by VICTORIA HENLEY
French philosopher and author, Albert Camus quipped, “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower,” and this quote certainly applies to the fall season in the great Smoky Mountains.
A lush “garden” of red, gold, and green colors line the rolling Smokies with a miraculous display of colors, a sight that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists (lovingly referred to as “Leafers” by the East Tennessee locals) to marvel at the picturesque sight each fall.
While the changing leaves, festive pumpkin spice and crisp, cool, autumn breeze is indubitably a primary draw, the Smoky Mountains’ top attractions offer exciting special events, specifically geared and themed toward the fall season, rivaling even the most fantastical natural autumn scene.
I recently navigated the Smoky Mountains and beyond for the best of the best lodging, dining and attraction options, which simply must be experienced on any trip to the region.
BEST WESTERN PLUS KNOXVILLE CEDAR BLUFF
Conveniently located near downtown Knoxville, which offers some of the city’s best and most exciting dining and nightlife attractions, Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff is a safe, affordable and highly convenient lodging option for any visit to the city. Offering spacious rooms, a free traditional hot breakfast, a business center, meeting rooms, a fitness center, a large lobby relaxation area, and a seasonal outdoor pool, The Best Western Plus holds customer comfort and satisfaction at the highest regard.
The rooms are extremely spacious, featuring a sleek, clean design aesthetic, large closet space, a flat screen TV (offering an unusually expansive array of top network channels), microwave, mini refrigerator and custom artwork featuring James Bunch (a famous local woodcarver) adorning the walls. Several room options are available, offering beds of varying sizes, and we chose double queen beds for our visit, which provided a restful and extremely comfortable night sleep on beds that have been safety wrapped, for optimal cleanliness and safety.
The counter space in the bathroom is ample, with great lighting, and Best Western Plus proudly, and exclusively features bath products (including shampoo, conditioner, hand soap bars and shower gel) by Pharmacopia, an upscale, modern apothecary collection, which delivers pleasant aromas paired with natural antioxidant and aromatherapeutic benefits.
A favorite among groups and individuals traveling for corporate events, work assignments, ball games, and more, Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff understands the individualistic needs of each person or group who enters the hotel, offering several meeting rooms and spaces, perfectly suited to accommodate small gatherings.
Both the Ambassador and Envoy meeting rooms are perfectly equipped for any business meeting needs, and during our visit, a wedding reception was taking place in one of the meeting rooms, which offered sufficient space for the large group’s needs.
Featuring thick doors and walls, and unbelievable acoustics, the other guests’ events could not be heard at all throughout our visit, and the hotel is nestled neatly away from the interstate so that intrusive traffic noises may not be heard.
The Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff Staff, ranging from our point of contact, Candace (director of sales) to Debbie, the front receptionist, and the entire breakfast crew and housekeeping team, went over and beyond to accommodate with any special needs and requests we had throughout our stay. They were always ready to provide superb service and hospitality with a smile.
Still a relative rarity (post-pandemic) in many mainstream hotels, a full hot breakfast is provided for guests each morning, featuring a rotating line up of sausage patties and links, delicious lean bacon, scrambled eggs, flaky, freshly baked biscuits with gravy and miniature waffles. A friendly staff member will be standing by to take your room number and to dip your hot breakfast selections to your liking, and guests also have an opportunity to select from a vast array of “cold options”, including fruit yogurts in an impressive variety of flavors, fresh fruit cups (featuring delicious cut passion fruit, peaches, pears, and more), whole apples and oranges, top brand cereals and oatmeals, muffins, pastries, wide selections of breads and jams, as well as countless other breakfast options…all included free in your stay.
Freshly brewed hot coffee is also available in the lobby area 24 hours a day, and a warmly decorated, inviting relaxation space, featuring several couches, chairs, and a high top dining table is available for guests 24 hours a day.
Group meetings, held under the leadership of a registered guest or group authority figure are permitted at the hotel, and the large number of rooms and shockingly affordable price make the Best Western Plus Knoxville Cedar Bluff the premiere hotel option for your group or family event.
WEBSITE: bestwestern.com (Type in Best Western Knoxville Cedar Bluff within the appropriate search box on the website.)
PHONE: (865) 539-0058
CHEROKEE CAVERNS (TRICK OR TREAT IN THE CAVE)
Located in Knoxville and boasting a legendary legacy spanning 500 million years, the beautiful, historic Cherokee Caverns features breathtaking natural scenery, and an immersive, thrilling underground experience for the whole family.
The caverns’ vast, expansive history dates back to the early Native Americans, whose torch marks found on the cavern’s walls are indicative that these indigenous people were the cave’s first human inhabitants.
In 1854, the caverns were rediscovered by farmer, Robert Crudgington, who, according to legend, stumbled upon the caverns during a hunting expedition when he noticed fog emerging around the rocks. Following his wife, Margaret’s passing, the caverns were sold in 1947, spearheading a period of great transition and transformation which the caverns would undergo, before becoming the landmark “Must See” tourist destination they are today.
