At the height of Tampa’s torrid 2007 summer, my wife and I embarked on a ten-day motor tour through Tennessee mountain country. Its rather flexible theme was destinations and attractions appealing to over-50s traveling without children because, as a matter of fact, that’s us.
Wanting to cover as much ground as we could in just ten days, we flew to and from the vacation zone and, while there, capped daily driving at 200 miles. This maximized time for sightseeing and following up impulses en route.
The calendar was coming up September, so our tour inevitably became partly a preview of the Appalachians’ annual leaf-fest. Full trooping of the colors was weeks away, but early-bird poplars were bronzing in the oak forests beyond both shoulders of I-40 and its tributaries from the Great Smokies westward across the Cumberland Plateau. We soon learned, though, that there’s not just glorious foliage to enjoy up yonder. A plethora of well-kept state parks and nature areas all along I-40 offer myriad recreational options, from riding, hiking and biking to bird watching, bait-casting and boating, and more.
Our first ever on-site brushes with Tennessee’s people, history and culture hinted that its rep as the Volunteer State is fully merited. That nickname was born in the 1840s when President James K. Polk’s appeal for his home-staters to enlist during the Mexican War over Texas netted a flood of recruits. We kept observing fresh evidence of Tennesseans’ penchant for volunteering support for worthy causes and initiatives all along our way.
Pardon me, boy: don’t diss Chattanooga!
First stop on our itinerary was Chattanooga. Folks pushing 60 will surely recall Glenn Miller’s World War II hit, "Chattanooga Choo Choo." At the time, however, most of us had no idea the town was decrepit, and no place for sentimental journeys.
Thanks to three decades of civic effort with much volunteer input it has now morphed from a tawdry Tennessee border town into an exemplar of extreme downtown makeover. It’s an ideal decompression chamber for segue-ing from big-city life into Tennessee’s rural ambience.
The signature 24-acre Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn complex at the rim of downtown offers appealing lodgings. It’s a renovated railway terminal where 48 of 360 guest rooms are former railroad car sleeping parlors. Other railway touches include ‘Dinner on the Diner’ aboard a Victorian railcar, a Model Railroad Museum, an antique trolley and free shuttles to uptown facilities like the new Tennessee Aquarium.
Time-honored attractions outside town– Rock City’s botanical gardens, cave-bound Ruby Falls and century-old Incline Railway up 1,700-foot Lookout Mountain –have been gussied up for the 21st century. A seven-state panorama seen from atop the mountain is a powerful enticement to climb toward still higher altitudes.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Ensconced amid the Smokies’ highest peaks, Gatlinburg is touted as Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s gateway and the most visited point in Tennessee. It is also a delight for bedding down in this mountain country most of the year, offering scores of accommodations, dining options and attractions. During the annual leaf-peeping season, though, two million other folks share your intention, so one had best contact Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce to book lodgings before blowing in. And be prepared for monster jams along the most traveled highways for viewing fall foliage.
Some Gatlinburg veterans volunteer that a less-crowded place to access the park is 20 miles away at Townsend village. From there, TN Route 73 runs south right into a circular asphalt road inside the park called Cades Cove loop. The loop winds through a valley where mountains tower around, but isn’t itself mountainous, so driving is sometimes easier than it is around Gatlinburg.
Cades Cove’s best news may be that it offers a shortcut to appreciating the Great Smokies’ past. Signs at the entrance preface the loop’s circuit, and other signs en route tell about the cabins and barns, mill, church and other pioneer buildings you pass, sketching early settlers’ lifestyle. Some 100 families, pioneer descendants and many other volunteers, still live in Cades Cove tending the historic community’s fields and buildings.
Alas, as more people learn about Cades Cove, traffic flow on its narrow road where cars can’t pass has been progressively slowing. It can take four hours or more to complete the loop in peak tourist season, trying the patience of even the most devoted leaf oglers. This was on our minds as we headed north and west from the Great Smokies to check out Tennessee’s less encumbered Cumberland Plateau.
The Cumberland Plateau and Homestead
Heading west on I-40, we reached the heart of the Cumberland Plateau before long and found ourselves cruising down the main street of Crossville (pop. ca 10,000), Cumberland county seat, a town we’d read little about in our pre-trip research. We decided to go to the top for enlightenment. When the county courthouse abruptly loomed, we pulled into an empty space and dashed in in search of Crossville’s mayor.
Moments later, the Honorable Brock Hill was welcoming us to his second-floor office at the back of the building. Hill has been mayor of not just Crossville but of all Cumberland county (pop. ca 55,000) for 15 years, and we soon understood why. We left his office after two hours having heard so much about his bailiwick our heads spun.
Asked what made his territory special, the mayor alluded first to its natural beauty. "There’s our river gorges and our mountains," he began, "and a dozen state parks within a short drive from here. Our Fall Creek waterfall is the highest east of the Mississippi. And we have a long section of the Cumberland State Scenic Trail, a linear park running from Cumberland Gap, where Daniel Boone brought in early settlers, down to Chattanooga."
