National parks have been called America’s best idea. My family loves them, having been to several of the great Western parks in the past couple of years. So when Carrie suggested Great Smoky Mountains NP for fall break I was intrigued. When she told me we would be glamping I knew I might have a blog post. When she told me we were spending the last day at Dollywood I almost called the whole thing off.
I have never understood why anybody would want to go to a supposed regional theme park named after . . . Dolly Parton? Really? To cut right to the chase, I was a hater. This did not sound like a great plan for fall break 2019 - our first ever fall break trip as a family with kids - and I wasn’t having it, not on my watch.
. . .
So we decided to do it. On the Saturday drive up we let the kids take turns choosing the music. First choice? Jingle Bells. We were not out of Traveler’s Rest and I already needed a break.
Things improved when we stopped in Cataloochee Valley in the extreme eastern section of Great Smoky Mountains NP near Waynesville, NC. This visit was great, delivering all we could hope to experience - relatively small crowd in a pretty valley on a mild misty day, and spotting 17 elk. Yes, elk - they were reintroduced in the early 2000s after being absent for about 200 years, less than 100 miles from my front door. The elk were all bedded down in a meadow. The cows* were, uh, in season and the big bull was walking up to them and sniffing their, uh, hind ends. “Why is the big one sniffing the other one’s bottom?” is a question I pretended not to hear; I hope to make it to kindergarten before discussing reproduction.
*If you are like Brandt and are asking yourself “why is Reid calling it a cow?”, the cow is the female elk. Now you know.
Some folks had even set up a tailgate to watch the elk. They take their elk very seriously.
While in the valley we saw a young couple without children riding in their jeep, each holding a Miller Lite. Impractical vehicle, day drinking, living carefree - never have I felt less connected to another human. I believe at the time four voices in our car were singing Baa Baa Black Sheep.
After that stop we headed north towards Knoxville, where a different sort of hind end sniffing was going on that day. But we turned west before reaching the garbage truck workers’ convention that is Neyland Stadium and headed to Gatlinburg.
Great Smoky Mountains NP is accessed from the north by the “twin cities” of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge - Gatlinburg abuts the park and Pigeon Forge is only 7 miles north (a solid 30 minutes in traffic in the 6 lane “parkway”).
Am I the only person that thinks Gatlinburg sounds like it should be a fancy place? It is not.
Essentially, it is Myrtle Beach in the Mountains (trademark pending). It smells like the fair, and you can spend your money on a tramway, chair lift, zip line, putt putt, gem mine, laser tag, go carts, old time photos, or eating at Shoney’s. There are multiple Ripley’s properties and multiple Margaritaville properties. There is an Alcatraz museum, a Titanic museum, and a wax museum. There is a Guinness World Records shop and a “Hollywood Star Cars” shop. The names are achingly lazy - Hillbilly Harley-Davidson, Hillbilly Golf, Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin, Moonshine Ridge Country Store, etc. etc. etc. - as if the proprietors think their customers are just that stupid that they won't even care. Signs shout “Live Sharks” and “Live Alligators” in an attempt to get you (or more likely, your kids) to stop the car. There are more RV parks than I knew there were RVs. Even the gas station has a name like Donna Jo’s Market. And the traffic will make you want to cuss.
We checked in that night to our tent at Under Canvas. Only in America can you pay extra for, as they call it, “intentional inconvenience.” This means the huge plus of no cell service or wi-fi (blissfully, I did not learn of the Gamecock thumping in Knoxville until the next day) and the significant downsides of, well, most everything else that comes with staying in a tent. But seriously, there is a pull chain shower and a flush toilet so it is not terrible. The kids and I had a great time making a fire in the wood stove to keep us warm while we slept . . . and then I laid up for hours worrying about carbon monoxide poisoning and whether the big storm would knock over our tent. You are reading this so you know we survived.
On Sunday we wanted to spend our day in GSM NP, but when we showed up we got the Wally World “Sorry folks, park’s closed” treatment from the ranger. Truly, all access to the 500,000 acre park was shut down due to high winds from the aforementioned storm. Ultimately we got inside, doing a lot of driving with a lot of people - GSM is easily the most visited park with well over 11 million annual visitors, more than doubling #2 (Grand Canyon). This means that on a nice weekend day in the fall you can expect significant traffic; it’s almost exactly half-way between Cincinnati and Harbour Town.
On a related point I was today years old when I learned that Harbour Town is not spelled Harbor Town. Who knew?
