By KATIE VanBRACKLE
Each fall, I head to the hills with three longtime mom friends on an annual girlfriends’ getaway. Jennifer Page, Isabelle Franklin, Debbie Weigand and I met in 2000 when we all attended a Moms and Tots class with our firstborn babies. Those babies are now busy 13-year-olds, and the days of long chats during play dates are over. So the four of us make it a point to sneak away from our families at least once a year to reconnect, remember, laugh and have fun – “just us girls.”
For this year’s mountain getaway, we were itching for adventure and feeling the need to step out of our comfort zones just a bit. Luckily for us, we live only four hours away from truly spectacular scenery in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Planning a girls’ trip to the Smokies is easy thanks to a new website designed by the Sevierville (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce. At officialgirlfriendsgetaway.com, you can choose from pre-designed packages or pick and choose to design your own getaway. The options are endless. Take golf lessons from a lady pro at the Sevierville Golf Club. Tour the new Eagle Springs winery. Enjoy a shopping trip with your own personal fashion stylist.
We chose to focus on thrilling outdoor adventures and were amazed at how many things we were able to do during a short two-night trip.
Jen and I had visited the Smokies before, but the area was new to Isabelle and Deb. We took the scenic route into Tennessee along Highway 441, cutting through the heart of the national park. The drive takes you through tall forests where rocky streams parallel the road and past ridgeline overlooks with expansive views of towering peaks.
We selected Oak Haven Resort and Spa, an upscale cabin rental community in Sevierville as our home base. Our spacious four-bedroom cabin featured a large gaming room, but we spent more time on the front porch swing enjoying the cool mountain breezes. We didn’t linger long however, as our first adventure was scheduled for Friday afternoon and it promised to be a real “bucket list” treat.
Scenic Helicopter Tours offers a variety of sightseeing flights over the Smokies and surrounding areas, giving a breathtaking vantage point of the national park, lakes, rivers and towns.
Our pilot was a handsome fellow with aviator sunglasses, a big smile and just a hint of five o’clock shadow. We grinned at each other. Our girlfriends’ getaway was off to a fabulous start!
I expected a choppy ride, but was surprised at how smoothly the helicopter moved through the air. It felt as if we were floating in a glass bubble with spectacular views all around us.
Headsets allowed us to share “oohs and aahs” as we spotted a large corn maze in the rolling farmland below and watched the setting sun sparkle over Douglas Lake.
The evening’s aerial thrills continued after dark with a performance of Cirque de Chine, where high-flying Chinese acrobats amazed us with their strength, balance and grace.
Back at the cabin, we soaked in the hot tub, chatting and catching up to our heart’s content.
On Saturday morning, we were on the road early, driving south through Gatlinburg and into the national park, arriving at Sugarlands Riding Stables just as they opened.
Wild turkeys wandered through the barn area as the horses finished their morning meal.
“Which one of you thinks you can handle a blonde?” joked Paul, our trail guide, pointing to a golden-maned horse. Jen volunteered. The horse’s name was Homer.
I was paired with Scooter. Deb chose Sunny and Isabelle rode a beautiful black horse named Shadow.
Single file, we followed Paul into the thick woods where early morning sunlight beamed through the canopy. We were the first riders of the day and the forest was still waking up. Birds chirped, squirrels chattered and deer rose from their night beds to dash away out of sight. Paul told us it’s not uncommon to see bears.
In a brief moment of excitement, a coyote ran across the trail ahead, startling the horses. We all managed to stay astride, however, and soon resumed our leisurely pace.
Sugarlands Riding Stables tells their customers that “this ain’t no cow pasture ride” and they aren’t kidding. We crossed small streams and headed up narrow trails, climbing 600 feet to the ridge of the nearest mountain during our hour-long ride. The leaves were just beginning to show fall color at higher elevations.
After returning our horses to the barn, we hopped in the car and headed east across the Foothills Parkway to Hartford, Tenn., a tiny town whose claim to fame is a wicked stretch of frothing whitewater along the upper Pigeon River.
We had booked a “Paddle and Saddle” package with Rafting in the Smokies and were told upon arrival that it was our lucky day.
Heavy rains earlier in the week and a water release from a nearby power plant meant the river was running high and fast and we were in for a rip-roaring whitewater experience.
Feeling the need to fortify ourselves (and settle our nerves) before the challenge ahead, we headed next door to the Bean Trees Café, which serves gourmet sandwiches and paninis on a shady patio overlooking the calm lower section of the Pigeon River.
While waiting for our rafting time, we decided to add a bit more thrill to our day on Rafting in the Smokies’ two zip lines. We took turns whizzing through the trees, learning that it is in fact possible to scream and laugh at the same time.
We descended from the treetops just in time to catch the bus to the upper Pigeon River where we met our guide, a spunky gal named Lisa Mac. A sticker on her helmet said “River Girls Go with the Flow.”
Lisa’s 12 years of experience as a rafting guide came in handy as she safely guided us through a series of adrenaline-pumping Class 3 and Class 4 rapids with names like “Bone Crusher” and “Lost Guide.” Stretches of calm water in between rapids allowed us to catch our breath and enjoy beautiful mountain views along the river as the sun dried our soaked clothes.
After hauling our raft back onto solid ground, we searched for the right words to describe our whitewater adventure. Fun. Thrilling. Intense. A large step outside of our comfort zone that led to an unforgettable bonding experience.
After a full day of physical activity, we felt we had earned a big meal and even bigger dessert.
Clint’s BBQ and Country Cooking in rural Sevierville was recommended as a favorite local spot known for good food, charming atmosphere and live music. We arrived to find owner Clint Carnley onstage, guitar in hand, belting out lively bluegrass tunes with his seven-piece band.
No visit to the Tennessee mountains is complete without a little toe-tappin’ music. After all, Sevierville is Dolly Parton’s hometown.
After his set, Clint stopped by our table to say hello and make sure we saved room for a thick slice of homemade coconut cake, made fresh each day by his wife Elaine. We were more than happy to oblige.
Before leaving Sevierville on Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast at the charming Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, another local favorite.
The Applewood complex is surrounded by a working apple orchard and includes an old-fashioned general store and a creamery, winery, candy store and bakery where sampling is encouraged.
Every apple-related product you can imagine is made on the premises including the piping-hot basket of apple fritters brought to our table with a dish of homemade apple butter.
Relaxing in hanging bench swings serving as table chairs, we toasted each other with apple juleps. This girlfriend’s getaway had been the best yet, full of exhilarating adventures and scenic beauty. How could we top it next year? There was still plenty to explore in the area. Maybe next fall we could return during the peak of fall leaf color and do some hiking, shop for antiques or take a photo safari in the national park.
Whatever we choose, the best part will be taking a break from our busy mom lives to spend time with old friends, a tradition that grows more special with each passing year.