I must admit that I didn’t know a lot about Tennessee until last week when I found myself right in the heart of it. I’ve been gallivanting around the globe for years but all I knew about Gatlinburg was what I’d heard from a Johnny Cash song . I thought Knoxville was the guy from Jackass. I confess that I’ve focused so much on international destinations, I’ve missed several spots across the US and the Deep South is one of them. A family reunion brought me to North Carolina and with a few extra days to explore, I started looking for adventures. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg kept popping up on my travel radar as nearby places not to be missed. After all doesn’t Dolly Parton have a theme park named after her somewhere around there? I put together a quick list from Google and plotted a route to hit all the must-sees.
Atlanta is not my favorite airport, but it is a good gateway to get to Tennessee and the Carolinas and the prices was right. My route took me through the charming area of Maggie Valley, through the Indian reservation of Cherokee, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and finished in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. To change things up,I discovered it was almost the same amount of time to do a big circle and return via Chattanooga and Knoxville. Either way, Atlanta is less than 4 hours away.
Great Smokies National Park is the most visited national park in the US. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and is a beautiful drive through a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Unlike most national parks, there’s no established park fee. You can choose to donate at various boxes scattered throughout the park if you feel inclined. The pristine forest covers the mountains and the park is stunning. There’s lots of waterfalls and nature trails. You can see wildlife in the less forested areas if you are traveling at the right time of day. White water rafting and fishing are the two most popular sports in the area. The park is split between Tennessee and North Carolina and a great scenic way to get from one to the other.
I’ve always admired Jimmy Buffet’s ability to churn a few of his hits from the 70s into a billion dollar empire where being a “parrothead” and feeling like you’re on a tropical island is as easy as stopping in one of his ubiquitous Margaritaville restaurants. Dolly Parton is the Jimmy Buffet of the south. She’s distilled her life, music, family values and experiences and turned them into a multi-million dollar empire. And it works. The entire town of Pigeon Fork revolves around Dollywood and her other ventures in the area. There’s Dolly Parton billboards, dinner theaters and two theme parks. You’ve got to admit: Dolly Parton is charismatic. Even if you’re not a country music fan, you’ve got to like her persona. There’s more Dolly in Dollywood than Disney in Disneyland. Her music and videos play throughout the park, a nostalgic 50s area sells Dolly-esque clothing, there’s a Dolly theater,one of her tour buses, and one of the biggest surprises: a replica of her childhood home. There’s even a one room church, right in the middle of the park, named after the doctor who delivered her into the world. If you’re in the park on a Sunday morning, you can take a break from the roller coasters and pop in for a service. You won’t find that at Disneyland.
Dollywood has a good variety of roller coasters, but the park is geared more towards it’s shows. There’s a 50s themed revue, a dog stunt show, a showcase of predatory birds and lots more. There’s funnel cakes, shaved ice and all the other mandatory carnival fare, but where else can you find a food stall selling macaroni and cheese with pot roast on top? That pot roast was good, too. Better than the roller coasters maybe. It might have been this pot roast that lured me into one of her dinner shows after we finished visiting the park.
Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede show is a show about horses, trick-riding, and stagecoaches. The theater surrounds a dirt covered arena about the size of a football field where performers show off their equestrian skills while waiters hurriedly load your plate with “Dolly approved” roast cornish game hens, a potato and an ear of corn. There is no fork, knife or spoon. You eat “western-style” which saves Dolly’s staff from washing a whole lot of dishes. The show is entertaining, although the music might be a little hokey (Dolly must not have written these songs) and pitting the two sides of the theater against each other as “North and South” seems a little contrived. There were magic tricks, pig racing, miniature horse racing and some very funny sight gags from the comic relief character who sounded a little like Larry the Cable Guy. Come to think of it, a lot of people sounded like Larry the Cable Guy. If horses aren’t your thing and you haven’t had enough Dolly, there’s a lumberjack show a couple of miles down the road.
The rest of Pigeon Forge is a strip of mirror maze places, miniature golf, 3D rides, wax museums, “hands-on” museums and (let’s be honest) tourist traps. It’s easy to spend a fortune at these places since the outside of them looks so inviting. Wonder Works looks like a giant neo-classical building turned upside down, there’s a copy of Mount Rushmore that features Marilyn Monroe and other iconic stars adjacent to a life sized King Kong dangling from the Empire State Building. These places are the reason Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews were created. I saved a lot of money by reading the reviews first.
I found what looked like an interesting “earthquake” attraction in neighboring Gatlinburg. The reviews on most of the single ride attractions were not favorable, but this one looked fun. I decided to fork over my $9 and see if these reviewers might just be embittered parents who’d spent too much time cooped up in a hotel with screaming kids. The reviews were spot on. The ride was atrocious. Horrible. It wasn’t really a ride. The seats shook, some bad monologue came on and a hodge-podge of robotic creatures shook next to the wall and made absolutely no sense. I could write a whole page on what was wrong with this “ride”, but the main point is this: Unless you like expensive bad attractions, read the reviews before you buy your ticket.
Gatlinburg is a more interesting choice between the two towns to stay in since it’s condensed into a walk-able strip and instantly appears more fun with it’s nearby mountains, cable cars and giant aquarium. After a day of Dolly-immersion, what does one do in a town full of mirror mazes and bad rides? Out of Trip Advisor’s top 10 things to do, at least 4 options involve moonshine tasting. It was early in the morning and I knew the last thing I needed was moonshine. As I passed by the number one rated one, Sugarlands Distilling Company, a staff member invited us in for a tasting. What could be so wrong about trying one quick shot to wake up? It turns out that the moonshine “flight” involves 13 shots (yes, 13!) ranging from PB&J flavor to something that tastes like tequila. Unlike the foo-foo-ness of wine tasting where one has to change glasses and act like you’re savoring each drop, moonshine tasting is more about slamming them down. “Git er done!” is the moonshine mantra. The history of the elixir is an interesting one and there’s not a lot of places where you will find this liquor lined up in row after row of mason jars. Hillbillies don’t need them fancy bottles when a jar will do the job. It turns out that moonshine tasting was really fun. So fun in fact, that we visited two more distilleries. The flavors varied, but after 36 shots of moonshine, who can really remember?
Gatlinburg has a Ripley’s aquarium that is a popular option for families as well as the Gatlinburg mountain lift that’s been operating since the 50s. For $16, you can ride to the top of the mountain and look down at the city below. For $4 more, you can do it all day long. For me, once was enough. It’s like skiing without the skiing part. At the bottom of the hill is the Hollywood Star Cars Museum. I was hesitant to pay to visit since you can see a lot of the collection from the street, but I’m glad I did. Cars from Fast and Furious, Gone in 60 Seconds, Dukes of Hazzard, and lots of movies you’ve seen are jam packed into this amazing collection. It gets better. A Batmobile from the 60s TV show as well as one from Batman 3 are on display, a Back to The Future DeLorean, The Ghostbusters Car, K.I.T. from Knightrider, Burt Reynolds’ car from Smokey and the Bandit… even John Goodman’s car from the Flintstones are part of this iconic lineup. The cars are phenomenal. For a little extra cash, they’ll let you sit in a car or two and print your photo . I picked the TV Batmobile and took a picture talking on the Batphone. It might be the coolest picture I’ve ever posted on Facebook.
If you find yourself in Atlanta or North Carolina with a few days to kill, give this area a visit. You can always put your kids in a mirror maze and have a shot of moonshine while you’re waiting for them to navigate their way out. Dolly won’t mind.