Pigeon Forge, Tenn., isn’t exactly a place for subtlety.
The competition for tourism dollars is fierce. To be relevant and successful, you need to stand out from the cacophony of neon lights and the dazzling array of sound and fury.
If luring tourists to your Sevier County place of business was a fishing tournament, you’ll find the best places have the flashiest of spinners and the stinkiest of stink bait.
In other words, the beaten path has been beaten for a reason. It is, by and large, the best part of the Pigeon Forge area filled with great attractions and famous spots.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. The surrounding area is filled with some of the most popular attractions in the world.
Most people don’t come to the Smokies to find the best-kept secrets. It’s like going to a Rolling Stones concert. You don’t want a bunch of stuff from the Bridges to Babylon album, you want Satisfaction.
Well, in the Smokies, satisfaction is most frequently found along Pigeon Forge Parkway or in downtown Gatlinburg.
But I get it. When I travel I don’t want just tourist destinations. I want to experience a little of the local life, the secret spots that aren’t necessarily trying to compete with the Eiffel Tower or Disney or whatever magic place is ranked No. 1 in the guidebook.
So while Pigeon Forge doesn’t run on the hunt for hidden treasure, hidden treasure still can be found if you have the willingness – and the days built into your vacation – to do it.
How many days is enough to do Pigeon Forge?
Five or six days seems to be the most reasonable number. If you have a week’s vacation, you need a travel day and then you need a day for:
- Pigeon Forge
- The mountains
- A water park (if the weather is nice)
- Miscellaneous activities
Certainly, you can have a shorter getaway. People do overnight stays and quick weekend trips, but you can’t say you took in everything Pigeon Forge has to offer in one weekend.
Of course, I’ve been running the roads of Sevier County now for more than 30 years and I still have things on my checklist. There’s a lot to get done.
So, with that being said, here is our list of hidden things to do in Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas.
15. Rich Mountain Road
The back road exit from Cades Cove is a white-knuckle drive over the top of the mountains featuring lots of switchbacks and a narrow mountain road. I’ve done it once and that was enough for me.
You’ll pass several trailheads along the way – including Indian Grave Gap, Rich Mountain and Ace Gap.
Rich Mountain Road intersects with the Cades Cove Loop Road at the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church. It’s a one-way deal, so if you give it a try, you have to finish. You’ll come out on Old Cades Cove Road. Stick with that until you hit Old Tuckaleechee Road.
Turning right will take you to Highway 321 – aka Lamar Alexander Parkway – faster. Going left will get you onto 321 eventually, too. The road is closed from November through May.
14. Carver’s Orchard & Applehouse Restaurant
Also located on Highway 321 – but on the other end, Carver’s Orchard and Applehouse Restaurant is a great place to go for scenic mountain views, down-home meals and lots and lots of apple treats.
Located about 20 minutes outside of Gatlinburg in Cosby, the orchard has been there for 80 years.
Today, it’s especially popular in the fall but is a great place to go all year long. The country store has seasonal fruits and veggies and the homemade apple pie is a must.
13. Dolly Parton’s childhood home
Some folks like to try to find Dolly Parton’s real childhood home. That is very much on the beaten path. The cabin in which her family actually lived is located on Locust Ridge.
But don’t expect to get too close. A tall fence surrounds the property and trespassers are not welcome.
Dolly makes the replica at the park available for a reason. That’s what she gives to her adoring public. The childhood home – which she had to buy back after her parents sold it – is more private.
If you want to explore the roads a young Dolly grew up on, Locust Ridge is the area you can explore. If you want to see the home, we recommend you visit the one she wants you to see at Dollywood.
12. Eat in Sevierville
It used to be that Sevierville was what you drove through on the way to have fun in the Smokies. But recently, a community of interesting restaurants has taken root in downtown Sevierville, creating a little foodie community.
The list includes the upscale destination, The Appalachian; the excellent Trotter’s Whole Hog BBQ; the delicious Graze Burgers and the opening-this-fall Pinchy’s Lobster & Beer Company.
These are some of the best new restaurants in Sevier County.
I’m making an assumption about Pinchy’s, but everything there looks promising. And they’re all right here together in downtown Sevierville. Food on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge may be more fun, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better.
11. Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
This one is not for the whole family. If you want to explore the most quirky attraction in Gatlinburg, maybe have someone take the kids mini-golfing or something unless they’re really into sets of salt and pepper shakers.
This place is billed as one of the few salt and pepper shaker museums in the world, though I cannot confirm. I have no reason to doubt them, but the world is a big place. Maybe some guy in Outer Mongolia has a similar passion but hasn’t gone to the web yet.
This place – located on Highway 321 in Gatlinburg on the way to Cosby – isn’t far off the beaten path. However, it is one of the more interesting hidden gems we have.
It is just what you’d expect from the name: A place filled with a massive variety of salt and pepper shakers, some of which you can buy.
Is there really enough interest in the world for this to support having paid Gatlinburg real estate rates? Apparently so. Sometimes you find your niche and just go with it.
10. Gatlinburg’s historic Arts and Crafts Community
The Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community have come together to create one of the real hidden gems of Gatlinburg. A large section of the Gatlinburg area tourist trade was built on the backs of the talented craftspeople and artisans of the mountains.
The eight-mile loop – which I suppose is the very definition of a beaten path – connects over 100 craftspeople, artists, eateries and bed and breakfasts.
Additionally, you can park your car and ride a Gatlinburg trolley for a day of shopping, dining and more.
9. Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park
David Letterman used to say “There is no off position on the genius switch.” And deep in the forests of Sevier County, I have found true genius.
Yes, the Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park has ziplines and climbing walls and hiking trails with swinging bridges. And that’s all worth getting off the beaten path but none of that is the genius.
What’s the genius?
Gender. Reveal. Zipline. BAM!
Yep. For the right price, the folks at Foxfire will set up a zipline experience that’s perfect for the ‘Gram, Tik-Tok or whatever social media platform you choose.
Bring your friends and family. Tell the folks at Foxfire the gender of the bun in your oven and then announce it to the world. This is done by ziplining across the park streaming the gender color – pink or blue – 1,000 feet in the air for all to see.
As they ask on the Foxfire website, “What better way to find out the gender of your baby than painting it across the sky?”
8. Wears Valley Road eateries
When I was a young man, Wears Valley Road was off the beaten path. The road – connecting Townsend to Pigeon Forge – was sprinkled with a few businesses here or there. Honestly, it was chiefly a place you heard about on the news when one of the mountains caught fire.
Today, Wears Valley is a road well-traveled. But – for many – it is still something of a hidden gem. Unlike the growing foodie scene in Sevierville, there are not a lot of artisanal eateries on Wears Valley Road. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t art to what’s being done.
My favorite is Pawpaw’s Catfish Kitchen, but I am partial to good Cajun food. You can eat well at Hillbilly’s Restaurant, Elvira’s Café or at Grandmother’s Kitchen.
If you want something a little more in tune with the foodie scene, check out the Wears Valley Social Food Truck Park, a destination where local food trucks can set up shop, creating an outdoor food court.
7. Parrot Mountain
If you thought the Salt and Pepper thing was quirky, what if I told you in the mountains above Dollywood there is a park with hundreds and hundreds of tropical birds? In fact, many of them have their own English cottage-style birdhouses.
Welcome to Parrot Mountain, an eco-tourist park with more than 80 different types of birds with hundreds and hundreds of individual birds on display. It sounds odd, right? Tropical birds living in a Smoky Mountain setting in houses heavily influenced by the architectural designs of the British Isles? But it works.
The setting is a perfect place for the birds’ bright color palette to shine. Also, you get to walk around commenting on the “beautiful plumage” like you’re in a Monty Python sketch.
You can actually buy a bird to take home, but man, really think that decision through. A pet bird is a decades-long decision that you may well be handing down to your kids or grandkids. For example, the African Grey Parrot can live as many as 65 years in captivity. Even more impressively, wild macaws can live 60 years in the wild. The oldest pet macaw reportedly lived 112 years, but I remain skeptical.
6. Explore the Appalachian Trail
There are many places in the mountains where you can set foot on the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine.
Most of us will never take the five to seven months necessary to hike the entire length, but everyone should set foot on the trail and at least imagine the possibility.
5. Walker Sisters homeplace
The Walkers Sisters’ story is one of my favorites in the mountains. The cabin that remains today was built in the 1840s by their father “Hairy” John Walker. John Walker had just returned from the Civil War after being released from a Confederate prison.
