The Great Blue Hills of God (Part 1)

Native American Heritage Month: November

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” ~John Muir

America’s eastern mountain range, the Appalachians, I am told, reach all the way from the Long Range Mountains of Newfoundland-Labrador, Canada, into the hills of North Georgia. “The Great Blue Hills of God” is the name the Cherokee gave to the Blue Ridge, running from the Virginia Highlands to the southern tier of the Appalachians.

Our journey begins in Dandridge, Tennessee, at the juncture of I-40 and I-81, and proceeds to the capital of the South, Atlanta, Georgia. This region may be the most visited area in the US, mostly because there is so much to see and do, and it is so close to the large population centers of the East. It is also one of the most prosperous regions I’ve explored around the country.

TENNESSEE

Tennessee is known for much more than Nashville (country-western music) and Memphis (the blues); namely, TVA dams, nuclear power plants, historical sites, mountains, caverns, forests, rivers, wildlife, tourism, business, and industry.

If you’re coming from I-65 or points west, you’ll be using I-40 as the connecting corridor with the Great Smoky Mountains. If you’re coming from I-75 or points north, en route, you may want to stop at Norris Dam or the Museum of Appalachia. A typical pioneer farm, this is one of the best living history museums I’ve seen; it has about two dozen log buildings, acreage, and a big display barn.


(Click on any thumbnail photo to enlarge or get more info.)

If you’re coming from I-81 and the northeast, you’ll have opportunity to do a few sides trips. One is the Cumberland Gap NHP, the first great gateway to the West. Another might be the home of Andrew Johnson, Greeneville; Johnson is one of three US Presidents claimed by Tennessee: the other two are Andrew Jackson, Nashville, and James K Polk, Columbia. Still another stop or side trip is the birthplace of Davy Crockett, now a state historical park.

Oh, and don’t forget to stop for gas. At I-81 x 4, the Pilot Travel Center, featuring Shell gas, is about as cheap and clean as you’ll find in these parts.*

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If you’re coming from I-40 and points east, by Biltmore, America’s largest residence, you may want to tour it while you’re in the area. You can obtain discount tickets online if you purchase them a week or so ahead of time. You may also try a state or local Welcome Center for coupons or other special discounts.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” ~John Muir

Kodak, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg

If you like amusement parks, weekend holidays, and shopping, you may be attracted to this commercially dense tourist mecca. If you take I-40 x 407, Winfield Dunn Parkway (SR 66) west, you’ll see upon the hill a green-roofed building. Turn at Stadium Drive and proceed to the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center. If you need gas—and you always want to keep your tank wet in the mountains—you can fill up at the Stuckeys Travel Center, which sells Shell gas. Headed east on Winfield Dunn Parkway, toward the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains, you will begin an adventure, probably in the company of bumper-to-bumper traffic, for miles, with uninterrupted places to see.

Almost immediately on the other side of I-40, if you’re on your toes, you will notice a sharply-angled drive winding uphill to the right, called Dumpling Valley Road. There you’ll find modular log homes for sell, which you can tour, and the large Great Smoky Mountain Flea Market, open only on weekends.

On Winfield Dunn Parkway (SR 66) east, headed toward the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, still in Kodak, you will junction with Douglas Dam Road (SR 139). Turn left if you want to take a short trip to this TVA recreational area, where you’ll find places for picnicing, fishing, and camping. Continuing east on SR 66, you’ll pass through Kodak, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, then Gatlinburg, observing several visitor centers. The masonry Sevierville Visitor Center, 3099 Winfield Dunn Parkway, Kodak, offering gift shop and tourist information, is the official one. If you come at Christmastime, you will be in for a pleasant treat: a miles-long free light show between Kodak and Gatlinburg. At the Visitor Center you can pick up some funny shades that will make all the streetlamps look like snowflakes.

