Just 7 miles south of Pigeon Forge on U.S. 321 is Gatlinburg, which borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For more information, contact the Department of Tourism at 811 E. Parkway (tel. 800/267-7088 or 865/436-2392; www.gatlinburg.com).
Gatlinburg is a great place to base yourself if you're interested in being near Great Smoky Mountains National Park and want to enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities. As for the town itself, well, despite an aerial tramway/amusement park calling itself Ober Gatlinburg (tel. 865/436-5423; www.obergatlinburg.com; admission $9.50 adults, $6.50 ages 7-11) with admittedly superb views of the surrounding mountains, this is no little Switzerland. Though not as strip-malled as Pigeon Forge, crowded Gatlinburg is still lined with hotels, restaurants, and other tourist traps.
Most of Gatlinburg's attractions line the Parkway (U.S. 441). In addition to the rides and views available at the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park, the Space Needle Family Fun Center (tel. 865/436-4629; www.gatlinburgspaceneedle.com) offers a great overview of the town and a fun trip for $7.25 adults, $5 seniors, and $3 children (free for 5 and under with paid adult admission). Believe it or not, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies (tel. 888/240-1358; www.ripleysaquariumofthesmokies.com) isn't the most impressive aquarium you'll ever see, but it can be a fun way to spend an afternoon. One-day admission is $22 for ages 12 and up, $12 for children 6 to 11, and $5.55 for children ages 2 to 5. The museum is open 365 days a year.
Gatlinburg is packed with chain hotels and motels. All the big names, such as Days Inn, Comfort Inn, and Fairfield Inn, have links here. Or try the Greystone Lodge, 559 Parkway (tel. 800/451-9202 or 865/436-5621; www.greystonelodgetn.com), where the standard motel rooms come with balconies overlooking a stream and free breakfast ($75-$145 double; one- and two-bedroom cottages $125-$225).
For more upscale accommodations with spectacular mountain views, book a room or suite at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, 961 Campbell Lead Rd. (tel. 865/430-8030 or 866/30-LODGE [305-6343]; www.buckberrycreek.com). Dubbed "The Great Camp of the Smokies," this elegant, Adirondack-style retreat and restaurant opened in 2005. Rates range from $200 to $360.
For hearty traditional dishes, such as moonshine chicken and barbecue ribs, try the Park Grill Steakhouse 1100 Parkway (tel. 865/436-2300; www.parkgrillgatlinburg.com), where entrees run $18 to $39. Hickory-grilled ribs and steaks, as well as a large salad bar and full bar, have kept the crowds coming here.
Its sister restaurant, the Peddler Steakhouse, 820 River Rd. (tel. 865/436-5794; www.peddlergatlinburg.com), was built around an authentic pioneer log cabin, rustic yet romantic. Blackened seafood, steaks, and chicken, as well as the dessert known as mud pie, are signature dishes. Entrees range from $18 to $28.
The interactive Pigeon Forge Welcome Center, 1950 Parkway (tel. 800/251-9100 or 865/453-8574; www.mypigeonforge.com), is a good starting point for exploration in the area.
Pigeon Forge is honky-tonk development run amok. What it lacks in charm and beauty, though, it makes up for with its shopping bargains. There are more than 200 stores in an array of outlet malls, offering discounts of up to 75% for popular brand names like Big Dog Sportswear, Nike, and Black & Decker, as well as Bibles, Christmas decorations, quilts, and cowboy boots.
For shopping that's more quaintly "Tennessee" in tone, check out the Old Mill at 160 Old Mill Ave. (tel. 888/453-6455 or 865/453-4628; www.old-mill.com). Just look for the sign that says Traffic Light No. 7. (In Pigeon Forge, you'll soon find that most addresses are designated by traffic light stops rather than numbered street addresses.) It may look out of place on Pigeon Forge's relentlessly overdeveloped strip, but it's a good place to pick up locally made gifts like jams and candy and stone-ground products for your own baking. Next door, the restaurant of the same name serves hearty Southern meals at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
No trip to this part of Tennessee would be complete without a visit to Dollywood, 1020 Dollywood Lane (tel. 865/428-9488; www.dollywood.com), the amusement park owned by Pigeon Forge's beloved daughter, Dolly Parton. The park has been credited with putting Pigeon Forge on the map as a major tourist attraction and almost single-handedly turning around the city's economy. The park's souvenir stands, rides, and cheesy attractions are redeemed somewhat by Dollywood's tribute to Appalachia and the singer's own origins. Demonstrations showcase regional crafts such as basket making, pottery making, and glass blowing, and shops provide an outlet for these traditional skills that might otherwise be lost. New in 2008 is River Battle through Timber Canyon, a family-style white-water-rafting ride. One-day park admission is $50 for ages 12 to 59, $47 seniors, and $37 ages 4 to 11. Closed January through March.
Nightlife in Pigeon Forge focuses on family-oriented, Branson, Missouri-style musical theater. Long-running favorites include the family-oriented Smoky Mountain Jubilee, Hwy. 441 at Music Road (tel. 865/428-1836; www.smokymtnjubilee.com), and Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, 3849 Parkway (tel. 800/356-1676 or 865/453-4400; www.dixiestampede.com), a dinner-theater show. Christian themes dominate some programs, such as the 2-hour Broadway-style musical about Jesus, showcasing a large cast and live animals, at the Miracle Theater (formerly the Louise Mandrell Theater), 2046 Parkway (tel. 800/768-1170 or 865/453-3534; www.miracletheater.com). It's open from April to December.
There's no shortage of places to stay in Pigeon Forge. All the major chains are represented. If you want to be in the thick of it all, try the Best Western Plaza Inn, 3755 Parkway (tel. 800/223-9715 or 865/453-5538). If you prefer to be a little farther away from the crowds, try Mainstay Suites, 410 Pine Mountain Rd. (tel. 888/428-8350 or 865/428-8350), which has full kitchens. Both hotels have indoor and outdoor pools, and rates (about $83-$130 double, at both hotels) include breakfast.