Tennessee winters are relatively mild, so don’t be dissuaded from venturing north when the temperatures dip. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is far less crowded this time of year, offering opportunities to explore the outdoors in relative solitude. And starting in January, you can experience one of nature’s most impressive displays along the Tennessee River: the gathering of thousands of sandhill cranes on their winter migration.
Distinctive accommodations in the state run the gamut from the luxury Blackberry Mountain, the latest addition to the Blackberry Farm brand, to the quirky, family-friendly Forest Gully, with hobbit hut accommodations. And Tennessee’s early spring festivals are a far cry from the madness of summer’s Bonnaroo — decidedly intimate and eclectic, with an emphasis on connection between performer and audience.
Tennessee is full of unexpected surprises and adventures for travelers of every type, many within just a few hours drive from Atlanta.
Forest Gully Farms. Looking for a cozy bolthole to escape to this winter? The huts at Forest Gully farm south of Nashville are fit for a hobbit, with comfy beds, a kitchen hut with all the basics provided and separate bath facility. Guests can collect eggs from the farm’s resident chickens or book a foraging tour. This family-friendly destination has an outdoor fire pit for chilly winter nights and its own secluded creek and waterfall. The forest trails around the 15-acre property provide opportunities to explore before settling in for a long winter’s nap. No electronics, but the kids won’t miss them. ($325 for all three huts and access to the farm, maximum eight guests. 6016 Fly Hollow Road, Santa Fe, Tennessee. 615-509-0533 , www.forestgullyfarms.com)
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The release of Ken Burn’s new documentary on country music revived interest in the town where it all began, Bristol, spanning the Tennessee-Virginia border. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum celebrates the 1927 Bristol Sessions (the “big bang” of country music) and more with exhibits, performances and live radio shows. Downtown Bristol has experienced a renewal in recent years, too, so there are plenty of places to eat and shop. The town welcomed a new distillery in 2019, Lost State Distillery, producing small batch gin, rum and Tennessee whiskey. But there are a number of craft breweries to choose from, too. ($13; $11 for seniors, college students, military, children ages 6-17; free for children under 6. 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, Virginia. 423-573-1927, www.birthplaceofcountrymusic.org)
Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival. Birders, rejoice! Close to 90,000 sandhill cranes pass through the Atlantic flyway each winter on their way to their wintering spots in Florida and Georgia. At any given time, thousands stop at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on the Tennessee River in Birchwood, Tennessee. During the festival, wildlife resource staffers offer talks on these magnificent birds — adults reach 4 feet tall with a wingspan of up to 7 feet — known for their distinctive, otherworldly calls. There’s also a popular raptor show. Be sure to check out the Cherokee Removal Memorial while at the refuge. (Jan. 18-19, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. Parking is prohibited at the refuge; free shuttle service is provided from the Birchwood Community Center, 5623 TN 60, Birchwood. 615-781-6500, www.tn.gov.)
Tin Pan South. Catch the next big star at the world’s largest singer-songwriter event, which showcases up-and-comers looking for their big break, as well as those who’ve already made it (although they might not be household names). More than 100 performances by 300-plus artists are offered at 10 venues around Nashville during the four-day event. Sponsored by the Nashville Singer Songwriter Association, the festival aims to promote the work of the often-unheralded singer-songwriter, the soul of the music industry. Held at venues including the famous Bluebird Café, Hard Rock Café and the Listening Room Cafe, Tin Pan South allows audiences to hear the stories behind the music and make a connection with the artist. A much-loved event in a town that loves to support live music. Most performances sell out, so arrive at least 30 minutes in advance. (March 24-28. $10-$20, cash. 1710 Roy Acuff Place, Nashville. 800-321-6008, tinpansouth.com.)
