I truly had no idea what to expect from Astra Lumina at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Few people did. After all, the enchanted night walk is the first of its kind in the United States.
At one bend in the trail, I could look down at the busy lights of downtown Gatlinburg. The view was nice, but it also reminded me that I had left reality far below. I much preferred the Pandora-like fantasy world glowing softly around me.
My feet were doing the walking, but my brain was definitely on a journey.
Returning to Gatlinburg
As a kid visiting Gatlinburg on family trips in the 1980s, I wandered the strip in wide-eyed wonder. The sheer abundance of miniature golf options and ninja-weapon stores was more than a young mind could handle. Fudge samples and Skee-Ball were ubiquitous. What else do you need?
Inevitably, decades passed as they’re inclined to do, and my interests changed.
I’ll admit I’m still mesmerized by all the moving parts of the taffy-making machines. But for many adult years, I relegated Gatlinburg to a place only for eating and sleeping between hikes in the mountains—the real attraction.
In 2021, I wrote about my three-day visit to Gatlinburg, the first in a while, and how the town was blooming.
Sure, you’ll still find plenty of T-shirt shops and, if needed, a sword or two, but opportunities to experience art and world-class entertainment keep adding up. You’ve just got to do the right things.
Now, thanks to Anakeesta, Gatlinburg can add one more major entry to its growing repertoire of creative attractions.
Astra Lumina, the first Lumina Night Walk in the United States, opened on Friday (October 21, 2022). I was blessed to be among the first to experience it!
Previewing Astra Lumina in Gatlinburg
One thing I noticed during my visit to Gatlinburg last year is how Anakeesta likes to “go big.” The media preview party for Astra Lumina was yet another example. No corners get cut atop the mountain.
I stepped off the chair lift and right into a buzz of activity. A band was rocking Fleetwood Mac songs as the setting sun illuminated fall colors on the ridgelines around us. The views were as good as the food and music. An open bar served craft beer created by Blackhorse Brewery in honor of Astra Lumina.
My world-traveled ears perked up when I overheard some guests speaking French. I had the sense that something big was coming.
What Is the Astra Lumina Night Walk?
Let’s start with the most straightforward answer. Astra Lumina at Anakeesta is an “enchanted night walk” on a mile-long trail through a living forest that has been augmented with story, sound, light, and a little theatrical fog.
Astra Lumina is the 15th Lumina Night Walk created by Moment Factory, a Canadian company that designs these multimedia experiences all over the world. With much planning and effort, Anakeesta brought the first Lumina to the United States.
Although Astra Lumina may be an add-on experience to the mountaintop park, it certainly wasn’t an afterthought. Planning for the night walk began before Anakeesta opened in 2017!
What Does “Astra Lumina” Mean?
Astra Lumina can mean “starlight” or “the lights from stars.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “astral” is defined as: of, relating to, or coming from the stars. “Lumina” in Latin can translate to: the lights.
All that sounds great. But as a curious, sentient being, you’re probably wondering: What is Astra Lumina really like?
What Is Astra Lumina Like?
This is where I’d love to show you a video. Or photo. Or anything to get me out of the grueling task of trying to describe something so sensory.
The problem, however, is that photography halts the lights and animations of Astra Lumina, making the scene look like part of some bizarre, outdoor rave.
Meanwhile, video can’t possible replicate the panorama of sound from Astra Lumina’s speakers hidden throughout the forest. I knew the night walk would be visual, but I completely underestimated the auditory experience.
The custom-created score is moving and powerful. Several journalists, myself included, agreed they could listen to it as they worked. That said, I believe the dynamic, unexpected sound effects are what really alert your brain on the walk.
Imagine: You’re slowly strolling a trail awash in the recognizable soundtrack of the Great Smoky Mountains. Crickets chirp. Trees groan. Leaves rustle as if something is moving in the bushes.
Were the sounds natural, or were they a product of expertly placed covert speakers? After all, I did hear plenty of crickets chirping and leaves rustling on my nine-mile Appalachian Trail hike the next day.
