Pandemic Adventures through the Southeast Volume 5: Smoky Mountains, Asheville and More

Edited: August 3, 2021, 8:29 AM

While we spent a full 2 days at Dollywood, our time in the Pigeon Forge region of Tennessee was not yet complete. While Dollywood is the top draw for fans of Theme Park Insider, a trip to this part of the country will almost certainly include some other points of interest. The area is flooded with attractions that make it feel more like a beach town than a quant mountain village. There are more “tourist traps” here than there are fish in the Ripley’s Aquarium, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone’s interest in being drawn like moths to the flame that many of these attractions represent. Multi-level go-cart tracks, indoor snow-tubing, wax museums, mini-golf, outlet shopping, and dinner show theaters on every corner, visitors could spend weeks in Pigeon Forge exploring all of these money pits that I’m sure represent a level of satisfying entertainment to some, but just seem corny and campy to me. Perhaps if we were a captive audience for a full week in the region, we might spend a day trying to find some value in the various 1-off attractions, but our itinerary only allowed us a little more than a half-day before we had to move on to our next destination.

As a geologist, there was absolutely no way I was going to let my family miss out on the most visited National Park in the United States. That’s right, Great Smoky Mountains National Park saw more than double the number of visitors as Grand Canyon National Park with an estimated 12.5 million visitors in 2020 to Grand Canyon’s 5.97 million. While the free admission, expansive road and trail network (with numerous entrances), and proximity to large urban centers contribute to the Smoky’s immense visitation, the popularity of the park along the entire East Coast is unmatched, and probably why so many attractions have popped up at nearby towns like Pigeon Forge.

We didn’t have a lot of time in the park on Wednesday, so my desire to do one of the many long hikes into the wilderness to see a secluded waterfall was not a viable option. We instead decided to hit a couple of the park’s highlights. Clingman’s Dome is the tallest point in the park, and a nicely paved trail to the top that would ordinarily yield dramatic views. However, on this day, heavy cloud cover and drizzle meant the hard work to reach 6,643 feet didn’t give us the Bob Ross picture postcard we wanted. It was also extremely crowded at the top (the packed parking lot should have been an indication), and we were some of the only people on the mountain wearing masks, making breathing at altitude a bit more challenging.

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After making our way down from Clingman’s Dome, we drove through Newfound Gap along the North Carolina/Tennessee border on our way to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

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This 5.5-mile one-way road is a great way to see lots of sights if you’re short on time.

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There are numerous pull-offs along the narrow road (though parking near popular trailheads can be difficult to come by, especially because of the one-way traffic), where you can see some spectacular and diverse scenery.

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Making over a half-dozen stops along the trail, it took us nearly 3 hours, which pretty much consumed the time before we needed to start making our way to Asheville, NC.

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Our stop in Asheville was predominantly to visit family on our way east to Charlotte, but we did spend some time touring the city and some of its well known breweries including the primary east coast production facilities for New Belgium and Sierra Nevada.

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We considered taking a visit to Asheville’s most popular tourist destination, The Biltmore, but the $76/person base price didn’t seem like a great value, especially given the lack of appealing things to do at the historic mansion for our 11-year old. If my wife and I were traveling alone, we may have splurged to walk around “America’s Largest Home”, but looking at antique furniture and paintings for a few hours hearing “I’m bored” every 15 minutes wouldn’t have been a good use of our money or time. Instead, we ended up spending most of our day Thursday at the Asheville Retrocade. We had investigated a visit to the Asheville Pinball Museum, and while my wife loves pinball machines, we thought the Retrocade, which has a mix of both pinball machines, classic video games, and other arcade games would be a better choice. For $10/person, you can play machines across 2 floors for an entire day (including modern home consoles – Xbox and PlayStation – connected to TVs). From Donkey Kong to PacMan to Mortal Kombat to Fortnite to a half dozen modern pinball machines to SkiBall and air hockey, you can get more than your fill of the classic arcade experience with some modern home video games thrown in too. We ended up spending nearly 2 hours here before walking down the street for lunch and then returning for another hour or 2 of arcade action. We had a ton of fun, and I’m sure our son appreciated satisfying his gamer urges instead of staring at relics from the Victorian Age.

After bidding farewell to Asheville, it was time to trek further east across North Carolina to Charlotte. To avoid the crowds, we didn’t want to visit Carowinds on Saturday, so we visited the Cedar Fair park on Friday and Sunday, leaving Saturday as an open day in our itinerary. However, I will detail our theme park visit in my next and final edition of Pandemic Adventures. Upon a recommendation of our friends that live in the Charlotte area, we decided to visit the U.S National Whitewater Center on Saturday. I’ve seen highway signs for this facility on previous trips through the Charlotte area and had always assumed it was a private training center for Olympians. However, after our friends recommended meeting there, we researched what the public can do at the U.S Olympic training facility. I figured it was just a place where you can take a raft down an artificial whitewater river, which doesn’t sound much different than the rapids rides you can find in most theme parks. While taking a trip down a raging river is big part of the experience, the U.S. Whitewater Center is much more than just that, almost to the point where it could be categorized as an adventure theme park.

