It is impossible to think of East Tennessee without thinking of the Smoky Mountains. They frame the region’s eastern border in a haze of blue, with the streams and rivers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest feeding the area’s many lakes and reservoirs. These mountains have been the inspiration for the songs of country music legends like Dolly Parton, as well as the work of regionally loved artists like Jim Gray and nationally recognized natural history photographer Ken Jenkins.
And it is no wonder. This region is home to some of the highest peaks in the east. The tallest in Tennessee, Clingman’s Dome, tops out at 6,643 feet. Then there are the quiet valleys spreading out beneath the hazy peaks, fed by crisp, cold trout streams, the undulating landscape of the foothills to the west and the wide and wandering lakes of the Tennessee Valley Authority, which have become venues for fishing and boating and home to dozens of waterfront communities.
“The lakes and mountains here are the two major attractions for retirees and second homeowners,” says B.J. Swinehart with the Tennessee Association of Realtors. “And the region is within a day’s drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population.”
One of the largest draws to this region, both for those relocating and those visiting, are of course, the Smoky Mountains. Combined with a low cost of living that is below the national average, and no state income tax, it’s no surprise that Tennessee is one of the fastest up and coming retirement destinations in America. East Tennessee is garnering national attention this year with the celebration of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary. Dolly Parton is serving as the park’s anniversary ambassador, and a host of special events is planned for the coming year, including a rededication of the park at Newfound Gap on September 2.
In 1934, when the national park was established, many local Appalachian families had to leave their homes within the newly formed park boundaries. But their stories have not been forgotten. Cade’s Cove, the Cataloochee Valley, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail all pay tribute to the Smokies’ human history, with many of the former residents’ homes, barns, churches, and schools still standing. That is one attraction of this park; another is the wildlife, particularly the black bears, of which there are some 800.
There are also over 800 miles of hiking trails, ranging from short and moderate hikes to peaks like Clingman’s Dome to long and rewarding treks through wilderness to the mountaintop lodge on Mt. LeConte. The park is also home to dozens of waterfalls, including the terraced cascades of Rainbow Falls, accessible from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and the more heavily traveled trail to Laurel Falls just a few miles from the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Park spokesperson Nancy Gray says she feels the reason so many visitors are drawn to the Smokies is the wide array of plants and animals. “The park’s hallmark is its biodiversity,” she says. For example, 100 species of native trees can be found in the Smokies, more than in any other national park.
Outside the park, most tourists flock to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, both of which have earned reputations for their theme-park atmospheres. There are a surprising number of low-key activities in these towns, too, if one is willing to get off the main drag. Among them is the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, situated on the northern edge of Gatlinburg. Established in 1937, it is the largest independent organization of artisans in the United States, with more than 100 studios, shops, and galleries located along Glades Road three miles east of downtown.
What’s special about this community is not just the crafts, but the fact that visitors can actually interact with the artists, many of whom own and operate their own galleries. (Be sure to look for the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts signs, which ensure the galleries display the genuine handiwork of local and regional artisans.)
A few miles north of Gatlinburg is the quiet town of Sevierville, best known as the birthplace and childhood home of Dolly Parton, who grew up here with 11 brothers and sisters. Her statue, sculpted by artist Jim Gray, stands in front of the Sevierville Courthouse.
Visitors and residents have a chance to catch a glimpse of Dolly when she comes home each April for the annual grand opening of Dollywood, the theme park she started in Pigeon Forge more than 20 years ago. This isn’t your average theme park: Dollywood has the look of an old-time Appalachian village and small Southern town, with tree-lined streets, ponds, and streams. Rides are tucked into the woods, hardly noticeable, and snack stands sell delightful treats like strawberries drenched in cream and apple cider.
And while Dollywood may be best known for Showstreet, where theaters offer up everything from bluegrass and country to square dancing, the park also employs several master craftsmen, honoring the Appalachian arts that Dolly knew as a child. In addition to candle making, blacksmithing, and wood crafting, the park also has its own wagon-making facility known as Valley Carriage Works. The park is also home to the largest gathering of non-releasable bald eagles in America accessible to the public.
Outdoor Lover’s Delight
There’s more to Tennessee than just the Smokies. The Cherokee National Forest covers 640,000 acres of land in East Tennessee, stretching all the way from the Virginia state line east of Bristol to the Georgia state line east of Chattanooga. The forest has about 700 miles of hiking trails, many of which serve hikers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. There are also 30 developed campgrounds in the National Forest.
Whitewater rafting is one of the most popular sports on the rivers of the Cherokee National Forest, and it’s also a great way to see the region’s roadless areas. Popular rafting rivers in the Smokies and along the Blue Ridge include the French Broad, Big Pigeon, and Ocoee River. The Ocoee Whitewater Center, located on the river in Polk County, is generally considered the National Forest’s recreation center. It features a whitewater slalom course as well as a network of mountain biking trails.
Rafters also flock to the Cumberland Plateau west of Knoxville, where the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area covers 116,000 acres across Tennessee just west of Oneida and on the southeastern border of Kentucky. Hunting and camping are popular in the backcountry on the Big South Fork, as is horseback riding. There are some 180 miles of riding trails here as well as a concession stable at the Bandy Creek Campground.
