Winter Escape

Pigeon Forge has much to offer during the cold season

By Greg Seiter // photography courtesy of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism and Adobe Stock

There has always been a special place in my heart for Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Maybe I was influenced by family visits there during my childhood, or perhaps my fondness has something to do with the area being a bustling destination surrounded by majestic mountains and natural beauty.

No matter the reason for my fascination, I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen into the bad habit of referring to Pigeon Forge as a warm season vacation spot. After all, it’s easy to picture myself hiking, biking and whitewater rafting on lazy summer days while admiring the plush greenery, floral décor and wildlife that fills the Smoky Mountains. However, as I learned during a recent November trip, Pigeon Forge should be widely recognized as a year-round vacation option.

Pigeon Forge, with more than 10 million visitors annually, is part of a three-city section that also includes nearby Gatlinburg and Sevierville. The eastern Tennessee trio combines to offer countless shopping, dining and entertainment options. Undoubtedly, though, the area’s crown jewel is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Savvy travelers are becoming increasingly aware of these points. In fact, Pigeon Forge was recently voted as one of TripAdvisor’s top 25 most popular destinations in the U.S. by the TripAdvisor community.

However, prior to my recent trip there, I couldn’t help but think falling temperatures and even the possibility of snow might adversely affect my visit. Upon arrival, I quickly learned how wrong I was.

Throughout or stay at The Inn at the River Hotel, which was recently renovated, my wife, Denise, and I enjoyed a spacious room, spectacular views along the Little Pigeon River and easy access to everything we needed, including sites and activities associated with an annual holiday season event called Winterfest, which began November 9 this year and continues until February 18, 2024.

With the combined efforts of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Sevierville, Winterfest essentially creates a winter wonderland feel to the area thanks to the display of millions of small, twinkling lights along streets throughout the mountain towns.

“We call them Winterfest lights because they can be seen all the way into February,” said Leon Downey, executive director, Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “Every year, Pigeon Forge invests about $100,000 in light displays. The city has three warehouses full of Winterfest lights. They start going up in August.”

Before our arrival, Downey advised that the light display at Dollywood and its Smoky Mountain Christmas festival is a must see. He was right.

The 165-acre theme park, which took top honors at the 2023 Golden Ticket Awards for Best Park, is breathtaking during Winterfest. With more than 50 world-class rides and an abundance of high-energy entertainment options, it’s easy to see how Dollywood can be enjoyed in all seasons.

“Dollywood is gorgeous to see. It’s the most ticketed attraction in the state of Tennessee,” Downey said.

Of course, there are many other “any season” entertainment options in Pigeon Forge, including the Titanic Museum and The Island in Pigeon Forge, which features unique shops, casual restaurants and its own set of amusement rides. I suggest taking a spin on The Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, which provides spectacular views thanks to its location at the foothills of what just happens to be the most visited national park in the U.S. — Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The park is such a wonderful resource. With 550,000 acres, there’s so much to see and do there,” Downey said. “It has more than 800 miles of hiking trails and is described as an international biosphere.There are only 14 national parks with no admission. It’s always America’s most visited national park.”

Accessible from The Island parking lot, the Wonders of Light Walking Trail allows for a leisurely stroll at your own pace on a flat and paved out-and-back pathway. The trail features 25 large-scale light displays programmed to music.

Those with a need for speed, as well as individuals who appreciate a slower experience, will enjoy the customizable Rocky Top Mountain Coaster, an outdoor alpine ride that is the longest coaster in East Tennessee. It provides a little more than nine minutes of twists, turns and tunnels, depending on how riders choose to apply their brakes. It is operational in most rainy and snowy conditions.

If you’re like me, dining is an important part of any vacation, and Pigeon Forge certainly doesn’t disappoint in that area.

Dinner shows and theatrical performances are widely popular in Pigeon Forge. I can’t say that I’ve sampled all of them over the years, but for those I have experienced, Dolly Parton’s Stampede is one of my favorites. While seated in the facility’s 35,000-square-foot main arena, guests are treated to a four-course, southern-style meal, followed by a colorful show that features friendly competition, horse-riding stunts, special effects and a lot of wonderful music.

“We have many theaters that do shows and comedy,” Downey said. “They reopen in January and February after briefly closing in December.”

Then, to start off any given day, I recommend Mama’s Farmhouse, a locally owned restaurant that serves family-style breakfasts. Another tasty option is The Old Mill Restaurant, where hearty, southern classics are served family-style in a traditionally historic setting.

In the mood for a Tex-Mex lunch or dinner? Azul Cantina is Pigeon Forge’s newest restaurant and home to the city’s first rooftop bar.

Local Goat is advertised as a casual hub for modern American eats, while the Pottery House Café specializes in freshly made sandwiches, salads and hearty entrees. If there’s a chill in the air, you can warm up next to the facility’s original, stone fireplace.

Thinking of pizza instead? A frequent Pigeon Forge visitor told me about the West by God CoalFried pizza at the Country Roads Axe Co. in The Shops of Pigeon Forge outlet mall. Axe throwing and a 24-tap, self-serve beer wall was a vacation within a vacation for me!

But throughout our stay, what impressed me the most was the genuine warmth and welcoming attitude we experienced virtually everywhere we went.

“Tourism is the only industry we have in Pigeon Forge, so people here realize they have to make our guests feel welcome and appreciated,” Downey said. “A lot of people who come here to visit came with their parents when they were kids, so they may even be staying in the same hotel or cabin they did back then. They’ve gotten to know workers, and they feel like they’re a part of the place. In a way, they have ownership here.

“I’ve been in this job for 35 years. There’s always something new happening in Pigeon Forge, no matter what time of year you come.”