When you arrive (just like a theme park, getting there early is important, especially on a busy day like the Saturday we were visiting), you purchase admission. Guests can purchase individual attraction tickets or purchase an All-Activity pass. The best part is that if members of your family are too small or don’t want to do any of the activities, they can just watch and don’t have to pay for admission. The main attraction is the whitewater rafting experience, which allows you to pick from 2 different courses (Family and Adventure). While I have been rafting before, this would be my son’s first time, so we chose to do the Family course, though in hindsight I think Zach could have handled the Adventure course. Your rafting time is determined when you purchase your admission, which is why arriving early is important, because there might not be slots available on a busy day if you don’t show up by noon. The other popular activity to reserve early in the day is the center’s 2 huge zip lines. Again, the earlier you’re able to reserve these, the more advantageous times you can get.

The U.S. Whitewater Center also has numerous ropes courses scattered throughout the complex of varying difficulty. Some of these courses also include smaller ziplines. With our rafting reservation just after lunchtime, we explored some of these ropes courses. Unlike the one Zach did at ZooAtlanta, these ropes courses are the real deal with professional grade harnesses, belay equipment, and guidewires. The center takes safety very seriously, so guests are required to complete an orientation, and staff throughout the facility are reminding you about safety rules and making sure that you understand the importance of safety. I think I said “I will not unclip myself or anyone else” at least 3 dozen times throughout our day of climbing, zipping, and rappelling around the facility.

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After thoroughly exhausting ourselves on the “easy” ropes courses, it was time for our whitewater adventure. Again, the facility takes safety to heart, and guests must watch a safety video and attend an orientation before being allowed to board a raft. Guests are then given a personal floatation device (PFD) and paddle before being assigned a rafting guide. Depending on the size of the group, you may share a raft with other guests, but no more than eight people (along with a guide) per raft.

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Once you’re in the raft, your guide goes through how to sit and paddle while in the raft and numerous commands they use to keep guests safe. The safety video was very clear that being ejected from the boat was a distinct possibility, so listening to the guide during this pre-trip session is pretty important if you don’t want to end up floating down river outside of the raft. The guide then goes through some different ways of paddling the raft before leading the craft into the raging river.

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Rafts take three trips down the river that take anywhere from 5-8 minutes before you take a conveyor belt back to the top of the retention pond. Fortunately, everyone on our raft stayed in the raft for all 3 runs, but we were sufficiently soaked by the torrent of water crashing into the raft over the fiercest rapids. It did seem like a few of our fellow passengers got tired during our second and third runs – paddling a raft is still hard work even though the guide does a lot of the heavy lifting and steering the raft down the most optimal course, but our skipper still managed to make the successive runs fun, unique, and wet. Each guide seemed to have their own personality and preferred lines down the river, so aside from switching to the Adventure course, guests could easily get plenty of variability on the experience just riding with a different guide. I’ve done real river rafting on the New River Gorge - one of the best experiences on the East Coast, though the water was low the last time I did it – and this experience on a man-made river was just as fun and exhilarating. You can even bring your own kayak to the Whitewater Center, which is a great way to learn and practice the sport in a controlled environment.

After our rafting experience, it was time to grab some lunch, and just like a theme park, the U.S. Whitewater Center has food and beverage options across the facility. Most of the restaurants are predominantly snack bars, but they do have some more filling items like the delicious spinach and walnut salad I chose. Best of all, there are plenty of beverage options including many that are locally brewed for appropriately aged adults.

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After satisfying our craving for food and “re-hydrating”, we ventured over to where the main ziplines originate. This area of the facility is also where the “jumps” are located. When I first read about these on the website, I thought it would be a controlled fall or rappelling down a small wall. Nope, these are full, free-fall experiences where you walk off the edge of a tower and drop anywhere from 30 to 100 feet. While I’ve ridden drop towers more than 4 times bigger than the tallest drop here, it’s still harrowing to look out over the edge and see the ground 100-feet below with just a single cable connected to the back of your harness to protect you from certain death. As with the rest of the facility, safety on the drops is again a priority, and they use a very clever sequence of safety lines to get guests from the stairs to inside the controlled area until you’re on the actual drop line and can walk out onto the platform where you plunge to the ground. The line for the drop moved pretty slow (only one of the 2 drops on the main tower was operating), but the 20-minute wait was absolutely worth it.

