Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
6/30/17 to 7/5/17
Friday 6/30/17 We only had 100 miles to travel today so we didn't leave our campground in Asheville until 11:00 AM. Our trip was short but we were crossing over the Smoky Mountains. Uphill travel was slow plus it rained most of the way. We pulled into Waldens Creek Campground at about 1:00. Most campgrounds in this area were full for the 4th of July holiday and Waldens Creek was not my first choice. Two weeks ago I called at least 6 different campgrounds near Pigeon Forge and everyone was booked. Waldens Creek was call #7 and luckily had a site for over the 4th. It's a small campground with only 34 sites and they really jam them in. The trailer on our left side is only about six feet away. The people next door sit outside until midnight and we can hear them talking and laughing from inside our trailer. This was not our idea of a great campground. I guess I learned my lesson about reserving a spot in a popular area during a holiday. Once we got set up we went out to get gas and check out the area.
Just driving around I'm not too impressed. This place is the ultimate tourist trap. It's advertised as a family fun vacation destination but it looks like a little Vegas without the gambling and the glamour and glitz. There's the main strip that's about 5 miles long and is filled on both sides with everything you can imagine. There are hotels, motels, restaurants, fast food places, outlet stores, go-cart tracks, alpine slides, amusement rides, arcades, theater shows, dinner shows, magic shows, miniature golf, zip lines, the list goes on and on. Traffic is terrible, people are everywhere. This surprised me. I always thought Pigeon Forge was a quaint little town with Dollywood as the main draw. Seems like all these attractions want a piece of the pie.
Saturday 7/1/17 We wanted to get away from this busy area and take a hike in the woods. I found another waterfall trial that was in Great Smoky Mountain National Park which was about 40 minutes away. Grotto Falls is a 3-mile hike through old growth forest. Sounds good! But what we didn't know was that anything near Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg is very crowded. The drive down the Pigeon Forge strip and into Gatlinburg was bumper to bumper. Once I turned off the main street in Gatlinburg it was a little better but still a steady stream of cars. It then turned into a single one-way road up the mountain. This was a very narrow road called Cades Cove, a loop that leads to a number of trails. Each trail parking lot was full of cars and the overflow cars just parked on the sides of the road wherever they could find room. There were times that we had to slowly squeeze between cars with just inches on each side of our wide truck. Our trail was the fifth one on this road so traffic thinned out a little, but as we got near the parking lot I could see it was also full. Luckily someone was backing out as soon as I entered the lot and I pulled into his space. We've never seen crowds like this for a hiking trail. It was crazy. Once we started up the trail there were people everywhere. We were hoping to get away from all the noise and congestion of Pigeon Falls but this trail was just as bad.
The trail was wide and worn from the use of hundreds of people a day. There was a waterfall at the end but people were all over the place. We had packed a lunch and even had a hard time finding an empty rock in the creek to sit and eat. After the hike, it was another 4 miles on the narrow one-way road to get out of the park. On the way down we stopped to check out the remains of a farmhouse that was over 100 years old. It's hard to imagine the hard life the people had that lived here. Especially after seeing Biltmore just a few days ago.
Once back at the trailer I researched The Smoky Mountain National Park and found out that it is the most visited National Park in the United States. It's a major tourist attraction in this region with over 11.3 million recreational visitors in 2016. That's almost twice as many tourists as the Grand Canyon. And of course, Cades Cove is the single most frequented destination in this national park.
Sunday 7/2/17 There were a couple places we wanted to see today but because of all the traffic, we chose to ride our bikes. There's a new entertainment complex called The Island in Pigeon Forge with more than sixty retail and specialty shops, restaurants and eateries, rides, games, dancing fountains, live music, attractions and more. Plus an area called The Old Mill which is centered around The Old Mill Restaurant. It's another place to walk around and check out the specialty shops, demonstrations, music and more. Looking at the map the Islands area was 1.5 miles from the campground and there was a four-mile bike path along the river that leads to the Old Mill area.