Shortly following the sale of the cave, Homer Harris, known as the world’s tallest singing cowboy, along with his famous horse, Stardust, held a western themed musical residency in the Crystal Ballroom of the caverns, where guests could enjoy quality entertainment for 75 cents per show.
The endless state of flux in which the caverns seemed to be entangled continued into the mid 1950s, when the cave was briefly re-acquired by a new company and named “Caveman’s Place,” before it was rebranded into Palace Caverns, prior to an intensive rebranding effort made in the 1960s, featuring significant lighting improvements and trail restorations, when the cave was given its fifth name, Caverns of the Ridge.
The 1970s marked a definitive era for the caverns as its unpalatable newest name of “Cherokee Firesite Ceremonial Caverns” was shortened to simply “Cherokee Caverns,” after which the cave endured seemingly insurmountable adversity including fires and vandalism.
Decades later, under the exemplary leadership of visionary couple, Mike and Dana Whidby, Cherokee Caverns thrives as a world class attraction, having hosted millions of visitors around the globe. Mike and Dana, as well as their staff of equally committed employees and volunteers, work tirelessly to not only keep the cavern pristinely preserved, but also to keep the caverns’ annual calendar filled with exciting and enticing events to keep the droves of visitors each season engaged and enthralled.
One of the many unique and creative happenings at Cherokee Caverns is “Trick or Treat in the Cave”, a seasonal event where kids don their best Halloween costumes and their (often equally decked out) parents can trick or treat for candy among the wide variety of attending vendors. This annual event, which took place Oct 22-24 and Oct 29-31 of 2021 and typically happens during Halloween weekend and the weekend before every year, has quickly gained a reputation as the premiere Halloween activity in Tennessee. We had the opportunity to offer our farm grown Vicki Lynn Pecans to costumed patrons nightly.
After trick or treating with the impressive roster of vendors, which also included a children’s book author, a pop up boutique, a T-Mobile station, a custom engraved jewelry booth and various confectionaries, just to name a few, guests make their way into the magical caverns, where an exciting journey awaits.
A miniature train, sure to delight both the kids and kids at heart, is available for rides throughout the duration of events, and a variety of characters including a real life ghostbuster (portrayed by the resident geologist, who also plays “Cousin Eddie” during Christmas); Mickey Mouse (in pitch perfect character); and a looming “boogeyman” are available for social media-worthy photo ops.
The interior of the cave offers Halloween decor throughout, including various spooky statues, inflatable characters, state of the art lighting, wall projections, sing along videos, an illusion tunnel, several vendors, and of course, the incomparable, majestic, natural interior beauty of the caverns, further enhanced by the wonderfully curated “spooky season” decor.
Be sure to check Cherokee Caverns’ website and social media pages for the constantly revolving line up of events.
PHONE: (865) 275- 5196
JUNCTION 35 SPIRITS
Located in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, Junction 35 Spirits offers an upscale environment, artful chef- prepared culinary creations and masterfully crafted spirits, with truly unparalleled quality and varieties of flavors.
Opened in 2019, this distillery and eatery has quickly built a reputation for itself as a premiere destination for foodies and enthusiasts of world class spirits.
Junction 35’s objective is to deliver high quality and wildly unique libations, signature dishes and a fun, family friendly atmosphere that truly offers something to satisfy and excite everyone in your group.
The establishment’s passion of nostalgia coinciding with modern aesthetics has resulted in the creation of a staggeringly expansive list of high quality spirits, which hit the shelves on a regular basis, including arrays of specialty bourbon, moonshine, vodka, rum, gin and whiskey.
The building’s unmistakably original architecture, as well as its namesake, pays homage to the railroad industry, and an obvious, painstaking attention to detail was given to the beautiful brick work, striking artwork, and sleek interior design.
Unbelievably nuanced and effortlessly consistent in quality, the layout of Junction 35’s bar is perfect for enjoying a cocktail while taking in the big game on one of the restaurant’s flat screen TVs, and the seating area is both spacious and elegantly curated.
Even the shape of Junction 35’s custom liquor bottles are distinct and completely unique, distinguishing this one of a kind brand from the crowd.
Initially introduced to Junction 35 by a good friend, who proudly deems himself a regular, I was blown away by the firmly established fan base of tourists and locals alike who proudly proclaim Junction 35 as their favorite place in the Smokies.
The fans are not the only ones who hold Junction 35 in the highest regard, as the restaurant and bar has garnered a staggeringly impressive number of awards and acclaim from the culinary and alcohol industry’s most prestigious media outlets, including the TripAdvisor’s 2021 Traveler’s Choice Award.
The entire staff of Junction 35, including Cole and Amber (management), our servers, Rae and Kali, and Chef Ciro, greeted us with unparalleled hospitality and made us feel right at home during our visit with exemplary service, always ready to answer questions and offer menu suggestions.
