“The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Since 1873, that phrase has captured the hearts and imaginations of mountain-bound travelers everywhere. It’s no wonder why. John Muir put words to the feeling that only mountain destinations can offer: a welcome rest, an elevated spiritual experience and the opportunity for adventure.
America’s mountain destinations come in many flavors, allowing visitors to taste whichever they like. They can begin with the rolling hills around Huntington, West Virginia. From there, they can check out two contrasting versions of the Rocky Mountains, from Durango, Colorado, in the southwest to the Northern Rockies of Butte, Montana. Back east in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, variety awaits Great Smoky Mountains visitors. And last but not least, travelers can find delight in the waterway-filled plateaus of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Good ol’ Rocky Top, as eastern Tennessee is called, evokes thoughts of bluegrass music, fresh fried trout and the unmistakable blue of the Smoky Mountains.
It’s in this world of sweet tea and black bears that travelers will find luxury, entertainment and thrills. Just look to U.S. 441, the Pigeon Forge Parkway, a five-mile tourism artery lined with dining, shopping, attractions and accommodations. Conversely, if hitting the trails away from the crowds is more your speed, Pigeon Forge delivers — the resort city is just minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Outdoor enthusiasts can get their fill from its 800 miles of trails, waterfalls, sightseeing and wildlife.
“You can go to New York for a show, Orlando for roller coasters and to the West for mountains. Here you can do it all,” said Mike Gwinn, senior sales manager at the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
Groups longing for a resort escape will find multiple premium accommodations in Pigeon Forge. For example, look into the Inn at Christmas Place and luxury cabins at the Parkside Resort. And Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort boasts front porch access to the park’s multimillion-dollar light and fountain shows.
New Pigeon Forge experiences are always in the works, so entertainment options are endless. Check out the Smoky Mountain Opry, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede and Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud for theatrical entertainment. Additionally, wineries, distilleries and plenty of shopping are other diversions that delight.
Thirsting for adrenaline? Buckle into rides like the Mountain Monster, the Lumberjack Lift and the Rocky Top Mountain Coaster. And, of course, there’s world-famous Dollywood. Tickets to the music star’s country-themed destination gives access to nearly a dozen roller coaster rides and a water park.
Ever long to ditch the concrete jungle and find your wild side? Or perhaps you’ve dreamt of stepping onto a movie set. Either way, the small Colorado city of Durango will satisfy your craving.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railway built Durango in the late 19th century as a stop for passengers and silver and gold ore. Although the mining activity has long since ceased, visitors have found the scenery a more precious commodity.
The picturesque Animus River courses directly through downtown, giving visitors a good excuse to go whitewater rafting, tubing, paddleboarding, kayaking or fly-fishing right after breakfast. After a day full of adventure, groups can take a quick trip up to Trimble Hot Springs to soak in natural mineral springs surrounded by staggering mountain views.
A little further into the San Juan Mountains is Purgatory Mountain, an alpine skiing destination with some of the most consistent and abundant snow in the Southwest. Groups can hit the slopes in the wintertime and mountain bike or enjoy alpine roller coasters in the warmer months.
A fixture that unites the outdoors and Western culture is the iconic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
“It’s a wonderful way to experience Colorado,” said Rachel Welsh, public relations and communications manager at Visit Durango. The train is the only way to access select locations in the San Juan Mountains, including the first zip-lining course in the United States.
Those authentic railways and steam engines have inspired travelers and film producers alike. “True Grit,” “City Slickers,” “The Prestige,” multiple John Wayne films and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” were all filmed in part or in whole around Durango thanks to the train and breathtaking mountain scenery.
Catskills, New York
Where can you start the day in arguably the most energetic, lively city in the Western Hemisphere and end it where time seems suspended between waterfalls and mountain peaks? None other than the Catskill Mountains, right on New York City’s doorstep.
