PIGEON FORGE, Tenn.
Sunlight streaks the red-clay trail, which bulges with tree roots that spread like spider veins. We try not to trip over them as we ascend the mountain, past silverbell and hemlock trees, toward the sound of streaming water. Here in the Smoky Mountains, it is all about finding ways to scale higher.
You can ride on a horse up the mountain. You can take a skylift. Or you can hike, as we chose to do on this August afternoon.
As I round a corner and come face to face with the cool spray of the 25-foot waterfall known as Grotto Falls, I realize that this may be one of my best vacations.
Perhaps it is because our lives are so complicated now and this trip has been so simple. Perhaps it is that it captures all the elements I love in a vacation: fitness, adventure, the outdoors.
But let me not get ahead of myself. First, you should know, I did not set out to take a vacation in the mountains of Tennessee. I chose my destination arbitrarily based on the price of the airfare on an airline that flies out of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
I guess I got lucky.
• • •
A friend told us about Allegiant Air. He'd flown his family of four to Sioux Falls, S.D., round trip for $300. They'd hiked Mount Rushmore, driven through Badlands National Park, stayed at a lodge surrounded by buffalo in Custer State Park. "One of the coolest, most patriotic vacations we ever had," he said.
Sometime in July, a five-day window of freedom opened for my husband, my 14-year-old daughter and me. We wanted to go out West. We realized that it would cost $400 to $600 a person to fly to Phoenix or Las Vegas. Other destinations were equally expensive.
Investigating Allegiant, we found it goes where most airlines don't go: mostly small cities that are not necessarily popular vacation destinations. It fills its planes by traveling only a couple of times a week and offering cheap fares.
From the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport, you can fly to 28 destinations, among them Allentown, Pa.; Peoria, Ill.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nestled among the options were destinations that I thought had vacation potential, such as Bangor, Maine; Branson, Mo.; and Knoxville, Tenn.
Allegiant now charges extra fees for seats and bags, so it's not as economical as when our friend traveled to South Dakota. But the $175-per-person price (including all the fees) to Knoxville during the busy summer months beat every other airline by about $200.
Once we had our destination, we looked at the surrounding area. We thought of going to picturesque Asheville, N.C., a 2.5-hour drive to the east, or to funky Nashville, Tenn., a three-hour drive to the west. But then we stumbled on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just an hour's drive south.
• • •
As we drive into Pigeon Forge, I start to think that we've made the wrong choice. It reminds me of International Drive in Kissimmee at the height of the tourism season, lots of traffic plus billboards, chain restaurants and souvenir shops. We pass a giant replica of the Titanic, and King Kong hangs off the side of a faux high-rise that is part of the Hollywood Wax Museum. Next is the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show and the Lumberjack Feud Dinner Show and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. I want no part of this, but clearly there are lots of people who do. The main drag teems with rental cars.
We have booked most of our stay in advance at a mountain cabin in Dollywood. Online photos of the cabins hooked us, but they were expensive so we've just done the minimum: three nights.
We are going to stay at lower-cost motels the other two days. For our first night, we reserve a room at the River Edge Motor Lodge in Gatlinburg. The room is clean and a Frisbee's throw from the city's main drag.
Gatlinburg is similar to Pigeon Forge, though cozier and quainter. Sandwiched by mountains, the town center is a mix of historic buildings and newfangled tourist attractions, like Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and Ripley's Believe it or Not! Museum.
It feels like a country fair. Every few feet, we are assailed by a different smell: funnel cake, roasted nuts, pancake syrup, fudge, leather, taffy, caramel corn, pizza, scented soaps. In one shop, I can buy a sword and an air gun, and in the next a handmade quilt and hand cream.
For one night, Gatlinburg is okay. But I want badly to get away from all of this. To hit those mountains and disappear into the greenery.
• • •
The next day we steer our rental car up a steep, winding road to Dollywood's cabins.
Each cabin has a name. We pass "Almost There" and "High Hopes" and "As Good As It Gets."