Smiling proudly, he continued. "And we’re the Golf Capital of Tennessee, you know. Of course, Florida has lots of golf, but not mountain golf. Here, you’re teeing off cliffs, you’re knocking the ball maybe off a mountain with the green at the bottom, or you’re going from one cliff across a gorge to another. There’s interesting hazards. We’ve really got beautiful golf here, and we have a mild winter and aren’t that hot in summertime. So the area’s courses almost never close."
Hill went on to sketch the history of Cumberland Mountain State Park on Crossville’s outskirts, a National Historic District. A signal feature of the park today is its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, one of five courses in Crossville. And in Cumberland County there are ten all told.
This state park came about during the Great Depression as part of a Civilian Conservation Corps "Homestead" program, Two hundred families were accepted into the Crossville Homestead project and built their own houses from scratch with WPA subsidies and assistance. They also shared in the building of a small commercial center, a church, a community water tower, and an outdoor recreational facility. The latter eventually became Cumberland Mountain State Park whose first superintendent was World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York. His hometown just north of Crossville is now a state park, too.
The day after our session with Mayor Hill, my wife and I drove out to Homestead Tower and Museum and met Vicki Daven, granddaughter of a founding homesteader. The day’s volunteer receptionist, she took us through the museum and a nearby model cottage with 1930s-style furnishings. She and a few other homesteader descendants still reside on some 200 acres of original Homestead-project property, a few in vintage cottages that have been preserved. A number of renovated former-Homestead cottages and replicas in the park area are available year-round for rent by tourists drawn here by the area’s many golfing and other recreational options.
Music City and Grand Ole Opry
Nashville was our Tennessee vacation’s last main destination. After about an hour’s drive east from Crossville on I-40, we charged into the heart of town to spend our first overnight in historic Union Station Hotel at 9th Avenue and Broadway. As with Chattanooga’s Holiday Inn, this building was once the city’s main railroad station. Now elegantly renovated, it stands with other mainline hostelries in an impressive cluster of modern skyscrapers and made-over architectural gems at Nashville’s dynamic center.
The cathedral-ceiling main passenger hall has been revamped into a magnificent lobby. An old-fashioned train schedule board behind the reception helps prod imaginations back to the past. Hearing real freight trains that still chug by outside, you almost expect those lobby portals to open onto yesteryear’s tracks with puffing locomotives ready to whisk you off to Memphis, Chattanooga or even Tampa!
Our first must-see in Music City was Gaylord Opryland Resort, co-located with the theater where most Grand Ole Opry broadcasts originate. Arriving early on a Friday gave us time to spend a leisurely day touring the posh resort complex before the kicking off of that evening’s program at Opryland theater.
Next morning, we took in Nashville’s five-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Its comprehensive collection of CDs, sheet music, cowboy boots, guitars and other music memorabilia comprise a holy shrine for country-music lovers — no fair-minded Nashville visitor, even non-aficionados of the genre, ought to miss it.
To facilitate our departure for home, we spent our second Nashville night in a Drury chain hotel just off I-40, only a few blocks from Nashville airport. During its Saturday evening Happy Hour, and again over breakfast Sunday, we chatted briefly with manager Tim Taylor. On both occasions, he came over to clear dishes from our table and I had to compliment this unusual attention.
"We’ve never before seen a hotel manager out helping clear tables like you‘re doing, and did yesterday evening," I remarked.
"Oh, I guess I’ve got adult ADD," he mused. "You know, Attention Deficit Disorder. I can’t shuffle papers and stare at a computer screen too long or it gets to me. Then I have to come out here with the guests and do something a bit more interesting."
Several hours later, as we taxied to takeoff, Taylor’s reply still echoed. It was a last reminder of the latent streak of volunteerism we so often sensed, saw and heard about in Tennessee. This had helped make our short venture into an unfamiliar region quite special. We may have been too early for the brilliant autumnal foliage this time around, but our multicolored memories of Tennessee glow brightly. And we’ll be back!
Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-322-3344
Chattanooga Choo Choo Holiday Inn, www.choochoo.com, 800-TRACK 29
Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce (online booking), www.gatlinburg.com, 800-56visit
Crossville-Cumberland County Cof C, www.crossville-chamber.com; 877-GOLFTN1
Tennessee State Parks, www.tnstateparks.com.
For Homestead Tower & Museum– GOOGLE: "Cumberland Homestead Tower"
Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitmusiccity.com, 800-657-6910
Country Music Hall of Fame, www.countrymusichalloffame.com, 800-852-6437
Gaylord Opryland Resort, www.gaylordopryland.com, 877-456-OPRY;
Wyndham Union Station Historic Hotel, www.unionstationhotelnashville.com