You will begin to pass motels and hotels, many nonchain, offering over thousands of rooms. Gatlinburg alone boasts “14,000 hotel rooms” and “over 3,000 bears in our back yard.” Then restaurants, service stations, bookstores, general stores, and, in time, a Starbucks to your right. Between I-40 x 407 and Sugarlands Visitor Center for the Great Smoky Mountains—about 25 miles—there are four Cracker Barrels and four Starbucks.

Eventually you’ll come to Sevierville and, at the junction of SR 66 and US 411, the Sevier County Courthouse: on the front lawn, if you take a left and circle, you’ll see a sculpture of Dolly Parton, Sevierville’s most famous citizen. If you continue north on US 411, Dolly Parton Parkway, until it becomes Newport Highway, you can follow the signs to the Smoky Mountain Deer Farm, Riding Stables, and Petting Zoo, 478 Happy Hollow Lane, Sevierville.

Continuing east on Winfield Dunn Parkway (SR 66), turn right onto US 441 south (now called the Parkway), which is the route that goes through the Smokies and over the mountains to Cherokee, North Carolina. But Cherokee’s a long way off. More imminent is Tanger Outlet Mall at Five Oaks (1645 Parkway, Sevierville), “the most beautiful mall in the Smoky Mountains,” with 140 name brand shops; at the mall office someone will be glad to give you a book of coupons. In the distance, via a side street, you will see multilayers of interesting places to shop. If you stop, just make sure to return to US 441 south, en route to Pigeon Forge.

Both Sevierville and Pigeon Forge are car friendly. You can drive between stops and, pretty much, park nearby.

A redlight or two before you get to the Titanic—so near the road you can’t miss it—turn right onto Apple Valley Road, which meanders along the Little Pigeon River. It will take you to the Apple Barn Cider Mill and General Store, Farmhouse Restaurant, and Farmhouse Grill. Back out on the Parkway, you will pass seamlessly into Pigeon Forge, where you will find the Pigeon Forge Welcome Center (1950 Parkway) on your right. Then WonderWorks: it looks like an upside-down house and offers over 100 hands-on exhibits for family fun. Adjacent is the Titanic, a partial replica of the famed ship and “the world’s largest museum attraction.” (You read a lot of superlatives in tourist brochures. What “world’s largest museum attraction” means I don’t know. Obviously, I’ve seen bigger museums.) The tour gives a view and feel of the ship’s interior.

Farther down the Parkway, besides myriads of shops, and pancake houses—most enjoyable in the morning—you’ll find varied outdoor amusements, including helicopter rides, miniature golf, and water parks. But the biggest draw in Pigeon Forge, and the biggest ticketed tourist attraction in Tennessee, with 3 million annual tourists and 3,000 employees, is Dollywood, a 150-acre amusement park, that also features the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame. Nearby is Dollywood Splash Country and Dixie Stampede Dinner Theater (3849 Parkway, Pigeon Forge), also owned and operated by Dolly Parton.

Leaving Pigeon Forge, headed toward the mountains, you will have another chance for a pit stop, to pick up brochures, and to ask questions, at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. Then you’ll pass through about four miles of wilderness before entering Gatlinburg. The tiny tourist mecca is not car friendly. You will have to pay to park, then walk. You will find clothes and trinket shops, amusements, casual and fine dining, and nice hotels, even a few wedding chapels, Ober Gatlinburg Aeriel Tramway for skiers, and the Space Needle. In summer this village is crawling with tourists; in winter, it is alive with conferences, seminars, winter sports enthusiasts, and Winterfest. There is never an off season in Gatlinburg.

Nearby you may want to explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a winding, one-way road that travels through the forest and past historic homesites near Gatlinburg; and Cherokee Orchard Road, which leads to 80′ tall Rainbow Falls.