Knoxville: Tennessee’s Big Easy
East Tennessee’s metropolitan and cultural center is in Knoxville, which is centrally located, providing residents and visitors easy access to Tyson McGhee Regional Airport as well as to Interstates 40 and 75.
Laney Shorter, sales manager for the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation, says many new residents are drawn to the city and surrounding areas by the mild climate and low cost of living. “Even in July, our average high is in the 80s,” she says, “and the median home price here is about $146,000.”
With the revitalization of Knoxville’s downtown, Shorter says she’s seen a significant influx of retirees, many of whom are moving into lofts at City Center or purchasing turn-of-the-century homes in the Tennessee River neighborhood of Sequoyah Hills. Many new residents are also drawn to the Turkey Creek area of west Knoxville, a new mixed-use neighborhood featuring residences, shopping, theaters, restaurants, hotels, office space, and a 58-acre nature preserve.
There is no lack of things to do in this vibrant Southern city in the midst of lake country. Knoxville has more than 600 restaurants, serving up everything from the Middle Eastern fare to be found at Ali Baba Time Out Delicatessen on Kingston Pike to the succulent steaks at Ye Olde Steak House south of downtown’s Henley Street Bridge, voted by locals as the “Best Steak House in Knoxville” for 11 years running.
Nightlife here is lively as well, and the city has many music and dance venues, including 4620, a jazz and blues club that features specialty martinis and fresh-made pizza. The Baker-Peters Jazz Club is another favorite hang-out, located in the historic Baker-Peters mansion. In addition to live music, the club also serves up nouveau American cuisine. Both are on busy Kingston Pike.
Shorter says she especially loves the fact that even though Knoxville is a small city, it offers theater, opera, symphony, and ballets normally associated with large capital cities. Those looking to experience the city’s rich history through the performing arts will enjoy the Tennessee Theater downtown. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the official state theater of Tennessee and offers a stunning setting with an ornately painted ceiling, velvet curtains, and plush seats for enjoying productions ranging from dance and classical music to live theater and performances by musicians like Bela Fleck and Buddy Guy. And to make the arts accessible to everyone, the city of Knoxville regularly holds free outdoor concerts during the summer months.
Unique shopping districts abound in Knoxville, and antique lovers flock to the galleries along Kingston Pike. A local favorite is Antiques, Inc., which is chock full of old artwork, china, antique dressers and desks, quilts, and many more historic items for home decorating. Another popular spot is Bennett Galleries and Company. Proprietor Rick Bennett personally selects much of the galleries’ inventory and tends to feature antiques and reproductions from Scandinavia, France, Belgium, and Italy.
Shorter says Knoxville’s educational institutions welcome non-traditional students. One of the nation’s top public universities, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville offers a variety of opportunities for continuing education, as do the city’s many technical and community colleges.
For Shorter, however, a South Carolina native who moved to East Tennessee to enjoy the region’s four mild seasons, the best thing about Knoxville is the people. “It is a large city with a small-town feel,” she says. “You’ll never meet a stranger here.”
Great Lakes of the South
East Tennessee is often referred to as the “Great Lakes of the South,” and it’s no surprise. The region is home to seven lakes stretching down the Tennessee Valley from the Tri-Cities to Chattanooga. Water covers more than 220,000 acres of East Tennessee, with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) reservoirs and rivers draining some 20,000 square miles. By navigating a series if locks and canals, you can travel by boat from Tennessee to the Atlantic Ocean.
Over 4,500 miles of shoreline offer visitors and residents endless opportunities for water recreation, from fishing and boating to camping and bird watching. TVA protects one million acres of land that support wildlife and preserve the region’s water quality.
Visitors are especially drawn to the shorelines and mountains in springtime when the region is loaded with wildflowers. Especially popular are the rhododendrons on Roan Mountain east of Johnson City and the nearby scenic corridors along Watauga Lake outside Elizabethtown.
Living on the Lakes
Those who want to live on the lakes of East Tennessee have plenty of options, as there are dozens of communities offering access to the region’s water recreation. Among them is Windswept on Cherokee Lake, just outside Morristown on a peninsula jutting into the lake. Conveniently located about halfway between Knoxville and the Tri-Cities a few miles off I-81, the community has a 66-boat slip marina, fitness center, and walking trails on its 400 acres. Homesites range in price from $85,000 to $400,000.
With developments all over the lake region of East Tennessee, Rarity Communities is one of the best-known developers of residential properties in the area. Begun in 1994, the company now has nine communities in development, ranging from Rarity Bay on Lake Tellico to Rarity Club on Lake Nickajack. Many of the communities are waterfront, while others offer stunning high elevation views and rolling rural meadows.
Located on the Watts Bar Lake in Spring City, TN, Lakefront Estates features acre-plus homesites and private boat docks along miles of shoreline. “We’ve developed this magnificent piece of Tennessee real estate in a way that maximizes its natural beauty and gentle lakefront terrain. We spared no expense in order to create an exceptional environment for the 55 lakefront homesites each their own private dock,” said Walt Dickson, developer of Lakefront Estates.
