It’s easy to see why Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, is a perennial favorite for group tours. Exceptional attractions — all operated by tourism professionals — lie next to the natural beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My visit to Pigeon Forge came in the spring, but any season is a good time to experience the city and the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I took a Foothills Parkway Missing Link Van Tour on my first day in Pigeon Forge and was rewarded with gorgeous mountain views. Although this 1.6-mile stretch of the parkway was authorized in 1934, funding problems meant it was not completed until 2018.
“I didn’t think I would see it completed in my lifetime,” said Leon Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
Essentially, the missing link is built on the side of a mountain and has a series of nine bridges, which added to the project’s complexity and cost. Sweeping mountain vistas at several scenic overlooks took my breath away.
Established in 1934 to preserve the southern Appalachian Mountains, the 500,000-acre park is a treasure trove of biodiversity. More than 800 miles of hiking trails in the park lead to bubbling streams, waterfalls, wildflowers, old cabins, barns and gristmills.
Dollywood, Tennessee’s most visited commercial attraction, is in Pigeon Forge. I was on hand in spring 2019 for the opening of Wildwood Grove, a $37 million expansion and the largest in the amusement park’s history. Dolly Parton said the daydreams and imaginations from her childhood were used to create the 11 experiences at Wildwood Grove.
“I do have a wild imagination,” Parton acknowledged in a question-and-answer session with my group, the Midwest Travel Journalists Association. The personable, down-to-earth entertainer said she hopes to write and perform more inspirational music to counter all the hatred in the world.
Parton added she was honored that Dollywood provides fun for visitors and jobs for area residents. “I feel very blessed so many good things come because of Dollywood,” she said.
The Parkway, the thoroughfare that goes through Pigeon Forge, is lined with restaurants, shops and amusements galore. Try Smoky Mountains Alpine Coaster or get science with a twist at WonderWorks. New attractions are always popping up, like Pigeon Forge Snow and Pink Jeep Tours.
Along the parkway is a huge building shaped like the ill-fated RMS Titanic. This is the Titanic Museum Attraction, which shares the story of the famous ship’s only voyage. Mary Kellogg, president, COO and co-owner, said the knowledge and passion of the attraction’s crew, or employees, make a visit meaningful. Groups can take advantage of the secret dining room, like my group did, before a tour.
Theaters in Pigeon Forge feature country music, Broadway tunes, comedy and magic. Members of my group took in Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud, Paula Deen’s Lumberjack Feud Show & Adventure, Country Tonite and Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
The Island in Pigeon Forge is a 23-acre development featuring dining, fountains, shopping and the 200-foot-tall Great Smoky Mountain Wheel.
Tour groups will never go hungry in Pigeon Forge. At Local Goat, everything is handmade — even the ketchup. I ate super-good meals at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que and Mama’s Farmhouse, part of the Johnson family of restaurants in the Smokies. The corn fritters at The Old Mill Restaurant are mouth-watering, as is everything served there. The gristmill, powered by the Little Pigeon River, has been in operation since 1830.
Distilled spirits also go back a long way in east Tennessee — think moonshine. But now legal distilleries are open in the Smokies. I stopped for tastings at Old Forge Distillery and the Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine Barn at The Island in Pigeon Forge.
“We do pretty well in every competition we enter,” said Keener Shanton, head distiller at Old Forge Distillery. He crafts small-batch spirits, including 1830 Original, moonshine made from pure mountain spring water and fresh-ground grains. Flavored moonshines — Chocolate, French Toast, and Coffee — are inspired by recipes from The Old Mill Kitchens.
Our guide at Ole Smoky Barn said the art of distilling has come a long way from backwoods Appalachia. Apple Pie Moonshine, made with apple juice, ground cinnamon and other spices, was the company’s first flavored moonshine. Now there are more than 15 flavors.
Worth a stop is Country Candy Kitchen. Owner Howey Reagan said taffy is the most popular candy. A 100-year-old machine wraps 70 to 80 pieces of taffy a minute.
For more information, contact the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism at 800-251-9100 or go to mypigeonforge.com