Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg offer many attractions to visitors on the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
By Pam Windsor
Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains area has been a popular vacation destination for decades, hosting millions of visitors every year. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most-visited national park and third most-visited park site in the United States in 2014, behind Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Known for its lush forests, scenic waterfalls, and abundant wildlife, the park offers camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and scenic auto and bike tours.
The area’s natural beauty remains its biggest draw, but on its outskirts are Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville — little towns with a wide range of attractions that add to the mix.
Country music shows, Dollywood theme park, ziplining, miniature golf, museums, wineries, shops, and restaurants — these just begin to scratch the surface of what’s in store. The best advice for first-time visitors is to do lots of research to help categorize and pare down the list of options.
Gatlinburg calls itself “the Gateway to the Smokies,” and it is. If you’re coming from the north or west, you’ll drive through town on your way to the national park. Just motoring down the main street (U.S. 441) reveals numerous gift and specialty shops, restaurants with Southern-style cooking, and a variety of attractions.
The Great Smoky Arts & Craft Trail also can be a feast for your eyes, as this eight-mile loop of shops, studios, and galleries with independent vendors and artists features a wide range of crafts and artwork.
A large and intriguing complex visible from the main street of Gatlinburg is Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Stop, park, and head inside to see 1 million gallons of water in tanks and aquariums with thousands of rare and exotic sea creatures, including 12-foot sharks. Visitors meander through tunnels as sharks and other aquatic wildlife swim overhead and along both sides. Another smaller tube with a much different design allows kids and adults alike to crawl underneath, then pop up to be almost face-to-face with African black-footed penguins. It’s a rare treat to see the birds, especially so close.
Gatlinburg is home to Ole Smoky Moonshine, one of the top-selling moonshine brands in the United States. The distillery opened in Gatlinburg in 2010, and then added another store in Pigeon Forge. Moonshine played an important role in Tennessee’s history. Master distiller Justin King explained that through the years, poorer families in some mountain communities relied on moonshine, even though illegal, as a way to feed their families.
“I had a great-grandmother who would say, ‘Am I going to take this bushel of corn and make five dollars off of it, or am I going to take this bushel of corn and make liquor and make 20 dollars off of it?’” he said.
And while it’s legal now, Ole Smoky still uses an “original” recipe handed down through generations. “It’s part of our family tradition here,” King explained. “Everybody has their own particular way of making it.”
The distillery now produces a couple dozen moonshine flavors (with Apple Pie being the favorite) and offers free tastings to anyone 21 or over. Drinkers and nondrinkers alike congregate outside on benches and rocking chairs to listen to live bluegrass music, another traditional aspect of Tennessee mountain culture.
Pigeon Forge is between Sevierville and Gatlinburg. Country singer Dolly Parton was born in Sevierville (she’s honored with a statue in the center of town), but she built her Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge. A museum in the park called Chasing Rainbows houses Parton memorabilia, including her “coat of many colors,” the subject of one of her signature songs. The coat is also the basis for a recent NBC movie based on her life. Her museum tells the story of the little girl who grew up poor, but had a gift of music and a loving family that encouraged her to follow her dreams. Dollywood offers rides, shops, crafts, and restaurants. For 2016, it has announced it will unveil the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster. Dollywood opens for the 2016 season on March 19.
Other fun stops — especially for kids — in Pigeon Forge include a Dollywood water park, plus indoor skydiving, miniature golf, go-karts, and laser tag. For everyone, it’s a fine place to shop, with more than 80 outlet stores at Pigeon River Crossings. And comedy and musical shows offered in this area include the Country Tonite Theatre, Smoky Mountain Opry, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, the Lumberjack Feud, and The Comedy Barn Theater.
Sevierville is farthest from the national park borders, but it has many important intersections that keep it full of travelers going to and from the area. Outdoor activities include the longest zipline over water in the United States, and a NASCAR SpeedPark with eight go-kart tracks.
Fans of souped-up vehicles will enjoy a visit to Floyd Garrett’s Muscle Car Museum. A former truck driver, Garrett collected cars as a hobby for many years. Most of the museum’s beefed-up autos from the 1950s through the ‘70s are on loan from other enthusiasts.
“If you know anything about cars,” noted Garrett, who still spends most days at his museum, “you know this isn’t the average run-of-the mill stuff you saw on the street back in those days. It’s rare, with big engines and high horsepower.”
One car on display, a red 1962 Corvette, has never been driven. It’s easy to see why the cars at the museum are collectively worth more than $8 million.
Sevierville celebrates the apple at the Apple Barn Village on Apple Valley Road. Two restaurants will tempt the taste buds, while at the Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store, you’ll find apple butter and apple dessert mixes (plus much more). The Apple Barn Winery offers tastes of a variety of wines made with fruit grown on the premises.
Sevierville also is home to Sky High Air Tours. History buffs with an appreciation for aviation will especially enjoy a ride in a 1927 biplane with pilot Marc Hightower. There’s something pretty special about flying in the open air with the engine so close; you not only hear it, but feel it vibrate in your chest. Hightower communicates through headsets during the flight as he points out some of the sights to passengers. To him, there’s no greater experience than flying in a vintage airplane.
“If you get in a regular airplane, you’re inside. In this, you’re sitting out in the open,” he said. “And the fact that it was built in 1927, you’re not just flying in a replica, you’re flying in a piece of history. There’s not a lot of these still flying.”
Hightower flies out of the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport in Sevierville from May through October.
Drive about 14 miles east of Sevierville on U.S. 411 to reach spectacular caves called Forbidden Caverns. Join a group tour of the underground maze to see the many formations and hear stories about the cave’s history. Indian artifacts were found near the natural entrance; researchers from the University of Tennessee said some items dated back to the pre-Cherokee Woodland Indians, who roamed about a thousand years ago. The items included grinding tools, flint mapping tools, arrowheads, and pottery pieces.
The cave, open April through November, was also a natural hiding spot for moonshiners, who used the underground stream to make their beverage. Our guide said that industrious Tennessee folk built a still in the cave, piece by piece. It was up and running in 1919 and kept a secret until 1943.
The copper still is gone now, but pieces of wood, barrel bands, busted jars, and even an old lantern on the ceiling remain.
With so much to offer, perhaps the best part of a trip to the Smoky Mountains is being able to pick and choose what to see and do and design that tailor-made vacation. Rest assured there will be plenty of things left over to put on the list for next time.
Visit My Smokies
(Sevier County Tourism; encompasses all three towns)
This site has links to campgrounds in the area. There are so many that it’s best to check your campground directory and the RV Marketplace, found at FMCA.com and in the January and June issues of FMC.
Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau
Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism
Sevierville Convention & Visitors Bureau