Leaving Gatlinburg via US 441 south, you will be in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you go straight ahead, you will come to the Chimneys Picnic Area, where there are not only tables and shelters for picnicing, but also big rocks, white water, and places to go wading. Ascending the mountain, you will come to Newfound Gap, a high point on the road where you can pull over and view the scenery. From the gap, you can take the 7-mile drive to the top of the mountain, Clingmans Dome (6,643′), or go down the mountain to Cherokee, North Carolina. At Clingmans Dome, a paved trail leads from the parking lot to a 54′ tall observation tower. I’m told the vistas are spectacular. I’ve never been.

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” ~John Muir

“Climb up on some hill at sunrise. Everybody needs perspective once in a while, and you’ll find it there.” ~Robb Sagendorph

If you go on to Cherokee, you will be on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. You may or may not find the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway open; but, during daylight hours, you should be able to visit the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mingus Mill, Pioneer Farmstead, Oconaluftee Indian Village, and Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

“Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.” ~Standing Bear

Sugarlands, Cades Cove, and Townsend

“The human spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hand of man.” ~Anonymous

From Sugarlands Visitor Center, at the junction of US 441 and Old State Highway 73 you can take an excursion on the Little River Road to Townsend, “the quiet side of the Smokies.” The narrow road follows the river and sometimes squeezes under some close overhangs. Beware if you have a big RV. Along the road are places to camp, like the Elkmont area, and places to hike, like Laurel Falls. The Laurel Creek Road will take you to Cades Cove, a 7-mile loop running through a secluded valley, where you will see log cabins, a cantilevered barn, grist mill, general store, and wildlife. Grounds are also available for camping and picnicing, with camp store and bicycle rental. From Cades Cove you can see Rocky Top (which Tennessee is sometimes called), a subpeak of Thunderhead Mountain, traversed by the Appalachian Trail.


“The poetry of the earth is never dead.” ~John Keats

From Cades Cove you will have to drive back to SR 73 to get to Townsend, which is a small place, barely commercial compared with Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg; but it offers quiet places to rest, trinket and novelty shops, and the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center. If you like, you can go from Townsend to Maryville and Alcoa, home of Alcoa Aluminum.

Meanwhile, on SR 73, you’ll pass the entrance to the Foothills Parkway, a scenic route running between SR 73 and US 129. If you do the parkway, north to south, you can turn east onto US 129, then SR 28, to visit Fontana Dam and Village Resort. Fontana Dam is the tallest dam in the Eastern US and the fourth tallest in the world. Definitely the biggest in the TVA system, with dizzying height.

Or you can head back to Townsend, and from there to Pigeon Forge via US 321, Wears Valley Road, which is what I plan to do. From Pigeon Forge, I’ll be following the interstate signs back to I-40 x 407, where we started.

“As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.” ~Stephen Graham

Knoxville, Oak Ridge, Lenoir City, and Maryville

Knoxville is headquarters for the TVA, site of the 1982 World Fair, and home to the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Volunteers (I-40 x 389). Visible from the campus is the World Fair Sunsphere (266′ tall), a steel truss structure topped with a gold-colored glass sphere, but a “space needle” that, despite its height, pales in relation to the school.

Knoxville is also known for its architecture: it boasts the nation’s largest concentration of Victorian homes designed by George Franklin Barber. Another attraction is the Knoxville Zoo (I-40 x 392). And if you like to browse used books, you won’t want to miss McKay Used Books, 230 Papermill Place Way (I-40 x 383), one of the best designed and stocked used book stores I’ve ever seen.

Still another thing I noticed about Knoxville was that between Kodak and Lenoir City—45 miles of urban interstate (I-40), with about four or five lanes going each direction—fronting the interstate are an endless parade of car, heavy duty truck, tractor trailer, freightliner, motor coach, and RV sales. Knoxville must have the largest collection of vehicles for sale I’ve ever seen in one location—200 dealerships listed—and at night they’re so lit up that you can read a map while driving by.

Knoxville is also blessed with a sprawling outdoor mall: Turkey Creek Shopping Center (I-40 x 374)—Lovell Road east, two redlights, right onto Parkside Drive. Both Target and Walmart are superstores. If you’re like me, you wish they’d post attractions like these on the interstate services signs.

