From the great Smoky Mountains on its eastern border to the sounds of Memphis in its southwestern tip, Tennessee is packed with classic Americana from end to end.
A road trip through the Volunteer State can take groups to some signature spots that have been important parts of the American travel landscape for decades. Generations of travelers have stopped outside Chattanooga to see Rock City, flocked to Nashville to see the stars of country music at the Grand Ole Opry and made pilgrimages to Memphis to pay homage to the king of rock ’n’ roll at Elvis Presley’s Graceland.
Combine these classics with a stop at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge and a patriotic celebration in Clarksville, and you’ll make a great Tennessee tour that will have your travelers reveling in the American spirit.
Legends of the Smokies
Located along the border that Tennessee shares with North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is said to be the most-visited national park in the country. And though the park was the first attraction for visitors to the area, a bevy of others have made the towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville some of the most beloved tourist destinations in the American Southeast.
Groups that visit the Smokies will find lots of area culture and tradition, along with plenty of Americana experiences, at Dollywood. The theme park, owned in part by local hero and music legend Dolly Parton, uses rides, shows and other features to tell the stories of Dolly’s childhood and the Smokey Mountain experience.
“This park is so representative of true Americana and the history of the Great Smoky Mountains that was so key in the history of the South,” said Pete Owens, Dollywood’s director of media and public relations. “It’s not all about Dolly here. It’s about the spirit of the Smokies and her history here, because she is the most colorful and well-known character to come out of the great Smoky Mountains.”
Among signature Americana attractions at the park are the show “My People,” which tells the story of Parton’s siblings and cousins and their life in the Smoky Mountains, and the new wooden roller coaster, the Lightning Rod, which is inspired by the hot rod culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Many groups also enjoy a ride aboard the historic Dollywood Express.
“We’re the only remaining theme park in America that has a full-size coal-powered steam train,” Owens said. “All of the engines we have now were built in the 1930s, and you can ride the train like the settlers did here until coal was phased out of the railroads in the ’40s.”
The park hosts a number of annual festivals, including Barbecue and Bluegrass in late May and early June, which features performances by nationally known bluegrass music artists.
Seeing Rock City
In the 1930s, the owner of an outdoor park and garden in Chattanooga had a brilliant idea: He would send a painter around the country offering to put a fresh coat of paint on roadside barns provided that the barns’ owners would allow him to paint “See Rock City” on the roof in large white letters. The marketing campaign took off — at one time there were more than 900 Rock City barns around the country — and cemented Rock City as an iconic American tourist attraction.
Today, there are still 62 Rock City barns in the country, as far north as Michigan and as far south as Texas. But groups that make the trip to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, just six miles from downtown Chattanooga, will find that the experience is about much more than quirky marketing.
“We have very unique botanical and geological formations — huge, massive rock formations,” said Meagan Jolley, public relations manager for Rock City. “It’s 13 acres, and there are more than 400 species of flowers and plants. It takes about an hour and a half to walk through at a leisurely pace.”
A walk through Rock City will treat visitors to some extraordinary sights and experiences. Besides seeing the gardens and rock formations, guests can walk across the Swing Along Bridge, which spans 200 feet over a chasm, and stand at the base of a 140-foot-high waterfall. Perhaps most famous is the lookout point at the top of the mountain, affectionately known as Lover’s Leap, where up to seven states are visible on a clear day.
Rock City features several gift shops, a fudge kitchen, an indoor restaurant at the beginning of the trail and an outdoor restaurant near Lover’s Leap, which features modern Southern cuisine.