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The Great Smoky Mountains and Beyond: The Best of East Tennessee
Look at the Tennessee state flag and you’ll notice three stars at its center—these represent the state’s three different regions: east, middle, and west, and each boasts a remarkably distinct history and topography. That’s especially true in the eastern part of the state, running alongside the Great Smoky Mountains, where this itinerary is focused. The elevation gradually drops as you travel west in Tennessee, but here is where you’ll find its highest peaks, as well as rolling hills and broad valleys. In East Tennessee, Appalachian culture thrives, bluegrass and country music fill the air, and the frontier spirit of Daniel Boone and David Crockett lives on.  

This itinerary includes the region’s two major riverfront cities: Chattanooga and Knoxville, both slightly unsung as well as totally friendly and laidback. Both are also jumping off points to the area’s breathtaking natural beauty; in fact, you don’t even have to leave the city limits to find a creek to paddle or a crag to conquer. Then you’ll continue on to Gatlinburg, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most visited park. As the park and town draw millions of visitors each year, new attractions have opened—especially family-friendly ones. Some offer thrills like ziplines and high-speed rides, and others are more chill, with botanical gardens and close encounters with otters.
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    Day 1
    You’ll start your journey through East Tennessee at the region’s southern end in Chattanooga. For many Americans, the name is most familiar from the 1940s big band song, but past travelers and the city’s residents are in on one of America’s best-kept secrets. It’s a city with an exciting, decidedly unpretentious restaurant and bar scene—from lounges to microbreweries—and the great outdoors are always just a few minutes away.  

    You may want to spend the night at a hotel that shares its name with the famous song, the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. Located in Terminal Station, constructed in 1906 in the Southside neighborhood, the hotel has both standard rooms as well as Pullman Train Cars converted into guestrooms. You can explore other options from historic hotels like the Read House or a boutique hotel like The Edwin Hotel or Moxy Chattanooga by visiting the Places to Stay page on TNVacation.com and find a hotel or inn that suits your style.  

    One of the best ways to get the lay of the land in Chattanooga is by getting out on the water. Blue Moon Cruises offers cruises on the Tennessee River—the waterway that was central to the city’s early history, when cotton and corn drove river commerce. The company has naturalists on board their ships, and their routes include the Tennessee River Gorge, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Tennessee and located just a few miles downstream.  

    In the afternoon, explore more of the natural beauty near Chattanooga. Audubon Acres is just a short drive east of the city center and has five miles of hiking trails. Bring your swimsuit: The South Chickamauga Creek makes a big loop around the nature sanctuary, and visitors can swim, kayak, and canoe here. Head six miles south of town and you’ll arrive at Rock City Gardens; its collection of 400 different species of plants is a must-visit for botanists and gardeners. The Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village, with their scenes from favorite children’s tales, will appeal to any young kids in tow. And everyone will appreciate the stunning views of seven states and the dramatic rocky outcropping known as Lover’s Leap and its postcard-perfect High Falls. Finally, nearby Prentice Cooper State Forest has 35 miles of trails, which you can explore on foot, mountain bike, or horseback.  

    Back in downtown Chattanooga, you won’t have to travel far to experience some of the city’s musical culture. Terminal Station also houses the Songbirds Guitar Museum. Its collection includes guitars made from the 1930s to the 1970s—electric, acoustic, jazz, bass, and even some banjos. In all, the museum houses 1,700 instruments; those on display are regularly rotated.  

    In addition to the museum, Songbirds is Chattanooga’s premier music venue. You may see a band you like or discover your new favorite group or singer.
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    Photo Courtesy of Tennessee Theatre
    Day 2
    Drive to Knoxville
    Depart this morning from Chattanooga and drive north towards Knoxville. It’s a straight shot on I-75, and you can make the drive in under two hours. Since you aren’t in a hurry, though, you can take time for a pit stop or two. Athens has a charming downtown and a number of restored historic houses. And in Sweetwater, you can visit the otherworldly Lost Sea, the country’s largest underground lake.  

    Once you get to Knoxville, drop off your luggage at whichever hotel you choose for the night. (The Places to Stay page on TNVacation.com will lead you to appealing options.) Perhaps you’ll opt for The Tennessean Hotel, a new luxury property that opened in 2017 close to Market Square. Also close to Market Square, you’ll find the 28-room Oliver Hotel, which celebrates Knoxville’s history—it’s in a building from 1876 and has furnishings that suit its home.  

    Much like Chattanooga, you don’t have to travel far to experience nature when you’re staying in Knoxville. Mead’s Quarry is the city’s own wildlife sanctuary, just a few minutes from downtown Knoxville on the south bank of the Tennessee River. There are 10 miles of trails and a crag for beginning rock climbers. Visit in the summer and you can canoe or kayak in the flooded quarry. The Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area is just a little farther east, at a bend in the Tennessee River, and has 6.5 miles of trails.  

