Welcome to another in a Simply Appalachian series designed to help you plan a complete family trip. Each month, we choose an Appalachian destination ideal for family fun. We’ll feature the things to see, share and savor, as well as the nearby places to shop and stay with your family. We hope our guidance will help you find new, exciting and perhaps out-of-the-way places to try. Happy Trails!
Dollywood and Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge and nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee, offer so much for visitors to do that it’s often difficult to pick where to spend your time. You have to navigate around the lines of cars and gawkers clogging up the roads throughout the area — and forget about a slow season; there isn’t one. Guests come for the water rides in the summer and the Christmas parades in the winter.
Dollywood, by far the biggest ticketed attraction in Tennessee, attracts more than 3 million visitors a year. When the park opened in 1961, however, it was known as “Rebel Railroad,” which promised visitors a real Appalachian experience. The main attraction was a coal-powered steam train that took tourists through the mountains.
Superstar country singer Dolly Parton, who hails from Sevier County, became part owner of the amusement park in 1986 and christened it Dollywood. Since then, it has doubled in size and exploded in popularity. New attractions open every year.
While you and your family may look forward to the thrill rides and spectacular shows that take place in Pigeon Forge, you may enjoy spending a little time outdoors, taking in the wonders of man and nature. Your family can see some of the free amazing views and attractions in the area, such as:
- Cades Cove is only about 26 miles from Pigeon Forge — in the mountains, that’s considered just around the bend. An auto tour was created for visitors so you can get the most out of the experience. The driving loop is an 11-mile road that takes you through some of the most gorgeous mountain views. You’ll find plenty of opportunities to stop for pictures of the scenery and wildlife.
- A life-size Dolly Parton statue sits obscurely in downtown Sevierville, outside on the lawn in front of the Sevier County Courthouse. Step away from the crowds at the theme park to see the superstar in a more natural pose as she sits barefoot on a rock holding a guitar. Rubbing the statue is considered good luck.
- See the Harrisburg Covered Bridge that’s located just outside Pigeon Forge. Built in 1875, the bridge crosses the Little Pigeon River. It’s only one of four remaining covered bridges in the state. Give your family a break from the crowds and a history lesson at the same time.
Pigeon Forge and nearby Gatlinburg can seem like mindless pockets of pleasure designed to separate you from your money, but the area offers plenty of free, educational or adventurous options to share with your family as well:
- On the day you devote to the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountain views at Cades Cove, stop by the Sugarlands Visitor Center inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Learn a little about the mountains by watching a free 20-minute movie about the park. Be sure to check out the many natural history exhibits at the center.
- Share some first-hand experiences with nature by rafting down the Big Pigeon River with your family. If you want a wild ride, white water rafting companies throughout the area offer exciting trips that cover class III and IV rapids.
- Get up off the ground and take an amazing ride over Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the grand rivers and mountains that make up the area. Book a helicopter ride from one of the local tour companies. They can take you and your family on rides ranging from 8 to 100 miles, depending on your budget and your time.
You won’t lack unique restaurants to choose from on your trip to Pigeon Forge. Some of the rare and memorable include:
- Try the all-you-can-eat catfish dinner at Huck Finn’s Catfish on the south side of Pigeon Forge. You can’t miss it because of the giant 15-foot catfish statue that rises from the front entrance. Family-owned and operated, they’ve been serving authentic Southern fare since 1965.
- If you’re going to be out driving for the views, you’re already away from the crowds. Go just 40 miles outside of Pigeon Forge to the Bush Brothers Baked Beans Factory in Dandridge. You can catch a film of those “beautiful baked beans,” savor a meal in the Bush Family Café, learn what your weight is in beans and even snap a photo with Duke, the Bush family dog.
- Grab a handcrafted microbrew at the Smoky Mountain Brewery in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. Both East Tennessee brewing company locations serve a well-rounded menu of pub food that includes their own special wet wings, subs, grinders and fried pickles. In addition to their extensive beer selections, they’ve got quite an interesting burger menu as well as a number of steak entrees.
The temptation to pick up souvenirs in Pigeon Forge is endless, so hold on to your credit card or set yourself a budget before you leave so you won’t buy every kitschy googah that catches your fancy (unless of course you want to). And while the outlet malls also may call you to spend, maybe you can find a few unique treasures at these shops:
- It’s only open in Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but the Great Smokies Flea Market is an experience worth the effort. You’ll find local vendors and even many local farmers selling their wares in the more than 200,000-square-foot market.
- The Smoky Mountain Candy Makers have been making taffy the old-fashioned way in Pigeon Forge since 1973. Founder Howard Reagan taught his kids the mountain heritage tradition, and they run the store today.
- Tennessee has a rich history in arts and crafts, and the Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail, established in 1937, is an ideal place to see them all. On the 8-mile loop just outside of Gatlinburg, you’ll find local artisans making everything from scrimshaw, silver and stained glass to baskets, pottery and candles.
You’ll find all the chain hotels and cheap motels you could ever want in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. You can stay at the resorts and theme parks, too. But if you want a slightly different vacation this year, check out one of these out-of-the-way options:
- Treat your entire family to a few nights in an actual mountain home through an agency such as Old Mill Lodging. They have everything from private 6-bedroom homes that sleep up to 16, to 2-bedroom condos with all the modern amenities for up to six.
- Even in the dead of summer, you can get into the Christmas spirit at the Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge. It’s a Bavarian-style Inn that serves a first-rate free breakfast and is decorated year-round with a 12-foot tree and Christmas garland. A singing Santa entertains on Thursday and Saturday evenings.
- If your family would enjoy adding a little horseback riding into the trip, book a stay at the Twin Valley Bed & Breakfast Horse Ranch. In addition to riding, you can help care for other animals at the B&B, including bunnies and llamas. Stay in a private cabin or join others in the main lodge.
Whether you are regular visitor or new to the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg areas, you can always find something new or something old that you never experienced before. And the trip to the area is almost as good as the many adventures you’ll find when you get there. So join the hoards at the big draws and then take a day to check out a few of the off-the-beaten track highlights. Enjoy!