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Mountain attractions if you feel inclined

Courtesy Albuquerque CVB

A few years ago, the Albuquerque, N.M., Convention and Visitors Bureau ran an ad with the cutline “Wow, there’s a mountain.”

“That’s the response a lot of people have when they get here,” said Megan Mayo, communications and tourism manager for the CVB.

Mayo said research by the bureau showed that many people did not realize that New Mexico had mountains. “They think it is a hot, dry desert,” she said.

“Another thing people don’t realize is that we are at 5,000 to 6,000 feet in the city. The Sandia Mountains are the eastern border of Albuquerque and are very much a part of the visitor experience. The city butts right up to them.”

Northern Alabama is another place where visitors are often surprised to find mountainous terrain.

“My office is in an information center along the interstate, and people are always surprised they are not already in Tennessee,” said John Dersham, executive director of the DeKalb County Tourist Association in northeast Alabama. “International travelers in particular say they didn’t think Alabama had mountains, but [that it] was coastal plains.

“Most of north Alabama is covered with mountains.”

Unexpected mountain destinations such as Albuquerque and northern Alabama can be a delightful surprise for groups, although more familiar mountain areas such as the Cascades in the Northwest and the ancient mountains of southeast Kentucky can be equally interesting and enjoyable stops.

Albuquerque, N.M.
The Sandia Mountains are at the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. “They are very rocky peaks, but you will not see a ton of snow,” said Mayo. “We do get snow throughout the winter, but it is generally on top of the mountains.

“What is really interesting, the western side facing the city is more jagged, more desert-looking. On the other side of the mountains are pine trees and beautiful aspen trees, with more of an alpine feel. There are two distinctive settings.”

Mayo said one of the best ways for groups to experience the mountains is to ride the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway 2.7 miles to the 10,378-foot peak. “You have an all-direction, 360-degree view of New Mexico from the top,” she said.

“If you are pretty adventurous, you can do hiking up there. There are a variety of trails at the top of the tram and also along the foothills.”

Groups can eat at High Finance at the top or at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the bottom.

Be sure to see the mountains at sunset. “Sandia means watermelon in Spanish, and the reason they are called that is they have this pinkish hue at sunset,” said Mayo. “Our sunsets hit the mountains, and they just light up. It is gorgeous.”

The mountains are filled with the mineral feldspar, which turns the pinkish hue when it is hit by the setting sun.

Another way to experience the mountains is to take Interstate 40 to state Highway 14, the Turquoise Trail. “It is a winding route up to Santa Fe, with little shopping and art towns along the way,” said Mayo.

Cascades Loop, Washington
Nancy Trucano said she never takes her job as executive director of the Cascade Loop Scenic Highway in Washington for granted.

“Every time I go across the mountains, I say to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, they are right here, and I get to talk about them,” she said.

The Cascade Loop is a 440-mile scenic byway that begins just north of Seattle and circles through the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the North Cascades and the semi-arid Columbia River Valley back to Puget Sound.

“There is a lot of diversity along the road and a lot of natural scenery,” said Trucano. “There are lots of places with overlooks if you want stunning, gorgeous mountain views, or the vistas you can just see out the window without leaving your vehicle are incredible.

“It’s accessible and not commercialized; the views are just natural.”

There are three national forests and several wilderness areas in the loop along with the North Cascades National Park Complex, whose three units are filled with deep valleys, waterfalls, more than 300 glaciers and jagged peaks towering more than 8,000 feet.

“Lake Chelan, whose northern tip is part of the national park, is a 50-mile-long, glacier-fed, beautiful, deep, clear, pristine lake,” said Trucano.

In addition to its stunning scenery, the Cascade Loop passes through several interesting small towns where groups can stop and past a number of wineries and other agricultural attractions.

“There are a lot of new emerging wineries throughout the loop and opportunities for farm-to-table dining,” said Trucano. “We have a cheesemaker who offers classes, and if you want to learn how to make cider or apple butter, we can do that.”

Cumberland Gap
The Appalachian chain of mountains, some of the oldest in the world, are a stark contrast — with more rounded, shorter forested peaks — to their younger cousins in the West. However, they proved just as formidable to early pioneers who sought to cross them and start a new life in the West more than 200 years ago.

“There’s the gap, right down there,” said Scott Teodorski, a national park ranger and naturalist at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park near Middlesboro, Ky. “If you go 100 miles in that direction [pointing right] and 100 miles in that [pointing left], there is no other way to get through the mountains.”

Teodorski was standing on the Pinnacle, an overlook 2,240 feet above sea level that provides a sweeping view of the Cumberland Mountains, including where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet, in addition to a bird’s-eye view of the famous opening in the imposing mountain barrier that was the front door to America’s western frontier.

“Most people envision a gap, but it was just wide enough to get through,” said Teodorski. “When the pioneers came through, it was old-growth forest. Blazing a trail meant marking trees.”

Today, 21st-century travelers zip through the mountain in just minutes in milelong twin tunnels that bypass the gap, which has slowly been returned to a natural state resembling what the pioneers saw.

“We tried to not only re-create the route but replace the contours. The old road is pretty close to what it was. It definitely feels like being with them,” said Teodorski.

The visitors center at the park has a small museum with informative displays, dioramas and artifacts that trace the history of the area from prehistoric days to the present.

Two high-definition films that run around 15 to 20 minutes each provide an overview of the gap and its role in the settlement of Kentucky, with actors portraying Daniel Boone and other pioneers.

Northern Alabama
The Appalachians are much the same as they extend from New England to Alabama.

“The mountains in Alabama look pretty much like Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont,” said Dersham. “They are very similar; and it’s not just the topography, but the same flora and fauna. We have a lot of northern species of plants and trees that grow all the way along the Appalachians.”

Two major natural attractions in DeKalb County are the Little River Canyon National Preserve, which has a 23-mile drive along the rim of its 700-foot-deep canyon, and DeSoto State Park with its 104-foot-high waterfall, one of “seven pretty popular waterfalls in the county.”

“DeSoto State Park, which adjoins the Little River Canyon Preserve, has a neat lodge and restaurant,” said Dersham. “Groups enjoy the ambiance of the park.”

Dersham noted that most of Lookout Mountain, which runs from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Gadsden, Ala., is in Alabama. The 93-mile-long Lookout Mountain Parkway, a state-designated scenic byway, runs along its length.

“It leads up to Mentone, a very scenic, quaint mountain village,” said Dersham. “It’s about 2,000 feet up on Lookout Mountain. It has a lot of log buildings and an arty look to it.

“It also has the oldest hotel in the state — the Mentone Springs Hotel — built in 1884. It is a Victorian-style, extremely large building. It’s now a B&B.”

Fort Payne, which is in a valley, has maintained many of the Victorian buildings that were built by New Englanders in the 1880s when it was a boomtown built around iron and coal.
“It looks like New England; a lot of bus tours like that,” said Dersham.

Both spring and fall are colorful times to visit. “We get really good color here,” said Dersham. “We have a lot of southern maples and sweet gum. But spring is equally as nice with the dogwoods and rhododendrons blooming at about the same time.”