mentioned at least five times, there are many places to simply sit, relax, dip your toes to cool off or settle down. Porters Creek where it meets the Parkway is perfect for this activity, as is the Chimney Tops trailhead, the picnic area at Cades Cove (very popular), the Little River Trail near the Elkmont campground and Deep Creek, where you can also go tubing.
6. Take Flight– There are twelve zipline companies doing business in the Gatlinsburg area. It’s a popular past time. I recommend Smoky Mountain Zip Lines, a US Navy vet owned small business that’s long on good humor. Seriously, some of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard, and they don’t stop for the entire 2 hours you are up in the trees. They work hard to create an experience that is fun, comfortable, and hospitable. ($70 pp, coupons available online).
7. Eat a pancake- there are approximately 1 million flapjack houses in the Gatlinburg area. Highly rated is Crockett’s (doesn’t it seem appropo to eat at a place called Crockett’s whilst in the area? I think this is half the panache. There are always long lines at this campy spot). There are so many pancake houses, I guess it would be tough to tell you where to go. In this case it’s best to ask a local.
8. The cabins, hotels and resorts- Look, Gatlinburg, and the surrounding towns, are not fancy. I jokingly referred to Gatlinburg as Ocean City in the Mountains and my friend Mr. Armstrong warned me it would feel like a carnival. Forego an expensive spa for a reasonably priced independent hotel or motel that’s been owned by the same family for generations. I stayed in a rented home for the week, and believe that is the way I will always visit the area. There are multiple rental companies for this option. Our cabin was managed by Cabins For You and I was happy with our choice. There are numerous resorts, RV parks, mobile home parks, VRBOs/AirBnBs, and tent camping spots.
9. The drives– There are many glorious drives in our great country, but few are so grand as the Parkway through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Traffic is often slow on the Parkway–people are gawking, jockeying and stopping at overlooks. Speaking of overlooks, don’t miss the steep drive to Clingman’s Dome. Driving through the Blue Ridge and Smokies are a favorite past time of bikers and bicyclers. Please be cautious and polite while sharing the road.
10. The gateway towns– I would be remiss to not mention nearby towns like Maryville, Sevierville and Bryson City. Often times, you can find more lodging options at these outliers. My favorite is Cherokee, Tennessee. Located on the Cherokee reservation, this little town has numerous educational attractions like Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Oconoluftee Indian Village and the Unto These Hills outdoor theatrical production.
11. I have to add an 11. Sorry. It’s the music. Classic country, new country, mountain music, R & B, roots. Dolly, Roseanne, June (well, that’s a short bit away in West Virginia, but still…) Chet, Aretha, Dottie. So much music here. So many places and festivals where you can find it. The bonus of this area is colleges in Knoxville and Maryville where you can hear great acts before they ever hit the big time. Check out the Bijou Theater and Scruffy City in Knoxville. Also the Rhythm and Blooms Festival and the Sugarlands Mountain Festival. If you are in town in early May, check out the fierce competition between school aged musicians at Smoky Mountain Music Festival.
There are multiple ways to drive to the Gatlinburg area from Maryland. Most of them are about 8-11 hours travel time and all of them end up off the main highway on gorgeous, twisting roads. I especially like the drive via Asheville, NC, preferably with a stay at the Biltmore on your way home, just to bring some posh into your mountain vacation.
You can fly from Reagan Airport in Alexandria, Virginia into Knoxville. Parking at Reagan was $25 per day. There are limited airlines and flights to Knoxville from the Chesapeake region, so be sure to research your options. Knoxville is a small, friendly, efficient airport that is very easy to get in and out of. There is a Hilton attached to the terminal if you need a place to stay coming or going. You can also fly into Atlanta and drive through the lovely hills and mountains of northern Georgia. The cheapest option may be flying into Nashville and driving East. You will definitely need a rental car to get around if you fly in, and you should plan for slow, twisty roads that invite extreme caution and manners.
OK, this post has been a long one, but as I am sure you can tell, I was thrilled with my time in East Tennessee. I am planning a return trip in July and will let you know the difference between a spring and summer trip. Have you been to the Gatlinburg area, or do are you looking for information you don’t see here? Let me know in the comments!Feel free to share...