GATLINBURG, Tennessee – Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are side-by-side sister cities in eastern Tennessee, both gateway communities to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the nation’s busiest.
Both are tourist towns, with attractions tacky and tasteful. Both have many hotels, restaurants, ice cream shops and more. Traffic in both can be extremely congested.
Despite many similarities, they’re not identical twins. Here’s how to tell them apart, as you plan your trip to the nation’s most popular national park:
Gatlinburg, population 3,944, is immediately adjacent to the park, just north of the Sugarlands Visitor Center. It’s more compact geographically than Pigeon Forge, squeezed by mountains on three sides.
Its downtown district is more walkable than Pigeon Forge’s and it is generally considered to have better restaurants.
Top attractions include Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Anakeesta adventure park, Gatlinburg SkyLift Park, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area and numerous others.
Where to stay: We stayed at the Oak Creek Lodge, 680 River Road, a terrific location just off the main strip, but easily walkable to numerous attractions and restaurants. Our balcony overlooked the Cliff Branch River, which runs through the town; rates start at about $150 per night.
Where to eat: We enjoyed fresh fish at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, which offers 10 different trout dishes; other recommended options include the Peddler Steakhouse, and Pancake Pantry (or any one of numerous pancake houses in town).
Don’t miss: The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, a collection of shops and galleries along an 8-mile loop east of downtown. Member artisans include woodworkers and broom makers, potters, jewelers and more.
Pigeon Forge, population 6,247, is about 8 miles north of Gatlinburg, connected via the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway (U.S. 441), which also winds 33 miles through the park.
The route through Pigeon Forge is wider, more dominated by parking lots and neon signs and is less pedestrian-friendly than Gatlinburg.
Top attractions include the Titanic Museum, built half-scale to the original ship; Dollywood; Alcatraz East Crime Museum; Pigeon Forge Snow, with indoor snow tubing; Dolly Parton’s Stampede and others.
Where to stay: We stayed a night at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort, open in 2015 and owned by Dolly Parton. This is a true resort, with lovely grounds, a spa, indoor and outdoor pools, entertainment, evening s’mores and more. And coming next year: Dollywood’s Heartsong Lodge and Resort, on the adjacent grounds. Room rates vary widely, but start at about $200 a night.
Where to eat: We ate two good meals in Pigeon Forge, at Local Goat, for fried green tomatoes, pimento-cheese burger and other Southern-American fares; and the Old Mill, serving extra-large four-course homestyle meals inside a historic gristmill. No reservations are accepted at the Old Mill, where wait times routinely run an hour or more (we got lucky and were seated within about 20 minutes).
Don’t miss: Dollywood, a terrific amusement park that has been ranked as the best in North America by voters in the annual Amusement Today survey.
Bottom line: I’d opt for Gatlinburg based on proximity to the national park alone, and also appreciated that it was much more pedestrian-friendly than Pigeon Forge.
Dodging the crowds and clouds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most popular
Overnighting at LeConte Lodge, the only inn inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park (but first, you have to get there)
Coming soon: Check out Travel editor Susan Glaser’s review of Dollywood in upcoming Travel coverage.