Our visit began with a trip to Junction 35’s legendary sampling counter, where a large variety of spirits are available to sample, with a daily rotation of options, offering the perfect excuse to visit often so you can try them all.
Our bartender, Joshua, was extremely knowledgeable about each sample we tried, which included single barrel whiskey, Off the Rails, Tennessee Whiskey, Bourbon and Rye, Flavored Whiskey, Moonshine, OG Moonshine, Barrel Aged Gin, Rum, and my personal favorite, the brand new Bam Bam vodka (which takes like an adult version of Fruity Pebbles).
Junction 35’s straight Bourbon Whiskey took first place at one of the nation’s most competitive events: the US Whiskey Open.
Narrowing down Junction 35’s wildly expansive menu to just a few select options was a seemingly insurmountable challenge, but these are our top picks.
Drinks offer a 2 ounce pour and are stronger than most, so be sure to enjoy responsibly.
Passion Fruit Bubbletini: Featuring a light, fruity flavor with a strong finish, a delightful baby pink hue, and a beautiful, Instagram-worthy “bubble” on top.
Honey lemon lavender vodka martini: Featuring Junction 35’s brand new vodka flavor.
Lady in Red: Junction 35 Rye Whiskey, pomegranate juice and blood orange purée.
Lynn highly recommends the exceptional sweet tea, for all non-alcohol drinkers.
Not Your Sweet Potato Casserole: Waffled sweet potato fries, topped with marshmallow sauce and candied pecans.
BBQ Nachos: Molasses on house made BBQ Tennessee sweet sauce. Fully loaded with smoked pulled pork, sour cream, pico, green onion, queso, dry rub, and honey bourbon BBQ sauce.
Brussels sprouts skillet: Crispy and caramelized with a touch of heat.
Pecan salad: House made blue cheese and honey mustard, ranch dressing.
Strawberry Fields Salad: Fresh field greens, strawberries, candied pecans, feta cheese and cranberries.
Stone Ground Cheddar Cheese Grits: Topped with sautéed Atlantic shrimp, andouille sausage, tomatoes, peppers and onions and house-made creole’ sauce
Grilled salmon: Herbed seasoned grilled Atlantic salmon, glazed with garlic butter; with loaded mashed potatoes, topped off with a generous supply of cheese and bacon.
We recommend ordering one of each from the following stellar dessert options, creating a sampler platter for everyone in your party to savor.
Pumpkin Crème Brûlée (seasonal: Lynn’s Choice)
Smokes chocolate cake
PHONE: (865) 365-1019
ROCKY TOP MOUNTAIN COASTER (Ghosts ‘N Goblins)
Rocky Top Mountain Coaster, the longest mountain coaster in Tennessee, proudly features nearly 10 minutes of high speed thrilling fun, with lots of twists, turns, surprises and breathtaking Mountain Views along the way.
Consistently ranked online by fans as the top mountain coaster in the Smokies, Rocky Top Mountain Coaster is perfect for the entire family, as you get to control your experience, which can range from mild to wild, depending upon the speed at which you choose to go.
Ride the coaster in the daytime for a crystal clear view of the beautiful, rolling Tennessee hills, the lush foliage, and the fun, campy mountain themed decor (including outhouses and “Euro-pee-an” Black Bears), then ride at night for a completely different experience, featuring a rainbow of neon colored lights. Repeat riders will receive significant discounts for additional rides, and several photo stations are located throughout the ride to capture your special moment, so be sure to smile as you speed down the mountain incline.
We had the pleasure of visiting the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster for one of their most anticipated and popular annual events, the Ghosts, ‘N Goblins coaster, featuring a gaggle of ghouls lurking around every twist and turn, transforming the coaster we all know and love into its own unique haunted ride. A Chucky doll (who just may have a bone chilling surprise in store for you) greets guests upon arrival at the welcome counter, while an evil scarecrow and a chainsaw-wielding madman are waiting to terrify you soon after. The ride commences and embarks on a haunted adventure, filled with top notch spooky-themed animatronics, a life size monster figure that reaches out to grab you upon arrival at the top of the hill, and a high thrill ride downward with a few carefully planned stops, where your seat confines prevent you from fleeing the masked, hatchet wielding gremlins who hide in the darkness of the night. Screaming banshees await your arrival with surprise appearances at the end of the tunnels and funnels you’ll travel through during your journey, and whispering voices chanting “I see you”, eerily fill the crisp autumn evening air.
Although “Spooky” season has unfortunately, drawn to a close, be sure to mark your calendars for next year’s “Ghosts N’ Goblins” event, which takes place every Friday and Saturday evening in October, including Halloween.
PHONE: (865) 453-0033
Victoria Henley can be heard on iHeart Radio/ FCB Radio Network. She is a regular contributor to CTFashionMag.com.