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Summer Vacation: Gatlinburg & Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

More than a year after a devastating fire in the area, these two vacation towns are open for business with plenty of family fun to be found.

Written By:  Trisha Boyer

Photographers:  Supplied

Anakeesta (Gatlinburg)

To the Mountains

Framed by the majestic peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg draw families back year after year to enjoy the area’s natural beauty, coupled with family-friendly attractions for visitors of all ages.

The five-mile strip that runs through Pigeon Forge is an electrified playground of go-kart tracks, arcades, mini-golf courses, restaurants, and all manner of museums and hillbilly kitsch.

Whether you anchor yourself away from the hustle and bustle at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and immerse yourself in all Dollywood/Dollywood Splash Country has to offer (keep reading to see all that’s new), or cruise the strip to take in one of the area’s famous dinner shows, you’re sure to be charmed by the genuine Southern hospitality that permeates every stop.

One of the newest attractions, Margaritaville - The Island in Pigeon Forge, invites guests to park their cars and explore more than 60 retail and specialty shops, eateries, rides (including a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel), carnival-style games, dancing fountains, and free live music. The pedestrian-centered development is anchored by two beach-themed hotels: the 4-star Margaritaville Island Hotel, complete with a rooftop pool and spa, and the recently opened Margaritaville Island Inn, where vacationers can escape the traffic and submit to an island state of mind, without ever leaving the mountains.

>>> To the Beach: Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

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Roughly eight miles down the road, neighboring Gatlinburg boasts scenic views and access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with its own special list of things to do. Souvenir shops, putt-putt, and racetracks all represent, but most everything exists within the confines of the quaint walking village that offers year-round access to the mountains.

Accessible by chairlift or enclosed gondola, Anakeesta is Gatlinburg’s newest 70-acre outdoor wonderland, located 600 feet in the sky. Its tree-house-themed Firefly Village features an eclectic collection of shops, restaurants, and a treetop canopy walk, with 16 interconnected bridges. Adventure seekers will delight in three separate zip-lines that slide high above the mountainside, plus the Anakeesta Rail Runner, a single-rail mountain coaster that zips at 25-plus miles per hour along the forest floor. A tree-house playground for kids and garden walk round out the fun, giving visitors direct access to the scenic mountaintops.

While both areas offer a variety of accommodations—from budget hotels to luxury cabins—Gatlinburg lays claim to the first “glamping” site, where families can slumber to the sounds of nature, dip in the pool, roast marshmallows over a campfire, or play an open-air game of ping pong—all without ever pitching a tent. At Camp LeConte, the safari tents, tree houses, and retro campers provide an unforgettable camping experience.

It should come as no surprise that hearty, home-cooked Southern fare dominates most menus in this part of the country, with some, like Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen (Pigeon Forge) serving as a destination in their own right. But there are plenty of options once you’ve had your fill of crispy fried chicken and creamy mac and cheese. Big Daddy’s Pizzeria & Arcade (Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge) offers tasty wood-fired pizzas in a casual setting, along with a full arcade to keep the kids occupied while you wait. Local Goat (Pigeon Forge), which focuses on locally sourced meat and produce, has a nice selection of wine and craft beer to complement flavorful dishes, like the lamb burger with tzatziki, feta, red onion, and baby greens. In keeping with the spirit of the great outdoors, The Peddler Steakhouse (Gatlinburg), located at the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, treats diners to an unforgettable thick-cut steak in a setting steeped in history, with views of the Little Pigeon River to the back. And, should you find yourself in dire need of a taco fix, the bright and colorful Cielito Lindo (Pigeon Forge) answers the call with an extensive menu of Mexican favorites, plus refreshingly cold margaritas to fuel your East Tennessee getaway.

How to Get There 

The drive from Nashville to Pigeon Forge takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes, but don’t forget to account for the time change (EST) and significant traffic delays during peak travel times.

What’s New at Dollywood

Around 2.5 million visitors pass through the gates at Dollywood/Dollywood’s Splash Country every year to experience Dolly Parton’s magical theme park, set against the scenic backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains.

“One of the things that keeps people coming back to Dollywood year after year is that there is always something new,” Ellen Liston, senior publicist at Dollywood, says. “It may be an exciting ride, like Lightning Rod, which made its debut in 2016, or Drop Line in 2017. In 2018, we added to and enhanced our entertainment with a brand new music festival that features three full weeks of concerts and a huge expansion to the wildly popular Great Pumpkin Limelight’s addition to our Harvest Festival, which debuted last year.”

This year, the park has also introduced new two-day and three-day tickets, as well as a one- and two-day “park hopper” that can be used with Dollywood’s Splash Country water park during the summer.

Liston encourages guests to use the map, along with the Dollywood app, to manage their time at the parks.

“The map features a show schedule that tells you the times of each show and can help you map out how to fit shows in between rides, meals, and other attractions,” she says. “Used in conjunction with the Dollywood app, which shows wait times for each ride, it’s easy for the entire family to map out the activities and attractions they don’t want to miss on their Dollywood days.”

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