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Great Road Trips From Donna Vissing - The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg Tennessee

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Distinctive "blue smoke" of the Great Smokies

By Donna F. Vissing
The Auto Channel Travel Editor

Gatlinburg TN July, 2006 Among the oldest mountains in the world, 5th largest in the country, with the park stretching across 521,621 acres – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the #1 most visited national park.

Long ago when the Cherokee tribe arrived, they described the mountains as “shaconage” (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “place of the blue smoke”. Eventually leading to the name it is today, this accurate description is still visible for all to see. Rich with history you can touch, beauty you can see, and nature only found in the Great Smokies, it is not surprising 9-10 million visitors arrive annually.

The Park personnel do an excellent job making it visitor and senior-friendly. Personalizing your time in the Great Smoky Mountains can easily be planned by starting at the Visitors Center. The Center hosts a historical film presentation, Park Rangers are available to answer questions, and there are numerous self-tour and trail guides available for you to utilize in planning your exploration.

Discovering the Great Smokies can be done on foot, bicycle, horseback or automobile. The various self-guide brochures will outline your path to visit Noah “Bud” Ogle’s place, Fighting Creek, or the historical path of Roaring Fork. Cades Cove, another self-guided tour, is a favorite among visitors.

The Cove is rich with living history and open fields where you will most likely catch a glimpse of the favorite wildlife calling these mountains home. The Smoky Mountain black bears spend a considerable amount of time in the area, as do deer, woodchucks, beavers, raccoons and idle turtles.

The waterfalls are spectacular in the Smokies because of their natural formation and rain forest-like surroundings. Seeing them can be the destination within a self-guided tour and hike. There are seven notable waterfalls that are easy hikes; Laurel Falls is a 2.5 mile roundtrip hike, Rainbow Falls is 5.5 mile roundtrip hike and Ramsey Cascades is an 8 mile roundtrip hike, to highlight three.

In addition to the waterfalls and hiking, the mountains offer so many other natural activities such as rafting, trout fishing, wildflower exploration, night bat walking, nature walking, and a treasure chest of photographic opportunities.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open year-around and free to visitors. For more information you can visit

Known as “Gateway to the Smokies”, Gatlinburg offers choices to please everyone. Whether you are interested in museums, shopping, thrills & rides, scenic adventures, sports or visiting artisans in their arts & crafts studios and galleries – Gatlinburg is a destination providing all this and more!

For kids and kids at heart, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is a must-see! It may seem strange to visit Gatlinburg and observe sharks, but

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in one of the world’s greatest aquariums you see 12-foot sharks swimming silently around and overhead, as you walk under a see-through 1.4 million gallon tank. The aquarium houses over 10,000 exotic sea creatures including stingrays; in the Touch-a-ray Bay, visitors have the opportunity to watch and touch these mysterious sea organisms.

Another favorite is the “Pirates Predators of the Sea” exhibit, an interactive journey into the secretive lives of pirates. The exhibit has been so popular the Aquarium decided to extend the schedule through the end of 2006. There are a variety of different activities for children, and you can plan ahead by visiting their website at

Young people love thrill rides and there are numerous choices all within walking distance downtown. Earthquake The Ride invites you on a subway train to experience the sights, sounds, motion and destruction of what an earthquake can bring.

Ripley’s Haunted Adventure takes you on a tour in a former casket factory, where unnatural things seem to still happen. If that experience is not enough to frighten you, try visiting the Mysterious Mansion. There are numerous other experiences to excite, frighten and entertain such as World of Illusions, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Astro Canyon Coaster, and others.

Families can play miniature golf, visit museums, ride the scenic Gatlinburg Sky Lift, drive go-karts, play laser tag or go up in the Space Needle. For more information on all the activities available, visit

With over 400 gift and specialty shops, Gatlinburg is a showcase for

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custom glassware, pottery, leather goods, woven baskets, hand-made quilts and accessories, wood carvings, homemade fudge and candies, jewelry and other unique specialty items.

Gatlinburg is also home to the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community with over 80 shops, studios and galleries spread

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across an 8-mile loop. The Community features the largest gathering of North American independent artisans. You can watch the artisans create their wares providing unique one-of-a-kind crafts and artwork for you to purchase.

For information on upcoming arts & crafts shows and general information on galleries you can visit

Dining Out
Gatlinburg places a premium on providing superb and unique dining choices. You can be entertained in the saloon environment enjoying the best ribs and BBQ in town at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que, or go Mexican and eat at No Way Joe’s Cantina located downtown. Another delectable choice is Alamo Steakhouse & Saloon, voted “Best Steaks” the past two years!

You assume good Southern home-cooking will be available and you will not be disappointed at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. Farm-raised fried catfish and chicken & dumplings are just two Southern classic menu items, along with their signature apple fritters, special blend of apple butter and a non-alcoholic apple juice “julep”.

With more than 40 restaurants, there are choices that will please the most discriminating tastes. For those who enjoy Hard Rock Café – it is there; as are other franchised restaurant choices! For those who seek the fine-dining experience, gourmet connoisseurs can feast on seafood, prime rib or wild game, complimented with extensive wine lists.

Lodging Options
Lodging accommodations can contribute greatly to making your stay unforgettable. With 1,200 chalets, condominiums and cabins located throughout the Smokies, you can enjoy the quiet retreat yet be able to reach downtown Gatlinburg within minutes. Renting vacation homes will provide spacious areas to relax, special amenities, and the opportunity to have a priceless mountain-view from your private balcony. Vacation homes are a great way to accommodate families, groups or assure honeymoon seclusion.

Other options include over 75 hotels and motels, plus bed-and-breakfasts, inns, lodges and private campgrounds; accommodations to fit every budget and lodging preference. If you enjoy staying downtown and within walking distance of shopping and activities, there are many choices available. For more booking information, contact the City of Gatlinburg Department of Tourism & Convention Center by calling toll-free at 1-800-568-4748 or go to their website

For information on renting chalets, condominiums and cabins, you can visit,,, and

A Place for All Seasons
Gatlinburg is a year-around destination.

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Spring is a refreshing time of year especially if you enjoy the Annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage and are anxious to catch the first glimpse of Mountain Laurel blossoms.

Summer brings out the opportunity to enjoy

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outdoor sports, including a round of golf at the Gatlinburg Golf Course. #12 Hole is a dramatic golfing experience dropping 200 feet from tee to
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green; a great excuse for the golfer who must get in at least one round of 18 holes during vacation.

Fall is one of Gatlinburg’s most popular seasons. The legendary display of orange, red, yellow and bronze colors that transform trees throughout The Smokies is renowned. In addition to nature’s spectacular annual exhibition, Gatlinburg hosts hayrides, the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Holiday Show, and the Gatlinburg Festival of Trees during November. Christmas in the Smokies is a special season including the Annual Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade and Gatlinburg Trolley Ride of Lights, just to highlight a few interests.

Winter you can hit the slopes at Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park. From mid-December though early March, there is skiing and snowboarding on eight trails designed to fit all skill levels from beginners to experts. The snow blanketed beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains is magical; you can enjoy the peaceful mountain skiing and later, the mountain-view from your chalet while you warm in front of the crackling fireplace.

Golf – call toll-free 1-800-231-4128. Ober Gatlinburg –

SEE ALSO: Other Great Road Trips