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Mountain Destinations: Come for a peak

Photo courtesy Pigeon Forge Dept of Tourism

Why work hard at exploring mountain scenery when you can hire six healthy dogs to pull you when you yell “mush”?

Whether it’s dog-sledding expeditions in Whitefish, Mt.; stylish stagecoach rides in Columbia, Calif.; or train rides up the peaks in North Conway, N.H., mountain destinations across the country offer easy ways to tour the post-card beauty around them. Some of these towns not only allow visitors to view mountains just by walking downtown but also provide original attractions such as live theater, historic museums and plentiful shopping.

Mount Airy, N.C.
After driving through the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains scenery, many visitors can’t help but whistle the familiar Andy Griffith Show theme song when entering Mount Airy. The town that inspired the popular 1960s television show embraces its Mayberry connection with guided tours in a replica 1962 squad car that drives past historic and Andy Griffith-themed attractions.

Courtesy Greater Mount Airy C of C

This year, a 15-mile drive to the town from the Blue Ridge Parkway could involve plenty to celebrate, as it is the 125th anniversary of the town’s founding, the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the 50th anniversary of the Andy Griffith Show. Events and festivals throughout the year will commemorate these anniversaries, among them Mayberry Days in September and the monthly Voice of the Blue Ridge live music.

“We are a true mountain town,” said Jessica Icenhour, director of tourism and marketing for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “Our Main Street is a huge draw, because there are lots of restaurants, shopping and live entertainment.”

On a Squad Car Tour, visitors can relive their favorite Andy Griffith moments at landmarks like Wally’s Filling Station, Floyd’s Barber Shop and Andy Griffith’s original home place. Tours also stop by the Andy Griffith Museum, which houses the largest collection of Griffith memorabilia with props from the show and artifacts from the life of Griffith, a Mount Airy native.

To enjoy the mountains that surround the town, take hiking or driving tours that run through nearby Pilot Mountain State Park. Other places of interest in Mount Airy include the world’s largest open-face granite quarry, the surrounding Yadkin Valley’s 24 wineries and the 1903 Gertrude Smith House.

Columbia, Calif.
Ride into town on a stagecoach the way many gold-crazed individuals did when they rolled into Columbia after the 1850 gold discovery. Once the gold ran out of Columbia’s Sierra Nevada foothills, the town became a virtual ghost town.

Courtesy Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau

The lack of development in the mountain town allowed the state to preserve the seven-block city as the Columbia State Historic Park, now known as the best-preserved Gold Rush town in the state. Groups can experience life in Columbia’s heyday by taking a ranger-led tour through the historic houses, including the schoolhouse, where docents act out a scene with a dunce cap and a hickory stick.

“As the rest of the world changes, our little piece of time stands still here in Columbia,” said Sandy Gordon, marketing manager for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. “We are in the foothills with elevation of about 2,500 feet. To Easterners, those are big mountains. However, compared to our 10,000-foot mountains, it’s all relative.”

As no automobiles are allowed inside, visitors can ride stagecoaches or walk past historic museums, a historic candy store, boutique shops and working saloons. Guests can also try their hand at antique bowling with a wooden ball or panning for gold.

The town sits close to the northwest entrance to some of the most stunning mountain vistas in the world at Yosemite National Park along Highway 120.  Festivals celebrating Highway 120’s 120th anniversary will take place in the surrounding Tuolumne County throughout this year.

Whitefish, Mont.
In 1910, people looking up at the towering northern Rocky Mountains and immense glaciers by Whitefish decided to form the Glacier National Park. Throughout 2010, the park and the town of Whitefish will commemorate the park’s centennial with guided walks, lectures and musical events like the Centennial Hootenanny.

Courtesy Whitefish Visitors Bureau

Because of Whitefish’s remote location, visitors can not only gaze upon the unspoiled beauty of the mountains from the town but also spy eagles, elk, moose or mountain goats on nearby hikes.

Before entering the nearby national park, nature-lovers can canoe on the glacial Whitefish Lake, ride 7,000 feet up the Big Mountain Express Gondola and see the view from the tops of trees at the Walk-in-the-Treetops 70-foot-high canopy boardwalk.

Walking down Whitefish’s charming Central Avenue, guests can experience Western culture and history with antique stores, art galleries and local craft stores lining the street. Art even adorns the sides of historic buildings in Whitefish, as the town boasts a significant art community.

Groups staying in Whitefish can enjoy live theater at the O’Shaughnessy Center, which features plays, concerts and film premieres.

The Whitefish Mountain Resort regularly sends its guests on outdoor adventures such as dog-sled rides, alpine slides and hiking excursions up Big Mountain.

Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
For a 5-mile stretch down Pigeon Forge’s main parkway, visitors can choose from all kinds of attractions, including minigolf courses, shopping outlets and about    20 live shows. Pigeon Forge not only claims an inexhaustible list of activities but also is the gateway into America’s most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“Many have a hub ’n’ spoke tour of the Smoky Mountains by coming to Pigeon Forge to see shows and making day trips to the Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Kay Poole, sales manager for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “It is the perfect place for youth groups and senior groups, because we have something for all ages, from rafting to theatrical shows.”

Approximately 11 million people a year visit the mountain destination but with very different itineraries. For those seeking a historic glimpse of Pigeon Forge, the 1830 Old Mill still grinds corn for the Old Mill Restaurant and the Pottery House Cafe and Grill. The mill gives tours of its water-powered gristmill and serves meals of biscuits, pancakes and grits made from its homemade grains.

Dollywood makes it possible for those looking for roller coaster thrills to walk through the same theme park as those looking for history, as the park supports numerous artisans continuing centuries-old craft traditions. Visitors can watch the artisans at buildings showcasing hand-blown glass, wagonmaking and blacksmithing.

North Conway, N.H.
The rising shape of the highest peak in the Northeast towers above the horizon from downtown North Conway. Adventures, among them skiing, ice skating, hiking and canoeing, to and around Mount Washington start from many locations in North Conway.

By G. Keeler/Attitash, courtesy Mount Washington Valley C of C

“It’s definitely a quaint New England town, but it accommodates the outdoorsy people as well,” said Siiri Grubb, communications manager for Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Every activity you can do here, you can do in groups, and they will accommodate, whether it’s biking, rock climbing or any of those types of activities. It’s a quaint town but with more to do than some of your smaller villages.”

The nostalgic Conway Scenic Railroad departs from the historic Victorian-style station in North Conway to three destinations in the Mount Washington valley, including one trip through the dramatic Crawford Notch. New this year is a dining car with two luncheon seatings on the Notch train.

Groups can ride to the top of Mount Washington with its sheer bluffs, cascading streams and panoramic views into Canada, Maine and   New York aboard the historic Mount Washington Cog Railway, which marked its 140th anniversary last year. Many choose to ride in September and October for the fall foliage.

Whether visitors visit North Conway in the summer to see downtown lined with flowers or in the winter to see it lined with hand-painted snowmen, the mountain town always retains a large range of activities, from dog-sledding expeditions to sailing down the mountain on a zip line.

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