Full of adventures both familiar and new, Pigeon Forge offers family fun in the Great Smoky Mountains
It’s like visiting a cousin who resides in a distant city. When you first meet, you recognize the bone structure, the eye color, the body type; this person has an essence that’s eerily familiar, yet the voice, mannerisms and personal style are delightfully new. You spend a few days together, swapping stories and discovering much in common even as you cover territory that couldn’t be more different from your daily experience.
For a Grand Strand resident, a visit to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, brings breathtaking scenery, outdoor adventures, unique entertainment, and also an echo of home.
Pigeon Forge and the surrounding area, which includes Gatlinburg and Sevierville, are settled within the Great Smoky Mountains, a majestic backdrop that defines the area and begs to be explored. Visitors have an array of options for scratching that itch, including hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, zip lining or canoeing. Exploring as much of this country as possible by foot, by horse or by water yields endless rewards.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free of charge and offers more than 80 trails featuring panoramic views, waterfalls, caves, rock formations, indigenous flora and/or historic artifacts. On all trails, be on the lookout for bear, deer, wild turkey and any of more than 120 species of birds. For a personalized and memorable experience, take a trek with Steve Ellis, owner of hikethesmokies.com; it’s like hiking with Google, only with more empathy and insight.
Big Rock Dude Ranch offers equestrian adventures for riders of any level, with trails that rise and dip through the national park. After dismounting, hang around the ranch a while to try out gem mining, ATV riding, fishing in the stocked pond or feeding animals at the petting zoo.
For a truly exhilarating experience, ride the rapids of the Pigeon River with Rafting in the Smokies, preferably with Chad, who mixes river trivia and information with stories that add context and entertainment to the trip. The guides exude fun and adventure even as they instruct and ensure guests’ safety, so by the time rafters arrive downriver, having tackled Class III–IV rapids, they’re seasoned and exhausted from laughing as much as paddling. The facility also offers zip lining, ropes courses and a rock climbing wall for a robust outdoor adventure. In the fall months, trips are weather dependent, so call ahead for availability.
While the area’s outdoor activities are far removed from the Grand Strand’s Lowcountry landscape, the tourist-focused entertainment is great fun with a sense of the familiar. With the iconic figures of Dolly Parton (a native of Sevierville), Jimmy Buffet and Paula Deen backing some of the larger attractions, the area will produce a bit of deja vu among Myrtle Beach residents, yet unique experiences lurk on nearly every corner.
Pigeon Forge Snow may be the most exclusive experience in the area—it’s the only indoor snow tubing facility in the country. In a strangely contradictory physical sensation, riders wearing T-shirts and shorts climb on inner tubes and race down lanes covered in real snow at 35 mph. The thrills and the flakes are authentic in this place, and in the Snow Play room, snowballs fly and snowmen appear in an environment novel to all, but especially to us beach types.
The area is a land of shows and dinner attractions covering just about any taste, and Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud is particularly suited for the land’s history and legacy. Teams of award-winning lumberjacks compete in events including axe throwing, crosscut saw, log roll and chainsaw carving as the audience in the outdoor arena cheers on their respective team and earns “lumberjack cookies”— circular 2-inch segments of trees branded with the show’s logo.
The Island is the premiere entertainment complex at Pigeon Forge, featuring restaurants, rides and attractions such as the Alcatraz East Crime Museum and 7D Dark Adventure Ride. A retail highlight is Emery’s 5 & 10, the oldest family-owned five and ten in America where nostalgia meets cutting-edge gadgetry and visitors will likely find Ron Emery himself, the delightful third-generation owner and operator.
Thrill seekers will want to reserve a day to visit Dollywood, featuring the rides, music and entertainment of a full-scale theme park. The fall brings Dollywood’s Harvest Festival with the Southern Gospel Jubilee, visiting world-class artisans, and Great Pumpkin Luminights, with thousands of carved and illuminated jack-o-lanterns creating a spooky yet family-friendly experience.
For a glimpse of old Pigeon Forge, visit Old Mill, home of one of the oldest continually operating water-power mills in the country. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the area includes the full history of the mill as well as shops selling pottery, jewelry and housewares made with classic Tennessee craftsmanship.
Pigeon Forge offers an array of dining options, but a few standouts are not to be missed. In the Island complex, Timberwood Grill serves up hearty dishes such as beef brisket, ribs, meatloaf and chicken potpie in a mountain lodge atmosphere. Local Goat offers farm-to-table new American cuisine with locally sourced ingredients and an extensive craft beer selection, and Pigeon Forge Deli has the goods for a midday sandwich or coffee stop.
Staying in a cabin in this mountain town is the best way to go, and Eagle’s Ridge offers a wide variety of options nestled in a wooded area replete, in the fall, with dazzling color. Cabins range from one to nine bedrooms and include amenities such as hot tubs, pool tables and spacious decks perfect for wildlife sighting and evening relaxation in rocking chairs.
For a fall adventure that’s simultaneously brand new and curiously familiar, Pigeon Forge is the perfect destination for Grand Strand-area families.
Photographs courtesy of Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism; Photographs courtesy of The Dollywood Company and The Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism; Photographs courtesy of Rafting in the Smokies and Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism; Photographs courtesy of The Island and Paula Deen’s LumberJack Feud