WV Travel Team: Smoky Mountains are a hot spot

By By Mitzi Harrison
WV Travel Team
Great Smoky Mountain National Park includes more than 800 miles of hiking trails over 520,000 acres.
The Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Don’t count on all the bears you might encounter in east Tennessee to be as laid back as this one.
Photo by COASTERMAN1234 via Wikipedia
The Thunderhead roller coaster at Dollywood.
Photo by JIM MOORE
The Dixie Stampede promises hoof-stomping action.
A scenic overlook of Gatlinburg.
Ober Gatlinburg offers passengers a bird’s-eye view.
Photo by JSKUYA
An observation deck rises atop Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies.
Dollywood amusement park is named for the famous country singer Dolly Parton.
Image courtesy of AAA/NAVTEQ
A map of the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Great Smoky Mountains National Park region.

The Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge destination is like no other, and one that truly offers something special to people of all ages.

It’s the ideal choice for those who are looking to satisfy a diverse group of travelers with unique interests.

The mountain’s earliest inhabitants, the Cherokee Indians, called the area “the place of blue smoke.”

The gray-blue haze that often cloaks the top peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains creates a mysterious allure to this magical place.

Nestled snuggly in the Smokies are the Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and both offer an amazing variety of things to do amid a backdrop of breathtaking scenery.

The first thing you see

First things first, and the first thing that beckons visitors to the area is the Great Smoky Mountains, among the oldest mountains in the world.

The United States has 58 national parks, and fewer than 25 percent are located east of the Mississippi River. Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans two states (Tennessee and North Carolina) and includes more than 800 miles of hiking trails spread among the 521,895-acre park.

The mountains are home to an estimated 100,000 species of plant and animal life, and some varieties, like Jordan’s red-cheeked salamander, call no other place on Earth their home.

The mountains are renowned for the abundance of plants and are home to more than 1,600 species.

From mid-June to mid-July, extravagant displays of mountain laurel, rhododendron and azalea flower en masse, especially at higher elevations.

Another natural wonder of the park is the many waterfalls. Possessing the two essential ingredients for waterfalls, ample rainfall — an average of 85 inches in the high country every year — and an elevation gradient, waterfalls can be found on nearly every river and stream in the park. At 120 feet, Mingo Falls is one of the tallest.

There are many ways to enjoy the park, including some that offer access for those with limited physical abilities. Visitors can hike, bike, go by horse or by car.

For the best view, head to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet the highest elevation in Smokies. Overlooks along U.S. Highway 441 provide excellent spots to enjoy sunrises and sunsets.

Regardless of your mode of transportation, keep your eyes peeled for one of the 1,500 black bears that live in the park, and also for elk — the park’s largest inhabitants. It goes without saying these animals are dangerous and are best enjoyed at a safe distance.

Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

Of the park’s neighboring towns, it’s hard to choose a favorite, so most people don’t — they visit both. Each town offers a wide-ranging variety of things to do, see and eat.

Although Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are neighbors, bordering one another, each town offers some special things that are uniquely their own.

Dolly Parton, a beloved east Tennessee native, is someone well known for supporting and promoting the area where she was raised.

Two iconic Pigeon Forge attractions boasting Dolly’s name are Dollywood (of course) and the Dixie Stampede. If this is your first visit to Pigeon Forge, Dollywood and Dixie Stampede are on the “must-do” list.

Dollywood’s theme park offers rides, entertainment, dining, crafts and shopping. Firechaser Express, Dollywood’s answer to thrill-seeking families, opened in March and is the nation’s first dual-launch family coaster, blasting riders forward and backward.

If coasters aren’t the go-to ride for your family, Dollywood has time-honored favorites like the Scrambler and Demolition Derby bumper cars.

If you’re visiting Dollywood on a hot summer day, you may want to consider spending at least some of your time at water park, which has more than 23 slides and thrill rides. The theme park and the water park offer rides and things to do for all ages. Visit www.dollywood.com to find out more about the park and learn about age and size restrictions.

When tummies get rumbly, the park offers fair-style favorites like funnel cakes and Dippin Dots, but if a more substantial meal is called for, Aunt Granny’s All-You-Care-To-Eat Buffet is the place to satisfy appetites of all sizes.

This buffet is full of delicious country delights that include fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn bread and biscuits. You probably want to save this treat for when you’re finished riding the amusement park rides.

Dixie Stampede is not your run-of-the-mill dinner theater. It’s Appalachia’s version of dinner and a show. The food and the show are “country-style” and will be thoroughly enjoyed by those of any age.

Sometimes audience members’ enthusiasm is nearly as entertaining as the show itself. A 3-year-old boy standing with a chicken leg in one hand and waving a flag with the other hand, cheering on his “side” can be a real show-stealer.

If you plan to attend the show with a group of friends and family members, you’ll need to choose which side to root for, the North or the South. Be sure you go in with the knowledge that things may become a little competitive.

