How to plan a trip to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge


Driving through Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s Main Street, during a trip last month, I saw the kind of attractions I would expect from a family vacation destination: I passed Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, the entrance to Anakeesta Theme Park and Gatlinburg SkyLift Park over , and many others.

But within seconds, the museums, shops, and restaurants in my rear-view mirror had disappeared and I reached a tree-lined entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“That’s what sets Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg apart from destinations like Orlando, which might have more theme park attractions, but we can stay in a cabin on a mountain and see a bear,” said Allison Galyon, travel agent at AAA.

While the National Park – the most visited in the US – and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Theme Park are well-known family vacation spots, the Sevier County area has much more to offer visitors.

“Conservative Las Vegas”

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge occupy prime spots in Thomas Delp’s summer vacation rotation. Each year, the 34-year-old and his family alternate between going to the beach in North and South Carolina, visiting his parents in Philadelphia and heading to the mountains in east Tennessee.

“We enjoy the nice family atmosphere,” said Delp, who has three children under the age of 10 with his wife Tiffany. The family from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, took a week-long trip there on Memorial Day, and the couple visit the area independently at least twice a year. The church that Delp pastors also hosts a couples retreat each year.

At Pigeon Forge, Delp and his family were frequent guests of the Comedy Barn Theater and visited other attractions such as the Titanic Museum Attraction and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud Show.

“There’s go-karts and miniature golf,” he said. “I call it a conservative Las Vegas.”

The wide range can help make the area popular with returning visitors. “You’ll run out of time before you run out of fun,” said Mark Ezell, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

According to a study by the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, 76% of travelers return to this city within a year alone, while 32% return within six months.

Learn more: Dolly Parton leaves Dollywood’s rides to the guests. Here’s what she does instead.

How to plan a trip to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

If travelers want to try everything the area has to offer without feeling rushed, Galyon says it could take two weeks. The travel agent felt that a week should be enough for a family to see the highlights and give them the opportunity to visit various theme and water parks, explore walking distance to Gatlinburg and visit national parks including Cades Cove, a valley with many opportunities to see wildlife such as white-tailed deer.

➤ When to go: Galyon, who grew up in the area, especially likes the fall and winter, when the Winter Festival takes place and the area is adorned with twinkling lights. Visitors can visit the exhibitions as part of guided tours or explore them on their own.

“When I was a kid[with]my parents, we would just drive through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to see the lights,” she said.

Spring – when the weather is nice and Dollywood opens the season – and summer are also popular times for visitors, Galyon said.

➤ How to get there: Leon Downey, executive director of Pigeon Forge’s Department of Tourism, said most visitors drive, coming primarily from nearby Southeastern locations such as Atlanta, Georgia or Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The other benefit for us is that people see Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Seviervlle as one destination,” he said. While they may stay in one of the three cities, Downey said, “our research shows they visit all three cities and spend money in all three cities.”

According to Galyon, McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville — about a 45-minute drive from Sevierville and an hour and 15 minutes from Gatlinburg — is the closest major airport.

Regardless of how they get there, visitors should have a car during their trip to be able to easily travel between cities and drive into the national park, she said.

➤ Where to stay: The area offers a range of accommodation from campsites to upscale properties like the DreamMore Resort and Spa in Dollywood. Galyon said the best solution depends on the size of the group, but for the many multi-generational families living in the area, she would recommend booking a cabin.

“I think you get more for your money there,” she said. According to Galyon, they often have full kitchens where guests can prepare meals and playrooms. A hut also brings guests “more into the mountains”.

“These are my people”: How Dolly Parton stays true to her roots in Dollywood

Delp usually chooses the Wyndham Smoky Mountains club, although his family sometimes stays in Airbnbs.

They recently bought season tickets to Dollywood and will be going back 3 or 4 more times this year to make the purchase worthwhile and give them an excuse to spend more time in the Smokies. “We really value our family time and we value our time together,” Delp said.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at

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