We waited in a big jam only to learn the minivan full of people were blocking the road so they could get their pictures taken with . . . (domesticated) horses.
Even still, we did enjoy a nice sunset hike up Clingman’s Dome, along with multiple barefoot hikers.
And then came Monday - Dollywood Day. D Day. Double D Day.
We stayed at the Dollywood resort, which is the way to go. They have a shuttle to the park every 15 minutes, and offer kid friendly things like s’mores and a bedtime story around the fire pit at night. Our bedroom had a king and bunk beds for the kids. They also don’t mind if you walk in the front door with a freshly cracked beer. Dolly was there but we did not lay eyes on her; I am sure she was busy counting zeros on the money press. But another badass female role model was in the house. Good enough for Robin Roberts? Good enough for us. "Go on with your bad self!"
See the Christmas pajamas? Were you paying attention earlier when I said she requested Jingle Bells?
We took the trolley over to the park. The first thing you see upon entering is an alarming amount of jazzy chairs, or electric convenience vehicles as they are now known, lined up in many rows. You will think surely those will not all be needed, and you will be wrong. The second thing you will see upon entering is that dozens (hundreds?) of Greenville families had the same idea for fall break. I should have known when I saw the first child in Prodoh gear within 5 minutes of being in the park that I was in for some familiar faces. It was like Litchfield in the mountains (this is the funniest line in this post and of course Brandt suggested adding it because he is the funny one). I even met someone while waiting in line who asked me, honest to God, “if I am friends with Brandt Gilbert and write that blog with him.” Not My Boys, The Takeover is the next ride coming to Dollywood. Shoutout to Leslie Rodwell.
You will see incredible fashion decisions, like T-shirts emblazoned “Not Today Satan”, “Raised by Jesus and Dolly”, “Why Y’all Trying to Test the Jesus in Me?”, “Friend of Dolly”, and “What Would Dolly Do?”. You will see a good bit of camo (I even saw a full-length mis-matched top and bottom, presumably to create even more confusion - A+ to you sir), and given Saturday’s win, an incredible amount of UT gear. As an aside I just don’t understand why UT cannot make any gear that looks good on anyone. I mean it all just looks terrible. Dum Spiro Spero.
You will hear tons of gospel music and of course Dolly but also plenty of hits from years ago. You will see words like “granny” and “ministry” used liberally. Veterans will be thanked profusely, and alcohol will not be served. There is even a working chapel on site. And somewhere along the way you will realize what makes this park so great is that it is fundamentally designed for families. It is, as Honey used to say, just good clean fun.
I recognize there are many places people don’t want children; this is not one of those places. In fact it is designed for children. The rides have “stroller parking.” You can ride around the park on an old train that spews black coal smoke, watch live horses turn cane into sugar the old-timey way (by walking in a circle around a press), and see a man turn wood stumps into bears the new-fangled way (by using a Stihl chainsaw). This is all in addition to surprisingly good rides and some other cool stuff (bald eagle sanctuary, blacksmith shop). The park is pretty much spotless, and every person we encountered was polite if not intentionally hospitable. Employees are called “hosts” and they mean it - the guy at the front checking bags let me push a double stroller in carrying a huge coffee without so much as a second look, and the guy measuring heights bumped my 40.5” tall child to a 42” wristband, knowing it would make a big difference in what she could ride. My kids loved it, and I will never forget my daughter’s giggling excitement after her first roller coaster - I told the guy operating the Dragonflier ride it was her first coaster and he volunteered to take our picture. When we pulled back into the station he had everyone waiting in line clapping for her. My little man was more limited in what he could ride but he had a great time running around. Basically, Dollywood is what Chick-Fil-A would look like if it was a theme park. It is not a steak dinner, but it ain’t just regular fast food either. As Dolly herself likes to say “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Sure, Disney is the “go big” play that Brandt has already covered in a prior post, and there are plenty of great fall break options y’all did this year ranging from the lake, Asheville, Atlanta, Biltmore, the Great Wolf Lodge, and Washington to name a few good ones I have seen on the gram. As for the Sherards, we will be back to Dollywood, despite the fact that a day later my car still smells like we have been living in it. A week-long upper respiratory infection is a small price to pay for a lifetime of memories.
But the best thing about this fall break? The very best thing? I haven’t seen the final bill, and while I am sure it was not cheap, I don’t want to know. My people and I had fun, new experiences, and uninterrupted time together as a family and that is what really matters.