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Anakeesta’s elevated experience
A unique park amid Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains
Drawn by the majestic beauty of the Smoky Mountains and the lure of the country’s most popular national park, tourists flock to Gatlinburg, Tennessee by the gazillions. The city is jammed with hotels, restaurants, attractions, shops, and cars jockeying for parking spaces. Smack dab in the middle of this hubbub is Anakeesta, an unexpected oasis of lush, tranquil forest. To get there, however, you have to traverse 600 feet up to the top of a mountain. Getting there is part of the fun at the one-of-a-kind park.
Open-air chairlifts along with enclosed gondolas (which the park refers to collectively by the portmanteau, “Chondola”) take visitors up the mountainside for a pleasant, leisurely journey. Quicker, but more pedestrian Ridge Rambler passenger trucks are also available. Disembarking, guests are treated to striking, panoramic views of the Smokies and Gatlinburg. They have an assortment of things to do and places to explore in the forested setting.
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Anakeesta is not a theme park, per se. There are no spinning rides (although there are opportunities for some thrilling experiences; more on those later), no carnival games, and no costumed characters. So what is it?
“An outdoor, mountaintop, adventure park is closer to what we are,” says Karen Bentz, Anakeesta’s co-founder and partner along with her husband, Robert, whom she met when they were both studying forestry and landscape architecture. Bentz notes that the land on which the five-year-old park is located had not been logged in more than a century. The pristine property helped dictate Anakeesta’s design, which is about acknowledging and celebrating nature. “The vision,” she says, “came from the forest.”
One of the park’s centerpieces is its TreeTop SkyWalk, an 880-foot long pathway of footbridges tethered to trees. Standing some 60 feet in the air, Bentz claims that the canopy walk is the tallest and longest of its kind in North America. The hanging bridges gently bounce and sway as guests cross them. Nestled in and among the trees, the SkyWalk literally immerses visitors in nature. “To me, it’s the best thing we offer,” adds Bentz.
The park’s Vista Gardens, its pathways overflowing with plants and flowers, was recently certified and accredited as an arboretum. Built to suggest a flower in bloom, the whimsical AnaVista Tower stands tall in the center of the gardens. Its 60-foot-high observation deck offers commanding views of the park, the city, and the mountains.
Along the periphery of the gardens, kids (and playful adults) can test their balance on rope bridges and enjoy other activities in a couple of play structures. Elsewhere in the park, children can frolic in a splash pad and try their hand at gem mining.
For an extra fee, especially adventurous folks can challenge the park’s twin zipline courses. I’m a bit freaked out by the activity (despite my penchant for crazy coasters), but I found the experience enjoyable. What I was not prepared for was the rappelling that was required to descend from two of the zipline’s three tower stations. I had to muster a fair amount of courage to walk to the edge of the platform and drop straight down about 25 feet (tethered with a safety harness of course). Anakeesta’s zipline guides, with their goofy, dry humor, helped calm my nerves.
The closest thing to a traditional theme park attraction is Rail Runner, the park’s mountain coaster (which also requires an additional fee). According to Bentz, it is the only single-rail coaster of its kind in the U.S. She says that she and her husband saw a similar one in Austria and fell in love with the concept.
“The single rail allows the speed and gives you the confidence that you can go hard and go fast,” says Bentz.
For the uninitiated, mountain coasters, also known as alpine coasters, use the natural terrain of hillsides. The single-car vehicles include a brake so that passengers can control the speed. Onboard sensors prevent them from hitting or getting too close to vehicles in front of them.
I had never been on a mountain coaster before, and as a hardened ride warrior, I assumed that I would mostly forego any braking. That plan, however, quickly went out the window when I encountered Rail Runner’s surprisingly steep drops and fairly sharp turns. Without any over-the-shoulder restraints, pumping the brake seemed like the prudent thing to do. The park says the ride has a top speed of 25 mph; it felt much faster to me. The coaster was a scream.
With eight rides in operation, I believe that the Smoky Mountains region in Tennessee has more alpine coasters than anywhere else in the country. There is one more on the way. Anakeesta has announced that it will be building a second coaster, which will be a traditional double-rail model. To be called Hellbender, it is scheduled to open next spring.
It is part of a $34 million expansion that will essentially double the size of the park. As part of the first phase, Anakeesta recently launched Astra Lumina, a nighttime walk that incorporates impressive lighting, projection, sound, and other elements. I recently experienced and wrote about the engaging and evocative multi-sensory experience. Over the next two years, the park will also welcome a Scottish-themed stone village with a play zone for children, a brewery, a bakery, and a restaurant.
Have you been to Anakeesta? Have you been on any mountain coasters?