Walker and his wife Margaret moved into the cabin – which was owned and occupied by the sisters’ maternal grandmother. Hairy John and Margaret had 11 kids, not uncommon in that period. In fact, Hairy John was the oldest of 15 brothers and sisters.
All of the family’s five boys married and moved away from the family cabin as did a sixth sister. But the remaining five sisters – led by the oldest Margaret Janes – became spinsters, living the majority of their life in the family cabin. The Walker Sisters were Primitive Baptists and lived a Spartan life in the days before the national park.
Later, when the National Park Service came calling to purchase the Walker land, the unmarried sisters negotiated lifetime leases to stay on their land.
American culture was fascinated with the people of the mountains. When the park opened, visitors were interested in Cades Cove and the Chimney Rocks. But also, the remaining inhabitants of the park – like the Walker Sisters, who were a living tourist attraction.
In 1947, the remaining Walker Sisters became famous thanks to a Saturday Evening Post profile. According to the NPS, the Walkers saw this as an opportunity to sell tourists handmade items like children’s toys, crocheted doilies, fried apple pies and poems. The last of the sisters passed away in 1964, more than 120 years after the cabin in which they lived was built.
You can still visit the Walker Cabin, which underwent safety renovations fairly recently. It’s a 2.6-mile hike. The hike is rated as relatively easy. The Little Brier Gap Trail has a trailhead not far from Metcalf Bottoms picnic area on Little Greenbrier Road, near Wears Valley Road.
4. House of the Fairies
In the days before the national park, the mountains were filled with interesting people. There were some – like the Walker Sisters – who embraced the ways of the primitive mountains as it was the only thing they’d ever known. Others – often well-to-do Northerners – saw the mountains as the perfect place to build a resort or getaway.
Louis Voorheis, a Cincinnati, Ohio resident, wanted privacy, a place to get away from crowds and the modern world. So he came to the mountains and built a paradise for himself and the secretary who became his wife.
Voorheis, however, was a little late. He started developing his 38-acre site in 1928. By the time he passed away in 1944, the national park had already opened. He and his wife Ethel had agreed to gift the property to the park in exchange for a lifetime lease.
Among the many structures that Voorhies built on the property in the 16 years of development was a spring house, a stone archway with an open door next to a set of stone stairs carved into the hillside. Today, this moss-covered spot is known as the House of Fairies, a popular destination for hikers, photographers and artists.
The House of Fairies is accessible via the Twin Creeks trail. However, it isn’t along the proper trail. As you pass the office for Discover Life in America, you’ll see a small path that veers off to the side of the trail. If you follow that, you’ll see the old spring house with a simple open door built into the side of the mountain.
3. Max Patch
Located in the Pisgah National Forest of North Carolina, Max Patch is truly off the beaten path.
Max Patch is a bald mountain-top pasture with no trees. It offers stunning 360-degree views of the mountains.
Located on the Appalachian Trail and accessible from both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides of the mountains, Max Patch is popular with hikers and is a great picnic destination. I strongly urge approaching from the North Carolina side.
The area has unfortunately struggled with an abundance of trash and vandalism in recent years. The United States Forest Service has issued a series of restrictions to help the mountain recover. Visit their website to learn more.
2. Metcalf Bottoms
One of the best picnic areas in the Smokies, Metcalf Bottoms is perfect for cooking out, especially for large gatherings like family reunions.
Pavilions are available for rent. You can access Metcalf Bottoms from Little River Gorge Road, but I greatly prefer to come in from the Wears Valley side.
The Little River offers a great way to cool off in the hotter months. When the water is high enough, it is a good spot for tubing.
1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
How can the most visited national park in the country be off the beaten path?
But it’s filled with thousands of little places, remnants of the past, overlooks, creeks and hollers that are all worthy of attention, of preservation.
We mentioned a handful in this list but there are dozens upon dozens upon dozens more. Get in the park and explore – safely. Take a road you’ve never taken before.
Explore a trail you’ve never hiked. Take the extra steps and see what’s up around the bend. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is itself a treasure that is chock full of treasures, great and small. Get out there and find them.
What is your favorite hidden adventure in Pigeon Forge TN? Let us know in the comments!