How the Smoky Mountains are Fully Recovering After Devastating Wildfires
Leon Downey of Pigeon Forge remembers the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires of November 2016 like they happened yesterday.
The smoke just kept getting thicker in the air – like fog almost,” says Downey, who has served as executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism since 1989.
By the time that smoke had cleared, 14 people had lost their lives, and more than 2,400 homes and businesses in Sevier County were badly damaged or destroyed.
“None of us here in this community had experienced fires of that magnitude, so it brought us all closer together,” Downey says. “Our building became a shelter for displaced people, and we had more than 600 people seek shelter here. Local restaurants showed up with meals, and people showed up with cases of water and toys. The outpouring of support was beyond anything we could imagine.”
It’s been two years since the Great Smoky Mountains were engulfed in flames, and though it was horrific, the event illustrated the amount of love people all over the southeastern United States have for the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
“We have 9 million visitors every year, and because 80 percent are repeat guests who have been coming for generations, they take ownership in the area,” Downey says. “People see our cities as one great destination.”
Mary Hope Maples of the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Council agrees.
“We came together and lifted one another up during challenging times, and now we fully understand just how many folks across the country have deep connections to this place we call home,” she says.
Make Memories in Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg has long been known as the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, celebrated for its scenic mountain views and old-fashioned charm. It’s a place where visitors stop to sample handmade fudge or taffy and peek in shop windows at unusual treasures.
“Surrounded on three sides by stunning mountain scenery, Gatlinburg offers boundless opportunities for adventure,” says Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Gatlinburg is a walking town. Visitors can park their car for the day or choose lodging close in town and walk to attractions, entertainment, shopping, dining and eateries. There’s more fun than you can have in a day.”
Longtime favorites like Ober Gatlinburg’s aerial tramway and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies continue to attract the young and young at heart, while new attractions keep the city entertaining for repeat visitors. New viewfinders installed at the top of Ober Gatlinburg last year use a special glass that allows colorblind people to see the mountains’ beautiful fall foliage for the first time. Another new attraction, the Anakeesta Outdoor Adventure Park allows visitors to ride a Chondola up 600 feet to the summit of Anakeesta Mountain and enter Firefly Village, a magical tree-house-themed shopping and dining oasis. Whimsical Anakeesta also has a Dueling Zipline Adventure, Tree Canopy Walk and a Children’s Treehouse Village Playground.
Play in Pigeon Forge
Dolly Parton’s idyllic Dollywood amusement park is a top destination for families visiting Pigeon Forge. The Dollywood amusement park opened two new rides in 2017, including Drop Line and the Whistle Punk Chaser. At Dollywood’s Splash Country water park – which is separate from the theme park – visitors can experience the new five-story TailSpin Racer. But the Dollywood properties aren’t the only attractions that make Pigeon Forge shine.
“Pigeon Forge’s variety and sheer number of experiences increases every year, and 2018 is no exception,” Downey says. “Our visitors enjoy lots of options to spend time together, and Pigeon Forge makes that easy, whether it’s relaxing on a weekend getaway for two or a weeklong vacation for the entire family in the Great Smoky Mountains.”
Pigeon Forge’s first-class Titanic Museum Attraction tells the story of real passengers who traveled on the ill-fated ship and allows visitors to journey with them.
“Visitors are given a ticket with a real passenger’s name and the history of that person and why they were on the ship,” Downey says. “When you get to the last room, a Memorial Wall tells you what class passenger or crew you are, and you find out if you lived or died.”
Have a LEGO fan in your crew? The world’s largest replica of the RMS Titanic is on display at the Titanic Museum Attraction, built entirely from 56,000 LEGO bricks by a 10-year-old boy from Iceland.
“It’s stunning – really something to see,” Downey says.
Bundle up and build a snowman or have a snowball fight at the new Pigeon Forge Snow attraction, the first indoor snow facility of its kind in the U.S. It’s an indoor winter wonderland with snow tubing year round. Also new in 2018 is the 200-foot-tall Mountain Monster, which is set to hopefully open later in the year, featuring three rides with incredible views for thrill-seekers.
While in Pigeon Forge, stroll through the historic Old Mill Square and relax in a rocker by the musical lighted fountains at The Island in Pigeon Forge, both of which feature one-of-a-kind shopping and dining experiences.
Visiting the Smokies in the fall? Embark on Sevierville’s Fall Foliage Driving Tour for unparalleled views.
“Once the leaves start changing, it’s absolutely gorgeous, and there are interesting historic sites along the way,” says Amanda Marr, director of marketing and communications for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce.
The tour begins in downtown Sevierville, where you can pose for a picture with the Dolly Parton statue on the courthouse lawn.
At Sevierville’s Apple Barn & Cider Mill, you can watch live demonstrations of candy making, apple-butter churning and cider making. Then enjoy a meal at the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant located on a working apple orchard, where every meal begins with fresh apple fritters, apple butter and nonalcoholic Applewood Julep.
One of Sevierville’s newer attractions is Sevier Air Trampoline & Ninja Warrior Park.
“It’s so fun, with massive trampolines, a ninja warrior course similar to what you see on TV, a junior ninja warrior course and a four-story net system perfect for little kids,” Marr says. “Wilderness at the Smokies is an awesome place for families to stay, with an indoor water park, two outdoor water parks, mini golf, a massive arcade and more.”
Like Gatlinburg, the tiny city of Townsend is a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located in neighboring Blount County, Townsend has a rich Native American history and identifies itself as the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” with considerably less traffic but equally breathtaking mountain views.
Explore the underside of the Smokies at Tuckaleechee Caverns, a cave complex legend says the Cherokee Indians kept hidden from white man until 1850. Visitors marvel at Tuckaleechee Caverns’ unusual rock formations and waterfalls. Townsend is also a popular place for tubing and white-water rafting.
Mountains of Savings
Traveling on a budget? Here are a few tips to make your trip more affordable:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park is free to enter and enjoy, whether you prefer hiking or auto-touring. Start your visit at Sugarlands Visitor Center, where you can pick up a park map and have your questions answered by a ranger.
- Get around Gatlinburg by riding the Parkway Trolley. It’s free during summer months and during other seasons an all-day pass is just $2. Pigeon Forge also has trolley service for 50 cents per ride.
- Watch the fountains dance to music at The Island in Pigeon Forge.
- Snap a selfie with a statue of hometown heroine Dolly Parton in Sevierville.
- Visit the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community – the largest group of working artists and crafters in the U.S.
- As a Farm Bureau member you can save on tickets to Dollywood, Anakeesta, Titanic Museum Attraction and all of the Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg, as well as 20 percent off Choice Hotels. Access you discounts by registering at tnfarmbureau.org/membersavings or downloading the TN Farm Bureau Member Savings app.