Making the spur of the moment decision to hit the road turned out to be more remarkable than a well-planned extended vacation. Our road trip through some of the Great Smoky Mountains, led to spontaneous adventures weaved together with a tapestry of cultural exploration, wildlife encounters, vibrant entertainment, unique stays, and unexpected historical insights.
Stop 1: Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
The Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee was a fascinating stop. While the subject matter may be serious, the experience of exploring a historic prison can create lasting memories and engaging lessons even for kids. This former high-security prison, once home to notorious inmates, now offers a captivating tour that delves into its storied past. As we explored the cells and learned about the facility’s history, the highlight was a special exhibit featuring the preserved cell of James Earl Ray, infamous for the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Additionally, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary has reinvented itself with a whiskey distillery on-site, adding a touch of Tennessee’s spirit to the experience. After the tour, we indulged in a hearty lunch at the Warden’s Table, where the ambiance paid homage to the prison’s history while providing a unique setting for a delicious meal. I’m positive that the oversized bologna sandwich was not served in the heyday of the prison, but I still highly recommend.
Stop 2: Museum of Appalachia
We next stepped back in time at The Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee. Nestled against the picturesque backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, this living history museum offered an immersive experience into the region’s rich heritage.
As we strolled through the enormous collection of exhibits, we encountered meticulously preserved log cabins, barns, and farmsteads, each telling a unique story of Appalachian life. The museum brought history to life with demonstrations of traditional crafts, including blacksmithing, weaving, and broom-making.
The Museum of Appalachia was not just a collection of artifacts but a living testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the Appalachian people. Our visit here provided a valuable opportunity to connect with the past and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural roots that shape the region, not to mention the “to-die for” coconut pie at the cafe and the beautiful free-range peacocks roaming the grounds.
Stop 3: Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center
Continuing our journey, we headed to the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center, a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, amidst the breathtaking beauty of the mountains, we witnessed the majesty of elk grazing in the meadows.
The Oconaluftee area is known for its successful elk reintroduction program, and we observed these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. The visitor’s center provided information about the elk population, their behavior, and the conservation efforts that made this spectacle possible. The highlight of our trip included observing a gigantic male elk bugle to prospective mates. The word majestic repeatedly came to mind as his proximity to us was both awe inspiring and just a little frightening.
Stop 4: Oconaluftee Indian Village
For an authentic and immersive encounter with Native American culture, we took a short detour to the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Located in nearby Cherokee, this living history museum transported us back in time to the 18th century, providing a captivating glimpse into the daily lives of the Cherokee people. Guided by tribal members dressed in traditional attire, we explored reconstructed dwellings, witnessed traditional craft demonstrations, and participated in interactive experiences. The village’s commitment to preserving and sharing Cherokee history made it a memorable and educational stop for the entire family, fostering a deeper appreciation for the rich heritage of the indigenous peoples in the region.
Stop 5: Smoky Hollow Outdoor Resort
For a truly unforgettable experience, we decided to add a bonus stop to our itinerary at the Smoky Hollow Outdoor Resort in Sevierville. Smoky Hollow Resort offered a unique accommodation experience that combined the spirit of adventure with modern amenities. We chose to stay in a covered wagon, where the sounds of the night were complemented by the soft rustling of canvas. Alternatively, we could have opted for a teepee, providing a cozy and nostalgic setting for a restful night’s sleep.
The resort provided a perfect balance between nature and luxury, with well-appointed facilities and the convenience of being close to the attractions of Sevierville. This unique stay at Smoky Hollow Resort added an extra layer of excitement to our road trip, creating memories that went beyond the ordinary.
Stop 6: Downtown Pigeon Forge
Wrapping up our road trip adventure, we found ourselves in the heart of downtown Pigeon Forge. This part of the Smokies is no stranger to us but fortunately, there is always something new to do. This bustling town, nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, is a haven for entertainment. For those in search of adrenaline, downtown Pigeon Forge boasts an array of attractions, including miniature golf courses, sling-shots, amusement-style rides, and expansive arcades. After engaging in several family-friendly competitions, we then ventured into the town’s diverse culinary scene, where options ranged from Southern comfort food to international delights. Pigeon Forge doesn’t fall short in offering theatrical experiences, and we make it a point to catch the latest dinner show. With its lively atmosphere and a plethora of entertainment choices, downtown Pigeon Forge served as a fitting conclusion to our wonderful weekend.