    Navitat offers a more adrenaline-fueled nature encounter with ziplines and balance bridges. Each of the six trails has between 10 and 12 challenges to conquer. Zoo Knoxville is a little more low-key and is a great attraction for families with kids of a variety of ages.  

    Experience some of Knoxville’s culture at the meticulously restored Tennessee Theatre, which originally opened in 1928 as a movie palace. In 2005, the theater reopened and now, along with movie screenings, it hosts live performances by big-name musicians (Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris will be there in fall 2019), the Knoxville Opera, and touring Broadway shows.
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    Day 3
    Drive to Gatlinburg
    Leave Knoxville this morning and head for the mountains. Gatlinburg is just over an hour from Knoxville and is famous as the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While the town has a population of just over 4,000, an estimated 11 million people visit each year. Needless to say, there are a lot of options when it comes to accommodations: hotels, B&Bs, cabin and condominium rentals, campgrounds, and more. The Stay page on Gatlinburg’s website is a good place to start your search. 

    After a walk through downtown Gatlinburg, where you can choose from a number of casual restaurants for lunch, head to the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park on the western edge of town. A cable car will take you up 500 feet, where you can cross the SkyBridge. This 680-foot span, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, overlooks Gatlinburg below and the majestic Smoky Mountains on every side. As the highest point is 140 feet in the air, your heart may start racing—or perhaps that’s simply the effect of the dazzling views.  

    This evening, head to Pigeon Forge, a 15-minute drive from Gatlinburg, where The Island in Pigeon Forge is regularly voted among the country’s top amusement parks. In addition to a 200-foot-tall observation wheel with views of the Smoky Mountains, a popular mirror maze, and many rides for kids, The Island at Pigeon Forge is a popular nightlife destination. A summer concert series features rock, country, and bluegrass performers, while Margaritaville and the Yee-Haw Brewing Co. are ready to pour you cold drinks.
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    Day 4
    A Day at the Parks
    Spend this morning conquering one of the most popular trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The walk to Laurel Falls takes about two hours and is paved, making it easy for everyone in your group—even those who don’t hike frequently. (You will, however, want to exercise caution if it’s rained recently, as some sections can be slippery when wet.) Along the way, you’ll pass through a forest of mountain laurels and rhododendrons before arriving at the falls. The 80-foot cascade is divided into upper and lower sections, offering a variety of views for photographers—make sure you have plenty of digital storage space! 

    In the afternoon, visit a different sort of park. You’ll start your visit to the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area & Amusement Park by boarding an aerial tramway for a ride through the air, with views of Gatlinburg below and the peaks of the Smoky Mountains in every direction. At the top of the tramway, you can ride the 1,800-foot-long Alpine Slide, try the new Summer Tubing ride, choose from three different water slides, go ice skating (even in the summer), or explore some of the many other attractions. There’s also a wildlife encounter area, where you can meet four-legged residents of this part of Tennessee: black bears, bobcats, raccoons, and other animals commonly found in the Smoky Mountains. (Note: the zoo is a licensed facility, and all the animals it houses are either rescues or come from other licensed zoos.)
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    Day 5
    Travel Back in Time in the Smoky Mountains
    Leave the driving this morning to one of guides at Pink Adventure Tours. After you board one of the company’s pink, open-air Jeep Wranglers, you’ll make your way through Gatlinburg as your guide shares some history of the town. Then you’ll continue on to the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail. This road, which has countless twists and turns, is off-limits to tour buses, and you’ll be glad you aren’t at the wheel so you can admire the many waterfalls along the route.  

    Your excursion will also pass historic cabins and mills. East Tennessee was once the western frontier of the United States, and you’ll have a glimpse of pioneer life of those who settled here in the 1830s and ’40s.

    Anakeesta, which you’ll visit this afternoon, is not your typical theme park; it’s dedicated to celebrating the history and heritage of the Smoky Mountains. Even its name is a Cherokee word that means the “the place of the balsams,” often used to refer to areas of higher ground like that where the park is located. Anakeesta includes ziplines, a canopy walk, and a rail runner (a downhill mountain roller coaster) that reaches speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. A full afternoon might consist of shopping at the boutiques, enjoying a meal of Southern barbeque, and strolling through the Vista Gardens to admire some of the local flora.
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    Day 6
    Say Goodbye to Tennessee
    Before you head back to Knoxville on your way home, you have time for a final hike in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The park has about 800 miles of trails, and plenty of the options in the East Tennessee portion are—like the Laurel Falls hike—only a couple miles long. You’ll be able to stretch your legs and still get back to your hotel before it’s time to check out. While you’ve had six days in East Tennessee, the list of places you haven’t seen is still long: Cherokee National Forest, with more than 655,000 acres of mountain views and outdoor opportunities; the region’s many wineries; Bristol, the birthplace of country music; and much more. There’s no need to regret that you’re leaving too soon, however. You’ll be back, and next time you’ll know the warm welcome that will greet you as soon as you arrive.