After exploring Bowling Green and Mammoth Cave National Park, I turned “Ole Blue” to the southeast and back to Tennessee for a few days. Destination: Great Smoky Mountains National Park via Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
As I made my way through the afternoon traffic of Knoxville, I started to catch a glimpse of the Smokies in the distance and truly, the Smoky Mountains are one of this nation’s most wondrous, national creations! That said, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park of any of the 59 national parks in the US. In 2019 alone, the park saw over 12 million visitors- nearly 3 times the number of the next most visited park, The Grand Canyon.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park almost evenly divides its 522,427 acres between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, boasting nearly 850 miles of hiking trails, 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, 730 fish-bearing streams and over 1,300 miles of tributaries. While it may be the most popular national park to visit, there’s plenty of room to spread out and take in all the beauty of this mountain area.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was founded in the late 1700’s and officially settled in 1830 when Isaac Love established an iron forge here. The name of the forge referred to its location along the Little Pigeon River. The name of the river came from the flocks of passenger pigeons that frequented the banks of the river, and thus “Pigeon Forge” was born.
Pigeon Forge was a small, unknown community until the mid-1980’s when tourism began to increase across the area, and comes by its “small town” feel honestly with just over 5,000 full time occupants. Situated just five miles north of the Sugarlands entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigeon Forge is full of all sorts of tourist attractions to keep the millions of tourists that trek here annually busy, Dollywood Theme Park, Titanic Museum and Paula Deen’s Restaurant, just to name a few.
When we arrived at the Pigeon Forge KOA we found it bustling with families and groups from all over the United States. This KOA offers a lot of amenities, but you do sacrifice peace, quiet and space. It does feel a bit tightly packed in this campground, but you are close to the action, so Luna and I took advantage of all the attractions once we set ourselves up.
Once we were set, I took a few minutes to research great dog-friendly locations on one of our favorite apps, www.BringFido.com. It’s a super quick and handy resource in just about any location you’re in to find spots that are dog friendly, all rated and reviewed by dog owners. We found this great spot to eat in Pigeon Forge called Blue Moose Burgers and Wings. It was packed even on a Thursday night at 6 pm, but they have a great system set up to text you when your table is ready. Luna got her own bowl of water and I had a my usual onion rings with their Cajun Burger. The burger was good, but I could not get enough of the onion rings!
Friday morning dawned bright and early and led us to our first day out and about in the park. Something to note, while the Great Smoky Mountains is visited by the most people each year, as National Parks go, it is one of the least dog friendly hiking parks. There are only a few trails open to pets inside the park, and they have pretty strict on-leash rules.
We stopped off at the Donut Friar in Gatlinburg for a little breakfast. This small donut shop is a gem and you should absolutely not miss out on the chocolate eclair or the French crueller. Seriously, skip out on the chain donut shops and stand in line for one of these. Bring cash because they don’t take cards, but don’t miss out on these sweet treats!
Our first day in the park, we hit the Gatlinburg Trail. You’ll find access to the path just outside the Sugarlands Visitor Center right on the outskirts of Gatlinburg. It is nearly two miles long one way and is very wide and well maintained. The Gatlinburg trail is a super easy, well shaded walk through the forest, and is frequented by joggers, walkers, and bicyclists. The trail takes you across the Little Pigeon River by bridge and sports old building foundations and chimneys along the way. Depending on your pace, it’s an easy 2 – 2.5 hour hike out and back. We were there early and it wasn’t super busy, but by the time we were headed back in, there was definitely more congestion.
Since we had a pretty light day, we decided to hit Aubrey’s in Sevierville, Tennessee for dinner. The service and venue here were top notch. Seriously, if you are looking for a spot with food fresh and straight from the local farms, this is your place! I treated myself to the Granny Smith Steak Salad and was delighted with the perfect mix of hearty peppered sirloin and tart, fresh from the tree Granny Smith apples, and the bite of Wisconsin bleu cheese. It was delicious! Luna was taken care of with her own bowl of water and truly enjoyed large, open patio seating at the end of the day!
I decided to roll out super early on Saturday morning to head out to our next hiking adventure to try to beat the crowds. The trail I chose was about 60 miles away from our Pigeon Forge roost and a little over an hour and half drive away. But what a beautiful drive it was! We traveled down US-441, across the state border into North Carolina on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Both US Hwy 441 and the Blue Ridge Parkway are littered with pullover spots that gave us an increasingly beautiful view of the Smokies. It honestly took me over two hours to reach our trail! I kept pulling over to capture photos of all the stops!
We arrived at our chosen hiking trail, Fork Ridge Overlook trail to Waterrock Knob, around 8:30 am. This trail is moderate to intermediate depending on how you pack (the heavier, the harder) and there are two parts to this trek.
First part starts us out on Fork Ridge Overlook trail, it’ll take you through 5.3 miles of elevation, some parts slippery, with roots squirming over parts of the hike and mud created by spoty rain here and there. Some soft areas were provided by the NPS with hay, which Luna had full zoomies running back and forth on! The increase in elevation rewards you with new perspectives on the Smoky Mountains and valley below- it was definitely worth the work! We didn’t pass by anyone on this first part of the trail, so it felt like a private natural tour for just our viewing pleasure.
The second part of the trek is a short, 0.5 mile, steep hike beginning in concrete and ending on top of the overlook with a view of the valley below. This part you can get to more directly with a parking lot available for families and groups at Waterrock Knob Trail Head. Our trek ended from a natural staircase that intersected to this area.
We were not prepared for the crowd, but being that we arrived there around 11:30am on a Saturday, we should have expected it. It was pretty jarring to go from a peaceful, quiet journey to concrete and kids running back and forth, so we just started hiking straight up to the overlook for the view.
Overall, our trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was full of natural beauty, amazing food and, well, lots of other people. Frankly, a few too many for my comfort in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. All that said, I can’t wait to return again. There were so many things to see and do that I didn’t get a chance to experience, this park, and the towns that surround it, will definitely be on my “places to vacation” list in the future!