Road Trip to Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Who’s Ready for a Road Trip?!

I have been climbing the walls for a long time and was so excited to finally to go away on vacation again!  If you’re like me and ready for a road trip, grab a good pair of walking shoes and your adventurous spirit and head to Tennessee!  An easy 7-7 ½ hour drive from Williamsburg, VA (depending on stops) along beautiful, mostly flat highway lies Pigeon Forge, Tennessee where you will find more to do than you could possibly imagine.  

We loaded the car and children and embarked on a much needed, surprisingly relaxing trip.  We stayed at the Black Fox Lodge, located just down the road from everything fun Pigeon Forge has to offer.  This hotel sits back from the main drag so it’s quiet and allows you to unwind as soon as you check in.  The staff is incredibly friendly, helpful, and go above and beyond to ensure your stay will make you want to return (which we actually did; this is the second time we’ve stayed here).  When you book this hotel, spring for a room with a balcony-the view of the river in the back does not disappoint!  The rooms are very clean and spacious, they offer food in the restaurant/bar area for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the pool was a hit with the kids with the waterslide and mushroom shaped fountain to play under and around.  If you stay here, getting around is much easier because you can hop on the road that parallels the main one to get to all of the local sights without traffic (just like driving on Mooretown Rd. instead of Richmond Rd.).

Although we love this hotel, we didn’t drive 7 hours just to stay here 😊.  When in Pigeon Forge, you HAVE to go to Dollywood!  This is a repeat trip for us because we were so impressed with everything this park has to offer.  My preconceived opinion of this park was changed for the better as soon as we entered; this park has the beauty of Busch Gardens with the thrilling rides of Kings Dominion (or other large amusement parks).  We ordered our tickets online before arriving and it was incredibly easy to scan them at the park entrance.  We purchased the 2-day tickets because it made sense financially and we wanted to be sure we had time to see and do everything we wanted in case of large crowds, lines, or bad weather.  Luckily, our weather was gorgeous throughout the vacation and, although the park was crowded both days, the wait times were surprisingly manageable on most rides. 

The rides that tended to have the longest wait times were: Lightning Rod, the world’s fastest wooden coaster (this is worth the wait if you don’t have the choice!), Mystery Mine (one of the most intense, unique rides I’ve experienced and a MUST for coaster enthusiasts), Wild Eagle (wait for the front on this one), and Fire Chaser Express (a family favorite and a must ride).  I don’t want to give too much information about the rides because I don’t want to spoil the thrill that they all provide to anyone riding for the first time; if you love amusement parks and thrilling coasters, this is the destination for you!  

A few tips for Dollywood: 

  • when entering the parking line, stay to the far right or far left-both lanes will split further to the right or left and these tend to go faster
  • order tickets online but print a copy as a backup in case of technical difficulties (personally, I prefer hard copies)
  • if you get to the park when it opens, go to the right and get in line for Lightning Rod (this one usually has the longest wait, but worth it!).  *We did this one first (about an hour and 20 min. wait and we entered the park at 10:15).  When the ride was over, we backtracked and went around the park counter clockwise.
  • If you arrive a little after opening, choose a direction and stick with it-go around the park and do everything along the way either starting from the right or from the left
  • Our favorite places to eat were in Wildwood Grove (kid’s area; Mexican and chicken tenders) located to the left of the main park entrance across from Mystery Mine and the barbeque/smokehouse place located near the Eagles and the log flume ride on the right side of the park 
  • Don’t get discouraged by wait times; you can do the entire park in a day if you pace yourself and have some patience
  • Heed the warnings regarding medical conditions for these rides!  As I said, they are intense and some can really affect you if you aren’t careful (Lightning Rod, Thunderhead, Mystery Mine, Tennessee Tornado)
  • STAY FOR THE DRONE SHOW!  This is one of the coolest things I’ve seen so far.  Watch the fireworks/drones from the Wildwood Grove (kid’s) area.  We stood/sat on the side of the pathway past the restaurant but not down by the giant tree by the DJ (due to the large crowd there).  The show is in the sky above the large, lit tree area.
  • bring your own ponchos in case of rain
  • you can ask for ice water in the restaurants and refill a bottle at any of the kiosks where drinks are sold-not necessary to buy water 😊

As I said earlier, this was a repeat trip so we wanted to explore more of the overall area this time.  On our second day, we drove approximately 20 minutes (there was some traffic) through the quaint little town of Gatlinburg and arrived at the base of our next adventure: the parking lot for Anakeesta, “downtown Gatlinburg’s highest point.”  I had never heard of this place before and it was well worth a day of exploration!  When we first arrived, we paid for parking ($15) and got into line for tickets.  Not knowing what to expect, we didn’t purchase tickets online but we now know better!  After obtaining tickets (about 10 min. wait), we then got into line for the lift line to take us to the top; this line took about 45 minutes because it was much busier than we anticipated.  You can get to the top in one of 3 ways: 

  • Take the lift-these hold 4 people.  *if you are afraid of heights or don’t like ski lifts, this is NOT for you!
  • Take the Chondola (gondola)-same idea as the lifts, but you are enclosed so they feel more secure (for those who don’t like exposed heights).  You will wait longer for these as there are only 2 chondolas spread between 30 lifts.  Chondolas can accommodate 6 people or families with strollers.
  • Take the bus-these run about every 15-30 min. but will keep you grounded. 😊

