story: Mary Ann DeSantis
photos: Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
The magnificent Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be the first stop for a trip to eastern Tennessee, but the area also offers many other family adventures.
The best-laid plans are often disrupted by weather. Massive amounts of rain certainly changed my itinerary during a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee. My guided hike along the Waterfall Trail was more about puddle sloshing than the photographic adventure I had planned.
Patience paid off because I eventually did hike in America’s most visited national park. In the meantime, I discovered many other popular adventures that didn’t require hiking boots.
“Most families return year after year, captured by the Smoky Mountain magic,” says park management assistant Dana Soehn. “Visiting here becomes a tradition and part of their lives.”
Such is the case with Leesburg residents Richard and Leigh Neely, who have rented a cabin every fall since 2002 with their grown children and grandchildren.
“The week is a wonderful time for our entire family to get together and enjoy so many things about the area,” says Leigh, who visited the national park regularly as a child growing up in Chattanooga. “The ladies love to shop, the guys love to golf, and the grandkids love the attractions. And at the end of the day, the rocking chairs on the cabin porch offer a restful, peaceful place for us to be together.”
With my hiking day a washout, I explored the areas outside the national park like a kid. I wanted to know what brings families back every year. From the little I knew prior to my trip, I had envisioned Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg — the cities that bookend the national park — as tourist traps. While there are the requisite souvenir shops, the east Tennessee towns are also rich with history and offer some unexpected adventures.
One of those at-first seemingly touristy places was the Titanic Museum with a replica of the ill-fated ship dominating the Pigeon Forge landscape. However, the attraction turned out to be one of my best and most educational excursions. I received a “passage ticket” at the doorway and entered the grand hallway to embark on a memorable tour. According to my ticket, I was Annie Sage and I would learn my fate on the Memorial Wall at the end of the tour. In the meantime, I walked the hallways, parlors, cabins, and grand staircase of the Titanic surrounded by artifacts and exhibits that respectfully told the ship’s story. More than 2 million present-day “passengers” have visited Titanic-Pigeon Forge since it opened in 2010. The attraction — and its sister museum in Branson, Mo. — represent the largest permanent monuments in the world dedicated to the Titanic’s memory. And what was Annie Sage’s fate? Unfortunately, the 11-member Sage family never made it to their final destination, which would have been Jacksonville where they had planned to become pecan farmers. The Sage family was the largest recorded loss of life from one family on board the Titanic.
After my sobering experience on an ill-fated voyage, I decided to get my heart thumping again with Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, an unusual experience in a vertical wind tunnel that attracts 20,000 people annually. “A lot of people want to jump out of plane,” says owner Robert Ogle, who helped me don a well-padded jumpsuit, goggles, and helmet. “This seems more reasonable to them.” I had to reassure Robert and his crew that I had paid attention to the safety procedures in the training film and that I could remember the hand signals for “Okay,” “Let’s go higher,” and “I’ve had enough, thank you.” Be sure to check Flyaway’s Facebook page for special deals when planning a trip to the area.
It was time to put my feet back on solid ground in the mountain village of Gatlinburg. Once called White Oak Flat, Gatlinburg offers unique shopping and family-friendly attractions. It is also the place to sample regional dishes like gourmet pancakes at the Pancake Pantry, where only three people know owner Jim Gerding’s secret recipe, and fresh fish at the iconic Smoky Mountain Trout House, which opened in 1975.
Many first-time tourists do not realize Gatlinburg’s major arts and crafts community is located three miles from downtown in “The Glades.” The eight-mile loop around the community is packed with potters, weavers, jewelry makers, painters, and more. A trolley to the area runs continuously from downtown for 75 cents.
Now I understand why so many families plan reunions in the Smoky Mountains. The entertainment options for all ages are exciting and endless; yet the serenity and the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park remain unsurpassed. And if you should make the 14-mile roundtrip hike to the national park’s Rocky Top, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most spectacular views that America has to offer.