Those looking to get away from the more heavily visited regions of far eastern Tennessee might consider the community of Long Branch Lakes on the Cumberland Plateau north of Chattanooga. An equestrian community with Western-style architecture, Long Branch features a full-service equestrian center and 25 miles of riding trails and home sites along the shores of Camp and Long Lake. Homesites range in size from 1 to 10 acres with equestrian homesites ranging up to 40 acres. Lakefront homesites start at $175,000, and equestrian estates begin at $150,000.
What Is the Local Real Estate Market Doing?
Despite the economic downturn of the last year and a half, housing prices have not fluctuated dramatically in east Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Association of Realtors’ president-elect B. J. Swinehart, who is also a broker with ReMax Preferred Properties in Knoxville. “We have been very fortunate compared to the rest of the country because our housing tends to be fairly affordable and stable with regard to prices anyway,” Swinehart says. “Since our prices didn’t go up as quickly, they didn’t go down as quickly either.”
Comparing Knoxville area real estate sales in 2008 to those in 2007, Swinehart says they dropped about 12 percent. “The good news is, it’s a great time to be looking for property,” she adds. “There is a lot on the market.” She says some of the most popular areas for retirees and second homeowners are around the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area and in the Tellico Plains region about 45 minutes south of Knoxville. Many Midwesterners are drawn to the north lakes region between Knoxville and the Tri-Cities because of its close access. Ohio is less than a four-hour drive away.
For those looking to build in East Tennessee, there is an abundance of opportunity to make that new home energy efficient. With the Oak Ridge National Laboratory just outside of Knoxville, there is plenty of inspiration and expertise in the area for anyone looking to build green. In fact, Oak Ridge is home to five of seven U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified structures in East Tennessee.
The East Tennessee Chapter of the USGBC has over 180 members, many of them building and design professionals, though Elizabeth Eason of EEArchitecture, LLC, in Knoxville, says many members are also real estate professionals and bankers, so expertise in sustainable design is far-reaching in this area. Eason says there are currently 60 structures in East Tennessee that are working for LEED certification and that Knoxville was home to the state’s first LEED-certified building.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in interest in sustainable design,” Eason says. “Many of the people who are building now are retiring here or moving back to Tennessee after pursuing careers away from home.” The strongest reasons her clients cite for green design are energy efficiency, comfort, and health. “A lot of our clients are pursuing active lifestyles, and we’re seeing an increasing connection between the home and the landscape around it,” Eason adds.
While the standards for LEED certification are very high, Eason points out that homeowners looking for third-party certification can also take advantage of Energy Star® certified homes, as well as the EarthCraft Tennessee program.
For more information on green building in East Tennessee, visit the East Tennessee Chapter of the USGBC at http://chapters.usgbc.org/easttn.
Best Scenic Road Trips
If you want to get a feel for the region and all the beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities it has to offer, take a road trip along one of these scenic auto tours:
Cherohala Skyway: This 40-mile scenic byway traverses the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests of East Tennessee and North Carolina, just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It follows a former Cherokee trade route through the mountains from Tellico Plains, TN, to Robbinsville, NC.
Ocoee Scenic Byway: This was the first National Forest scenic byway in the U.S. and follows the Ocoee River for 26 miles in Polk County just east of Chattanooga. Watch for views of the old Ocoee Flume Line and Powerhouse.
Tellico River Road: Not far from the Cherohala Skyway, Forest Service Road 210 takes auto tourists along the Tellico River into the upper gorge on a peaceful (if narrow) paved road. This scenic route features sheer canyon walls, small waterfalls and cascades, and is a great place to stop and trout fish for a while. One of the highlights of the drive is the view of the 90-foot Bald River Falls.
What Does It Cost to Live Here?
East Tennessee is a great place for those looking to decrease their cost of living. Tennessee has one of the lowest overall tax burdens in the nation. The state has no income tax and has a flat six percent rate on dividend and interest income. It is also one of 13 states that collects no state-level property taxes.
The average home price in east Tennessee falls into the mid-$100,000s, and Knoxville’s Cost of Living Index is 87.5. Because of its low cost of living and comparatively high salaries, the city was recently ranked No. 3 in the nation by Salary.com for cities where one can most quickly build personal net worth.
For more information on East Tennessee:
Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce
811 East Parkway • Gatlinburg, TN 37738
1-800-588-1817 • www.gatlinburg.com
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
1-865-436-1200 • www.nps.gov/grsm
Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation
301 South Gay Street • Knoxville, TN 37902
1-800-727-8045 • www.knoxville.org
Spring City, TN 37381
1-877-215-LAKE • www.lakefrontestates.net
Long Branch Lakes
10 Long Branch Road • Spencer, TN 38585
1-866-615-6616 • www.longbranchlakes.com
Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism
Pigeon Forge, TN 37868
1-800-251-9100 • www.mypigeonforge.com
1010 William Blount Drive • Maryville, TN 37801
1-888-293-2069 • www.raritycommunities.com
Windswept on Cherokee Lake • Lake Developers Partnership LLC
PO Box 2087 • Morristown, TN 37816
1-877-505-1871 • www.windsweptliving.com