Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Our Smokey Mountain Vacation - Day One: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge

This is the first post in a series of travel posts to the Smokey Mountains.  Every Wednesday I will be covering a different activity/hike we did in the Smokies!  

After a year of lockdowns, I am so excited to bring you a REAL travel series again!  Now don't get me wrong, I never really stopped traveling after the initial three month lock down.  I still went to Indiana last fall and winter to see my kids and grandkids and we did a lot of fun activities with them.  My husband and I also hiked a lot in the fall traveling to various communities in our state or the upper peninsula.  So we did still travel, but on a more limited scale than we have in past years.  Our Gatlinburg trip was actually planned for spring of 2020, right when the pandemic hit.  Thankfully, the hotel refunded all our money and we were able to reschedule for this spring.

Now, onto our trip!  We started our spring vacation on Easter weekend.  We drove eight hours to Indiana to spend Easter with our children.  On Monday morning we then drove another 7 1/2 hours to Gatlinburg.

To get to Gatlinburg, you first have to drive through Pigeon Forge.  It is a very touristy town, home to Dolly Parton's resort and theme park.  I don't have a lot of pictures to share of Pigeon Forge because we didn't spend a lot of time there.  We basically just stopped for lunch at their most famous restaurant:  The Old Mill Restaurant.  This restaurant is really worth the stop!  It's absolutely beautiful.  The restaurant is inside this old mill, along with a gift shop,  There are beautiful walking trails right along the river.

It is the most popular restaurant in town, but they are quite efficient at getting people in and out in a timely fashion.  It only took about 20 minutes for us to get seated.  But I can imagine the lines getting very long during the summer months as they had long multi-story ramps leading to the entrance.  While waiting for your table, they have lots of historic signs and photos to read along the ramps.

We were fortunate to get a table with a beautiful river view.

Excuse my appearance, but this photo was taken after waking up at 5:00 am and spending eight hours in the car 😀.  The restaurants specialty is southern food, which my hubby is not a fan of.  I of course wanted to try southern food so I ordered the southern fried chicken while hubby had a hamburger.  We enjoyed our meals immensely, and the lunch prices were very reasonable.  

We were both surprised to discover how much we enjoyed the corn fritters.  I don't think either one of us ever had them before.

After lunch, we decided to stretch our legs and walk around a bit.  We were elated to see flowers, for they weren't blooming yet in our neck of the woods.

We only stopped inside one store and that was this charming home-turned-store.  It was a "Cat House".  They sold any items related to cats...decor, toys, etc.  

But my favorite part of this store wasn't what was for sale, but what wasn't:  this beautiful, ball of fur sunning himself by the window.  You were allowed to pet him if you sanitized your hands first.  I was surprised how he laid there so content with complete strangers petting him all day.  My Jackson would never do that.

After visiting the cat store, we walked down to the Main Street of Pigeon Forge and looked up and down, then just headed back to the car to go to our final destination:  Gatlinburg.  Pigeon Forge is mostly a tourist town filled with attractions, hotels, and restaurants.  We were there to hike in the Smokey Mountains, so I got a hotel room for the week in Gatlinburg because it is closest to the Smokies.

Like Pigeon Forge the city of Gatlinburg is a busy tourist town.  There is only one main road that travels into town, and it is always busy and full of traffic and people.  Along this road are most of the restaurants and tourists attractions. 

My husband and I drove up to one of the higher points above the town to get these pictures.

After checking into our hotel, we walked to find a place to eat dinner.  Parking in Gatlinburg costs $15-20.  There is no free parking anywhere!  So if you want to go to Gatlinburg, stay at a hotel close to where the action is as you will be doing a lot of walking.  They do have a trolley, but it always seemed full to capacity every time we saw one go by.  Our hotel was maybe five to six blocks away from the main drag, and uphill at that!  I can't tell you how many times I thought of going without dinner because I didn't think I couldn't walk one more step after hiking in the Smokies all day, then having to return to the hotel and hike to dinner.

Below is a view we saw everyday on the way to get some dinner.  It is Gatlinburg's famous Sky Bridge.  For $28 per person, you take a gondola to get to the top, and then walk the glass floored bridge across.  We are not tourist attraction type people, so we did not do it.

One of the most shocking thing about Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to us was how insanely busy it was.  We always travel during the off season to avoid the crowds, and we were shocked to see how many people were there.  The crowds were so thick at times you were rubbing shoulders with the people around you.  I added a short video at the end of the post so you could get a sense of the crowds.

Because there is only one main road to enter/exit town traffic really gets backed up, especially during certain times of the day.  It is literally bumper to bumper traffic.

I'm sorry this post will not include any activities other than eating that we did in the city of Gatlinburg.  But as I said earlier, we are not tourist attraction type of people.  We were only in the area to see the Smokies, and we stayed in Gatlinburg because it is closest to the park.  This photo shows a tower that you can go up in to see views of the mountains and the city.

One of our favorite chain restaurant is Mellow Mushroom.  They don't have any in our state, so when we see one when we travel we always stop to eat there.  They had one in Gatlinburg and it was really cool because it was on the second level of this shopping villa and had great views of the mountains in the distance and the city streets below.

