For travel this summer, it seems, all eyes are on Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. These gateway towns to the country’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains, recently ranked in the top-three summer travel searches on Expedia (behind perennial Florida heavyweights Orlando and Destin).
That’s a high honor for the two formerly sleepy little tourist hamlets just seven miles apart, which have maintained their small-town populations (a little more than 4,000 residents in Gatlinburg and about 6,200 in Pigeon Forge) even as they have expanded over the decades into twin juggernauts of pleasures — from shopping and eating out to amusements, adventures and moonshine tasting.
Why does the world flock here? Perhaps it’s Gatlinburg’s tradition as an alpine-style village, with chalet architecture and shopping villages that look straight out of Bavaria. Or maybe it’s Pigeon Forge’s long-ago ranks of go-cart tracks and other amusements that drew road-tripping families in station wagons. Both towns have doubled down on their attractions since those early days.
In Gatlinburg, the compact downtown thrums with strolling shoppers, and its alpine branding has gone uphill — literally — to outdoor amusement zones, such as Anakeesta and SkyLift Park, overlooking the town.
In Pigeon Forge, the lure of the roadside attraction has evolved into large-scale museums with Vegas-meets-Myrtle Beach architecture — a massive shiplike Titanic Museum keeps company with an equally massive upside-down mansion housing WonderWorks, a pop-science museum for kids. And, of course, Pigeon Forge is home to the incredibly endearing Dollywood, local girl Dolly Parton’s empire of theme park, water park, resort, entertainment, food and mountain-fueled down-home fun.
Gateway towns to grandeur
To take on these towns is to dig into every type of tourist treat, but they wouldn’t exist without the very thing that brought them to life in the first place, which is their role as gateway towns. Their deepest, most resonant raison d’être is what rises just beyond them to the south: the Great Smoky Mountains, gathered up under the protected mantle of national park status since 1940.
The mountains are magical, with their heralded “smoky” mists that nestle among their ridges and cloak their verdant valleys; their myriad streams, rivers and waterfalls providing a near-soundtrack to every corner of the park and its surrounds; and their stunning variegated ridgelines changing colors throughout the seasons.
“The dramatic beauty of the peaks, their towering view scapes from below, lush growth, abundant wildlife, clear rippling streams and views from the mountaintops attract folks from all walks of life,” says Keith Watson, a former biologist with the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who leads birding hikes throughout the area and performs traditional Appalachian music with his wife, Ruth Barber. “You can step back in time in these mountains and glimpse what life might have been like in simpler times.”
So whether you’re stepping into the myriad splendors of Great Smoky Mountains National Park or stepping out at Dollywood, enjoy that feeling of a trip back in time when you visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Here are some tips for planning a visit to the area.
Both hamlets are an easy day’s drive for two-thirds of the population east of the Mississippi River, which means many visitors arrive by car. If you prefer to fly, however, McGhee Tyson Airport near Knoxville, Tennessee, is about an hour’s drive northwest. For larger airports with more flights, Atlanta to the south is about four hours away by car, and Charlotte, North Carolina, is about four hours to the east.
Gatlinburg’s downtown streets can get congested, so smart visitors leave their cars where they’re staying and hop on the bright-orange trolleys of the free Gatlinburg Trolley System, which links major spots with the mass transit center at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. The trolley system also links to a park-and-ride lot at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center (1011 Banner Road), just outside of town.
Pigeon Forge boasts its own system of forest-green trolleys, with five routes that connect the town’s North and South Parkways, Dollywood, the Gatlinburg Welcome Center and Wears Valley Road (all routes begin and end at the trolley station on Old Mill Drive in the Old Mill District).
A note on navigation: In the national park and the surrounding areas outside of the two towns, cell service all but disappears, and navigation (and changes of plans) can be tricky! Pick up an old-fashioned paper route map to make your navigations seamless and perhaps even more fun.
When to go
There is no bad season to visit — both towns bustle with shops, shows, events and festivals year-round, and the national park and the area’s natural areas are beautiful in every season as well. Here some seasonal highlights to consider.
Spring: An abundance of blooms in the Smokies, where there are more than 1,500 varieties of flowering plants, makes the national park a colorful marvel (check out Gatlinburg’s Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage in April for proof). In Pigeon Forge, Dollywood’s opening day is in March, and the Dollywood Flower and Food Festival runs from April through June.
Summer: Now comes the hot and humid weather (expect highs in the mid-80s and above in July and August), making swimming holes, rivers and creeks ideal places to spend outdoor time. Also, local fireflies blink in synchronous rhythm (a mating thing) for several weeks each year, usually between late May and early June (though it varies some). To access the national park’s Elkmont section, where you can watch the fireflies in wonder, you have to sign up for a lottery.