As we headed out for our ride we discovered that Pigeon Forge is not very bike friendly. There are no bike lanes on the main roads and because of the traffic we had to ride on the sidewalks. Plus neither The Islands or The Old Mill had any place to park and lock your bikes. The only enjoyable riding time was the ride on the bike path between the two attractions and along the river. This part runs along the Little Pigeon River behind all the commercial businesses. We rode to the Old Mill area first, walked around a while then headed back to the Islands area and walked around there for a while. The Islands area has a nice fountain area that is lined with over 100 rocking chairs. There's music playing and the fountains dance to the rhythm. We sat there for a while and then headed back to the campground. We probably did a total of 10 miles on the bikes.
Monday 7/3/17 Looking through all the literature we picked up at the visitors center the other day, I called and made reservations for Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. Our dinner show didn't start until 3:30 so we were looking for something to do in the morning. When we rode our bikes to the Islands at Pigeon Forge yesterday we passed a new attraction that looked kind of interesting. It was called The Alcatraz East Crime Museum. This was actually moved from Washington D.C. last year where it was known as The National Museum of Crime and Punishment. The museum has five galleries: History of Crime, Crime Scene Investigation, The Consequence of Crime, Crime Fighting and Pop Culture. It got really good reviews on TripAdvisor. The museum was interesting with a lot of different displays and a lot of reading. We enjoyed it but I don't think it's a very good museum for young kids. Because of all the reading, I think kids would get bored. We took our time and were in the museum for about three hours.
We then headed down the strip to our dinner show. Anything with Dolly Parton's name on it gets a lot of attention in Pigeon Forge and this show was a sellout. They ask you to get there early because there's a short pre-show. Three guys with a banjo, guitar, and bass singing songs and getting the audience excited. Once that's over we were herded into the main arena. There are shows like this all over the country with different themes. We saw one in Las Vegas at the Excalibur that had a medieval theme. This one has a cowboy theme. You are seated around a large arena at long tables. As the entertainment starts they serve you dinner which you eat without utensils. Everyone gets the same food. It was a "four-course feast of home-made southern kitchen favorites". Creamy vegetable soup, a whole rotisserie chicken, pork loin, corn on the cob, herb-basted potato, a drop biscuit and an apple turnover for dessert. The show was entertaining and included singing, comedy, horses, buffalo, longhorn cattle, racing pigs, and a little magic. There's team competition from each side of the arena and it's The North vs The South.
Tuesday 7/4/17 When we woke up this morning it was raining. So I looked through the pile of literature we collected trying to find something to do on a rainy day. There was a cave tour about 30 minutes from our campground. It's called Tuckaleechee Caverns and is in Townsend, Tennessee. Looking at the pamphlet it looked interesting but of course, before we go anywhere I have to read reviews on TripAdvisor. The place got a lot of good reviews plus we had a coupon so we got in the truck and headed to Townsend. It was a nice drive through the backwoods of Tennessee and away from all the traffic in Pigeon Forge. Because we have been to many caves and caverns my expectations weren't too high for this place. We were pleasantly surprised. They opened at 10:00, we got there around 10:20 and were in the first group to go down. It was a really nice tour. This is a privately owned cave and our tour guide was the great-grandson of one of the guys that discovered it. The story is that two young boys who lived nearby discovered the cave in the 1930's and explored it on their own. They kept it a secret and years later started buying up all the property around the site and opened it for public tours in 1953. There was a lot more to see than I thought from reading the reviews. The tour was about two hours long and very enjoyable. The price wasn't bad either.
Once we got back to the campground we rode our bikes back down to the main strip and had lunch at Mel's Diner. It started raining again around 7:00 PM and rained most of the night. So our plans to ride our bikes to Patriot Park and watch the fireworks were canceled.