Once you arrive at the top, you will enter a beautiful sky-high mountain wonderland.  Everything is arranged to highlight the beauty of the surrounding mountains and nature.  The landscaping was meticulous and creative, there were areas for all ages to enjoy, and there is truly something for everyone!  If you want adventure and are seeking thrills, the mountain coaster and ziplining are for you.  If you want gentler thrills or have smaller children, explore the tree top skywalk and the tree venture and bear venture areas.  For relaxing family fun, check out the splash pad area, gem mining, AnaVista tower and gardens, and any of the overlook points lined with rocking chairs.  There are many beautiful shops to explore along the way as well as several restaurant/food options serving delicious food and refreshing drinks for all ages.  There is also a stage area with live entertainment in front of the Cliff Top restaurant/splash pad area if you are looking to sit and recharge.

Tips for Anakeesta:

  • purchase tickets ahead/online and skip the longer que line to the top (go to the fast track line)
  • if you’re afraid of heights, either opt for the Gondola (they call them Chondolas) or the bus to take you up and back!
  • If you want to experience the ziplines, book early: these sell out
  • If interested in the mountain coaster, don’t wait; this also fills up quickly
  • If you have little ones, there is a splash area-bring a towel or change of clothing
  • If you are riding the lifts down, be prepared to wait in line the later it gets
  • If you want to take a Chondola down, there is a separate line closer to the departure zone-you don’t have to wait in the lift line first for this, but you will wait (remember, there aren’t that many)
  • If you ride the lifts, keep your eyes open for wildlife: we saw a bear cub on the way down!

Following our adventure in Anakeesta for the day, we decided to explore The Island, a tourist destination in Pigeon Forge comprised of restaurants, carnival-style rides/attractions, and shopping.  Prior to arriving at the Island, we took the kids next door to a place called The Track and took a fun-filled, 5-minute go kart ride on their multi-level track.  There are many go kart tracks to choose from all over Pigeon Forge and the smiles and excitement this brought to our daughters made this diversion a must do, in my opinion, for anyone visiting.  Now, back to The Island: we arrived later than anticipated and could not get on the list at any restaurant there, so we went to the Margaritaville Hotel bar for dinner 😊.  We were able to get a seat outside along the river and away from the crowds and received our food in about 20 minutes (when all of the restaurants were quoting 2 hours for a table).  It wasn’t fancy, but the food was good, the bathrooms were clean, and the service was friendly!  

Tips for The Island:

  • Parking is free and there is a tram (or you can walk)
  • if you are planning on eating in one of the restaurants here, prepare to arrive early and wait!  
  • This can be a pass-through place or an all-day stop depending on your family/group (there are plenty of rides/activities to occupy your time, but be prepared to pay a la carte).  If you have been to Broadway at the Beach in Myrtle Beach, it is similar but cleaner/safer feeling in my opinion.
  • This is what I would consider a “tourist trap” but it was great for night time activity/getting out of the hotel

Upon leaving Tennessee, we decided to break up the return home by stopping in Lexington, VA for the night.  Once we settled into the hotel, we went to Devil’s Backbone for dinner and a drink with a view.  From there, we headed to Hull’s Drive In theatre where we saw Black Widow under the stars!  Hull’s Drive In is a beautifully maintained, community owned drive in established in 1950.  

Tips for Hull’s Drive In:

  • You can purchase tickets online or at the kiosk when you drive up
  • Bring chairs or a blanket if you want to sit outside of your vehicle in the grass (we didn’t have these with us, so we made a stop at the local Wal-mart and purchased chairs)
  • Bring bug spray
  • NO ALCOHOL ALLOWED-this is a family establishment involving vehicles
  • Purchase food/snacks from them-their prices are incredibly reasonable and it helps support this gem
  • Bring a ball, frisbee, or something to play with while you wait for the movie
  • Get there early to reserve your spot (movies start around 9 when it’s dark)
  • The last 5 rows above the snack bar area are the smoking section; the front rows are non-smoking

Before officially returning home, we checked out of our hotel and drove 15 minutes to Natural Bridge to hike and explore.  This was a great last stop because it was what I consider relaxing exercise 😊.  I hadn’t been here in years and had forgotten how beautiful this area was.  After a good couple of hours, we loaded the girls into the car for an easy 3-hour trip home.

Overall trip tip:

My daughters are 10 and 14, so they have learned how to travel well (they’ve had years of practice).  This trip began on a Monday and ended on Saturday.  We spent 1 full day driving to Tennessee, 4 nights in TN (M-Th), and the remainder making our way home.  If your family travels well, this was very manageable and relaxing.  If you have younger children, focus on your destination (TN) and maximize your time there. 

Our Itinerary:

Monday – drive to TN

Tuesday – Dollywood

Wednesday – Anakeesta/The Island

Thursday – Dollywood

Friday – checkout; stay in Lexington

Saturday – checkout; Natural Bridge; home

HAPPY TRAVELS!

~Kimberly, Travel Writer

Author

  • Kristy

    Multifaceted role combines marketing, sales, event planning, communications and digital management to support the mission and growth of Williamsburg Families, The Burg Weekender, The Burg Weekly and Localourist.

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