From musical highs to the mountain heights
Head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, says Chris Coplans
Friday 02 November 2012
"Memphis is in a very lucky position on the map. Everything just gravitated to Memphis for years," guitarist Steve "the Colonel" Cropper once said. Walking past BB King's blues club on Beale Street, you can't help but agree. Elvis overshadows much here: from Graceland to Sun Studios. And then, 200 miles east of Memphis is that other great Tennessee music city, Nashville, the country music capital of the world, home to the Grand Ole Opry and its legendary radio show.
But if western Tennessee is all about the music, then eastern Tennessee is all about the Smokies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, is a mere two-hour drive from Nashville. It's the most visited national park in the USA and encompasses 522,419 acres of the southern Appalachian mountains.
Just outside the park are several gateway communities, including Gatlinburg, which has the widest range of accommodation. Six miles away is Pigeon Forge, home to Dolly Parton's very own theme park, Dollywood (dollywood.com), and the Titanic Museum Attraction (titanicpigeonforge.com) – the story of the ill-fated passenger liner transposed to the mountains of landlocked Tennessee.
Alternative accommodation can be found at Townsend, close to the park, with a range of good sleeping options, including the magnificent Gracehill B&B (gracehillbandb.com) perched high in the mountains with a spectacular 360‑degree view.
The main road through the park is US 441, which will take you to the highest point, Clingman's Dome at 6,642ft. Off US 441 at the Tennessee end is a small road leading to two marvellous waterfalls and ending at Cades Cove, where you can rent a bike for a scenic 11‑mile loop.
At the southern entrance to the park on 441 is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a two-lane byway that snakes along the ridge of the Appalachians for 469 glorious miles, one of America's most spectacular drives. No billboards or commercial traffic, just stunning vistas, mountain ridges stacked one behind the other until blending into a distant horizon, and valleys so deep that the light can barely penetrate.
The 250 mountainous miles along the backbone of North Carolina are the most impressive. Along the way you'll pass the laid-back mountain town of Ashville. It's a great place to loaf around for a few days.
F Scott Fitzgerald stayed at the rustic Grove Park Inn Resort in Asheville while visiting his wife Zelda (who was committed to a local sanatorium). You will also find the world's largest holiday home in Asheville: the Biltmore Estate, now a historic landmark, with a ritzy inn offering accommodation (biltmore.com).
An equally spectacular but shorter drive is the Cherohala Skyway (cherohala.org) which crosses the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains. The 42-mile long byway follows a mile-high ridge, winding through forests of hardwoods and evergreens on the way from Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina.
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