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Next up were the two massive zipline experiences. We had made reservations for both Double Down and Figure 8, which both originate from the same tower. The Double Down zipline takes guests across the artificial rivers at the middle of Whitewater Center and back to the base of the tower where you started. Each half of the experience takes about 30 seconds of flying across the raging rivers below. The harness connects to the zipline in the front, so you can’t “Superman” across the lines, but staff allow you the freedom to tuck, go no-hands, or comfortably hold onto harness. The Figure 8 zipline takes guests from the starting tower across the drainage pool for the artificial rivers and through an adjacent wooded area. Zipping through the treetops on Figure 8 was far superior to Double Down, possibly because I had gotten the hang of how to manage my speed on the ziplines, but mostly because your feet skim right over the trees at what feels like 20-30 MPH. Once you reach the end of the first half of Figure 8, there are a series of rope bridges to make your way to the second half of Double Down, which takes you back to where you started. If you have an All-Activity pass, doing both ziplines is an easy choice, but if I had to choose just one, Figure 8 would be the one every day of the week.

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After two exhilarating ziplining adventures, we made our way down to the Catawba River, where guests can paddle kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in a flatwater environment. Again, guests are given an orientation and shown a map of the river and extent of the areas they can explore. Guests are asked to limit their time on the river to 45 minutes, but you could easily spend hours on the river with no noticeable system to force paddlers back when they reached their time limit. Zach and I chose to share a double kayak, and paddled around the river for nearly an hour. We found an island with shallow inlets that was quite secluded and made me feel like we were in a scene from Deliverance.

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We also explored the main channel of the river and numerous coves, but still didn’t come close to seeing the entire @2-mile length of the river open to us.

When we finished our flatwater experience, we were thoroughly exhausted. However, there were still more activities that we could have explored if we had the energy. There were numerous other ropes courses we could have traversed, including one over the drainage pool, but between the lines and the sheer number of different courses it was impossible for us to do everything in a single day. The Whitewater Center also has many mountain bike trails crisscrossing the property, and even has bikes guests can use (though they didn’t appear to be the greatest of quality and most I saw had just one gear). Yet another activity guests can try is climbing. There are a number of climbing walls across the facility, though many appeared to be unstaffed when we walked past them throughout the day.

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The deep water solo climbing walls were available, but the lines were consistently long throughout the day (well over 30 minutes just to complete the orientation). If you’re unfamiliar, deep water solo is where climbing walls are cantilevered over a deep swimming pool. Guests can free climb these walls without any safety equipment since a fall puts you into a deep pool of water. I was interested in trying this discipline, but Zach wasn’t because of the lines and had tried the discipline previously at a nearby recreation center.

As we were packing up to leave following a tiring day, we noticed guests filing into the facility even though many of the activities were shutting down for the day. We later learned that the facility was hosting a concert for the evening, so in addition to all of the adventurous activities you can do and relaxing experiences you can have (including yoga classes and watching your family test their mettle), you can enjoy an evening of music at the U.S. Whitewater Center. For a place that I knew little about before our friends recommended meeting here, I could not have been more surprised with the overall experience and exhilleration we had at this facility. It might not be a theme park in a classical sense, but it has every bit of fun and excitement of a theme park. It has attractions for guests of various skill levels and interests as well as a variability to the attractions that could keep you coming back for return trips to try to see it all (like many theme parks, they offer season passes). If I just had a single day in the Charlotte area, I probably wouldn’t give up a day at Carowinds, but given additional days in the region, I would highly recommend devoting at least one full day to visit this incredible adventure park. The U.S. Whitewater Center is as must-see of an attraction as any other in North Carolina.

Next up - Carowinds

Replies (3)

Edited: August 9, 2021, 2:23 PM

Thanks Russell !! Really enjoyed your reports from this trip. Especially for destinations so close to home for us (ATL). Did not know the Whitewater Center near Charlotte had so much to offer. Definitely worth a visit next time we take a Carowinds trip.

Also impressed with the time and effort you took to provide your son with such a unique "Blacksmith" experience at Dollywood. I was not even aware they offered those. May have to consider next time we go up there.

August 9, 2021, 2:48 PM

The blacksmith experience at Dollywood had just started a few weeks before our trip, so don't feel bad for missing it on a previous visit because it wasn't an option before this summer. My wife stumbled upon it while reading fan blogs on Dollywood (where we also learned about parking off-site and taking the Trolley).
However, considering the instant popularity (reservations for the day usually fill within the first hour or 2), I anticipate the experience will continue to be offered for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Whitewater was AMAZING. We really didn't want to deal with Carowinds on a Saturday even with their reservation requirements limiting capacity, so we stumbled upon it thanks to our friends who live in the region and suggested it when we were looking for places to meet up with them (they said they would have season passes if they didn't live 45 minutes away). In hindsight, we kinda wish we didn't visit on a Saturday, because it was REALLY crowded. Because most of the ropes courses, climbing walls, and other activities are low capacity, we barely scratched the surface of what the facility offered, and really only had time for the highlights despite spending nearly 8 hours there. We would have gladly visited Carowinds on a Saturday to explore U.S. Whitewater on a less busy day. I cannot recommend this place more highly, and it's definitely one of those "hidden gems" that exceeded all expectations if you're into the more adventurous side of theme parks. It is a bit of a workout, so plan accordingly and know what you can handle from a fitness standpoint (I've been cycling @100-150 miles per week since March, and was still pretty exhausted at the end of the day).

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