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Family fun in the SmokiesFamily fun in the Smokies

Pigeon Forge, TennesseePigeon Forge, Tennessee

Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, Pigeon Forge has evolved from sleepy village to country-flavored entertainment hub. From Dollywood to magic and comedy shows, country music, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not in nearby Gatlinburg, there’s enough to keep a family busy for days. Those who’d rather commune with nature will find it in the Great Smoky Mountains, where you can hike parts of the Appalachian Trail.

  • Visit Pigeon Forge for its Southern-themed amusement park, Dollywood, but don’t miss out on the great entertainment, from concerts to dinner shows. Dolly Parton’s Stampede is an extraordinary musical dinner show with 32 magnificent horses and a cast of top-notch trick riders. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • The Tennessee Museum of Aviation is located on the Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport in Sevierville and is said to be the only place in the country to house two airworthy Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. There are now less than a dozen flyable P-47s in the world. Photo by Uwe Glaser.
  • Spanning 150 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dollywood offers more than 40 rides, plus high-energy entertainment, award-winning dining, and a friendly park atmosphere. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • A blacksmith demonstrates his trade in the Craftsmen’s Valley section of Dollywood theme park. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • Tucked away in the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood’s cabins offer a quiet oasis of relaxation complemented by the convenience of being centrally located to Dollywood theme park and Dollywood’s Splash Country water park. Available year-round and with more than 100 luxurious cabins to choose from, families of all sizes can be easily accommodated. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • Dollywood's Splash Country water park is the perfect mountain summer oasis for families to cool down and chill out. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • Located adjacent to the Dollywood theme park, Dollywood's Splash Country includes thrilling water slides like Fire Tower Falls. Photo courtesy Dollywood.
  • The Island’s Show Fountain features an intricate presentation of water dance and light, choreographed to 14 different pieces of music. While over 89 vertical nozzles create lively movement and set the show’s pace, six motion-based nozzles create graceful water sprays. The show runs every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Photo courtesy The Island in Pigeon Forge.
  • Rooms in The Island Margaritaville Hotel feature upgraded amenities like fireplaces, private balconies, and ‘frozen concoction makers.’ Photo courtesy The Island Margaritaville Hotel.
  • The WonderWorks Museum is an interactive science museum of sorts, featuring science and technology-themed rides and hands-on exhibits like the upside-down house. Photo courtesy Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism.
  • The Ripley’s Believe It or Not Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg was nominated for Best Aquarium in North America by USA Today. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment.
  • The Outdoor Gravity Park is the only place in America where you can try Zorbing—rolling down a bumpy hill while inside a giant transparent plastic ball. Photo courtesy Outdoor Gravity Park.
  • Mama's Farmhouse is an all-you-can-eat Southern restaurant. Meals are served family style, which means no buffet lines. Servers bring a portion of each item on the menu that day to your table for you to try. Want more of something? Just tell your server and they will bring it! Photo courtesy Mama’s Farmhouse.
  • The RiverStone Resort and Spa features a lazy river that spans the property. Onsite spa treatments include massage therapy, facial and nail treatments, body treatments, waxing, make-up, and other services. Photo courtesy RiverStone Resort and Spa.
  • Situated on the Little Pigeon River with views of the Smoky Mountains, the RiverStone Resort and Spa offers spacious condominiums and log cabins with open loft layouts, warm, inviting décor, and views of the Little Pigeon River from wraparound porches. Photo courtesy RiverStone Resort and Spa.

Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport lies in a wide valley. The Appalachians begin about 20 nautical miles east and south of the airport, with Clingmans Dome rising to nearly 6,650 feet msl inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Pilots are requested to maintain at least 2,000 feet agl above the park. Check winds aloft at 9,000 feet msl and use caution for potential moderate or greater turbulence over, or in the lee of, the Appalachians if winds exceed about 25 knots. At the airport, stop by the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. The 35,000-square-foot hangar is filled with warbirds, most beautifully restored and airworthy, plus a few awaiting restoration. The museum claims to be the only one displaying two airworthy P–47 Thunderbolts (less than a dozen are currently flying worldwide).

You’ve got to hand it to Dolly Parton—this incredibly talented songwriter, who grew up in poverty in nearby Sevierville, is also the consummate entertainer and businesswoman. Dollywood is now the most popular attraction in the state of Tennessee, bringing more than 3 million guests per year to Pigeon Forge, population 6,000. The Dollywood theme park offers more than 40 rides, but it’s way more than that. Bluegrass bands, string quartets, country bands, festivals, shows, artists, and craftsmen round out the experience. You can stay in the DreamMore resort hotel and spa or a cabin with a view of the forested mountains. Dollywood's Splash Country water park offers plenty of wet summer fun with pools, rides, and slides from mild to wild. And Dollywood dinner shows? I’m not sure they can be outdone anywhere.

At Ripley's Mirror Maze and Candy Factory in Gatlinburg, you'll come face to face with yourself over and over as you attempt to find your way out of a labyrinth of mirrors and LED lights. Don’t worry, they send search parties every half hour. Photo courtesy Ripley Entertainment.

The main drag in Pigeon Forge is Parkway, lined with shopping, shows, and restaurants. The Island has a bit of everything: amusement rides, a ropes course, Ferris wheel, bumper cars, fun houses, restaurants, shops, hotels—even a “dancing fountain” that’s lit up at night. Dine family-style on country cuisine at Paula Deen’s Kitchen or stay with the Island theme and raise your glass at Margaritaville. Too many maggies? No problem—you can sleep them off at the Margaritaville Island Hotel. And if you didn’t get enough, each room has its own “frozen concoction maker”! The other way to feel all warm and fuzzy is to book a massage or other treatment at the hotel's St. Somewhere Spa.

There’s more of course, including a Hollywood Wax Museum, right off Parkway. The WonderWorks Museum has an upside-down house that kids find irresistible. A ropes course traverses above the science- and technology-themed rides and hands-on exhibits. Lay on a bed of nails, catch a magic show, or play with a gigantic light peg set. Gatlinburg, by the way, has eight separate Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions. But the coolest thing has got to be the Outdoor Gravity Park, where you can be a human hamster. It’s called Zorbing, something they do in New Zealand (who knew?). Slip on a swimsuit and clamber with two friends into a huge inflatable ball partly filled with water. A push gets you bumping down a hill, your wild ride recorded via GoPro.

As many as 200 elk live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, most of them congregating around Cataloochee. Elk were hunted to extinction in the area by the mid-1800s, but a successful 2001 reintroduction project brought them back to the park. Target early summer to see calves and fall to watch and listen as male elk bugle to attract females and challenge other bulls. Photo courtesy NPS.

If all this sounds too undignified, don’t forget you’re surrounded by nature in the form of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hike part of the Appalachian Trail or walk out to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies. At Cades Cove, you’ll find old mills, churches, log cabins, and other historic buildings. You can tour the Ole Smoky Distillery, with locations in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and sample the dozen moonshine and whiskey offerings. Good Southern eats? Try The Old Mill Restaurant, Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin, and Mama’s Farmhouse. My vote for most relaxing place to stay is the RiverStone Resort and Spa, where you can rent a condo or cabin on the Little Pigeon River with views of the Smoky Mountains, float the lazy river that spans the property, and indulge at the spa. So, fly to Pigeon Forge and try the wild rides, hike the Smokies, and relax by the river in this sweet Southern have-it-all spot.

Ridge upon ridge of forest straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is the most-visited national park in the U.S. Photo courtesy Pigeon Forge Dept. of Tourism. Share your favorite destination in the AOPA Hangar: Places to fly, things to do, where to eat!
Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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