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Smoky Mountains: Endless vistas

Courtesy Tennessee Department of Tourism

Nature meets nurture in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where a beautiful environment, a rich cultural heritage and a dynamic tourism product come together to form one of the most popular vacation destinations in the American South.

Visitors often initially visit the area for Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a wide expanse of pristine mountains and wilderness that has become the most visited national park in America. Upon arriving, though, many travelers find themselves equally charmed by Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and the other towns surrounding the park.

While touring the Smokies, groups will find a wide array of attractions, with something to fit almost every taste. Dollywood theme park appeals to both culture and roller coaster lovers, while the Bush’s Visitors Center gives guests a look inside a thriving Tennessee family business.

These and other attractions comprise a number of visitor trails in the Smokies, among them the Rocky Top and Sunny Side trails, which begin in Knoxville and wind through the east Tennessee region.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The cornerstone attraction of the area, Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts a staggering 9 million to 10 million visitors every year. They come to enjoy the 521,000 acres of protected land that is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna.

“Folks come to see our diversity — wildflowers, waterfalls and black bears,” said park ranger Brad Free. “There are more varieties of trees in these mountains than the entire continent of Europe, and we have 1,500 types of flowering plants each spring and summer.”

Groups will also find many different ways to enjoy the park. Great driving routes, such as the eight-mile loop at Cades Cove, allow for wonderful windshield tours, with the possibility of seeing deer, elk, bears and other wildlife.

Groups can also take a ranger-led hayride around the Cades Cove loop or choose to explore on bicycle or horseback. More adventurous groups can hike on any number of the 900 miles of hiking trails that wind throughout the park.

There is also human history to the Smoky Mountains National Park. Before becoming a park, these mountains were inhabited by several generations of Tennesseans; they were relocated to preserve the natural beauty and resources of the area.

“There were 6,000 tracts of land purchased to make this park,” Free said. “So a lot of the trees we see are only about 80 years old. If we were standing here in 1928, we would be in the middle of a cornfield.”

Pigeon Forge
Almost as famous as the Smoky Mountains themselves, Dollywood has become a marquee attraction for east Tennessee. Named for Dolly Parton, who hails from the area and shares her image and branding with the park, Dollywood is an exciting homage to the people and culture of the Smokies.

Unlike many theme parks that feature loud music and garish colors, Dollywood is designed to highlight the beauty of the mountain environment. Throughout the park, buildings, theaters, rides and other attractions blend almost seamlessly with the surrounding woods.

At the heart of the park is Craftsman’s Valley, where skilled artisans demonstrate some of the traditional crafts of the Tennessee mountains, often using historic tools and narrating their work for visitors.

Shows at the park feature traditional folk and country music — Dolly herself has been known to take the stage from time to time — as well as American Indian music and dance, and performances by international musicians during various festivals throughout the year.

Thrill-seekers will also find plenty to get excited about at Dollywood. Roller coasters such as the Tennessee Tornado, the Mystery Mine and the Thunderhead have won accolades among enthusiasts, and the new Barnstormer ride offers a high-flying adrenaline rush for those with the nerves to brave it.

But the most inventive feature at the park is Adventure Mountain, an interactive attraction in which participants use an ingenious overhead harnessing system to guide themselves as they traverse an array of rope bridges, swinging planks and other midair obstacles.

Bush’s Visitors Center
Thanks to a series of television commercials featuring Jay Bush and his dog Duke, Bush’s has become one of America’s biggest names in baked beans. At the Bush’s Visitors Center in the Smoky Mountain town of Dandridge, groups can learn all about the Bush brothers’ company that started in this region and the large facility where workers use modern production techniques to can millions of beans.

The visitors center is located in the A.J. Bush and Co. General Store, which the company founder opened in 1911.

“Bush Bros. and Company started in this building and the house across the street,” said visitors center manager Max Fultz. “We restored this building to honor A.J. and Sally Bush, because this was his dream. It seemed like a perfect fit to open the general store and see if we could get into tourism.”

Inside the general store, visitors will find a great museum that tells the Bush story. An introductory film gives an overview of company history, a look behind the scenes at the cannery across the street and clips from some of the best Jay and Duke commercials.

The museum goes on to provide interesting facts about canning, insights about Bush’s interactions within the community and artifacts from some of the famous commercials.

Groups will enjoy browsing the gift shop inside the general store or stopping by the cafe for lunch or a slice of surprisingly delicious pinto bean pie.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.