We went to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, both in Tenessee. No, we didn't go to Dollywood, but we spent a little time as tacky tourists, did some hiking, and took some good pictures. We have some friends from when we lived in Grand Rapids, and they like Gatlinburg; so they proposed we meet them there. So this was primarily a trip to meet family friends, rather than a trip to see the sights.
We stayed at the Music Road Inn, which was actually rather nice, and has very nice family-friendly facilities: an excellent pool, several waterpark-like features, a balcony in every room, etc. Our room was right next door to that of our friends, which made it convenient for visiting, etc.
For the first day, we didn't realize Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg were separated by a five-miles swath of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Thus, we drove through Pigeon Forge and thought we had seen the sights; the next day, we realized we had seen less than half of what there was.
Pigeon Forge is much like Myrtle Beach or Niagara Falls: it centers on a "Strip", a road that runs through town, and is covered in neon signs on both sides of the road. But unlike Niagara Falls and Myrtle Beach, the attractions are pretty much family-friendly. That is, where the attractions along the strip in Myrtle Beach are bars and tatoo parlours, or where the attractions in Niagara are lingerie shops an adult clubs; the attractions on the strip in Pigeon Forge are largely restaurants, mini golf, and go-karts. There was one "adult store", but I only remember seeing the one.
Gatlinburg is more like Banff (although it's not nearly as pretty as Banff is): it's more crowded than Pigeon Forge, and the main road winds somewhat. It's still crowded with shops, but they're all jammed next to one another, and parking is sparse and expensive. Gatlinburg is much more aesthetically pleasing: I'd rather see a crowded row of shops than a sea of neon any day.
The two towns sit on the edge of the Park, and there is plenty of hiking and wildlife just a few minutes out of town. We took a day in Cade's Cove, which is a wildlife reserve in the Park. The Cove has one-lane circular road that goes for 11 miles at 20 mph. Cars drive slowly through the park, and people see the animals, etc. spread through the woods and on several fields.
So all in all, Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg is not a bad family vacation spot. It's slightly over-priced, of course, but not so bad as Blowing Rock. And while it's full of tacky tourist traps, that's only to be expected. If we were looking for a quiet escape from the city, I would look at Blowing Rock instead. But for a family trip to just sort of get loud and tacky, it was an excellent choice.
The most important feature of Pigeon Forge, of course, is the Elvis Museum. I mean, how could you not make a trip, just to see that?
One thing we noticed almost immediately is, the people of Pigeon Forge are proud of their pancakes. There were at least 8 pancake houses along the 5-mile (or so) strip. Funny, some of the normal restaurants (i.e. not breakfast places) would even advertise pancakes. Even more interesting, the pancake houses typically close shortly after noon. So they're in what has to be a high-rent area, but they're only open half the day. We took some photos of signs advertising pancakes, since I was quite amused by the frequent pancake ads:
You might notice there are two identical signs: "Smoky Mountain Pancake House". Yes, they are separate restaurants, and they're less than a block apart. There's got to be a story behind that one!
We spent a day in Cade's Cove, and got some good pictures. A lot of people had stopped to watch a bear munching in the bushes on the edge of a field. We were happy enough to have a 300mm lens on our camera, so we might have gotten the best pictures of anyone. Unfortunately, we didn't have a tripod, so the pictures aren't perfect, but we cropped them down enough to get a decent look at the bear. We also got a couple decent shots of wild turkey:
That was a good day.
I suppose these pictures aren't too impressive to those of you in less populated areas, but for us in North Carolina, they're pretty spectacular.