Before I went to Tennessee, I didn’t know Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s most visited national park: accessible to one-third of the American population. Before I went, I didn’t know how moonshine was made or why it was no longer illegal to purchase. More than anything, before I went to Tennessee, I didn’t realize I was going to fall in love with a little corner of a state several states away from mine.
Full disclosure, I really love Dolly Parton and have for some time. It only made sense to jump at a chance to visit Dollywood’s Dream More Resort and Pigeon Forge, the town she grew up in. I assumed people there would all be proud of their hometown sweetheart, but they spoke about her in reverence like you would a friend you are proud to know. It wasn’t like she’s a star who left the town and they can claim that she once graced their streets. The people of Pigeon Forge and, more importantly, everyone who works at the Dollywood theme park and the resort, talk about how much she does for her employees and for Pigeon Forge. You can feel the electricity of warmth and love which shines through to both the places they work and the work they do.
Dollywood’s Dream More Resort is a dedication to Dolly herself. With her records on the walls, beautiful portraits of her smiling face, and her signature butterflies everywhere, you can’t help but embrace her beautiful spirit. More than that is how comfortable and homey the hotel is. Whether you choose to visit the spa or hang out on an Adirondack chair by one of the many fire pits, you can find your place to just chill while overlooking the beautiful mountains in the distance.
To submerge yourself more in Dolly’s world, visit the Dollywood Family Theme Park. If you are looking for high thrills, Lightning Rod is themed like a 1950s hot rod that will propel you more than 20 stories. If you want to stay a bit lower to the ground, there are endless amounts of Dolly memorabilia and regularly rotating shows to entertain you. Don’t forget to grab some food – there are lots of choices throughout the park from steak sandwiches to funnel cakes to kettle corn.
While you’re in this area of Tennessee, there are a surprising number of places to spend your time shopping. The Pottery House Café and Grille is a great place to pop in for lunch before hitting up Old Mill for metal crafts and homemade pottery. The Village Shops in Gatlinburg take you back in time with their old world feel. Between quaint shops like a boutique bath store and a sock shop, pop into The Donut Friar where they’ve been serving up donuts since 1969. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet the shop owner who has been around since the very beginning. After lining your stomach with a donut, jump over to Doc Collier’s Moonshine Distillery to sample some flavors and learn about how moonshine came to be in these parts and why it continues to be so prevalent.
I could have spent an entire week at The Island in Pigeon Forge. Between Paula Deen’s restaurant and shop, Poynor’s Pommes Frites, and Margaritaville, you definitely won’t go hungry at The Island. All the shops and eateries at The Island surround The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, a 200 foot tall gondola wheel that looks onto the Smoky Mountains. There are shops for every person on your list as well as rides and arcades. The biggest surprise to me was the Margaritaville resort. It is a luxury hotel with the casual feel you’d expect from a Jimmy Buffet hotel; margarita machines in the room and a rooftop pool bar with a completely laid back vibe. They also have a spa for the ultimate pampering experience.
The Great Smoky Mountains can be seen from all over this area of Tennessee, but you have to journey into the national park to see why so many people visit it every year. The amount of wildlife you can find throughout the park is unparalleled, from the 23 species of snakes to the ever-present black bears. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is a great place to start your journey into the park to learn about the history as well as how to safely traverse the area. Visitors can do a short hike to see the sights or can spend an extended amount of time camping in the backcountry. From stargazing to summertime firefly parties, there is always something to discover in the Great Smoky Mountains.
While the fires in this part of Tennessee in late 2016 did destroy some places, the town is very much on the mend. It is obvious to see that a community like this will do what needs to be done to rebuild and continue to provide hospitality to guests who visit. The amount of warmth and joy I felt, whether it was while walking through the town or visiting Dollywood, was unsurpassed. The residents truly take pride in their town and welcome everyone to come see what makes the Great Smoky Mountains area of Tennessee so special.