Can I tell you a secret? I’m not a huge fan of “pre-manufactured fun“. Which is largely what places like Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, Myrtle Beach, and Las Vegas are known for. But I recently discovered that even a skeptic can find something to love at these destinations!
Living in the Midwest, we’ve known many people that have traveled to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area for family vacations. But never felt like it would be our thing. When a road trip we took to Atlanta earlier this summer had us passing in such close proximity, we decided to spend a couple of nights to check out the area first hand. So come check out this skeptic’s guide to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg!
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A Skeptic’s Guide to Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg
Just outside Pigeon Forge is the town of Sevierville, the birthplace of Dolly Parton. Worth a 10-minute stop for a quick photo with her statue if you’re a fan.
For those unfamiliar with the area, there are a few things to note. Kitsch is the main thing for sale in both towns. Think go-kart venues, quirky museums, old-timey photo places, adventure parks, putt-putt golf, etc.
Pigeon Forge is the bigger city and NOT very walkable/pedestrian-friendly. While a tourist bus is available, we’d read that it took forever so opted to drive when going places.
Gatlinburg is smaller and easily walkable but contains the same kitsch and crowds. Think of Gatlinburg as the Clifton Hill/Niagara Falls of Tennessee while Pigeon Forge is more like the Las Vegas strip.
Things to Do
The Dollywood Resorts are the main entertainment highlight for many people in this area. However, we decided to skip these venues as we were short on time and aren’t really into amusement park rides or country music.
To scratch our “itch for kitsch“, we visited the Titanic Museum. I thought it was actually quite well done. We found the ice-cold water in the iceberg room as well as the simulation of water rushing down one of the staircases to be very effective displays. Seeing original artifacts and hearing survivors’ first-hand accounts of the evening was also very interesting and poignant.
On our second day, we headed over to Gatlinburg first thing and decided to take the SkyLift and walk the suspension bridge for views of the town. This proved to be a good decision as crowds were minimal when we got there but quite pronounced by the time we came back down.
We strolled the town a bit and stopped at the Gatlinburg Brewing Company before heading off to our next stop, Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains and also crosses the Appalachian Trail.
Preferring the natural attractions, we next headed out to Cades Cove Loop. This 11-mile, one-way loop is open to vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians. In 1900 the area was home to about 125 families and over 80 historic buildings remain from those days.
We were even lucky enough to spot not just one, but two, black bears while making our way through Cades Cove!
For evening fun one night we decided to check out The Island in Pigeon Forge. We watched the fountain show and then had dinner at the Timberwood Grill. At this point, we gave in to FOMO and decided to do one of the obligatory moonshine tastings at Ole Smoky Moonshine. And I must admit…it was kind of fun! Enjoyed some live music and explored a few other shops and venues on a thankfully, not-too-crowded evening before heading back to sleep.
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Pigeon Forge and enjoyed its grounds with a lazy river, outdoor fireplaces, etc. The property backs up to the Little Pigeon River, which has a nice walking/biking trail running alongside. The in-house Bistro cafe made for very quick and convenient breakfasts while a parrot in the lobby added a touch of humor – he cried out “ma, ma, ma, mom” near continuously. Obviously in a parody of the many children that visit the area.
Many other places are available. Among hotels, Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort is considered to be the gold standard. For those heavily focused on Dolly theme parks, perks include early admission, etc. For those planning longer stays, mountain cabins abound.
Dining & Shopping
While not exactly a “foodie” destination, you certainly won’t starve to death here. Most venues are fairly homogenous and feature either home-cooking/Southern cooking or American staples like burgers, pizza, and wings. One thing we were surprised by is the fact that virtually NO place takes reservations. The area gets a ton of visitors so plan to eat at either 4 PM, 10 PM or to wait in line for a couple of hours.
Shops are regularly interspersed with attractions and there are several outlet malls in the area. Popular souvenir items (based on the volume of shops we saw) seem to be moonshine, fudge/rock-candy, old-timey photos, moccasins, and cowboy boots.
Until next time…keep cultivating a simple, stylish, and satisfying life!