It was a job transfer that brought us to southeastern Tennessee 16 years ago, but the long, glorious springs and equally languid autumns were among the factors that have kept us here.
Southern hospitality is another of them. There is still a cordial gentility here that seems to have become extinct in many other regions. People you’ve never met will ask how you are today… and they genuinely care about your answer. Folks aren’t usually in too much of a rush to chat.
But back to the seasons: along with with the short, easy winters, these shoulder seasons make the steamy summers bearable . . . as long as there’s air conditioning!
Fall color in Tennessee lasts right up until the holiday season, when the leaves of Bradford pear trees turn a beautifully glossy and burnished red. (Tennesseans have a love-hate relationship with the species, which is the first tree to bloom, like a fluffy, snow-white gumdrop, in early to mid March. The down side to these beauties is two-fold. When their blossoms fade, they rot and smell like dead fish, and the trees themselves have a short life span of only about 15 years. Usually around or even before that time, the tree will split near the middle, looking raggedy and demanding to be replaced, which makes for a lot of work for a homeowner or landscaper.)
But I would rather admire their beauty throughout the other three seasons of the year. Back to their pretty red fall foliage: it is present, usually, until Christmas decorations go up. Within a couple of weeks of removing said decorations, our crocuses bloom and daffodil leaves spike up through the frosty earth. By mid February, they’re in full bloom, and the peep frogs begin their vernal chorus, welcoming spring once again.
March brings a rainbow of tulips, bright yellow Forsythia, eye-catching, coral-colored quince blossoms, and another personal favorite, the dainty purple flowers of the Eastern Redbud, which don’t limit themselves to the tips of branches, but generously present themselves along the whole bough, growing right out of the tree’s bark. A drive along a country road or suburban street at that time of year offers the observer a jewel box (or an Easter egg basket) filled with spring colors, often layered against one another in the same scene.
We do keep a weather watch, on any warm and humid spring day, when the air can become unsettled and occasionally stirs up severe weather. The “T” word wasn’t one of which we needed to stay mindful when we lived in the north, and apparently most southeast Tennesseans didn’t worry much about it either, until one awful day in late April of 2011. There was a repeat about 11 months later, though not as deadly. We had always assumed that the mountains would break up the most violent of storms before they reached us, but sadly, we learned that day that this isn’t always the case. Still, tornadoes are rare, and wise folks have a safety plan, so it’s not something we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about.
Springtime in southeast Tennessee is just beautiful. Sure, there are a few cold snaps right through March (and this year, well into April, which is unusual). Weather lore says that Tennessee has “dogwood winter,” which is a cold spell before the native dogwoods bloom, and another snap, “blackberry winter,” which foretells the opening of that plant’s blossoms. Ever since we moved here, the reaching habit of the native dogwoods have intrigued me. Their white-blossomed branches look to me like arms, reaching both this way AND that, to gather whatever sunlight they may from among the taller trees that surround them. They look perfectly content with that dappled light, and almost glow from among the shadows and still-mostly-naked branches of those other trees.
Spring is a perfect time to explore the Volunteer State, and a trip to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (the most visited of all of the U.S.’s National Parks) is a wonderful way to spend a weekend. They’re called “Smoky” because of the mist that almost always hangs over them, lending them kind of a mysterious appearance.
The advice of one native son (who happens to be married to our daughter) is to really get out into the park, way beyond easy-to-reach edge, which includes the popular and often crowded Cades Cove. We have seen a mother black bear and her triplet cubs in Cades Cove in the spring, so even if you only have time for the edge, it’s definitely worth a visit. This mama treed her babies and lumbered off into the woods to escape the curious eyes of us humans, who had created a traffic jam by parking our cars on the road in order to ogle and take photos. If you happen to be as fortunate, please be smart, and remember that no photo opp is worth the foolhardy move of getting between a mama bear and her cubs. We were shocked by the number of people who risked that boner move.
There has also been a successful reintroduction program of elk to the Smokies. Friends who’ve heard them bugling during the fall rut season say it’s thrilling to witness. You may see them, and will almost certainly see white tailed deer.
Don’t forget your camera!
Late May and early June will bring opportunities for viewing synchronous fireflies. To learn the exact dates as they become available, visit:
The general website for GSMNP is below.
There are campgrounds, rental cabins, and hotels and motels galore in Gatlinburg, at the western edge of the park. Sevierville is just west of Gatlinburg, and is the home of Dollywood, which, before I ever visited, had assumed would be tacky and garish. On the contrary, it is clean, wholesome, beautifully maintained, and arguably second only in quality to the most famous amusement parks of central Florida. It offers high quality concerts, educational programs on subjects ranging from raptors to international cultures, as well as seasonal programs and festivals. A one day pass for both the amusement park and the waterpark will cost $79, but an annual pass with unlimited use (and several valuable perks) will cost little more than double that amount.
A couple of hours south of this area is Chattanooga, which touches Tennessee’s borders with both Georgia and Alabama, and is very close to North Carolina. This is the area of the state with which we are most familiar.
Among other accolades, Chattanooga won Outdoor Magazine’s title for “Best Outdoor City” in 2016.
Chattanooga “Best Town Ever” ad:
Chattanooga in Three Minutes:
An informal poll of my friends yielded the following activities as favorites among residents in the Chattanooga area (in no particular order).