Our cabin isn't rustic. More like luxurious. It sleeps eight and has a living room, kitchen and bedroom on the first floor and a loft bedroom with a pool table, air hockey and Jacuzzi on the second floor. Flat-screen TVs hang on the walls above fireplaces. The furnishings look straight out of the Pottery Barn catalog. On the wall over a bed with a bear-themed bedspread, a plaque reminds us we are in the Bible Belt: Thank God for What You Have, Trust God for What You Need.
Outside on the deck are giant rocking chairs and a hot tub.
We've paid $866.26 for three nights. This includes all taxes and fees and entry to the Dollywood theme park for all three days. My daughter, a roller coaster aficionado, appreciates this.
The 150-acre Dollywood, named after songwriter and owner Dolly Parton, attracts 2.5 million people a year and is the largest employer in Sevier County, where Parton grew up. In addition to turn-of-the-century crafts like carriagemaking, it boasts lots of roller coasters, including the $20 million Wild Eagle.
We can hear riders screaming in the distance from our cabin during the day. It is far enough away that it isn't annoying. And the park is nestled so deeply in the woods, we can't actually see it. Every couple of hours, we hear Dollywood's Klondike Katie, a 110-ton coal-fired steam train built in 1943, riding through the foothills, piping black smoke above the trees.
It doesn't take long for us to conclude that if we had to do it over again, we would book this cabin in the mountains for all five nights. The name says it all.
"Above It All."
• • •
There are multiple ways to enjoy these mountains. Some cost money; others are free. (Many activities shut down in the winter, but you can go skiing during the colder months.)
My daughter wants to go horseback riding. I am itching to go white-water rafting. My husband insists we take a trip through Cades Cove, an 1800s farming community at the national park.
We ride horses up the mountain from Sugarland Riding Stables. My daughter loves this peaceful march up a shady trail and over streambeds.
The next day, we negotiate the Pigeon River in rafts. We choose the extremely reasonable Nantahala Outdoor Center, about 45 minutes from our cabin. Cost per person for a three-hour trip, including tax, is $34. The Pigeon River mixes up Class III and IV rapids with calm waters, offering time to just gaze up at the mountains. Not too scary, not too tame.
We drive the 11-mile loop through Cades Cove one rainy day.
Along the trail, you can visit some of the 80 or so historic buildings that remain, including a mill, a blacksmith shop and Primitive Baptist Church.
As we pass homesteads built by men almost 200 years ago, the sun peeks through clouds and we open the windows to let in the smell of fresh-cut grass.
We stop at the Primitive Baptist Church, established by some of Cades Cove's earliest settlers in 1827. The white frame church, true to its name, is bare bones with simple wooden pews, walls and floors. We find a notebook on the altar. "My brother's wish was to come to Cades Cove one more time before he died," a woman had written. "On Jan. 21, we found out he had cancer. He died eight weeks and 3 days later. I told him we would all go here together, so here we are."
We continue down the road, pass a field of pink wildflowers and enter woods heavy with sourwoods, hemlock, sugar maple. Now the stench is skunk.
We see several cars pull over.
"What is it?" I ask a woman through the window.
"Someone said they saw a bear," she replies.
We peer into the woods but can't see anything. For the rest of the drive, I find myself scouring for wildlife. Deer, bear and red fox do show up in these parts, but not on this day.
• • •
It's tough to leave the cabin, but we've booked an inexpensive hotel for our last night. So we head down from the mountains, but only for sleep.
Our last day, we take another hike, this one to Laurel Falls. It's a mile of paved path up the mountain, so it is popular with families. It is hot and I am sweating and tired. It's been a rigorous trip and I feel it in my calves.
We criss-cross the mountain, taking small breaks to gaze at the evergreen forest, and then we reach the 80-foot waterfall. Just being around all that chilly, flowing water cools me. Dozens of people lounge on the rocks gazing at the cascading water. Others take pictures on a bridge. After a while, I see a kid climbing a narrow path, above all those people gathered on the bridge. And I follow him up.
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8640.