They call it “Rocky Top” for a reason; early settlers struggled to find a patch of arable ground in the Tennessee Smoky Mountain region of the Appalachians. Still, after the discovery of the Cumberland Gap in 1750 and at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, a few rugged settlers scrubbed out a hard-knock living here. A visit to Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the surrounding areas elicits visions of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone-like pioneers, clad in coonskin hats and buckskin clothing, shouldering a long rifle and powder horn and accompanied by rugged-looking long-skirted women or Cherokee brides.
The region’s history is just part of the allure drawing vacationers year-round to drive east on the I-40 from Knoxville, turn south on Route 441 (or, as the natives call it, ‘the Parkway’), passing Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg on their way to visit one of America’s oldest and most storied national parks, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
If you take the trip, as you leave the Interstate you’ll find yourself in Sevierville. This is an excellent halfway point between Knoxville with its small-city feel and the park, which occupies 244,000 acres of Tennessee and 276,000 acres of North Carolina. This totals 520,000 acres, which equates to over 800 square miles. The Smokies are the most-visited national park in the United States, but you’d never know it as you have over 800 miles of hiking trails to choose from, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Take a look at the Wyndham Smoky Mountains while you’re there. This resort is loaded with amenities; there are two of everything! There are two outdoor swimming pools, two indoor swimming pools, two outdoor children's pools, two outdoor hot tubs, two exercise equipment areas, two miniature golf areas, two playgrounds, and two dry saunas. (You might need at least one of these saunas to help you wind down after all that exercise!) You might find it difficult to peel yourself away for a visit to the national park, but it will be worth it!
The park opened in 1934 and still has no entry fee. There are miles and miles of trails for every stroller or full-on hiker which lead you through the verdant forest, past trickling brooks and streams, and up to views of gushing waterfalls. For the full outdoor experience there’s whitewater rafting, river tubing, and fly fishing. In the winter months downhill skiing can be enjoyed for a short season at Ober Gatlinburg.
Route 441, or the Parkway, is the Smokies’ main street leading southward from I-40 toward the national park. Once you’re past Sevierville, you’ll come to the mountain town of Pigeon Forge. Here you’ll find country singer Dolly Parton’s Appalachian-themed Dollywood, consisting of a theme park with thrilling rides and an adjoining water park. There’s a museum of Dolly’s costumes and memorabilia and, on occasion, one of her relatives might just drop by. There are comedy and country music shows, including the not-to-be-missed Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede.
The Lodges at the Great Smoky Mountains are located in Pigeon Forge and would also make a lovely choice for your resort home. Each picturesque one-to-three-bedroom cabin or mountain lodge provides you with that wilderness feel, but with a luxurious touch. After a day of hiking, shopping, or entertainment, you can curl up in front of a crackling fire with a glass of wine, whip up dinner in your fully equipped kitchen (yes, there’s a dishwasher!), and have a nice long soak in your copper tub.
Driving along the Parkway you’ll see the Old Mill, a restaurant and shopping complex built around a 19th-century gristmill, and the Titanic Museum Attraction, a re-creation of the luxury ocean liner that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Other attractions include Parrot Mountain & Gardens, in which you can get up close and personal with the colorful creatures and lush foliage.
The division between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are hardly discernable, except Gatlinburg – with its narrower passageways and chockablock boutique shops – has an almost Old World charm to it. The local chamber of commerce provides an app for your mobile device and an online visitor’s guide to help you plan your fun. While you’re in town, families with small children might wish to set aside an entire day for a visit to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. There kids of all ages can ‘meet’ the penguins, watch an African penguin create a work of art in the Penguin Painting Experience; touch a horseshoe crab or stingray; or step onto a moving 340-foot-long glidepath winding through an underwater tunnel as you view sea turtles, sharks, and moray eels.
For beautiful mountaintop views, a visit to the Holiday Inn Vacation Smoky Mountains Resort is in order. This resort offers one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas -- all with fully equipped kitchens, washers and dryers, and a furnished patio or balcony. Guests typically compliment it with accolades such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘beautiful.’ You can’t beat it for location; it’s smack-dab in the middle of Gatlinburg. After a day of wandering the streets in town, you can just imagine enjoying a hot toddy in front of the huge outdoor fireplace in the evening or a long soak in a luxurious hot tub.
The Parkway leads directly through the heart of the Smokies. One detour you’ll want to make once you get to the park is to visit the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, which celebrates the cultural heritage of East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountain region. The center features gallery exhibits, educational programs, demonstrations, and festivals leading visitors through a historic journey. Neighborhood model train aficionados, members of the Maryville Model Railroad Club, have launched a new holiday tradition exhibiting the Smoky Junction Model Train Exhibit on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through January 6th. Visitors will enjoy a multi-themed model railroad experience at the Heritage Center featuring a Townsend/Walland landscape, a garden scale train, and a winter wonderland.
Probably one of the best draws of the area is affordability. You can enjoy many of the same amusements and entertainment venues as are offered in Vegas or Orlando for much, much less! Adult tickets for the Dixie Stampede, for example, start around only $55.00. This includes a pre-dinner music concert; a tasty three-course meal; and an amazing show featuring trick horseback riding, music, and comedy. Dinner was so delicious that our unusually finicky two children, ages four and seven, actually ate it all with relish!
Plus, in the Smokies region, you typically won’t have the long lines for rides, at restaurants, or to see a show. The weather in winter is typically cool, but mild. Last year, for example, the high temperatures in December averaged in the mid-50s with very few rainy days. Temperatures in summer can reach the lower 90s, but in the fall and spring they are just about perfect, of course. You have the cool breezes flowing through the mountain passes which keep the temperatures consistently in the high 70s. Give a vacation in the Smokies a try and you just might find – like so many others – there’s no better place for a vacation.