These days, people often travel for a family vacation rendezvous. It may be a central spot for scattered family or just a wonderful destination. One ideal place for a multi-generation visit or family reunion is eastern Tennessee which boasts pastimes as diverse as quiet nature trails in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Dollywood with its world-class roller coasters.
Start by exploring the nation’s most visited (with always free admission) national park with a stop at the Visitors Center at Sugarlands. The park is one of America’s 20 World Heritage Sites (Monticello in Charlottesville is another) with a diversity of plants, animals and activities. A movie describes the park and its history while rangers offer recommendations for the dozens of hiking trails from easy to challenging.
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, for instance, has a brochure about various stops giving a look at great scenery while telling the story of the people who once farmed this region. Some of their cabin homes remain to explore. At over 5,000 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the park’s highest point and views from the observation tower can reach several hundred miles. There are many trailheads for parking your vehicle and getting out into the forests. Another popular spot is Cades Cove where visitors can drive their own vehicle, bicycle the one-way loop road or climb aboard a trailer for a narrated hayride.
From art to adventure to just plain fun
There are numerous art galleries in the nearby towns. A particularly delightful way to visit many independent artisans at once is via the Great Smoky Art & Crafts Community, an eight-mile loop near Gatlinburg featuring more than 100 studios and galleries. Weavers, painters, jewelry makers, woodcarvers, the list goes on and on. Cliff Dwellers, for example, is the studio home for a group of artists offering frequent demonstrations of their pursuits such as spinning, yarn dyeing, painting and jewelry making. While we were there, a woman demonstrated the marbleizing of papers and fabrics — a fascinating process.
From zip-lining to "flying" there are many adventures in the area. Zipping in the Smokies in Hartford includes a pair of 600-foot-long "racing" lines as well as rafting on the Upper Pigeon’s Class III and IV rapids. Everyone from competent young people (about 8 or older) to reasonably fit grandparents can zip. Foxfire Mountain Outdoor Adventure Park in Sevierville also offers a zip-line course plus traveling the back woods in an 8-wheel-drive vehicle dubbed the Bear Crawler.
Horseback riding, bicycling and fishing are also popular in the area. Pigeon Forge is the only location in the U.S. for The Zorb — an 11-foot-diameter rolling globe for a tumbling adventure. At nearby Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, visitors experience a vertical wind tunnel where they can actually fly in special suits.
Depending on your special interests, you might be drawn to the Tennessee Museum of Aviation with its 50,000 square feet of "Warbirds." The Hollywood Wax Museum in Pigeon Forge is entirely devoted to celebrity figures and there are photo ops for visitors to pose with famous people. And Gatlinburg’s Aquarium, which we visited at the end of a busy day, is a surprisingly relaxing place with a variety of aquatic life.
A Titanic sighting seems unusual at its inland location in Pigeon Forge, but it’s a truly interesting presentation of this famous tragedy. Personal audio devices — with separate tracks for children and adults — add interest as visitors wander through exact replicas of parts of the ship, and the numerous artifacts lend poignant authenticity to the visitors’ "voyage."
Vineyards are replacing tobacco fields in many Tennessee locales and there are several area wine tasting venues such as Sugarland Cellars in Gatlinburg. Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler, also in Gatlinburg, offers moonshine tasting in many flavors.
There’s an almost endless menu of music and entertainment spectaculars in this area. One of the most popular is the Dixie Stampede, which opens with country music in a big music hall with popcorn and non-alcoholic drinks available, then moves patrons into a huge, horseshoe-shaped arena, which is home to a variety of acts including impressive horsemanship with at least a dozen handsome horses performing tricks on the rodeo-like dirt surface. The generous dinner — veggie option available — is served sans tableware, so it’s a very different experience for the family.
Other popular venues are the Lumberjack Feud, the Smoky Mountain Opry with lots of music, dancing and special effects and numerous other shows.
The entertainment centerpiece of the region, of course, is Dollywood. Dolly Parton is widely revered in the area for her many philanthropies. Just one example is the Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library which sends a book a month to children from birth until they enter kindergarten in more than 550 counties in the U.S.
Dollywood itself is highly popular, clean and varied. There are the roller coasters including the new Wild Eagle — the country’s first "wing" coaster. There are tamer rides, of course, plus entertainment venues and master craftsmen demonstrating pursuits like blacksmithing, glass blowing, and wagon making. The Splash Country Water Park is also very popular. There are a variety of admission packages including a next-day reduced price admission if you get tired.FP
Glenn and Lynn Pribus, frequent contributors to Fifty Plus, travel from their home near Charlottesville.
IF YOU GO
Lodging options range from campgrounds to quiet B&Bs to familiar motels. Three places are especially suited to groups. Wilderness at the Smokies in Sevierville is appealing with its in- and outdoor watermarks. The wave pool and water tubes are fun for all ages — even the great-grandparents in our party zoomed through the tunnel-slides. There are several eateries on the premises and rooms have a small fridge, small cook top and microwave if you want to economize by preparing a meal. Pullout sofas sleep extra people.
Dollywood Vacation Cabins in Pigeon Forge offer upscale accommodations with as many as 8 bedrooms. Located in a quiet areas with mountain views, "cabin" is hardly the right term for these lodgings with fully furnished kitchens, balconies, grills, fireplaces, hot tubs, elevators and daily maid service adding to the appeal. Packages include special admissions at Dollywood.
The National Park campgrounds — rustic without water or RV hookups — have a number of group tent sites specifically for parties of between 7 and 30 people. Reservations are essential.
There are plenty of places to grab a bite or relax over an elegant meal. A highly popular breakfast-and-lunch spot is Gatlinburg’s Pancake Pantry, family-operated for many years. Options include soups, sandwiches and a special kids menu. In Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountain Brewery offers beer sampling along with sandwiches, pizza, and veggie offerings. Meals at The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge often include ingredients ground at a nearby historical mill. Local tourist publications offer many other suggestions and menus.
For lots more information, visit www.tnvacation.com, click on Regions, then on East Tennessee. For information on the national park, visit www.nps.gov/grsm.