“What attracted people to the Catskills years ago is still true today,” said Lisa Berger, director of Visit the Catskills. “Resorts tucked away in the middle of nowhere, small towns and incredible outdoor vistas.” Lush and verdant, the Catskill Mountains aren’t a true mountain range, but rather a dissected plateau, beautifully raised rolling land sharply cut by rivers, waterfalls and lakes.
Travelers tend to plan visits to the Catskills through the lens of culture and history, or for outdoor experiences.
Art connoisseurs will enjoy exploring the region that inspired the 19th-century American art movement known as the Hudson River School. History aficionados will look forward to other significant sites, including Historic Huguenot Street in the preserved 1677 town of New Paltz, where French and Dutch immigrants fled religious persecution. The Catskills are also home to the historic town of Kingston, where colonial politicians on the run from the British ratified the New York State Constitution in 1777.
Outdoor enthusiasts will find all-inclusive resorts like the Rocking Horse Horse Ranch and the Pine Grove Dude Ranch ready to welcome tour groups. Plus, the Catskills region boasts more than 75 miles of connected rail trails and 350 miles of carriage trails, where travelers can explore all four counties that make up the Catskills region. In the wintertime travelers will enjoy group skiing and snowboarding at three centers.
Huntington, West Virginia
Sharing borders with both Kentucky and Ohio, and on the rolling hills of the western Allegheny plateau is Huntington, West Virginia.
The state is flush with beautiful mountain drives, including some not-so-typical ones. An hour’s trip from Huntington is the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, a series of off-highway vehicle trails. Groups looking for a unique, sometimes mayhem-filled outdoor activity can go off-roading by dirt bike or ATV while exploring the history of the feuding families.
Within the city, Huntington staff plan diverse tourism events all year long that feature the town and its culture, history and scenery. For example, on Saturdays in July, a riverboat chugs down the Ohio from Cincinnati to entertain groups on river cruises. In the fall, Huntington officials host the Autumn Colors Express, a display of renovated antique rail cars. Travelers can board the Express to see the colors change in a daylong trip around the state.
“Our city is named for Collis P. Huntington, a railroad magnate,” said Tyson Compton, president of the Huntington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We try to keep that railroad history alive as best as we can.”
And from May to December, the Heritage Farm Museum and Village is one of Huntington’s biggest draws for group travel. The living Appalachian experience replicates pioneer life with seven museums, period actors and 25,000 square feet of exhibits.
Year-round, the Blenko Glass Company, one of the few remaining handcrafted glass companies in the country, offers group factory tours where visitors can see the glassblowers at work.
Rugged natural places and fascinating history make Butte, Montana, a wildly attractive mountain destination.
A mile high in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Butte calls itself the smallest big town in the state. The 1800s mining town drew thousands of settlers eager to strike their fortunes in copper, and those European cultures still influence Butte today.
“We maintain Irish, English, Cornish, Serbian, Slovenian, German and other cultures here,” said Maria Pochervina, executive director of Butte Elevated. “So diverse food plays a prominent role in Butte’s atmosphere.”
As a gateway community for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Butte offers visiting groups no shortage of outdoor recreation. Adventure seekers can experience 13 trailheads all within the same distance from the city center. No matter which activity they pick, beautiful terrain, outdoor experiences and wildlife are guaranteed. Snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and horseback riding are all available in and out of town: Butte is flush with urban trails that crisscross the community.
In addition to mountain activities, Butte hosts dozens of experiences, including underground mine tours, historic mansion tours and ghost tours. Butte’s tourism professionals are promoting the town’s notorious history to visitors, from the old gallows frame where criminals were hanged to the longest-running brothel in the nation and the so-called cabbage patch where the poorest of the poor lived. These glimpses of Butte’s more colorful past represent a growing attraction for the town. A trolley is equipped to host up to 26 people on one of Butte’s haunted tours, and plans for more are in the works.
“Everything in our history has to do with our mining past,” Pochervina said. “We can’t help but have a lot of wild history.”