Fall: It’s all about those mind-blowing changing leaves. Plan far ahead to book your lodging, and prepare for slow-moving traffic. Insider tip: Lots of folks aim for October; come in September or November instead, and you’ll still see loads of color but with fewer crowds.
Winter: Both towns dress up to the shining nines for the holidays — Gatlinburg’s mountaintop SkyLift Park goes all out with Lights Over Gatlinburg from early November through Jan. 31 (including lit-up trees that dance!). Not to be outdone, the Pigeon Forge Winterfest features more than 5 million Christmas lights in cheery displays, plus shows, special events and parades. And Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas sparkles with millions of its own lights, special shows and holiday fireworks.
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Where to stay
The Smoky Mountains region offers a broad menu of lodging choices, from cozy cabins to inns, lodges and glamping resorts. There are also many budget chain hotels. Here are some good choices.
Hotels and inns: The Buckhorn Inn, which has been welcoming travelers to Gatlinburg since 1938, is a gracious and romantic bed-and-breakfast with stunning views from its fireplace-graced great room and terrace. Nine guest rooms, seven private cottages and three guesthouses make it an ideal choice for singles, couples or families. Rates from $125
Smack in the center of town and an easy walk from shopping and attractions, the Historic Gatlinburg Inn offers reasonable prices that include breakfast. Rates from $104
Right on the Parkway, the Appy Lodge (named for the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the park) is an affordable alternative with rustic style and a senior discount. Rates from $109
Resorts: Is there anything Dolly Parton can’t do? The answer is no, so in Pigeon Forge give her Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort & Spa a try for all the creature comforts of a larger-scale resort (299 guest rooms, plus pools, spa, on-site restaurants). Rates from $150.
Lodges: LeConte Lodge, the only lodging inside the park, sleeps 60 souls in seven rustic cabins and three multiroom lodges atop the mountain that shares its name. But you’ve got to hike to it, and it’s a steep 5- to 9-mile climb (depending on the trail you choose) that can take most of the day. But what rewards — panoramic views, hearty dinners and breakfasts, and the camaraderie of fellow guests who all earned their spot at the table. Be warned: It books up far in advance, so reserve early. And break in your hiking boots before leaving home. Rates from $162
Cabin rentals: There are loads of cabin rentals, both near the towns or tucked into the surrounding hillsides, and they often come with gorgeous views. Family-owned and operated Stony Brook Cabins has cabins with one to 15 bedrooms, in rustic and chalet styles. You’ll find options with hot tubs, fireplaces and porches with rocking chairs. Guests get a Family Fun Pass that’s good for one free ticket daily to a variety of attractions in both towns, from museums to zip lines and alpine mountain coasters. Rates from about $150
RV camping and glamping: The Ridge Outdoor Resort in Sevierville is a popular spot for RV hookups (about $90). It also has tiny houses (from $170) and canvas tents with comfy beds, private toilets and hot showers (from $159).
Where to eat and drink
A few classic things to do as a tourist in the Smokies: go to a pancake house, buy fudge and try moonshine. Also? Enjoy the variety of relaxed and fun spots to eat, drink and be merry. Then walk it off on a hiking trail, shopping the main streets or racing around Dollywood. Check out these local favorites.
Breakfast: The Pancake Pantry in downtown Gatlinburg has been flipping flapjacks for avid diners since 1960 (go early to avoid the long lines — it opens at 7 a.m. every day). Other great spots for hearty homestyle breakfasts in Gatlinburg are Crockett’s Breakfast Camp (don’t miss the cinnamon rolls) and Little House of Pancakes, a low-key local institution.
In Sevierville, Elvira’s Cafe serves up the Tennessee Haystack, an open-faced biscuit topped with bacon, ham, two eggs your way and homemade sausage gravy.
Lunch and dinner: The blue Tennessee skies are the limit here. In Pigeon Forge, fortify yourself at the Old Mill Pottery House and Cafe with soups, salads, sandwiches and old-school mains like pecan fried chicken, then browse through the charming nearby shops. (The restaurant’s bread is made from the spent grains from the distillery across the road, and everything is served on pottery handmade next door.) Also in Pigeon Forge, Huck Finn’s Catfish is the top place for catfish in the state, according to the readers of Tennessee magazine, and Mama’s Farmhouse fills your table with Southern classics like homemade buttermilk biscuits, country fried steak and banana pudding, all served family-style.
In Gatlinburg, dig into hickory-smoked beef brisket, chicken, pork ribs and pulled pork at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que, or try the rainbow trout at Smoky Mountain Trout House, where the kitchen prepares this tasty catch 10 different ways. Off the beaten path, in Gatlinburg’s marvelous Arts and Crafts Community, the Austrian teahouse-inspired Wild Plum Tea Room is set in a rustic cabin and offers family and seasonal favorites such as lobster pie, not to mention its renowned hot pimento cheese dip.
