Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is at the base of The Great Smoky Mountains, just a few miles from the entrance to the national park, along with the Sevier County towns of Sevierville and Gatlinburg. Driving south along Parkway (yes, its uninspired name really is just “Parkway”), you’ll hit Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and GSM National Park, in that order. The distance from Sevierville to the park entrance is only 15 miles, but be prepared for long drive times; Parkway is backed up in both directions at most any time of the day or night.
Tourist traps abound. Buy a T-shirt and pet an alligator, or see a shark. Wedding ring sets: $19.95. A friend from Mississippi warned, beware the advertised “whole chicken dinner,” which is really a Cornish game hen. Water parks, magic shows, year-round Christmas stores, outlet stores, chain saw carvings, wax museums, county fair quality rides and amusements, dinner shows with impersonators, and reenactments of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys – if it’s cheesy and cheap (and I don’t mean inexpensive), you’ll find it here.
Which came first, Dolly or the all-you-can-eat buffet? Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park located in Pigeon Forge, is celebrating its 30th year this year, opening in 1986.
The trip to Dollywood was more than a little deflating, and I adore her. Perhaps it was because my neurosurgeon has banned me from all roller coasters to avoid future neck surgery, but I don’t think that’s it. The paint on the buildings is a little faded. The landscaping is a little scruffy.
The movie playing about Dolly’s love of the Smoky Mountains is outdated and hokey, and you can get better sound and picture quality at home on your sofa. The movie theater smells like mildew, and it’s no wonder. In the middle of the film, during a rainstorm on screen, it actually rains on the patrons in the theater! Did I mention the seats are upholstered?
I bet that before thousands of Sevier County restaurants served up diabetes on a plate, these little towns were in fact charming. Take Gatlinburg, for example. The town is nestled in the foothills of the mountains, and at one time it was probably very picturesque. Now the main drag is Ripley’s Believe It or Not and rib joints and candy stores.
By day two we were ready to escape, attending a bluegrass festival in the Dumplin Valley.
We also went in search of the heart and soul of these bergs, hoping to find town centers where locals avoiding Parkway hung out. The government center in Sevierville is charming, with a lovely courthouse and a statue in honor of the Almighty Dolly.
Ironically, in direct juxtaposition to all things gaudy and unrefined, sits the Great Smoky Mountains, in their glory and splendor. On two different days we drove up into the mountains for cooler temperatures, avoiding the circus below.
Did all of this straggle create jobs? You bet it did. Do families with children flock to Sevier County for fun and recreation? You bet they do. It was built, and they come. In droves. As for me, I’ll stay away.