By Steven Knipp
Sure a beachside bungalow makes for a fine summer holiday. But nothing can quite match a magical vacation in the mountains, with those toasty warm days, but crisp and cool evenings. This is the perfect balm for the harried urban soul. “The mountains are calling, and I must go,” said America’s first environmentalist John Muir, more than a century ago. And it’s true, once you arrive in the highlands, you never need worry about sticky humid air or constant sand in your shorts.
The jewel in the crown of the Appalachian Mountains - which run from Canada to Georgia - are Virginia’s enchanting Blue Ridge Mountains. Aside from boasting the highest peaks in the eastern US, the Blue Ridge is easily accessible from anywhere in the East Coast. In fact, Virginia’s sublime 100-mile long Skyline Drive is just 90 minutes’ drive from the Washington-Baltimore area, and about four hours from New York or Philadelphia. You’ll see more white tail deer here now, than existed in George Washington’s time.
Within the Blue Ridge range are two major National Parks – Shenandoah National Park at the north end and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the southern end, with the 470-mile long Blue Ridge Parkway connecting the two parks. These mountains get their name from the bluish tint they give off at dawn, when seen from a distance. The charming color comes from minute natural airborne hydrocarbon particles, including terpenes, which come from the area’s millions of coniferous trees.
Aside from the physical beauty of this region, the hiking trails and the abundance of wildlife, what makes this area especially appealing to families, are the scores of attractions along the way. You'll find picture post-card rural towns; many offer tempting farmers’ markets on weekends. Much of the Civil War was fought in this area, and there are historical battle fields aplenty. Thomas Jefferson’s lovely hilltop home, Monticello (which appears on the back of every Nickel) is located outside Charlottesville, just a few miles from the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. And if you prefer your history to be a bit on the funky side, not far from Monticello is Foamhenge. Yes - that’s right, a full scale replica of Britain’s ancient Stonehenge made entirely of Styrofoam. Located in the little town of Natural Bridge, admission is free.
Almost as renowned as Virginia’s Blue Ridge peaks are the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, which the native Cherokee called “the land of the blue mist.” Thanks to the foresight of early government environmentalists, decades ago it was decided to preserve the heart of this region by creating Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By the 1980s it even became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sprawling across more than 800 square miles, this heavily-forested park is one of the largest in the eastern half of the nation. There are 16 mountains which soar over 6,00 feet and even the lowest elevation is nearly 900 feet above sea level. This means that the air, even in mid-summer, is delightfully cool. Some 95 percent of the park is still densely-wooded, so if Daniel Boone, who spent much of his life in North Carolina were to suddenly return, he’d see little change from his times as a fearless frontiersman.
Because there’s so much to do inside the park – from hiking and horseback riding, to fly-fishing and biking, it’s little wonder that the Smoky Mountains National Park is a favorite with families and is the country’s second most visited national park. While camping is popular in the park, there are plenty of still-rustic but somewhat more comfortable accommodations outside the park, especially at the mountain resort towns of Gatlinburg and Cherokee, the latter which is home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, owned and operated by the state’s Cherokee tribe.
When vacationers think of Georgia most of us think of modern Atlanta or grand old Civil War plantation houses. But Georgia also has its choice of bucolic mountain getaways in the state’s northeast corner. Here is the southern end of the Blue Ridge Mountains which we first met in Virginia. A major swath of these remote and scenic mountains is included in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. And within these two parks are more than 450 miles of well-marked trails; most are for hikers, but there are also select trails for horseback riding, as well as dirt-bike and ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). And there are more than 2,000 miles of rushing rivers and fast-flowing streams, famous for both trout fishing, as well as for white-water rafting. And it is within these parks that the famous 2,174- mile Appalachian (foot) Trail to Canada begins.
Aside from bobcats, bald eagles and wild turkey, black bear also make their homes in this region. While these more tranquil areas will especially appeal to avid and fit eco-tourists, for families with children, Georgia’s mountain resort town of Blue Ridge is close to ideal. Not only is it an easy 90 minute drive from Atlanta, there are plenty of charming cabins to rent that give a sense of rural fun – including cool mountain air. The kids will love the 26-mile, two-hour round trip ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, while parents will enjoy exploring the assorted antique shops, art galleries and traditional southern-style restaurants in this still picturesque little mountain town.
Some other destinations to consider:
Whistler, British Columbia
Within two hours of Vancouver, this well-rounded destination awaits. Of course, winter skiing conditions in Whistler are amazing, but summer here is also grea. You can ski until July, Mountain biking is king, and hiking, kayaking, fishing and black bear-viewing provide a few more ways to connect with nature. Make room in the schedule for the Whistler Blackcomb resort, or try a helicopter tour, play at the Adventure Zone (hooray for batting cages, luges, trampolines and mazes) and visit the town center for shopping, nightlife and apres-whatever you want.
White Mountains, New Hampshire
Woodsy, private, serene and packed with possibilities, New Hampshire’s White Mountains region has a little of everything. Attitash - an adventure resort that earns big fun points with an alpine slide, bike trails and climbing walls - mixes nature with amusement park frivolity while less structured hikes and rides are always possible along the Saco River. A two-mile walk through the Flume Gorge will get the blood pumping, as will a soaring trip on the Summit Skyride or an afternoon at Whale’s Tale Waterpark. Like every good alpine destination, there are mountains and so much more. Visit White Mountains to plan your itinerary.
Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe, California
Focus on Squaw Valley on the North side of Tahoe for a manageble way to experience vast Lake Tahoe. Even if it is known for professional-level ski facilities, Olympic Valley isn’t just for athletes. Families love High Camp Bath and Tennis Club, where hiking, swimming, ice skating and tennis are just a cable car ride away. It’s a lofty goal, but finding yourself at the top of the world during a summer vacation is entirely possible.
Choose this ritzy region during what’s technically considered off-season. Hikes, horseback rides and river rafting excursions in a beautiful setting hardly qualify as second-rate activities. The arts scene is hopping during the summer months, Aspen and Snowmass both nurture an impressive culinary environment.
Park City, Utah
In addition to many miles of primo hiking and biking trails, Park City offer summer activities that come close to stealing the show; an alpine slide, zip rider, “legacy launcher” (trampolines and a bungee harness), human maze and all the usual stuff (mini golf, horseback riding, etc…) make Park City a dream come true for anyone who wants to see what Utah looks like drenched in sunshine rather than snow.