The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee are part of my DNA and, despite the glamour, I'm a country girl at heart. Journey with me and explore the best of what to see and do in east Tennessee
I have what I call Smoky Mountain DNA. I grew up amongst the mountains in a small cabin on Locust Ridge and I’ve always been drawn home to the Smokies – they’ve long been an inspiration for me and my music.
You’ll find about 120 types of tree and 1,500 sorts of flowers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm). They are so beautiful no matter what time you visit. In spring there are all the delicate blooms, then in summer, when it’s as hot as hot can be, the rhododendrons blaze away and by the fall the park’s wearing a cloak of yellow, red and brown. You also get this blue-ish haze over the ridges – it’s why we call them the Smokies.
We’re talking about a big country. Really big. With space to breathe. Our cabin’s nearest neighbour was two miles away, and the nearest mailbox double that. The national park runs across the state line with North Carolina and it has stacks of mountains over 6,000 feet – Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the whole Appalachian Trail and Gatlinburg – home of the Sugarlands Visitor Centre (www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/visitorcenters) - even has a ski area. And you just have to drive the Cades Cove route with all these old pretty-as-a-picture-barns, mills, homesteads and churches.
My husband and I have a couple of camper vans and we love to camp – I may be glitzed up most of the time yet I’m a country girl at heart – but when I get back to my Tennessee mountain home, I like to see my family and just ‘be’. The Smokies are a great place to find yourself again. To reflect. I do a lot of that. Once you’ve lived here, or just visited, you sense the mountains’ magic. It’s a spirit. I wrote about it in eight new songs for this year’s show - Sha-Kon-O-Hey! The Land of the Blue Smoke – which you can watch in the Celebrity Theatre of my theme park, Dollywood (www.dollywood.com). I’m an ambassador for the national park’s 75th anniversary and this musical really captures my love of the mountains.
Dollywood and the Smokies national park
And I know it’s not just good old me. The Smokies have drawn people for a hundred years and it’s the busiest national park in the US – and it’s still free. Now, "free" was a mighty powerful word when I was a kid and I know it is for families today. So when we built Dollywood in Pigeon Forge near Gatlingburg we tried to create a great, wholesome family vacation spot with things that mum, dad, the kids and grandparents could do without worrying about the cost – and we wanted to offer them more than they could do in just a couple of visits.
Nowadays Dollywood covers 150 acres with over forty rides and attractions and has won more E Entertainment awards than any other theme park in the world. The Thunderhead, with a 100-foot drop at 55mph, has twice been named the best wooden rollercoaster on the planet and the Mystery Mine ride and Tennessee Tornado are just awesome.
It also has award-winning live entertainment, with country, bluegrass, gospel and mountain music and a dozen local crafts from the Smoky Mountains including a grist mill, where a giant water wheel grinds corn and wheat, wagon making and a workshop for hand-tooling leather. We’ve also got cabins you stay in – and they’re nothing like the ones I grew up in. They’re big with everything from hot tubs to a shopping arcade. I’ve got to admit, I’d enjoy staying someplace like that myself.
And, of course, we’ve got food. I may be tiny but I assure you I like to eat and I love the down-home southern food: ribs and cornbread, old-fashioned meat loaf – a real favourite – and banana pudding. Like I said, I’m a simple country girl. So at Dollywood, we have Aunty Granny’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet with grits, buttered corn, peel’n’eat shrimps and fried chicken – make sure you’re hungry – the Hickory Smoked BBQ (we take our BBQs pretty seriously round here), Granny Ogle’s Ham’n’Beans and Apple Jack’s Sandwich Shop.
But beautiful as it is, you don’t have to spend all your time at Dollywood. In Pigeon Forge, there’s also Dolly’s Splash Country (www.dollywoodssplashcountry.com) with 23 water adventures and rides – try the daring white water raft of the Big Bear Plunge – and the Dixie Stampede (www.dixiestampede.com), an action-packed dinner and show extravaganza with amazing horse feats, stunt rides and, get this, a four-course dinner while you watch.
If you want to head further out of town, you could go north to Greeneville, with the historic homes of Andrew Johnson, the first of our presidents to be impeached. And if you drive even further north, there’s cute little Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town - the first place in the US to publish an anti-slavery newspaper, the Manumission Intelligence in 1819.
Talking of historic dates, 2010 will be Dollywood’s 25th anniversary. Can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday when we were opening. We’re arranging special events to celebrate our birthday including a stack of amazing adventures with special tours of Dolly’s train complex and the rollercoaster rides. Even better, it’s the launch of Adventure Mountain. It’s cost us $5 million so it’s pretty special. In fact it’s going to be the world’s largest interactive rope course, spread over Wilderness Pass with rope tracks, net ladders, swinging bridges and moving beams. And it has three different courses from just a few inches off the ground to over 26 feet, so there’s a challenge for everyone in the family.
Adventure Mountain celebrates the great outdoors and the beauty of the area. My one wish if you visit Dollywood is that the Smokies will touch your heart. I really wanted to give something back to the local people, a place for them to work that would also offer a lot for kids to do with their parents and grandparents. I think we’ve accomplished that pretty well so far.
Where to stay
There’s so much of all kinds of accommodation around the Smokies and East Tennessee, and my husband and I often like to camp, but here are a few more recommendations:
Starr Crest Resort is just two miles from the theme park and has a great view up in the hills. They are classic wood cabins with lovely verandas. Three nights from $454, sleeps four.
Best Western Plaza Inn is low level, bright accommodation with three swimming pools and lots of different rooms including fireplaces and Jacuzzis. And it’s only steps from the Dixie Stampede and a mile from Dollywood. Doubles from $53.
Hampton Inn Pigeon Forge - a modern 128-room hotel, many os which have river views and whirlpool baths. It also has Cloud 9: the Hampton Bed Experience, so sleep won’t be a problem after the high adrenaline of the rollercoaster or a healthy hike in the hills. Doubles from $99.
RiverStone Resort and Spa has a series of luxury one-to-four bedroom condos at the bottom of thickly wooded hills. Four-person condos from $123.
Hawley House Bed and Breakfast, Jonesborough offers genuine history: the oldest house in Tennessee’s oldest town. Rooms have meadow or quaint town views. Doubles from $105.