Mountains are magical magnets. They beckon from a distance, inviting you to come closer. And when you do get closer, they can wrap you in scenes of beauty that live forever in your memory.
That is especially true for the Great Smoky Mountains, the range of mountains that straddles much of the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. Sevier County, Tennessee, and its three distinct visitor-oriented towns — Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville — are the focus for many group tours because they provide attractions, entertainment, lodging and food, with the bonus of America’s most-visited national park as a backdrop.
“The allure of the Smokies is undeniable,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “The mountains are what make us special. We are so very proud and happy that Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects more than 500,000 acres of wilderness, especially here in the eastern part of the country.”
Downey said many people are surprised to learn that the national park was a gift to the country from private citizens and the legislatures of Tennessee and North Carolina. In the early days of motor touring, a movement began to preserve some Appalachian wilderness and reclaim many acres that had been timbered over and left in ruin.
Pockets of virgin forest remain, and once-ravaged acres have recovered since the park’s creation in 1934. It is one of the most biologically diverse locations on earth, with 1,500 varieties of flowering plants and hundreds of animal species. (Trivia: While black bears are the symbol of the park, the total mass of the park’s roughly 1,500 bears is less than that of the Smokies’ salamander population.)
Tour itineraries around Sevier County provide great views of the Smokies, and local receptives can assist with cross-park trips to Newfound Gap and the Oconoluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side.
Here are four ideas to incorporate into future tours to these magical mountains.
Festival Time at Dollywood
Dollywood in Pigeon Forge is Tennessee’s most-visited ticketed attraction, and with good reason. It’s a multigenerational place for fun, music, thrill rides, food and glimpses of Appalachian culture. Festivals and special events throughout the season give tour groups special reasons to visit. Springtime features the Flower and Food Festival and is a gardener’s delight, and Summer Celebration adds special zest to evening entertainment. The Harvest Fest in autumn features visiting crafters from across the country, as well as thousands of carved pumpkins throughout the park. Every year wraps up with the excitement of the Smoky Mountain Christmas celebration.
High Atop the Smokies
Activities, gardens, restaurants and spectacular views are the reward at Anakeesta, an outdoor attraction 600 feet up a ridge above Gatlinburg’s bustling sidewalks. Most people arrive via the “chondola,” a made-up word for a combination chairlift and gondola. There is a canopy walk — 16 suspended bridges — a zip-line and rappelling adventure, shopping and gem mining. A recent addition is AnaVista, a modernistic observation tower with 360-degree views of the Smokies. Take the 84 steps to the top for views that stretch to Kentucky in the distance and 60 feet immediately below, where meandering walkways lace through Anakeesta’s botanical gardens.
Through the Countryside
Sevier County is steeped in history — Native Americans were here for millennia before Anglo-Americans entered the scene — and step-on guides from three receptive operators bring many of the stories alive. A popular tour can be tailored to any group from a collection of 24 historic churches. One church with an intriguing story is Big Greenbrier Primitive Baptist Church. It was on land about to be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so parishioners dismantled it and rebuilt it in its current location in the Shady Grove area. Guides from Tennessee Express Tours, Rocky Top Tours and Smoky Mountain Tours arrange for churches to be open for photography, refreshments and, perhaps, some hymn singing.
Photo With Dolly
Entertainer and philanthropist Dolly Parton is by far the most famous person to hail from this neck of the woods. She occasionally makes appearances at special events inside Dollywood, but she’s always available for photos on the courthouse square in Sevierville. Well, it’s a statue of Dolly, not Dolly herself, but that’s sufficient for many visitors. Sculptor Jim Gray captured Dolly in bronze, perched on a rock and casually strumming her guitar. The statue was unveiled in 1987, the year Dollywood opened. She looks quite at home — because she is.