Breweries: Craft breweries, which have popped up in the Smokies like wildflowers in April, make for great places to relax after an active day or as lunch and dinner destinations. Drop in at the Smoky Mountain Brewery (two locations, in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge) or the Gatlinburg Brewing Company.
Sweets and moonshine: If you come to the Smokies and don’t spend time perusing (and purchasing) delicious, nostalgically packaged fudge, taffy and other confections at Ole Smoky Candy Kitchen in its circa-1950s store in downtown Gatlinburg, then you need to go back and ask for a do-over. As for moonshine, you owe it a try (the commercial stuff won’t kill you like the backcountry homemade stuff). For fun tastings and shopping, try the Ole Smoky Tennessee Distillery (three locations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge) or the Old Forge Distillery and the more upscale Junction 35 Spirits, both in Pigeon Forge.
Things to do
It’s a fork in the road, but a fun one. You can head into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to explore the wide natural world on offer (for our full park guide, go here), or play in either town — with a whole lot to do in both.
Gatlinburg: Start by walking the compact downtown, browsing in its many shops. From there, consider the mountain-style amusements like alpine slides and zip lines at Rowdy Bear Mountain, Anakeesta and SkyLift Park. For some Pigeon Forge-esque fun, check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, where you can ogle rides from hit movies and TV shows including Batman and Ghostbusters, see the Beach Boys’ 1955 Thunderbird, and lots more.
Now grab your car and explore Gatlinburg’s true treasure: the Arts and Crafts Community Loop — an 8-mile country road linking more than 100 shops featuring local arts and crafts. Take your time (you can easily do this all day), shopping for everything from pottery and woodworks to fine leatherwork and specialty foods. Don’t miss the cutting boards and Tennessee Mountain bow knives at Foxcreek Woodworking or the richly glazed rustic pottery at Fowler’s Clay Works. You won’t leave empty-handed … nor should you.
Pigeon Forge: Where to begin? At Dollywood, of course, where you can pay homage to an American treasure and her vision for family-style entertainment. Take in the park’s many shows, enjoy little-kid-friendly areas, go full thrill on the Lightning Rod wood/steel hybrid roller coaster (max speed: 73 mph!), and make time for Craftsman’s Valley to watch leathersmiths, blacksmiths and other regional artisans at work. To understand why everything Dolly Parton touches is pure magic, visit Chasing Rainbows, Dollywood’s museum about her life and career, including a replica of the two-room home where she grew up.
For waterpark fun, add on a visit to Dollywood’s Splash Country, where you can cool off and clamber all over Bear Mountain Fire Tower and its seven slides. If you long for the good old days of raised-track go-carting (or are toting the grandkids), strap on a helmet at Xtreme Racing Center. For something a little slower-paced, get in some Putt-Putt time at Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Golf.
It’s not all amusements in Pigeon Forge. For excellent shopping and strolling, head to the Old Mill Restaurant’s shopping village for the Old Mill General Store, the Old Mill Farmhouse Kitchen, Pigeon River Pottery (the first tourist-based business in Pigeon Forge) and the Old Mill Candy Kitchen. Also, if you’re into cast-iron cookery (and you should be), don’t miss the Lodge Cast Iron Factory Store, the state’s famed cookware company, which has been making skillets, griddles and more since 1896 in South Pittsburg, near Chattanooga.
Dinner shows are big in Pigeon Forge, too. A fun choice: the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, a cornball night of slapstick comedy, over-the-top acting and lots of stunt action. It’s old fashioned as all get-out, and the family will love it.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Remember to check out our guide to America’s most popular national park, but here’s a little advice from Great Smoky Mountains spokesperson Dana Soehn on how not to end up in the park’s biggest tourist lures of Alum Cave Trail, Cades Cove and Clingman Dome. “In general, if you choose a trail not leading to a waterfall or an iconic peak, as soon as you walk a mile into the backcountry, the sights and sounds you experienced along the roadway disappear,” Soehn says. Her further advice, especially during peak periods: “Have two to three ideas that day. If you get to a spot and there’s nowhere to park or it’s really crowded, shift to plan B!”
And remember: In the Smokies, you can hike, bike, saunter, fly-fish, birdwatch, float a creek in a tube, river raft or just sit quietly and watch nature. It’s all here for you, and you’ve made the great decision to base your vacation in its Tennessee gateway towns.
Tracey Minkin is an award-winning writer and editor based in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is the travel editor at Coastal Living magazine, and her writing appears regularly in publications including Food & Wine, Southern Living, Travel + Leisure and Veranda.