The Smoky Side of Tennessee

The Smoky Side of Tennessee

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | February 21, 2013 9:53 AM ET

It's not hard to see how the Great Smoky Mountains got their name.
At sunrise, the mountains are shrouded in a thick blue-gray haze. When the sun finally burns off the haze, the mountains emerge in a burst of brilliant blues and greens, and rows of sky-high ridges trailing off into the horizon, one after the other. The western part of the Smokies, in the state of Tennessee, is a colorful patchwork of traditional mountain culture; waterfalls and rushing rivers; legends of the Cherokee Tribe; pretty mountain towns; and, in a few of those towns, more attractions-per-square-mile than almost any place in America.
The biggest attraction is Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take a ride - preferably on horseback or in a wagon - through breathtaking Cade's Cove, where you'll pass by deep-green "hollers" and pioneer cemeteries and rushing streams and 1800's planked cabins. In these hallowed places, you'll see stark evidence - in the ages on the tombstones - of just how difficult life was here for the early settlers.
In the park, every turn of the road tempts you to pull over and take it all in. And every wooded path tempts you, as well; there are 800 miles of trails here.
Gatlinburg is a beautiful mountain town...with one of the funkiest main streets in America. It's lined with a fantastic assortment of bright lights and wacky signs and Hollywood-ish and Ripley's-type attractions, ranging from little shops of horrors to Hollywood Star Cars. There's nothing wacky about Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, though; it's a state-of-the-art, widely-lauded facility in which you can actually walk through an underwater tunnel of glass, surrounded by creatures that are only inches away.
Overlooking Gatlinburg is the appropriately-named Ober-Gatlinburg, a mountain-top amusement complex with incredible views of the town and the mountains. And outside of town is yet another side of Gatlinburg - an eight-mile loop with more than 120 artists' studios and cottages, with craftspeople whittling, carving, sewing, weaving, glass-blowing, molding, and casting, to create objects of beauty from raw materials.
The town of Sevierville is the site of Adventure Forest, with a 3-story ropes course, a 25-foot rock climbing wall, and mini-golf. Afterward, treat yourself to dinner at the Applewood Farmhouse...where every meal starts with their legendary apple fritters (and often goes on to include chicken-fried steak and fried pickles!)
Nearby Pigeon Forge has Dollywood, built by favorite daughter Dolly Parton, the country singer who put this town on the map. Here, in a country-themed park, you can roll on the coasters, go upside-down on the rides, peer into a bald eagle preserve, test yourself on a high-ropes course, and watch a blacksmith forge a knife ... all within a few minutes. Also in Pigeon Forge is The Titanic, which bills itself as "The World's Largest Museum Attraction"...and is built to resemble the actual ship. Its hallways and exhibits - meant to re-create areas of the ship - are a poignant memorial to the "unsinkable" ship and the 1,500 souls who went down with it. As you enter, you'll be given a card with the name of one of the passengers. And as you exit, you'll find out if "your" passenger survived.
For a true Smoky Mountain dinner with all the fixin's, head down the street to Dolly's Dixie Stampede. Here, there's ridin' and ropin' and lasso-in', and the ribs and chicken and country cobblers are lip-smackin' good.
The Tennessee Smokies reverberate with the echoes of history. This is the birthplace of Country Music. The ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation. And the path of the Underground Railroad, on which slaves made it to freedom.
When you hike these paths, though, or float down these streams, you probably won't think about history. You'll probably just think that this is the most beautiful place you've ever seen.

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