The perfect time to hit the Smokies depends wildly on what you want out of the experience.
We love the Smokies in the spring, when the mountains are fresh and green and blooming. They retain a bit of the nip in the air.
We love the Smokies in the summer when nothing is more refreshing than a cold mountain stream.
We love the Smokies in the fall when the kaleidoscope of colors is bursting all around, and the hint of the coming winter is the air.
We love the Smokies in the winter for Christmas traditions at Dollywood and the bright, colorful lights and the holiday spirit everywhere.
So while we here at TheSmokies.com don’t think there’s ever a bad time to go to the Smokies, we acknowledge there is a season for everything and every purpose.
Some seasons are worse to go to the Smokies than others.
Here are the absolute worst times to go to the Smokies:
1. January through February, because it can be depressing
For Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the first months of the year are like one, long December 26th.
The anticipation of the holidays is gone. It’s coldish. It’s gray. The mountains are dormant. Dollywood is closed. Several other attractions are closed or on winter hours.
Sure you can shop. Sure you can do indoor stuff. But a general malaise hangs in the air.
While there’s not much traffic to battle and the crowds have dwindled, there’s a reason.
The best thing to do in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in January and February is look ahead to better days.
2. Rod Runs, because traffic is a nightmare
Rod Runs are great. The cars are super cool and the people-watching is excellent.
But if you’ve ever accidentally driven onto the main drag unaware that it’s a Rod Run weekend, you are missing out on a special kind of hell.
It’s a little bit like being the victim of a mob hit in a Martin Scorsese film.
Everything’s going along swimmingly; you’re having a nice drive with your family. You see a classic car. Then another. Then the cold realization of what is about to happen hits just as everything goes slow-motion and you’re powerless to stop it.
“Oh noooooooo,” you shout to the family, shoving your children out of the car to the safety of the sidewalk. “Save yourselves.”
Then everything fades to black and you spend the next four hours motionless in the fast lane listening to the Rolling Stones.
3. Autumn, because of the crowds
I’m pretty sure it was Jean Paul Sartre who said “to every yen, there is a yang.” The beauty of the mountains in the fall is unmatched. It is also not much of a secret.
Every family outing to the mountains in the fall requires a certain kind of calculus.
What combination of backroads and main roads is the right combination to get us where we’re going in a reasonable time? Can I risk coming in from Exit 407? Should I go through Newport? Do I need to drive through Cosby?
If you’re planning a Sunday drive through Cades Cove, what time do you have to be there to beat the after-church crowd? What’s the general status of your patience? Has it been a bit of a week at work?
If the nerves are a little frayed starting out, what are the chances you’ll find yourself laying on the horn and telling a tourist from Cleveland that deer are everywhere and certainly are not worth blocking the loop for 35 minutes while you gawk at them.
Yelling “If you stop for anything less than a bear, I will go full Earnhardt and put your butt in the ditch,” is an indication, you picked the wrong day to go to the cove.
I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the East Tennessee humidity can be oppressive.
Summer can be a great time to be up in the mountains or it can be a sweltering hellscape of soggy, sweaty humanity.
Once, while traversing the concrete concourse of Dollywood on our way from the Country Fair up to the relative shade of Craftsmen’s Valley, the combined effects of the staggering heat and the relocation of all of the liquid inside my body to dripping off the outside of my body left me shuttling through the relative planes of existence like Val Kilmer in The Doors movie.
I saw a Shaman, a giant sentient lizard and Dabney Coleman in his bondage gear from “9 to 5.”
I literally started looking for a wedding ring I thought dropped from my finger despite the fact that I lost that ring 12 years prior while spinning it like a top.
Summer, my friend, can be brutal.
When do you think is the worst time to visit the Smokies? Let us know in the comments below.
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It’s go time. The showdown we’ve all been waiting for. Gatlinburg vs Pigeon Forge.
Mano a mano.
Who ya got?
Look, we understand there are no right answers here, everything’s subjective – unless you pick Sevierville, then we award you no points.
But when it comes to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge? With these major tourist destination towns, you can’t go wrong.
It’s the Beatles vs the Stones.
Star Wars vs Star Trek.
It’s original Aunt Viv vs surprise there’s a new Aunt Viv and Uncle Phil ain’t noticed a thing.
It is, of course, possible to like both but virtually impossible to not have a favorite. So, let’s get scientific with this thing and go to the tale of the tape.
Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: The Breakdown
So is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge for that family vacation?
Located five miles apart from each other, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have decidedly different approaches to the same goal. Sure, you can play mini golf, gorge on flapjacks and drink a disturbing amount of moonshine in either, but the civic identities couldn’t be further apart.
The overall comparison is based in geography.
Gatlinburg is a mountain town that was forced to grow into the nooks, crannies and hollers on the edge of what became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, it is located at the Park’s entrance.
Gatlinburg was built with a vague notion of European influence.
It’s a town built for walking, talking and sitting down at a meal and having a conversation. While there are plenty of things to keep kids entertained, Gatlinburg at its heart, is for adults, Certainly, mature adults – with diversions to keep the young ‘uns from getting riled up and bothering us.
Pigeon Forge is not a mountain town. It’s mountain adjacent.
As such it’s able to stretch its legs and grow. The mini golf courses and kart tracks don’t have to be carved into the side of a hill. If Gatlinburg is vaguely European, Pigeon Forge has a soupçon of Las Vegas.
