As a native Floridian, I have come to accept that 80-degree holidays with palm trees decked out in twinkling lights will forever be the reality of winter in the Sunshine State. To whet my appetite for a seasonal change, I traveled by car with friends to a destination straight off the cover of a paperback romance novel: the Great Smoky Mountains.
At the corner of autumnal adventures and cozy digs was our retreat for the weekend, a stunning log cabin tucked away within The Preserve Resort in Wears Valley, Tennessee. The cabin, aptly named Rocky Top Retreat, was as charming as it was accommodating, surrounded by breathtaking landscapes Bob Ross would have emulated in a heartbeat. Sitting at an elevation of 1,750 feet, sweeping views of Pigeon Forge Valley owned one side of the cabin, while the grand Smokies took over the other.
My friends and I spread out in the spacious three-story abode that boasted master suites on the first and second floors, as well as lofted sleeping areas above the second floor. The attached full-sized kitchen downstairs was fully equipped with all the works, including an oven, refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher and two coffee machines that poured steaming cups of java on chilly mornings. A jacuzzi on the first-floor deck was a delightfully unexpected feature worth taking advantage of.
Rocking chairs adorned the second floor’s balcony, offering a pristine view of wondrous colors far from sight back home in South Florida. It was connected directly to the game room, featuring a 42-inch flat-screen TV, pool table, foosball, arcade games and a massive bean bag chair reminiscent of childhood memories. The second floor’s master king suite included a jetted whirlpool tub and spacious shower. Floor-to-ceiling windows allowed natural light to drench the space in warmth amidst the 35-degree weather, all while giving a mere peek at the enamoring magnificence of our surroundings.
Our cabin was a 45-minute drive from both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and despite the aching desire to stay cozied up in our new nook, the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park awaited. The skylift slowly ascends 1,800 feet up Crockett Mountain to drop passengers off at the Sky Deck. There, 360-degree views of Tennessee’s mountainous terrain hit like butterflies on a first date. Not for the faint of heart, the connecting SkyBridge suspends 140 feet at its midpoint, spanning 680 feet over a gaping valley.
After working up an appetite, we indulged in a feast of Gatlinburg favorites, because moonshine and barbeque are to Tennessee as croquetas and cortaditos are to South Florida. At both Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler and Sugarlands Distilling Company, $5 tastings were a no-brainer. Shot glasses half the size of my pinky were the perfect size for the 10-plus deliciously potent pours. At the recommendation of several locals, authentic Southern barbeque at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que was also a must—after all, no trip to Tennessee is complete without fall-off-the-bone ribs, pulled pork, and spicy macaroni and cheese accompanied by biscuits, a tangy array of barbeque sauces and Southern sweet tea.
One of the most meaningful parts of the trip was venturing through the visual masterpiece that was the Laurel Falls Trail. The warning signs of active bears in the area and steep mountainsides were hardly a concern, and the 1.3-mile trail surrounded by panoramic views of orange and yellow allowed for quiet reflection amongst our usually talkative group.
They say life is about the journey, not the destination. But on that two-hour hike alongside five of my dearest friends and the most marvelous mountain vistas, I was reminded that it’s far more than just a journey—what matters most are the relationships cultivated along the way that help carry you through. And if you ever choose to journey throughout the vast expanse of the Great Smoky Mountains, make sure the company you take is as wonderful as mine.