High Point Climbing
Coolidge Park and Carousel
Creative Discovery Museum
Bluff View Arts District
Hunter Museum of Art
Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park
Just outside of town, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum offers much more than just an exhibit of old trains, including a 19th century steam locomotive that has been fully restored to functionality by the members. The museum sponsors excursions of different lengths and to different surrounding areas of this region, some pulled by that old “iron horse.” In the spring, Thomas the Tank Engine comes for “Days Out with Thomas” for young families. This is always held the last weekend of April and the first weekend in May. https://www.tvrail.com/day-out-with-thomas
There are train rides in the summer, fall foliage tours pulled by the steam engine, and at Christmas, the North Pole Express, which has become a much loved tradition. This always sells out in advance, and has several weekends of runs for kids and families, who come dressed in their cozy pajamas. There’s usually a New Year’s Eve dinner train excursion, and many other wonderful opportunities in all seasons for both rail enthusiasts, and people just seeking something a little different to do.
(For walking, cycling, and running/jogging)
Lookout Mountain Hang Gliding
The Incline is kind of a cross between a cable car and a funicular, and carries passengers up and down the side of Lookout Mountain. It provides easy access to a Civil War museum, as well as to Point Park, both of which are mentioned below. There are some grand old homes which can be admired as one walks from the station toward those sites along the street at the brow of the mountain.
Chattanooga and its surrounding region hold a wealth of historical sites specific to the Civil War. Principal among them is Chickamauga Battlefield, just over the Georgia Line. This is the perfect location for a hike or cycling expedition, and is ideal for photographers. It is beautiful throughout the year.
Point Park is at the top of Lookout Mountain and overlooks the Tennessee River at Moccasin Bend, and over Chattanooga itself.
Just steps away from Point Park is the
Museum of the Battles for Chattanooga. It’s small, but a charming little museum with a wealth of informative books on the battles and on the region in its gift shop. One can easily walk from the Incline terminal to this museum, as well as to the park mentioned a moment ago.
Loads of farmers’ markets have sprouted up around the country, and we are fortunate to have a bumper crop of them in the Tennessee Valley. The granddaddy of them all, most would agree, is the Sunday Chattanooga Market in the pavilion, near UTC’s Finley Stadium. In late spring and summer, and into the fall, we get all of our fruits, vegetables, bread, and flowers there, and can browse through the stalls to see what local artists and craftspeople are creating.
The food scene in Chattanooga is highly competitive, and eateries come and go. If they aren’t fantastic, they don’t survive. For that reason, I have chosen to mention only the more long term, established restaurants- mainstays. There are innumerable trendy new ones, including lots of excellent food trucks, and we have ethnic cuisines from all over the world – Indian, Thai, Korean, Latin, and many others represented.
There is no shortage of restaurants at every price point in the Tennessee Valley. In our family, we joke that there’s a BBQ joint at every corner, and that’s only slightly exaggerated. Though not my personal favorite of cuisines, I don’t think any of them really suffer in quality. If I had to choose a personal favorite, mine would be Sugar’s Ribs on the west side of Missionary Ridge, mostly because of their unique side dishes (roasted corn on the cob, whole charred Vidalia onions, potato salad, etc.)
Facing west, it’s great place to eat and watch the sun setting, and if you do get the corn, be sure to take the cob outside when you leave, so you can feed it to the kudzu-eating goats!
For barbecue joints, my husband would probably choose Bones, a family run business relocated due to road construction to a former Food Lion supermarket on East Brainerd Rd., well known for their weekly special of smoked prime rib. (Their burgundy braised mushrooms go well with it.)
Looking for a really good burger? You can’t do better than one of the several Armando’s restaurants in the city.
If fried chicken, another southern staple, is on your mind, you might try Champy’s, with a downtown and an outskirts (mall area) location. They have a cool, funky atmosphere, and they do chicken very well.
For something a bit more upscale, go to the aforementioned Bluff View Arts District. In one beautiful block overlooking Coolidge Park and the Tennessee River, you can have your choice of three lovely options: Italian – Tony’s Pasta,
The gorgeous Back Inn Cafe, a fine dining establishment, specializes in upscale, refined versions of classic American Southern dishes,
Then there’s Rembrandt’s, a coffee house with fantastic baked goods and hand made chocolates, excellent breakfasts, and soups, salads and sandwiches. My favorite soup is tomato & artichoke bisque.
Couples, groups of girlfriends, coworkers and students congregate at tables in their beautiful courtyard on sunny days to eat, sip, talk, and listen to the mockingbirds. It’s more of an activity and destination than just a place to eat.
Puckett’s is in a great location, in close proximity to downtown and river front family attractions. It’s casual and reasonably priced, and a fun place to enjoy traditional southern “meat and three” favorites.
Big River Grille has two locations, and with its seasonal brews, caters to the pub crowd. It’s a Gordon Biersch property, which operates similar restaurants all over the country.
Another popular spot is The Boathouse, beside the Tennessee River and bordering the Riverpark. Its porch, overlooking the water, is a nice spot to linger on a warm evening, as evidenced by their perennial scarcity of parking spots. Their claim to fame is olive oil fries. Most of their food is very good, but I have yet to warm up to their slaw, dressed in a sauce made with fish oil. I think the rationale is that it goes well with their fish dishes, but I’d prefer a straight vinegar slaw, to contrast and freshen the plate. Still, it is dependably good.
If you like to sample several different dishes at one meal, Terra Nostra, located on the vibrant North Shore, is Chattanooga’s most well known (Spanish inspired) tapas restaurant.
A favorite place for “white-tablecloth” fine dining is St. John’s, with its creative use of locally sourced ingredients. We have never had a bad meal there, and it’s a place you won’t be ashamed to take ANYONE.
Alleia gives a very contemporary twist to traditional Italian fare.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Chattanooga’s outstanding restaurant options. Surely, many favorites have been overlooked. Chattanoogans, please feel welcome to leave a comment with your own recommendations!
If you’ve been thinking of visiting the area, what are you waiting for?