If you’ve lived in Nashville for a while, you’ve probably heard some buzz about visiting the Smokeys, namely Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. Well, my time came to visit the Smokies last year when our family decided to hit up Pigeon Forge. While we had some quality time together, the trip had room for improvement, so this year we transitioned to Fall Break in Gatlinburg. Here’s the lowdown on the differences between the two destinations:
My Gatlinburg experience was far superior to that in Pigeon Forge. To start, while both were crowded, Pigeon Forge was unbearably so. We tried to pick up a pizza at Mellow Mushroom, could literally barely push through the masses spilling in to the parking lot, only to find that the restaurant was so overwhelmed they weren’t going to be able to fill the order we’d placed an hour earlier. The stores and attractions lining the Pigeon Forge streets are also difficult to access. While the ‘strip’ has a sidewalk, essentially you are walking alongside a 4-lane highway if you want to browse for a t-shirt. The attractions are also a bit extreme, particularly if you visited the Smokies because you wanted a peaceful mountain getaway (think wax museum with a massive King Kong replica climbing up the side or a Titanic museum built to look like a sinking ship). Sure, kids love this stuff, but you will leave the experience feeling like you spent 72 hours at the state fair. (Don’t think hiking will get you off the hook - the ‘hike’ that was suggested to us was a paved path almost un-walkable given the number of other guests)
Like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg still has plenty of cheesy tourist attractions and chain restaurants, however, it’s much nicer than Pigeon Forge. The mini golf courses, laser tag facilities, and trinket shops are all located on a walkable street with convenient central parking. The style of the buildings fits more with the mountain atmosphere than the monstrosities of Pigeon Forge. The hike that was suggested to us near Gatlinburg was also far more serene. It was much more of a ‘hike’ and not crowded. So, needless to say, Fall Break will be in Gatlinburg again next year.
Secret Option #3
If you were born into Gen Z or are a younger millennial, neither of these options are likely for you. Both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge cater largely to families with children and, in spite of being in the Smokies, you definitely need to get off the beaten path to find a hike that isn’t teaming with tourists. So, if this doesn’t sound like your kind of vacation, you might consider renting a cabin in a more remote area for an outdoor adventure, or heading somewhere like Asheville if you’re looking for a mix of in-town options, high end restaurants and the outdoors. You might choose to embrace the go-cart tracks and medieval dinner shows Pigeon Forge offers, but fair warning - that’s what you’re signing up for!