The Dixie Stampede can accommodate groups of all sizes, and the show offers bluegrass and country music, 32 horses and a cast of top-notch riders and thundering hooves giving the heart-pounding feel of a real stampede.

Two important tips: Be sure to get your tickets ahead of time (especially for the 6 p.m. show), and, if eating with silverware is important to you, consider bringing your own — utensils are not provided with dinner. Don’t worry though. The food is prepared and served in a manner where utensils aren’t required to enjoy the fabulous feast.

Gatlinburg has so much to offer that they have a cable television channel dedicated to sharing all the adventures you can have while visiting. Once you settle in to your accommodations, tune in to cable channel 69 for ideas on what to do next.

Gatlinburg, also known as the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, was established in 1937 and is the perfect place to learn about Appalachian culture and history. The community consists of more than 100 quaint shops and restaurants, boasting the largest group of independent artisans in North America.

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is an unexpected gem, where visitors can get up-close views of 12-foot sharks, giant sea turtles, playful penguins and thousands of sea creatures. The clear underwater tunnels allow visitors a chummy, get-to-know-you view of many of the creatures.

Gatlinburg has plenty of accommodations for those seeking quiet, relaxing getaways, including secluded cabins, chalets, spas, tranquil hiking trails, quiet dining spots and stunning views.

Quiet Reflections Spa generated 58 “excellent” TripAdvisor reviews from the 61 people who reviewed it. A frequent Gatlinburg visitor and AAA travel expert said dinner at The Peddler Steakhouse restaurant is a must for every visit. “The steaks are incredible and the glass wall at the back offers stunning views of the woods” — ask for a riverside table.

Those who want to put a little more oomph into their Gatlinburg visit can choose ziplining, whitewater rafting, lazy river tubing, the Earthquake Subway Ride and arcade game fun.

Gatlinburg’s Aerial Tramway provides stunning views of the Smokies. The 120-passenger tram transports visitors from downtown Gatlinburg to an elevation of 2,700 feet to a mountain resort that provides a full day’s worth of exciting things to do.

And there’s more — Gatlinburg has five miniature golf courses and two full-size golf courses, a haunted house and ghost walks, a mirror maze and a store with a 25-foot indoor climbing wall and swinging rope bridge.

There is also an impressive number of breweries, distilleries and wineries in the area, including Smoky Mountain Winery — east Tennessee’s oldest producer of premium wines.

For many years, mountain moonshine makers were secretive about their special craft — but today, some producers have “gone legal,” and visitors can take home bottles of Tennessee’s finest beverage.

AAA expert recommendations

n The Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster puts you in control your own personal coaster. With more than a mile of track, it’s the longest downhill ride in the U.S.

n There are Ferris wheels, but none like the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel. Standing tall at 200 feet, this is the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Due to the height and slow movement, the Skywheel is considered to be more of an observation wheel than Ferris wheel. The gondola walls are made out of glass providing stunning views of the Smoky Mountains from every seat during the eight- to 10-minute ride.

n Fans of “family-style” dining will appreciate the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. If you’re not familiar, family-style dining is all-you-can-eat, but it’s not a buffet. Large bowls of food are served up and gladly refilled upon request, allowing you get your fill of your favorites. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a Sunday-best menu too. All menus are available online along with a few recipes so you can take a stab at re-creating your favorite dishes at home. Visit the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant website: www.applewoodfarmhouserestaurant.com.

Where to stay

Accommodations abound, and the limitless choices run the gamut from primitive campsites to high-end luxurious condominiums and chalets that boast amazing mountain views, granite counter tops and over-the-top ensuite bedrooms.

People visit the region for many different reasons such as weddings, reunions, annual group getaways and family vacations, and there are properties available to accommodate most any need, including intimate, romantic spaces and cabins with 12 bedrooms or more, large enough to accommodate groups of considerable size.

AAA Auto Travel Service representatives can provide all the important details and help travelers find the perfect place for their Smoky Mountains visit. Before you go, visit the AAA office in Charleston to:

n Purchase discounted Dollywood and Ripley’s Aquarium tickets (discount available to AAA members).

n Pick up a complete guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

n Get visitor guides for the entire Smoky Mountains region.

n Get help from AAA Auto Travel Service representatives with help planning a tailor-made trip — if this isn’t your first visit to the area, the AAA travel experts can bring you up to date on what’s new since your last visit and tell you about any special events, such as festivals and shows, taking place during the time you plan to visit.

Mitzi Harrison manages AAA Travel for the Charleston area and divides her time between Cincinnati and West Virginia.

For more information on Gatlinburg and other destinations, stop by the AAA Charleston office or call one of the AAA travel professionals: Janice Adkins, Lia Ireland, Amy Sisson, Becky Wallace and Barbara Wing at 304-925-1136.

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