It’s a common stereotype that all college kids pack up their things for spring break, and head down to the beaches of the south—Panama City Beach, Cancun, South Padre Island. But, let me tell you: that’s not the case. The truth is, going on a spring break is expensive and complicated; we’re all broke; and almost no one has a car. In fact, as a senior, this spring break, I took my first trip with friends ever out of the state. And we didn’t hit the beaches.
Instead, we decided to pursue a more unique vacation—also, a more affordable one. So, after many discussions about where to go, how to get there, who had a car, and who would go on the trip, we finally chose a destination: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. We would drive down, stay five nights, then head back to Wisconsin. Our lodging would cost a total of $500, divided four ways. Other than that, our only costs would be food, gas, and activities.
And we did it. We actually managed to pull off the trip. So, here I’ve compiled a list of the cool things to do in the Tennessee area, all of which we were lucky enough to try.
Lynn’s Paradise Cafe. This stop is actually in Louisville, Kentucky. We stopped here for lunch on the way to Tennessee, and came away completely satisfied, if a little too full. Their specialty is the ‘Paradise Hot Brown’, which is a delicious mess of turkey and cheese in what is supposed to be a sandwich. The dish was named the ‘Hot Brown’ after flappers and their dates would come to eat the meal after a night of dancing at the Brown Hotel back in the 20s. The restaurant’s decour: artsy, zany, and crazy colorful.
The Heaven Hill Bourbon Distillery. This stop was way cooler than any of us could have expected. Our tour was led by a feisty retired southern woman with lots of opinions about good bourbon. We were shown the storehouses where more bourbon than you could ever imagine is stored, learned about how they make their bourbon taste so unique, and then sampled two of the best bourbons they make. Educational and delicious. It goes without saying we took some with us to enjoy at our condo.
Tennessee Aquarium. There are two huge parts to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga: the river section and the ocean section. The area of the aquarium that features river plants and animals is most well-known, but we toured both the ocean and river areas, and we incredibly impressed. Some of the best exhibits: the penguins, river otters, and a 40-foot deep reef tank full of sea turtles, tiger sharks, fish, and coral.
The Lost Sea. The largest underground lake in the country lies in Sweetwater, Tennessee. To reach the lake, we took a walking tour through the cave it’s connected to, learning about the different rock formations found there. On the tour we were able to see some underground waterfalls, too—as well as an abandoned whiskey still.
Eventually we reached the lake. There, we piled onto two glass-bottomed boats, which took us around the lake. The underground lake has no natural wildlife in it, although now it is home to some of the largest rainbow trout around. They were released into the cave to see if they could find a route to the source of the water, but because they had (and still have to) to be fed by hand (there is no natural food source for them), they didn’t bother to keep looking for the source, which could have been a natural food source for them.
Another note: this cavern is also home to the world’s largest underground lake, technically. However, because it is only accessible by an underwater passageway, and because for legal reasons, the passageway can’t be expanded, it can’t be listed as the largest underground lake in the world, even if it is.
Pigeon Forge. I’ll dedicate a short section to this magnificent city, since it did host us for our time there. Basically, Pigeon Forge is the Wisconsin Dells of Tennessee. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Wisconsin Dells either, I’ll elaborate. It’s the tourist capital of the state. It’s chock-full of mini-golf, arcades, souvenir shops, breakfast restaurants, theaters for magic shows and obscure theater performances, as well as magic-or science-related attractions. There is more neon here than about anywhere in the country except Las Vegas (or the Dells).
However, if you’re passing through, I recommend stopping somewhere. We actually played mini-golf twice while in Pigeon Forge, and would have liked to visit some of the attractions, had we had a little more money– like the magic show. It’s also worth mentioning that our accommodations in Pigeon Forge were fantastic. We rented a great condo that belonged to Sugar Maple Cabins, and ended up with a place larger, nicer, and with a better view than any of our apartments back home. Plus, the kitchenware: all brand new. It’s so nice that most people don’t cook on their vacations.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It goes without saying that this park is incredible. The nature, wildlife, and views are all incredible. Unfortunately we did not have nearly enough time to explore the park. We did make it to a few areas though. First we hiked to Laurel Falls, one of the bigger attractions in the park. It was gorgeous and enormous, with water cascading down two chutes. There is a bridge that crosses the two sections, so you can basically walk across the waterfall. We also hiked one of the nature trails near the campgrounds. It was a short hike, but beautiful. It brought us to the peak of one large hill, and then wound along the shores of a tiny creek. We also enjoyed ourselves enormously watching out for black bear– though ultimately we didn’t see any.
Tuckaleechee Caverns. We were able to make this stop purely because we were running ahead of schedule leaving Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But boy, were we glad we did. This was one more of the many cave systems in the area. But this cave was, in our opinion, even cooler than the one that lead to The Lost Sea. The tour we took only went back about a half mile, but the cave had been explored about four miles back. On the walk, we were able to drink water from the underground river there. The water there is 98% pure—purer than any bottled water. The final cavern we reached could hold an entire football field. At another moment, all the lights were turned off, and we were immersed in pitch darkness. You truly can’t understand what darkness is until you’re deep in a cave without a single light source.
So, that was our trip to Tennessee and the surrounding area. While ours was a less expensive spring break trip, and we didn’t come back with a tan, we are sure we had a much more interesting trip than anyone who drank beer on a beach all week.