Wednesday 7/5/17 We saved Dollywood until today because we were hoping to avoid the 4th of July crowds. Our thinking was that most people would visit over the holiday weekend and on the forth. It worked out pretty well. The crowds weren't too bad. But one thing we did was pay extra for the Dollywood Time Saver Pass. This lets us pass up most of the lines on the most popular rides. We wished we did this when we were at Universal. It worked out great but I'm not too sure we got our moneys worth this time. The crowds weren't bad today and I would say the longest wait was about 30 minutes. But it sure was nice to find a ride we liked and go on it two or three times with just a couple minutes wait between rides.
The park is very nice. It has a southern hillbilly theme to it. And that's not meant to be derogatory. They embrace the hillbilly theme with all the buildings decorated in the laid back hillbilly style. Even the ride operators and store clerks are dressed in overalls. It's supposedly made to look a lot like the Smoky Mountain area that Dolly Parton grew up in. There are sections in the park named Timber Canyon, Wilderness Pass, The Village, Craftsman's Valley and Owens Farm. Most of the rides are geared toward nice family fun and they have something for all members of the family. The Village section is modeled after a small town county fair and has rides like the merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, swings, kiddie rides and skill games.
We were interested in the roller coasters and they were spread all over the park. They have five big coasters and we rode them all. The wooden roller coasters are starting to get a little rough for us so we rode those just once. But they have a newer coaster called the Wild Eagle that we rode three times. We never rode on anything like this. It's the first wing coaster, the first ride of its kind in the U.S., it's 21 stories above Dollywood and takes the riders on a unique experience that feels as if they are actually soaring high above the Smoky Mountains. Instead of having the train on the track, Wild Eagle seats riders on either side so there is nothing but air above and below the rider! Check out the video below. I didn't take the video but found it on YouTube.
We got to the park at the opening time and stayed until closing. (I had to get my money's worth) Since we had never been here before I had a difficult time finding all the rides. The map was somewhat confusing at first. We rode everything we wanted to and saw most of the shows playing that day. We even spent an hour in the Dolly Parton Museum and got to check out the inside of her old $750,000.00 tour bus. My favorite ride was the Barnstormer. Named for the daring flyers and stunt pilots of the 1920s, The Barnstormer features two pendulum arms with seating for 32 riders. Seated back to back, riders travel progressively higher on each swing of the arms, reaching a maximum speed of 45 mph and 230˚ of rotation. At its highest, riders are 81 feet up in the air. We rode this four times. Again, I didn't take this video but linked to it from YouTube.
With our Dollywood Time Saver Passes, we had reserved seats for the Gazillion Bubble Show. I wasn't sure what to expect with a bubble show but it was really fun. This show is played at different places across the country and if you get a chance, go see it. This guy did amazing things with bubbles and actually holds the world record for the largest bubble ever made. Fan Yang created a 156-foot-long and 13-foot-high, bubble wall on August 11, 1997, at the Kingdome Pavilion in Seattle, Washington. The 4,000 square feet of bubble stayed up for 5 to 10 seconds. He put kids in bubbles, bubbles in bubbles and filled the entire auditorium with a gazillion bubbles. Glad we got to see it.
Dollywood also has an Eagle Mountain Sanctuary which houses the largest exhibit of non-releasable Bald Eagles in the United States. Eagle Mountain Sanctuary encompasses 400,000 cubic feet on the side of a very steep, heavily wooded hillside. The Bald Eagles residing within Eagle Mountain Sanctuary are all permanently disabled and would not be able to survive in the wild. Just standing near the enclosure we could see eight Bald Eagles. Right next door is the Wings of America Theater where they have a bird of prey show. Some of the birds they show are owls, buzzards, hawks, and eagles. At the end of the show, they ask for donations to help The American Eagle Foundation and bring out an African Pied Crow to help collect the money. Check out the video below. You can see Rose donating some money. (I did take this one)
All in all, we had a great time at Dollywood. Lots to do and our Time Saver Pass made it more enjoyable. I wouldn't say it's a "must see" but if you are anywhere near you should spend a day there. It's another place I've always wanted to visit and can now check it off my list.
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