I’m sure forest animals do occasionally wander into the Astra Lumina experience for a free show. And they probably leave with wide eyes while wondering how they’re going to describe what they saw to their friends.
I can relate.
Glowing orbs light the way as laser fireflies hover in the fog and trees. Just as your mind attempts to wander, as minds often do, an unanticipated wooden creak or the sound of birds flushing causes you to snap back to the present.
Mindfulness is mandatory. That’s a good thing because something bizarre is probably waiting around the next corner. Sometimes it’s shaped like a UFO that cycles as if heating up under intense effort.
Some Things to Know
Astra Lumina will be a permanent installation at Anakeesta. It will close in December and reopen in spring.
The trail is just short of a mile. You’ll find some benches strategically placed along the way. Although the walk is easy, the pebbly path isn’t ADA accessible.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that more than 500 trees and bushes were planted for Astra Lumina.
My Tips for Enjoying Astra Lumina in Gatlinburg
- Pace Yourself: Go slowly! The walk should take around 45 minutes, meaning your speed should be 1 mph or less. Don’t rush yourself or feel rushed just because other people begin walking.
- Watch Full Cycles: Each named zone runs on a roughly 4-minute loop. Make sure you’ve seen at least an entire cycle, but I suggest lingering until the tingles begin to fade and you’re ready to move on.
- Go Early: You’re asked to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled time for Astra Lumina, but go even earlier! Check out the views and many other things to do at Anakeesta.
- Use Your Eyes: We’ve been conditioned to reflexively dig for our phones during unique experiences. Photos (without flash) and video are allowed on the walk. But here’s the thing: Capturing the real essence of the Astra Lumina experience can only be done with your human eyes and ears. You’ll create a better memory by absorbing each moment rather than trying to capture footage to force upon coworkers later.
Zones on the Night Walk
Actually, I prefer to think of them as chapters. Here are the definitions from Anakeesta’s website:
- Astra Archway: Step inside the starlight and enter the unknown
- Falling Stars: Open your heart to the arrival of the stars
- Cosmic Choir: Experience a symphony of fallen stars
- Stardust Rays: Discover a place where stars and nature are one
- Stellar Visions: Take off on a journey to uncover the origin of the stars
- Celestial Trail: Immerse in the flowing force of astral energy
- Astral Genesis: Witness the regeneration of the stars
- Rise of the Stars: Look up to the sky as the stars return to their rightful home
How to See Astra Lumina in Gatlinburg
Astra Lumina is located inside Anakeesta in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Once in downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll take a four-person chair lift, Chondola cabin, or an open-air truck to the top of the mountain. All options are included in the ticket.
Adventurous travelers should choose the chair lift for a thrilling ride and possibility of seeing a bear below!
For now, Anakeesta offers a $50 combination ticket that can be booked online. General admission (adult) to Anakeesta costs $35, so the combination ticket makes Astra Lumina a $15 add-on. In my opinion, experiential purchases are even more satisfying than spending money on T-shirts and ninja weapons.
Book online so you can choose from the available times for your Astra Lumina experience. Trying to add on Astra Lumina once already inside Anakeesta is chancing a time slot you don’t prefer, or worse, that it will be sold out.
- More details can be found on Anakeesta’s official website for Astra Lumina.
The Best Part of the Astra Lumina Experience
Hands down, my favorite was the Stardust Rays part of the walk, described as a place where “stars and nature are one.”
I wasn’t alone. Everyone I spoke to at the after-party confirmed Stardust Rays was also their favorite. The Moment Factory team has come up with a smoke-laser-sound combination that somehow knocks on the brain’s door of perception without the need to ingest molecules, legal or otherwise.
If this is what Ken Kesey’s 1960s were like, I’m definitely building a time machine. Until that happens, I’ll just plan to linger at Stardust Rays longer the next time I visit Astra Lumina.
In the spirit of transparency: I was invited by Anakeesta as a media guest for the opening of Astra Lumina in Gatlinburg. Although I wasn’t compensated, my park entrance and accommodation were provided.
Unless specified otherwise, all photos are my pitiful attempts to capture the Astra Lumina experience.