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Smokies popular destination for youth groups, church retreats, familiescomment (0)

May 10, 2012

By Carrie Brown McWhorter

Imagine starting the day with an exciting whitewater rafting trip on the Pigeon River, followed by a hike along a peaceful forest trail to a scenic waterfall. Take a little time in the late afternoon to clean up and rest before you enjoy dinner, a show and maybe even a little go-cart racing to finish your day.

Or maybe you prefer a slower pace, beginning your day with a leisurely breakfast, followed by a stroll through shops filled with mountain crafts. After an afternoon musical revue, you might end your day by viewing the sunset from a scenic mountain overlook, watching the mist fall into the valleys below. 

These are just a few of the many activities visitors enjoy in the area many people simply call the “Smokies,” a popular year-round destination for youth groups, church retreats and families looking for a family-friendly getaway.

Stacey Boutwell, executive pastor at Grace Baptist Church, Oxford, in Calhoun Baptist Association, said Grace Baptist has taken many groups to Gatlinburg through the years, including a student trip to the area last November.

Boutwell said one of the good things about the area is its proximity to Alabama. 

“The kids know they’ve been out of town, but it’s still within a day’s driving distance,” he said. “We also have lots of families who go to Gatlinburg several times a year, so it’s a natural draw.”

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, draws an estimated 10 million visitors each year. That number makes the Smoky Mountains America’s most visited national park. The park itself encompasses more than 500,000 acres within its boundaries, but visitors to the region will find an abundance of activities to enjoy both inside and outside the park.

Most visitors come to the Smoky Mountains to enjoy the scenery, said Bob Miller, spokesman at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

“The views are our number one attraction,” he said. 

Visitors tour the park in their cars, winding their way slowly along curving mountain roads lined with various species of deciduous and evergreen trees. Miller said the fall color season is especially popular because of the diverse tree species in the park.

“We have a lot of different trees turning a lot of different colors,” he said.

In the spring and summer, wildflowers put on a colorful show. The park contains more than 1,600 species of flowering plants, and every month is different, Miller said.

Wildlife viewing is another popular activity, with bears being number one on most visitors’ list.

“After ‘Where is the restroom?’ the next most popular question is ‘Where can I see a bear?’” Miller said. 

The park is home to about 1,600 black bears, two per square mile, which makes for the highest bear density in the southeast. As a result, visitors often see bears along the roadways and hiking trails from April to November, Miller said.

Most roads within the park are bus-accessible, and the “unmatched resource” of lodging in the local area, including hotels, cabins and chalets, makes the region a great destination for families and groups, Miller said.

Steve Bentley, organist at Beulah Baptist Church, Muscadine, in Cleburne Baptist Association, visits the mountains every year in December with his extended family.

“We love going back each year for the Christmas parade and the Christmas lights and browsing through all the shops in downtown Gatlinburg and in Pigeon Forge,” he said.


Winter is an especially good time to visit the area, said Chris Spurlin, minister of youth and associate pastor at Lakeview Baptist Church, Oxford, in Calhoun Baptist Association. Spurlin has been leading groups to the Smokies for nearly 20 years and said the mountains offer an affordable and enjoyable winter destination. Each year, Spurlin takes a group to WA-Floy Mountain Village Retreat, a Christian conference center in Gatlinburg, at New Year’s. He plans the schedule, focusing especially on the spiritual celebration of the new year. 

“Our youth praise band leads worship, we have Bible study and worship, and we pray in the new year,” Spurlin said. 

Nathan White, youth pastor at First Baptist Church of Austinville, Decatur, in Morgan Baptist Association, also has coordinated several church trips to the Smoky Mountains. 

Last December, White took a group of students to Connect, a student conference hosted by Phil Waldrep Ministries, just one of the many conference opportunities for people of all ages that are available in the area throughout the year. White said that in his experience, conferences offer a nice balance of planned events and free time. 

“I’m not one who is just about entertaining students,” White said. “There needs to be spiritual substance, as well as activities that build unity within the group.”

Whether attending a conference, a retreat or a family getaway, the abundance of affordable attractions and accommodations makes the region an attractive destination any time of the year, Boutwell said. In the end, however, he believes it is the natural beauty of the area that brings Christian groups back to the area year after year.

“Ultimately, the natural setting is conducive to reflection and reconnecting with your relationship with God,” Boutwell said.

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