Capes Cove Methodist Church
Robbie Caponetto

After a historic wildfire, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are back and better than ever.

One of my favorite family pictures is a snapshot, taken in the 1960s, of my mother and me wading in a clear mountain stream somewhere near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I was 4, and she was just shy of 30. We were both looking up at the camera—no doubt, a Kodak Instamatic manned by my dad—and smiling as if we were on a grand adventure.

Southerners have long been captivated by the Smokies. The Cherokee called these mountains Shaconage or “place of blue smoke.” According to the National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most visited one in the entire National Park System.

That’s why the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in November 2016 horrified us all. It destroyed 17,000 acres, but in this expansive wilderness covering 800 square miles in Tennessee and North Carolina, we have reason to hope that the beloved mountains can heal.

After the fire, many Southerners who had watched it on television and social media thought Gatlinburg must surely have been wiped off the map. In fact, downtown looked virtually unscathed as early as February 2017, with the majority of the severe damage in the city’s residential areas.

Pigeon Forge saw hardly any damage at all. Fire chief Tony Watson grew up in Gatlinburg, where his father was one of the first paid firefighters. “Besides a drought, we had 85-mile-per-hour gusts and prevailing winds of 35 to 40 miles per hour,” Watson explains. “When a fire presents itself under harsh conditions like that and it’s pushing hard and moving fast, it comes through like a bad thunderstorm—only with flames.”

Hundreds of firefighters and other first responders risked their lives to battle the dangerous firestorm. Watson’s wife even pitched in, helping to feed his team, which ran on precious little sleep for days on end. By protecting Pigeon Forge and preserving downtown Gatlinburg, firefighters saved the powerful economic engine that drives many jobs for mountain families. And while the fire caused tragic loss, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, and Pigeon Forge remain “Mountain Strong,” a slogan you’ll see and hear a lot in the Smokies.

“I’ve lived here for 20 years, and you couldn’t drag me away,” says Jeff Schoenfield, owner and broker at All Pro Realtors, Inc., in Gatlinburg. “Some residential areas were hit extremely hard, and it may take many years for them to recover, but the town is intact. And there’s nothing that compares with having a breathtaking national park for your backyard.”

As the Smokies welcome another spring, don’t miss the opportunity to visit these mountains—and shift your iPhone camera into overdrive.

Dolly’s Place

From Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa in Pigeon Forge, you can easily take a wilderness day trip to popular places like Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome—or a Gatlinburg excursion to all of the shops, eateries, and distilleries along the Parkway.

Robbie Caponetto

A 300-room property that opened in 2015, DreamMore is only 10 miles or so from both the national park and downtown Gatlinburg. Even so, give yourself plenty of time to experience the resort itself. From innovative room choices (such as “king with bunk”) and spacious porches lined with rocking chairs to a spectacular pool deck with mountain views, DreamMore fosters family togetherness.

The resort even worked with the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, to help families share this art form, and it also hosts a Lyrics & Lore weekend featuring storytellers and musicians.

DreamMore seals the deal with extra perks for fans of Dollywood parks, including a complimentary TimeSaver pass that puts you in the fast lane to the front of the line at 10 different attractions, a free resort shuttle that runs to and from Dollywood parks so you don’t have to fuss with your car, and package delivery from Dollywood stores to the resort. The bottom line: Dolly is thinking like Disney, and guests are reaping the benefits.

Robbie Caponetto

Know before you go: Dollywood parks are closed during certain months of the year, so check dollywood.com for information on park hours, resort reservations, and special events.

New in Pigeon Forge

DreamMore isn’t the only recent addition to the growing list of family attractions in Pigeon Forge. The Island entertainment complex offers restaurants, retail, rides, and music venues. The Island is home to the 200-foot-tall Great Smoky Mountain Wheel, with eight-seat glass gondolas that offer fantastic views of the Smokies.

It’s always 5 o’clock somewhere in Pigeon Forge—namely, at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant and store, the Margaritaville Island Hotel, and Margaritaville Island Inn.

Near The Island, a new attraction (not yet open at press time) called Pigeon Forge Snow promises 15 lanes of year-round indoor tubing on real (albeit manufactured) snow, with temps inside the facility at a comfy 60 to 70 degrees.

Downtown Gatlinburg

While Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg occupy two very close dots on the map, there’s no mistaking one for the other. Actually, there’s no mistaking Gatlinburg for anyplace else in the entire South.