It’s all neon lights and shiny cars. And it’s cruisin’ the strip, seeing things and being seen. It’s entertainment, hillbilly style.
Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: The featured attractions
There are a lot, a lot, of things for visitors to do in either Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. But each has a signature attraction, the crown jewel of civic tourism.
As far as Pigeon Forge’s attractions, the jewel is Dollywood, which is almost unfair. Dollywood, frankly, has surpassed Sevierville as the third-best community in Sevier County, and it’s not even open year-round.
With its own hotel, and an exceptional water park, Dollywood Splash Country, in addition to the theme park itself, Dollywood is not only a massive attraction for Pigeon Forge – it’s a massive, famous attraction for East Tennessee.
Continually recognized as among the best of the best amusement parks in the country, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood is the winner in this category and it’s not even close.
For years, Gatlinburg’s signature attraction has been Ober Gatlinburg or the Gatlinburg Space Needle. And that case could certainly still be made, but Anakeesta is charging hard into that territory.
Often, you come to the area with the idea of getting out and exploring. Proximity to each other is a wash, so how do the cities compare as a base of operations?
First of all, if you want to hike the trails or get into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and maybe drive over to the North Carolina side, Gatlinburg is the clear choice.
But if your idea is exploring more of East Tennessee, then Gatlinburg is actually a little bit out of the way. The decider here to me is Cades Cove and Townsend.
The road from Pigeon Forge through Wears Valley is a mostly pleasant, quite beautiful drive. The road from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove is an unrelenting, twisting claustrophobic hellscape.
Don’t be fooled by the babbling stream. That road hugs the bottom of a holler with mountain jutting up on either side.
If you suffer from the slightest bit of motion sickness, it is a torturous nightmare. It’s literally the only place in the world I’ve gotten car sick in the driver’s seat.
The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point, and I’m sticking my nose out the window like a dog begging for fresh air.
Which has the best shopping: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?
Again, there’s a bit of pick your flavor here.
The Pigeon Forge area has more discount outlet shopping – but also more cheesy tourist shops that look like they got picked up in a Myrtle Beach hurricane and landed here like Dorothy and Toto. Pigeon Forge is also hit by a bit of unlucky boundaries.
The best shopping in the county now resides in Sevierville at the Tanger Outlets, which has siphoned off some of Pigeon Forge’s outlet business.
Gatlinburg has a wider variety of unique shops, especially in the crafts community. However, you can get some of that stuff in Pigeon Forge, too.
Gatlinburg’s biggest problem for serious shopping is the very thing we awarded a point for in traffic, the walking.
In Pigeon Forge, you’re rarely very far from your car – and therefore your trunk – where you can drop off your purchases, rest for a second and recharge for round two.
If you buy too much stuff in Gatlinburg, you’re schlepping stuff up and down the mountain like a Sherpa ferrying adventure-seeking tourists up and down Everest.
The winner: Point for Pigeon Forge.
Which has the best themed dining: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?
I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s. When I came up Hard Rock Café was cool – not like pseudo Boomer cool but actual honest-to-God cool.
Give me a burger, some over-priced nachos and sit me next to some fringed Jimi Hendrix jackets and a guitar once played on stage by the backup guitarist from Slayer, and I’m a happy man.
Gatlinburg’s best chance for competition is Ole Red, which resides in the former Hard Rock location right at the entrance to the strip. Ole Red is a better live music venue and – it pains me to say – has better food.
It does not, however, have a Native American-themed dress worn by Cher when she performed “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves” at the Whiskey A Go Go in the winter of 1971.
I’m voting with my heart, not my head.
The winner: Pigeon Forge gets the point in an upset!
Which has the best restaurants: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?
Gatlinburg has The Melting Pot and the Pancake Pantry.
Why does Gatlinburg get knocked down? So it can learn to get up, baby.
The winner: Point to Gatlinburg. We’re on the comeback.
Which gets the dad vote: Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?
Dads have some traditional roles in vacationing.
We’re involved in the money. We typically play chauffeur. We make bad puns and get irritated in traffic.
These are the things we do. What do we want on vacation?
Ideally, to have some fun, enjoy spending time with our families and relax. Often, in the midst of vacation, all we really want is some peace and quiet. Perhaps try a cabin with a hot tub. And have a few moments to ourselves.
Gatlinburg clearly is the favorite here. The family is walking so we don’t have to drive all the time. Also, there are lot of benches where we can rest and check sports scores on the phone while the family spends 35 minutes inside another shop which sells all the same crap as the last four shops we went in.
Also, I’ve seen dads fly fishing in the middle of the river in Gatlinburg while their family shops.
That’s peak dad-ing. Do you believe in miracles?
The winner: Gatlinburg has come all the way back, baby.
Pigeon Forge vs Gatlinburg: Which is better?
This is it. We’ve done the science.
We’ve broken down the tale of the tape. We’re all tied up. We’ve eaten at a lot of pancake houses.
So vacationers, it comes down to a little thing I like to call heart, chutzpah, and a little je ne sais quoi. Who’s the best?
It’s gotta be Gatlinburg, my friend.
Sure, Pigeon Forge has go-karts but when you visit Gatlinburg, you may have a better chance of wildlife viewing. In fact, bears might come to your hotel to get a sup of cider.