I’m so thankful to say that I’m no stranger to The Great Smoky Mountains. Every year, the day after Christmas, we pile gear together in my father-in-law’s driveway along with his brother, my brothers-in-law and nephews. We squeeze and stuff everything into two SUVs and head north from Georgia. For the last ten years, I’ve only ever thought of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the surrounding area as our point of entry to the Smokies – for us to spend a few post-holiday days hiking up to Mount Leconte to spend some quiet time in an adirondack shelter on top.
This summer finds me and our family packing up again, this time moving from coastal Virginia to Mount Juliet, Tennessee, just 15 miles east of Nashville and maybe 2 or 3 hours from a place they call Pigeon Forge. It just so happened that last month, during the same week we were scheduled to drive down there and look at houses, they asked if we’d like to come on through for a visit and we thought, why not?
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was founded somewhere around 1820 and its name is a combination of an old Iron Forge built by a man named Isaac Love, along with the amount of passenger pigeons that frequented the banks of the Little Pigeon River. Since then, it’s become a mountain resort city in Sevier County. There’s nothing quite like the drive into town, skirting along the northern edge of the Smokies and winding through the foothills. It was truly one of the most gorgeous and scenic routes we’ve taken during our many road trips across the country.
This little town sits only 5 miles north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After living on the west coast for almost fifteen years, as my wife and I drove into town – we commented on how this looked like a family-friendly Nashvegas. The strip in the center of town is frequented mainly by tourists – hosting a bevvy of gift shops, outlets, amusements rides and parks, as well as restaurants and musical theaters. It’s like each attraction is trying to one-up the competition with who can have the most delicious food, cheapest dinner, or most outrageous decor.
We stopped just off the main strip to pick up our keys from the Eagles Ridge cabin rental company. YES – if you’re this close to the mountains, you’ve gotta get a cabin!
We checked into the Hillside Retreat, which is just outside of the action, lofted high enough in the hills that we had peace and quiet at the end of a long day.
The kids were completely over the moon, each with their own bedroom, a pool table, arcade and hot tub – it’s a miracle that they even came back to Virginia with us.
Our first day in town found us a bit road-weary, so we found comfort in diving into those beds made of old oak timbers. Day two began with me being woken up by my wife and kids enjoying an early morning soak in the patio jacuzzi. After listening to the birds chirping and fog coming off of the top of that heated water, I found myself inspired to join.
By mid-morning, I had pulled the kids aside and let them know one of the main reasons we were there – Dollywood. I definitely underestimated how excited MY WIFE was going to be… her “absolute favorite” park of all time. Bar… set.
The park initially opened in 1961, but it wasn’t until around 1986, that Dolly Parton partnered with the Herschend Brothers to bring this amusement park (and now Dollywood’s Splash Country) to life. It typically sees over 3 million visitors per year… and in case you’re wondering, 3 million is also approximately the number of times my wife made the kids listen to ‘9 to 5’ on the way there.
Although not all are featured in this post, Dollywood is organized into 10 themed areas: Showstreet, Rivertown Junction, Craftsman’s Valley, The Village, Country Fair, Timber Canyon, Wilderness Pass, and Jukebox Junction reflect the historical eras and culture of East Tennessee.
We arrived at the park around 10am and it took us a few hours to loop our way all the way up, around and down the east side of the park. Keep in mind, we were tugging four kids along with us and had it not been for our youngest (only a year old) reaching her expiration in the sun – we could’ve stayed until closing! There were so many little stands and places to grab a bite – who could turn down French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy? There’s also a spot to fish out your own oyster and they’ll put the pearl into jewelry… or you can stop and have glass blowers create a one-of-a-kind ornament for you based on glass colors you choose. It’s really an amazing family area.
After Dollywood, we ventured onto the main drag in Pigeon Forge and hit up Mel’s Original Diner – an old school joint that was head-to-toe polished chrome.
This place had, hands down, one of the best diner burgers I’ve had in years. The service was amazing and the boys got to share a float on the way out…
There are so many places up and down the strip in Pigeon Forge – we hit as many as we could. The ‘Track’ found us racing go-karts and shooting one another on the water from inner tubes. Charlie found it ridiculously funny to shoot me in the pants while I was on the sidelines wearing the baby… cut to Dad walking around with a five-year old asking “why’d you pee your pants dad, huh?” and giggling nonstop for the next hour.
We did some old-fashioned gem mining, with Ava finding her very own Ruby. The gang visited Paula Deen’s Restaurant, rode the Ferris Wheel, partook in a King Tut virtual escape room challenge, took a run through the crime museum Alcatraz East and made our way through a laser maze Bourne-style. We ate Italian food, marble slab creamery and one of the highlights of our trip was a place called Wonderworks – that is an AMAZING place to take children. They ran through the place, experiencing everything from rock climbing to lying on a bed of nails…
As my wife and I rounded out our 3-day trip, we talked about how much fun this little town was. There were things that we didn’t get to see and a few others under construction which has us thinking about setting course for this little gem nestled in the foothills of the Smokies once again this fall… after we are officially TENNESSEE RESIDENTS this month!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This was a sponsored post on behalf of the Tourism Board of Pigeon Forge, however, the good times were all ours! For more information on Pigeon Forge, check them out HERE, on Facebook or Instagram!