Alum Cave Trail. Avoid the summer crowds and experience the long-range views and quiet beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains in the winter months. The Alum Cave trail, less than 10 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, features the impressive rock arch formations that this part of the Tennessee mountains are known for. Before you begin, stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center to pick up maps, brochures and watch a film about the Smokies. Then drive 9 miles southeast on US 441 to the Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead. The 2.3-mile hike to Alum Cave Bluffs takes about three hours to complete round-trip and climbs 1,200 feet in elevation. Beware of large icicles that sometimes fall from the bluff’s ledge during winter months. If you’re feeling intrepid, you can continue an additional 2.5 miles to the base of the Mount LeConte, adding another hour to the hike. This is a moderate to strenuous hike, so not for beginners. If you’re a pro, though, don’t let winter cold deter you: This hike is stunning in the snow. (Alum Cave Bluffs trailhead, Newfound Gap Road, Gatlinburg. Sugarlands Visitor Center, 1420 Fighting Creek Gap Road, Gatlinburg, 865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm)
Southern Belle Riverboat Cruise. A riverboat cruise on the Tennessee River through the center of Chattanooga is romantic any time of the year, but especially on Valentine’s Day. The triple-deck Southern Belle sets out from Pier 2 at Ross’s Landing, close to the Walnut Street Bridge, for a two-hour cruise, giving you a unique vantage point on the city and the surrounding mountains. The Belle’s Valentine’s Day special includes hors d’oevres, a buffet-style dinner and champagne, along with DJ entertainment. While in Chattanooga, check out the new Island Life exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium or visit the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Bluff View Gallery District, including the outdoor sculpture park overlooking the river. ($68.95 per person. 151 Riverfront Parkway, Chattanooga. 423-266-4488, www.chattanoogariverboat.com)
Elvis’s Birthday Weekend. The King would have celebrated his 85th birthday in 2020. Fans will gather at his home on Jan. 8 as they do every year to celebrate all things Elvis. The four days of festivities kick off with the official proclamation of the birthday and the presentation of the King’s cake, but continue with an evening house tour, a memorabilia auction and other free and ticketed events. While special opportunities to meet Priscilla and Elvis pal Jerry Schilling are already sold out, there’s still lots going on. If you’ve ever wanted to visit Graceland, this is a great time to do it. A guided tour of Memphis and trip to Elvis’s birthplace in Mississippi are optional extras. (Jan. 8-11. Free, proclamation and cake. $41 and up, Graceland tour. $70, evening Graceland tour. Graceland, 3734 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis, 800-238-2010, www.graceland.com)
Blackberry Mountain. Blackberry Farm, Tennessee’s best-known luxury getaway, opened sister property Blackberry Mountain about 7 miles from the farm, in February 2019. The new resort offers the same emphasis on service, outstanding food and wellness, but it adds a stronger outdoors component to the mix, with hiking, mountain biking and fly-fishing in the nearby Smoky Mountains. The understated elegance of the farm is translated to a mountain lodge setting with long-range vistas. The resort offers a full slate of events from yoga retreats and celebrity entrepreneur weekends to Wine Geek, offerings tastings, meals and conversations with wine experts. ($1,195 and up per night. 1041 The Loop Road, Walland, Tennessee. 865-518-0900, www.blackberrymountain.com)
Big Ears Festival. Knoxville’s Big Ears festival defies easy categorization. More than a music festival, its genre-hopping, small-venue, interdisciplinary approach introduces audiences to sights and sounds festival-goers may never have experienced before. With more than 100 events in a variety of venues, ranging from churches to shops and restaurants, the festival breaks down barriers between artists and audience with interactive workshops and panel discussions, street happenings, film screenings and temporary installations. This year’s line up spans from classical to electronic and much in between including performances by jazz legend Anthony Braxton, Kronos Quartet, Devendra Banhart and Mdou Moctar. It includes a performance of “Sound for Andy Warhol’s Kiss,” a multimedia experience fronted by former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon. (March 26-29. $75 and up, daily passes. $250 and up, weekend passes. Some events are free. 900 S. Gay St., Knoxville. 865-523-2665, www.bigearsfestival.org)
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