So it’s been a while. With covid restrictions still in place and my sons both doing online school, there hasn’t been a lot of travel going on for us (they just went back to school full-time before spring break – hallelujah!). Not being able to travel of course makes me that much more desperate to do so – thus, a spring break getaway was mandatory this year! We originally kicked around the idea of going to Florida to see my Dad and go to Universal Studios, but it took all of 5 minutes on expedia to learn that spring break was not the time to go. Holy moly, airfare is triple the regular cost for that week, and the rates at the Universal resorts are significantly higher as well. We are saving that idea for after school is out, and decided on a road trip to Tennessee instead.
Funny thing is, it turns out that Pigeon Forge is ALSO crazy over spring break – at least this year it was! Our first time there was a couple of years ago in June, and the crowds were nothing compared to what we experienced on this trip. We had to wait hours to eat anywhere, hours for every activity, and traffic getting into the Smoky National Park was backed up to a crawl going in and out of the park. The day we attempted to hike in SMNP, with a teen and tween sick of sitting in the car, quite literally drove me to drink. There was just too many people. Even the initial drive down from Ohio was nuts. Lots of stop-and-go traffic adding hours to what should’ve been a 6-7 hour drive (it ended up taking 10). Seemed like everyone in the midwest was heading south on that route for spring break. If you ever decide to go to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg over spring break, I would suggest making it a “nature trip”. Stay in a secluded cabin, cook or order takeout, and keep away from the main drag.
In general, I really do enjoy the whole area of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. I was so surprised by how much there is to do there on our first trip. Besides the beautiful mountains and national park to explore, there are soooooo many other fun activities for the whole family. After two trips, we still have tons of things on our wishlist. If we we ever decide to buy a vacation rental or cabin somewhere, this is a place we definitely would consider. For both trips we have stayed at condos we found on vrbo, so we were close to all the touristy activities – but we would also really like to try a cabin further up in the mountains. These are some of our favorite experiences there:
This activity is better without the kids naturally, but you can pull it off in some places if they are old enough to walk around a bit on their own. My husband and I did that on the first trip, but this last time we were able to leave our boys at the condo for a couple hours while we went to a few tasting places. Most distilleries offer tastings for a small fee ($5), or even free. And it’s tasty! We aren’t talking lighter fluid here – in Tennessee they’ve turned moonshine into an art, with flavors like pumpkin roll, coffee, apple pie, sour gummy worm, and on and on…each place usually has a few of their own signature flavors. It’s a ton of fun – save room in your luggage to carry a few jars back home. Here are the places we’ve tried:
- Ole Smoky – there are several locations, but we usually go to the one at the Island in Pigeon Forge, because there are lots of fun shops and restaurants there. If you have the kids with you, there is a big fountain that does “dancing water and light” shows just outside the main doors if they are old enough to hang out nearby.
- Old Forge Distillery – this one is part of the Old Mill area, which also has some neat shops and restaurants. They use the grains that they grind on-site for their moonshine, and have a fun cocktail bar in addition to the tasting area. You can try unique cocktails made with various moonshines and enjoy them on their cute patio. The tastings here were free both times we went!
- Tennessee Shine Company – this place is directly behind the Old Mill area – in fact, we walked there right after tasting at the Old Forge! You don’t even need to move your car. They had a unique margarita flavor that we liked so much we bought a jar.
- Junction 35 Spirits – this is a distillery and restaurant with tasty barbeque. We had a great night out here with our friends and the tasting was more entertaining than most. The tasting does cost a small fee, but the bartender here was really fun!
The Island is basically a big outdoor mall, but our kids really enjoy some of the fun, kitschy shops there. There is also an area with entertainment attractions like the giant ferris wheel, an outdoor ropes course, lazer maze, and more. And right outside the Ole Smoky moonshine tasting store, you will find the dancing water fountain that puts on a show to music every few minutes.
The Old Mill
The Old Mill is one of the oldest gristmills in the country. It is now surrounded by shops and a couple of restaurants, along with the Old Forge Distillery (mentioned above). If you’re lucky, you can catch fun blacksmith demos or watch pottery being thrown at the pottery shop. The restaurants here are very popular, so expect to wait a while if you want to eat here, even when it’s not spring break.
Pirates Voyage Dinner Show
There are several dinner shows in Pigeon Forge, but Pirates Voyage is the one our boys chose to check out. We really enjoyed this overall, although it is very expensive. The show was great, but as with most large-scaled dinner shows, the food is just ok. Not surprising when an arena full of people have to be fed at the same time. Fun night, though! We would actually consider going again if they lowered the price just a smidge.
Pigeon Forge has quite the selection of indoor museums, from wax museums to Alcatraz, to Wonderworks. On our most recent visit, we did the Titanic Museum and I gotta say, it was fantastic. They do a great job of making it interactive and interesting, and both my boys agreed it was one of their favorite activities. When you arrive, you are assigned a real passenger’s name, and you learn a little about your passenger as you work through the museum and find out at the end whether he/she survived the Titanic. This museum was the only one doing timed entries due to covid, which was extremely helpful during spring break week because we saw loooooong lines to get in to the other museums.
Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster
This attraction is by far the family favorite. There are several alpine coasters to try, but the Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster is supposedly the longest. You get some great views zipping down the mountain, and it’s super fun to be able to control your speed (or not)! Definitely come back at night because it is a completely different experience, and just as fun!
Gatlinburg is about 20 minutes up the road from Pigeon Forge, and sits right at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has a very walkable downtown with a historic feel, along with a few gondolas and ski lifts to carry you up to the mountain tops. There is a ski resort that has activities year-round called Ober Gatlinburg, which is still on our list of things to do. On our most recent trip, we did the lift to Anakeesta, which is a really great place for younger kids with treetop trails, shops, and another alpine coaster. Unfortunately, the coaster and a lot of the booths at the top were closed due to covid, but the views were beautiful.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This of course is the main attraction for many visitors – stop at a visitor center to get a map or advice on which hikes to do. On our first trip, we did the well-known Laurel Falls hike, which I must admit was longer and tougher than we expected, but worth it…maybe we were on the “long route”? Lots of amazing views and lookout points are throughout the park, even if you decide to just drive through. On our most recent trip, trying to get into the park was a bit of a disaster – again, the spring break crowds were crazy and traffic was a slow crawl just trying to get to the first visitor center. Attempting to get out mid-afternoon was even worse, so take my advice and AVOID going during typical spring break dates unless you want to get up at the crack of dawn and go very early.
There’s still a lot we’d like to do in Pigeon Forge. I think next time we might stay in Gatlinburg – we always seem to run out of time to be able to do it justice, and then we’d be a lot closer to the national park, too. We haven’t even stepped foot into Dollywood yet either, which seems criminal. Will have to go back! Pretty soon my older son will have his driver’s license so we’ll have another driver to help out on road trips! Seems like a lot of covid restrictions are lifting now, so maybe we can do a few little getaways over the summer…our next big trip is Florida and Universal Studios in a few weeks, so we are crossing fingers that everything goes smoothly for that – we are ready for a real vacation!