If you’re planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, you know that natural beauty and family-friendly attractions are going to greet you.
There’s one big thing you have to decide, though—where to stay, Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg?
Below we cover what you need to know about both popular tourist towns to help you as you’re making a decision.
What to Know About Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge is in Sevier County, and it’s a town surrounded by mountains but close enough to McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville that you can fly in if you need to.
Pigeon Forge is primarily a resort town, and it’s just about five miles north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
What About Gatlinburg?
Gatlinburg is just about five miles from Pigeon Forge, but traffic in the area can be heavy, making the drive between the two feel longer.
Gatlinburg is a true mountain town in that it grows into the edges of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The town is based on European influences, and it’s made for walking, whereas Pigeon Forge is not a walkable town. Pigeon Forge is also adjacent to the mountains, rather than being built into them like Gatlinburg is.
Gatlinburg can be tougher to navigate because of the geography, but Pigeon Forge, despite being developed on wide-open land, is tough to navigate in its own way because of the traffic. You can use side roads to get around some of it, but if you truly hate traffic, Gatlinburg might be a better option for you.
If you don’t want to spend much time in the car on your trip, again, Gatlinburg could be preferable. The layout of the town makes it so that most of the attractions and things that people come to the area for are all built around what’s called The Strip. Even if you have to drive from your accommodations, once you find parking along The Strip, you can walk pretty much everywhere.
Pigeon Forge has the Parkway, which is the main road that will take you through town and is lined with all the tourist attractions, but not a lot of charm. You do have to pay for parking in Gatlinburg at most places, but in Pigeon Forge, there are traditional parking lots that are free.
Both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have a trolley system, and you might consider an unlimited pass.
We’ll compare the two some more below.
Which is a Better Home Base?
If you are in the area, it’s likely that you’ll go between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, so really, your biggest decision is going to be which one you should make your home base.
The answer to that depends on your priorities.
If your biggest reason for visiting is hiking and driving through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, then you should opt for Gatlinburg.
On the other hand, if you want to make your way to Cades Cove in the Park, Gatlinburg becomes more out of the way. The road is twisting and not a very comfortable drive if you’re prone to carsickness.
If the Park is the only thing you’re doing during your trip, you might skip Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge altogether and instead go to Townsend. Townsend is a charming town that’s far less developed, very scenic and it bills itself as the quiet side of the Smokies.
If you want views, consider staying in Gatlinburg. Many of the hotels and cabins offer beautiful mountain views and some elevation. Staying in Pigeon Forge because of its location and layout means you probably won’t get those views.
You can also find more seclusion around Gatlinburg than in Pigeon Forge. Many rentals are tucked away in very serene, peaceful areas, so if you’d like some isolation and peace and quiet, Gatlinburg could be a winner for you.
Pigeon Forge is closer to convenient grocery shopping if you’d like to make your own meals, while it can take a fair amount of driving from Gatlinburg to a supermarket.
For Gatlinburg, along with the downtown and places like Anakeesta, by far the biggest attraction is the Great Smoky Mountains, National Park. Millions of people visit it every year, and it’s the most popular national park in the country.
The National Park has more than 800 miles of hiking trails, driving tours you can take, horseback riding, camping, and picnicking.
Gatlinburg is located right at the Park’s entrance.
Pigeon Forge, on the other hand, is known for its touristy attractions.
For example, it’s home to Dolly Parton’s namesake theme park, Dollywood. Dollywood is a quaint theme park with thrill rides, food, craft demonstrations, and musical performances.
In the summer, Dollywood Splash Country is open, which is a water park next door to Dollywood.
Pigeon Forge is also where the dinner shows and attractions like the Titanic are located.
Both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer shopping, but they’re different.
In Gatlinburg, shopping primarily focuses on souvenirs and arts and crafts. The Gatlinburg area is home to a thriving arts and crafts community.
In Pigeon Forge, you’ll also find souvenirs and outlet shopping as well. There are two sets of outlets with national retailers if you’re looking for a bargain.
Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are fairly even with one another when it comes to the type of food they offer, although Pigeon Forge has more options.
In Pigeon Forge, there are a lot of chain restaurants like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.
Gatlinburg has The Melting Pot and the ever-popular Pancake Pantry.
The styles of food at the restaurants in both locations tend to be family-friendly and southern-inspired.
Overall, both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are good options, but which one you pick as a home base really depends on what activities you want to do and how much convenience you want versus wanting a very private, secluded place to stay.
If you’re going to the National Park, head to Gatlinburg. If you’re going for the thrills and attractions, you might consider Pigeon Forge.