Robbie Caponetto

This colorful alpine village offers a crazy quilt of attractions to explore, which you’ll find in a downloadable Vacation Guide at gatlinburg.com. From Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, you can walk to The Village Shops, moonshine counters, wine tastings, and lifts to the mountaintop Ober Gatlinburg or newcomer Anakeesta. The original Gatlinburg Sky Lift, which was destroyed by the fire, has been replaced with a brand-new one, now open.

Robbie Caponetto

A little housekeeping tip before you go: Many rental properties were lost to the firestorm, so if your group chooses a cabin getaway, be sure to request a property that isn’t in or near a burn zone. Try Stony Brook Cabins.

Once you have settled in and are ready to head downtown, don’t waste any vacation time searching for a free parking space. You will find several convenient public lots (we paid $10 per day, and it was definitely worth the price). Visit the Maps page of Gatlinburg’s website to reach a trolley map that designates public parking lots. You can also download a free Gatlinburg app on your smartphone.

Robbie Caponetto

If you’re hungry when you get there, you can’t swing a flapjack without hitting a pancake house in Gatlinburg. Check out the stalwart Pancake Pantry, or choose Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. Located on River Road, the very chill Tom & Earl’s Back Alley Grill serves up a killer potato salad with solid pub fare, fresh and reasonably priced. Check their website for a schedule of live music. On the Parkway, head to Loco Burro for the Table Side Guacamole and a downtown Gatlinburg rarity—balcony seating and a rooftop patio.

Robbie Caponetto

A fairly new development in East Tennessee, craft distilleries are popping up all over the place. The boom began in 2009, when Tennessee’s legislature dramatically broadened the state’s legal distilling territory.

Ole Smoky distillery in Gatlinburg lays claim to being the first legitimate premium moonshine distiller in the United States, and now it has two locations, including Parkway favorite The Holler. Also on the Parkway is Sugarlands Distilling Co., inviting you to plant yourself at their Sippin’ Post and sample a flight of 12 moonshines (you read that right) for $5, good toward your purchase of spirits in flavors like Tickle’s Dynamite Cinnamon and Southern Sweet Tea from the distillery’s Trading Post store.

Robbie Caponetto

It wouldn’t be a trip to Tennessee without crafts. The Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community just celebrated its 80th anniversary (gatlinburgcrafts.com). Find local artisans at work all along the community’s 8-mile loop, formed by U.S. 321 (East Parkway), Buckhorn Road, and Glades Road. The loop is also part of a Gatlinburg Trolley route. Stop by some of the galleries, visit with the locals, and bring a little piece of the Smokies home.

WATCH: Why Every Southerner Should Visit Gatlinburg

Must-Stops in the Smokies

At the Parkway base station of Anakeesta, which just opened last year, you can browse a Gatlinburg installation of popular Savannah Bee Company. Then catch a ride on the “Chondola”—your choice of a four-person chairlift or six-person enclosed gondola. Take a 14-minute trip up to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, and visit Firefly Village for some specialty shops and casual eateries while enjoying great views of Gatlinburg and Mount LeConte.

Also at Anakeesta are the Tree Canopy Walk, with hanging bridges suspended more than 40 feet above the forest floor; the Forest Memorial Interpretive Trail on the south side of the mountain, where the Chimney Tops 2 Fire caused severe damage; the Children’s Treehouse Village Playground; and zip-lining and other adventures.

Your Chondola ticket ($19.99 adults/$15.99 children) is good for the whole day, not just one ride, and it also covers admission to Firefly Village, the Children’s Treehouse Village Playground, and the Tree Canopy Walk. (Zip-lining costs extra.)

Robbie Caponetto

Everyone flocks to Smoky Mountain Brewery and you should too. They offer beer flights, great sandwiches like the Big City Reuben, and tasty pizzas such as the Brewmaster. You can find locations in both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge so no matter where you are, you can put this hot spot on your list.

Robbie Caponetto

Upcoming festivals include Hands-On Gatlinburg, an experiential crafts weekend held April 13 through 15, and the Gatlinburg Smoky Mountain Wine Fest on April 14.

Set for completion this summer is the transformation of the former Best Western Twin Islands on the Parkway into a new Margaritaville Resort in the Smokies. Here’s wishing Parrotheads a good time in black bear country.