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 in a Johnny Cash song. I thought Knoxville was the guy from Jackass. I confess that I've focused so much on international destinations in my years of travel, I've missed several spots across the U.S.—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's Hartsfield-Jackson International is not my favorite airport, but it is a good gateway to get to Tennessee and the Carolinas for the right price. My route took me through the charming area of Maggie Valley, through a Cherokee Indian reservation, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and finished at 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 four hours away.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S., a UNESCO World Heritage site that offers a beautiful drive through a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Unlike most national parks, there is no established park fee; you can simply choose to donate at various boxes scattered throughout the park if you feel inclined. The pristine forest covers the mountains, with plenty of stunning waterfalls and nature trails. You can also spot wildlife in the less forested areas if you are traveling at the right time of day, close to dusk or dawn. Whitewater rafting and fishing are the two most popular sports in the area. The park straddles the boundary of Tennessee and North Carolina and makes for a scenic way to get from one state 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 pretending you're vacationing 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. Even if you're not a country music fan, you've got to like her charismatic persona. She has 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 Forge revolves around Dollywood and her other ventures in the area.
There's more Dolly in Dollywood than there is Disney in Disneyland; here there are Dolly Parton billboards, dinner theaters and two theme parks, while her music and videos play throughout, a nostalgic '50s area sells Dolly-esque clothing, and a replica of her childhood home awaits tour groups. 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 its shows: a '50s-themed revue, a dog stunt show, a showcase of predatory birds and lots more. Outside of the shows are stands selling funnel cakes, shaved ice and all the other mandatory carnival fare, but also macaroni and cheese with pot roast on top (good pot roast, 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 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. If horses aren't your thing, consider a lumberjack show a couple of miles down the road instead.
The rest of Pigeon Forge is a strip of mirror maze places, miniature golf, 3-D rides, wax museums, "hands-on" museums and (let's be honest) tourist traps. It's easy to spend a fortune at these places, as the exteriors look so inviting. WonderWorks—that hands-on museum—looks like a giant neo-classical building turned upside down, while the Wax Museum sports 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 TripAdvisor reviews were created; I saved a lot of money by reading the reviews first and skipping them all.
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 all the one-star reviews on TripAdvisor might just be embittered parents who'd spent too much time cooped up in a hotel with screaming kids. The reviews were spot on, however. The ride was atrocious. Horrible. It wasn't even 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 (and trust) the reviews before you buy your ticket.
Gatlinburg is a more interesting choice between the two towns to stay in, with a walkable strip and 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 TripAdvisor's top 10 things to do, at least four options involved moonshine tasting, but it was early in the morning and I knew the last thing I needed was moonshine. But as we strolled past the No. 1-rated attraction, 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 in flavor from peanut-butter-and-jelly to something that tasted 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. The moonshine mantra? Git 'er done. The history of the elixir is an interesting one and there aren't many places you'll find this liquor lined up in row after row of Mason jars. 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?
On the more family-friendly side of the spectrum, Gatlinburg has a popular Ripley's Aquarium as well as the Gatlinburg Sky Lift that's been in operation 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 a bit 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 The Fast and the Furious, Gone in 60 Seconds, Dukes of Hazzard, and plenty of other movies and TV shows are packed into this amazing collection—and it gets better. A Batmobile from the '60s TV show as well as one from Batman 3 are both on display, as are a Back to the Future DeLorean, the Ghostbusters hearse, KITT from Knight Rider, Burt Reynolds's car from Smokey and the Bandit, even John Goodma's "car" from The Flintstones are all part of this iconic lineup. For a little extra cash, they'll even 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 wouldn't mind.