Tennessee’s Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge will take you higher, naturally
At first glance, walking across a suspension bridge above Gatlinburg, Tennessee didn’t raise my anxiety levels, but when kids moved past enjoying the rollicking motion of the bridge, my heart skipped a beat. When we hit the glass panels in the bridge’s center and I stared at my feet floating 140 feet above the ground, I wondered why I chose this adventure.
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park with its SkyBridge is one of many attractions in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge built for entertainment, some thrill-seeking. Both Tennessee towns are family adventures on steroids, attracting hundreds of people daily during the summer months.
But in the midst of my bridge fear, a bear sauntered by below and suddenly the Smoky Mountain experience lost its commercial appeal. The twin cities may be about fun, but underneath it all, we’re here for the mountains.
The region dates to the 1700s, according to the Tennessee State Museum, but tourists began coming at the turn of the 20th century, drawn to the magic of the mountain range with its blue mist hanging low like smoke. Cherokee once called the mountains “Shaconage,” which meant “place of the blue smoke,” and from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s easy to see why.
Because of the beauty of the area, President Calvin Coolidge established the national park with land from North Carolina and Tennessee and money was raised for its inception. In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to the area to build roads, bridges and campgrounds and the president opened the park in September 1940.
Today, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the United States. It spans 500,000 acres throughout the southeastern corner of Tennessee and the western edge of North Carolina and includes 850 miles of trails. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its five historic districts and nine buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.
Plus, the mountains are home to incredible diversity.
“Diversity of stories, life and experiences,” said Dana Soehn, the park’s management assistant for public affairs.
“In the park, you’ll discover the finest example of the ruggedness and scenic grandeur of the southern Appalachian Mountains, including 16 peaks over 6,000 feet and 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail,” she said. “You’ll also be immersed in one of the most biologically diverse areas in the temperate climate with over 20,000 different species of life — including 30 species of salamanders.”
Gatlinburg claims numerous attractions in addition to the SkyBridge. A ski lift takes visitors to Anakeesta high on a mountain overlooking the town with 72 acres of dining, shopping, ziplines, children’s adventure area, mountain coasters and, our favorite, the tree canopy walks. Ober Gatlinburg offers more of the same, available by sky tram, but also a wildlife encounter, indoor ice skating, ice bumper cars and more. For animal lovers of a different stripe, the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies provides both viewing tanks and interactive exhibits.
Off the commercial main street visitors will find the largest independent organization of artisans in the country. The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, formed in 1937, creates and sells original works in an 8-mile highway loop. In town, the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts offers a variety of classes in addition to its gallery and gift shop selling student wares.
Pigeon Forge bursts with attractions, everything from the Dolly Parton’s Stampede which provides a colorful horse show with a hearty dinner to the giant Ferris wheel and other breath-taking rides of The Island amusement park. The Titanic Museum looks at the 135 children who were aboard that fateful voyage with its “Year of the Titanic Children” exhibit and the Alcatraz East Crime Museum not only spotlights the criminals but the emergence of law enforcement agencies.
And, of course, there’s Dollywood.
Dollywood Parks and Resorts offers the centerpiece Dollywood theme park but also the 35-acre Splash Country filled with water rides shaded by trees. Visitors may stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa or wait for the more upscale HeartSong Lodge & Resort scheduled for completion later this year.
New this year to the park is Big Bear Mountain, the park’s longest roller coaster to date and named for the mythical bear rumored to roam the area.
Above all, don’t miss why these towns emerged. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a national treasure and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Hike, camp or enjoy the interpretive centers but know that starting this year parking fees will be enforced, due to the high volume of tourists over the past few years. Parking rates are $5 a day or $15 for up to seven days. Entrance to the park is always free, thanks to its founders. Visit nps.gov/grsm for more information.