Perhaps the thing that I never expected to see in the Smokies was all the water.  There is fresh, running water everywhere in the Smokies.  I don't think there was a town or hike we took where there wasn't a beautiful river.  Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg had a gorgeous river running through it.

All the typical touristy attractions were in Gatlinburg like "Ripley's Believe it or Not".  

This is "Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies".  I thought it was quite a beautiful and impressive building, and I loved the location alongside the river with the pretty bridge crossing.

My favorite part of downtown Gatlinburg was the little European Villages.  I loved the design and they were also less populated, so it was quieter back inside of them.

It was nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets, and enter into this quiet, magical little village.

The villages are full of gift shops and restaurants.  I like to pop into gift shops when I travel, and I usually buy one or two souvenirs to remember my trip.  This vacation I purchased a baseball cap and a handmade salsa bowl.

It was the week after Easter when we visited, so they still had Easter decorations up,

Even the restrooms in the villages was cute!

And finally, here is a video that may help give you a sense of the crowds in Gatlinburg.  It was made for my kids, so if you hear me mention "Alethea" that's why.  We wondered if Gatlinburg was busy because we traveled Easter week, which is usually spring break for most schools.  We've never done that before.  We always traveled the week before Memorial Day.  However, after talking to many people they said that Gatlinburg became insanely busy three weeks before we even got there.  Which is very unusual because they usually don't get really busy till after Memorial Day.  Either people have a lot of stimulus money they are dying to spend, or after a year of being cooped up they are eager to travel.  We were constantly checking license plates while we there, and saw plates from all over the country.  

 Next week, I will share our very first hike in the Smokies:  Rainbow Falls.  It was a killer!

Have a Great Day!  Amy

Linking Up with these Fabulous Blogs HERE!


  1. On our last trip home from Myrtle Beach we traveled through Gatlinburg and I have to say it may have been one of the busiest towns to driver through, took us forever to get through. I don't blame you for skipping all the touristy spots.

    The European village looks so pretty though and it reminds me a lot of the small towns in Germany. The cat at the cat house looks so cute, I always love it when shops have a cat staying there.

    Recently I was curious to see which US National Park was the most visited and was surprised that is was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, must be why Gatlinburg is such a busy town even during off seasons.

    1. Yes, I googled that too and was surprised to see it was the Smokey Mountains too. I believe it's because it's the closest national park to so many very populated states.

  2. I haven't been to Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg since I was in middle school (I think; I might have been even younger than that). It does look crowded but like a really fun area to explore and hike.

    1. It was a lot of fun, but I could have done without the crowds.

  3. It's always crowded there but manageable and plenty of good places to eat. Did you make it to the Apple Barn (my hubby's fav place)? Thanks so much for linking up with me at the Unlimited Link Party 25. Pinned!

    1. Really? Ugh, I don't think I'll be going back then. I don't like crowds. No, we never made it to the Apple Barn. Because of parking and traffic issues, once we parked our car we never left Gatlinburg for the week (other than to go on a hike in the Smokies each day). If were ever in the area again though we will definitely stop.

    2. I don't like the parking issue in Gatlinburg, can't do all that walking to see everything. We did stay there once in a cabin across the river from downtown a few years ago. I like Pigeon Forge much better, we stay there now when we go. Last time we were there was in July right after COVID started so we stayed at a condo as we thought perhaps not many restaurants would be open and we'd have a kitchen to cook. Well, none of the restaurants were closed!!

    3. Staying in Pigeon Forge never was an option for us, because we were hiking in the Smokey Mountains every day and it would have been a lot of driving. But that is funny about the restaurants being open in July. We talked to one man who lives in Tennessee and he said that their schools shut down for the two week "15 days to slow the spread" and that was it. Then they re-opened and never closed again. That was amazing to me! Made me think this whole Covid stuff is a bunch of hogwash when you see red states that don't close down or have mask mandates fair just the same or better than blue states that have all the lockdown nonsense.

  4. Gosh, that is quite crowded. I guess everyone is itching to get out and about. I loved the European village area!!
    And the kitty. My one kitty might tolerate that for awhile, but the other one, no way!!

    1. Yes, and I thought Colorado was a busy place....not even close! The cats were amazing!

  5. Wow, I have heard about the place and it looks so very beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Very nice.

  6. I always enjoy your travel posts! The way you describe Gatlinburg is very much like Galena Illinois. At one time it was a quaint, cute place in beautiful, hilly Northern Illinois and it eventually became bumper to bumper traffic on the one main road through town, lots of touristy shops and restaurants, and elbow to elbow foot traffic.

    1. Oh, I love Galena! I was there on Halloween Day and they had their big parade. It was insane! What a beautiful area!

  7. What a fabulous part of the world! It certainly has changed since I was there about 30 years ago :)

    It's great to see your post at 'My Corner of the World' this week!

    1. I would have loved to have seen Gatlinburg 30 years ago. I probably would have liked it much better.

  8. Wow, I'm stunned at the crowds. My husband and I have talked about visiting Gatlinburg before, but we were thinking it would be a restful place!

    1. No, it is definitely not restful at all. One of it's nicknames is the "Las Vegas of the East". I suppose if you rented a cabin it would be more restful, but then you'd still have to deal with traffic and crowds at all the trails in the Smokeys.


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