Oak Ridge lies about 25 miles west of Knoxville. From I-40 take I-140 west (Pellissippi Parkway), which becomes SR 162, as a connecting corridor to SR 62 (Oak Ridge Highway). Oak Ridge, “the secret city,” was created by the Federal government (1942) as a production site for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. Carefully planned and implemented, the town is laid out like a grid and is, therefore, easy to negotiate.

The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) is a Federally owned corporation created by Congress (1933) to provide flood control and electrical power in the Tennessee Valley (including snippets of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia), a region supposedly hurting because of the Great Depression. But since the whole country was hurting, why Tennessee and its rivers particularly? And why the timing? Most of the dams were completed (1942-43) about the same time Oak Ridge was commandeered to assist the Federal government in its secret mission. No one can deny the dovetailing of events and location. So was TVA really created to service the government?

After World War II, Oak Ridge was placed under the authority of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Home of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge is still used for nuclear weapons processing and materials storage. Here the University of Tennessee also has 2,260-acre Oak Ridge Forest; the Arboretum Visitor Center is open during routine business hours (M-F).


Back on I-40 west and I-75 south, which run together through Knoxville, when the two interstates split, you’ll want to take I-75 south. I-40 goes to Nashville; I-75, to Chattanooga and Atlanta.

Lenoir City is another entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains. Upon the hill, to your right, at I-75 x 81, is red-roofed Bimbos Travel Center, selling Citgo gas. It’s laid back, relaxed, with cheap hot food. Watch the sign on the corner entrance for the daily special. If you go east on US 321 (SR 73), Lamar Alexander Parkway, you’ll cross the Fort Loudoun Dam and come to Maryville, a scenic city nestled in the foothills of the mountains. If you continue east long enough, you’ll be back in Townsend. If you take US 411 north, which joins US 441, you’ll end up in Sevierville.

A few miles down I-75 south, if you take I-75 x 72, onto SR 72 east, Loudoun Highway, signs will direct you to Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, 576 Highway 360, Vonore. It is the property of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and is Tennessee’s only tribally operated historical attraction.

Sweetwater, Madisonville, and Athens

“To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” ~Jane Austen

Farther south, at I-75 x 60, the Sweetwater exit, if you turn west on SR 68, you’ll have opportunity to tour more modular log homes. If you continue west toward Spring City, you’ll come to Watts Bar Dam, which is both a TVA recreational area and a nuclear power plant. If you head east on SR 68, toward Madisonville, you can sail the Lost Sea, an underground cavern. Used as a saltpeter mine during the Civil War, it is now one of Tennessee’s hottest attractions, welcoming over 200,000 visitors a year and maintaining a constant 58°F. Bring a wrap.

This is also the exit if you want to experience the Cherohala Skyway, which runs between SR 68 and US 129, through the Cherokee National Forest. Why skyway as opposed to highway, parkway, or byway? Well, as someone said, you’ll know when you drive it. It runs atop the highest ridges of the mountains. Its highest point is over 5,000′.

“Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance. Look at the flowers—for no reason. It is simply unbelievable how happy flowers are.” ~Osho

Continuing south, at I-75 x 56, you’ll find a Stuckeys Travel Center, with inexpensive Hess gas.

At I-75 x 52, SR 305, follow the signs for Mayfield Dairy Farm. This is a nice stop for the children. They can tour the dairy facilities, see the giant cow, “milk” the cow, sample ice cream, and buy novelties at the gift shop. Athens is also home to Tennessee Wesleyan College and the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum.

“Nature is man’s teacher. She unfolds her treasures to his search, unseals his eye, illumes his mind, and purifies his heart; an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence.” ~Alfred Billings Street

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

* Mine is merely a good-faith effort to tell you where things are and, generally, how to get there. Please consult a website, road atlas, state map, or GPS for more detailed information.

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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