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Essential Friends + Gateways: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, A Great Gateway To The Smokies
No wonder Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country’s most visited national park. This temperate rainforest, a UN-designated International Biosphere Reserve, is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. And at 800-square-miles, the Smokies is one of the largest natural areas in the East.
That’s a lot of natural beauty—but here’s another side to the Smokies. The gateway town of Pigeon Forge perches on the park’s western doorstep, and it’s one of the top resort towns that people think of when they conjure summer fun in the South. Before or after you’ve explored the park, Pigeon Forge and its amazing assortment of dining, lodging and family-friendly vacation attractions are ready to entertain everyone.
Climate is a winner. Despite the Smokies’ southerly location, Pigeon Forge has a box seat to the park’s four distinct seasons. Luckily, the town’s warmer location below the park really ramps up the warm weather list of options.
The park beckons just minutes away. Grab a lull in the in-town action, and it’s a short drive to the whispering cool of the Canadian Forest Zone. A huge section of the Smokies soars above 4,500 feet to more than 6,600 feet where cool summers and deep-snow winters prevail.
During April and May as warm weather returns, the wildflower show is explosive in Pigeon Forge and lower parts of the park. It’s a perfect time to stroll the town’s inviting, ever-lengthening greenway path along the Little Pigeon River.
High up, spring hasn’t sprung till very late May or June. Imagine—a few minutes away from summertime fun in Pigeon Forge—the beauty of Appalachian Spring continues at the top of the Smokies.
June, July, and August bring the warmest weather—a great time to raft a local river, tube a mountain stream, or take in River Rush, a water coaster new for 2013 at Dollywood’s Splash Country waterpark. Splash Country and Dolly Parton’s primary theme park, Dollywood, lead the list of Pigeon Forge entertainment. By late August, temperatures in the park start to dip toward autumn. Autumn color is everywhere by mid-to-late October.
The Smokies—More Than A Walk in the Woods
For the serious explorer, Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains entire watersheds devoid of trails, but hikers can delve into that inspiring wilderness on even short walks. Anyone visiting the Smokies should seek out easy, inspiring nature trails that lead through towering groves. The tallest trees, often yellow poplar, rise high above the deep soil valleys of the parks’ cove hardwood forests.
The Smokies are the perfect place to take a history hike. Evidence of times past is everywhere—especially from late fall to spring when retreating vegetation reveals walls, steps, and foundations.
Native American lore and legend wrap like mist around these mountains, the once-idyllic realm of the Cherokee. The arrival of later settlers is reflected at sites where interpretive programs inform the lives of those whose early cabins, farms, mills, and later churches and houses still remain. The Smokies is still one of the nation’s premier places to see the iconic, early settler style of structure called the log cabin.
Historic Past, Modern Appeal
Log cabins are still a favorite vacation accommodation in Pigeon Forge and the Smokies. Many visitors opt for the rental cabin or condo, where family meals take center stage.
Family attractions come first here. At nationally-known Dollywood, worth an entire day, the fare runs to down-home and wholesome. Chow down on a fried chicken dinner at Miss Lillian’s Chicken House (named for Dolly’s mother). The entertainment leans to pop and show tunes, but country, gospel, and mountain music are all appropriate to the Southern Appalachians, home of America’s traditional music. Dolly’s a local—and she serves up bonafide insight into mountain culture.
Ride the roller coasters—among the best in the country. There’s the new Wild Eagle winged coaster—or just take a 5-mile scenic trip on a steam train. Mystery Mine is a great ride, an adventure through an abandoned mine that kicks off with a 95-degree, 85-foot plunge into darkness. Thunderhead may be the park’s top thrill ride, a wooden roller coaster that drops riders 100 feet and hits a top speed of 55 mph.
If sinking a whole day into Dollywood doesn’t appeal—board the Titanic! A massive replica of the ship is docked right on the Parkway. Actual artifacts and great interpretation inform the endlessly fascinating tragedy that occurred a century ago last year.
Don’t miss Old Mill Square. The historic cornerstone of Pigeon Forge is an 1830 grist mill on the National Register of Historic Places. Explore the Old Mill, meet the miller, buy freshly ground cornmeal, flour, grits, and more.
Next door, Pottery House Café and Grille, serves a tempting fried green tomato BLT. Then watch potters at Pigeon River Pottery—you just ate on their plates! That explains the Cafe’s menu admonition: “If you go somewhere else to eat, ask them if they bake their own bread. If they say yes, ask them if they grind their own grains. And if they say yes, ask them if they make their own plates!”
Catch a show—there are a dozen theaters in Pigeon Forge with a variety of entertainment. The Comedy Barn is a blast for families; Country Tonite is a solid country revue; and the Smoky Mountain Opry’s name might imply pure country but it’s a large-scale variety production (country, Broadway, gospel, comedy).
Or just ply the Parkway strip—so glittering that overnight guests at LeConte Lodge, high up on a dark summit in the Smokies, can see Pigeon Forge sparkling far below. The main drag through town is populated with thrill rides and restaurants. Where else can you race go karts at midnight! Strolling along the Parkway is a real family treat.
And if you haven’t done all the hiking you wanted to, check out the pool, health club, and bowling at the Pigeon Forge Community Center. It’s open to the public.
Better yet, go take that hike in the park! All the glitz of Pigeon Forge is only icing on the real cake—Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
When it’s time to head into the park for the classic visit to scenic Cades Cove—a truly spectacular and very popular 11-mile, one-way loop—take Wears Valley Road from Pigeon Forge. A left on Lyon Springs Road leads you through a best-kept-secret back door into the park’s rural valley surrounded by summits.
Five Great Overlooked Aspects of Pigeon Forge
No more country cooking!: Delete the focus on down-home fare. Try aptly-named Bullfish Grill for delicious Black Angus beef and seafood served in the mountains—but flown-in fresh.
Grab A View: The Smokies are all about views, so take-off at Wonders of Flight. The new tethered balloon ride floats 400 feet in the air to really show off the scenery. To the east, the entire Great Smoky Mountains jut a jagged vertical mile into the sky!
Wilderness Wildlife Week: Avoid the crowds by visiting midweek—or off-season. The mid-January Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge has a full Saturday to Saturday program of wonderful natural heritage hikes, lectures, and a photography contest. Bring your cross country skis—the gated Clingmans Dome Road makes a great ski tour.
Pose With The Rich and Famous: The fun Hollywood Wax Museum has 105 celebrities, most positioned so you can take your own pictures standing next to them.
Savor Sugarlands: If you do nothing else in the national park, go to the newly renovated Sugarlands Visitors Center on Newfound Gap Road and watch the movie about America’s most visited national park. Not far away, stroll the inspiring Sugarlands Nature Trail where plaques describe the sights, including the ubiquitous icon of the Appalachians—stone fireplaces, standing stark in the misty, streamside woods.
Coming Sunday: Take A Long, Slow Ride Along The Natchez Trace