There is something for everyone in the family to discover and enjoy in The Volunteer State
By Andy Temmel
From the Smoky Mountains in the east to the Mississippi River in the west, the state of Tennessee—and two locations in particular—has a diverse range of activities and attractions that appeal to the entire family.
Pigeon Forge is a city with just over 6,000 permanent residents and has an industry built on tourism, attracting more than 7 million visitors per year that come from all over the country. “Tourism is the only game in town, it’s our only industry,” says Leon Downey, the tourism director of the city of Pigeon Forge, who’s been at his position for over 30 years.
Before tourism became the dominant industry in town, Pigeon Forge started out as a quiet haven for weary travelers coming down from the Smoky Mountains on their trek west. The name “Pigeon Forge” comes from the quaint Little Pigeon River that flows through town and once attracted passenger pigeons that would feed on the plentiful beech trees lining the river.
“In the 1700s, the people that came here came over the mountains from North Carolina and found this broad valley here for farming and settled here,” says Downey. “It was pretty much a rural farming community for years and decades.”
There are several other shops, games and family-owned restaurants that line the 5-mile-long main strip through town, including an old pastime: dinner theaters.
“While they’re serving you your food there is a show going on out in the arena,” says Downey referring to Dolly Parton’s Stampede, one of the more popular dinner theater attractions in town. “It’s very entertaining, and so popular they will do five shows a day with 1,100 people!”
The most well-known attraction in the region is Dollywood, the theme park owned by country singer Dolly Parton. However, due to the ongoing health crisis, smaller crowds and outdoor spaces have become more attractive. Fortunately, the region has several nearby options such as Gatlinburg, Smoky Mountain National Park and Mt. Le Conte.
“There’s a lodge on top of it. It’s called Le Conte Lodge and the only way you can get to it is to hike or ride a horse there, and it’s a rustic lodge,” says Downey. “They start taking reservations in October for the next year because it’s such a unique experience.”
When visitors make it to the mountaintop lodge, they are greeted with hot chocolate and a hot meal. They can then walk to a ridge to catch the sun setting over the western mountains.
For those who like the city life, Memphis offers plenty to do.
“History, food, and music are what drive people here,” says Milton Howery, director of public relations for the city and a lifelong Memphis resident. “We are the home to Blues and the birthplace to rock ‘n’ roll, and music attractions cater to that.”
There are several attractions and museums that pay homage to the deep musical roots of the city and the artists that lived and performed there. “The [Memphis] Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum is a complete timeline of Memphis music history and is part of the Smithsonian Institution,” says Howery. Probably the most famous complex of attractions and music-related museums in Memphis is the former home of Elvis Presley.
“You can’t come to Memphis without visiting Graceland, and no trip to Memphis is complete without it,” Howery says. “Graceland has expanded over the years and has something for the entire family.”
In addition to the rich music history of Memphis, live music still plays a major role attracting the millions of tourists a year that come to see local and touring musicians fill bars and venues.
“You can typically catch live music always on Beale Street, but also in Midtown Memphis on Overton Square and you have music places in Midtown, like Hi Tone and Minglewood, always have different shows and events, so that music component is big, the past and the present,” says Howery.
In a normal year of tourism that would allow for large gatherings, Beale Street would usually be packed with thousands of people hitting clubs and other music venues. There would also be major music festival and a massive barbecue cooking competition during Memphis in May.
Tourists can still get a taste of world-famous barbecue and other culinary favorites while enjoying the city’s diverse dining scene.
“We have over a 100 barbecue restaurants that are all amazing, some are known for their barbecue spaghetti and some of them are known for their dry rubs,” says Howery. “Also, we have soul food in Memphis.”
The food, music and historical aspects of Memphis are what brings the crowds, but visitors to “Bluff City” also have options to venture outdoors and check out the breathtaking sunsets from Tom Lee Park, have a kayaking trip down the Wolf River observing native wildlife or take a walk over the Big River Crossing, which is the largest pedestrian bridge that crosses the Mississippi River.
At the end of the day a place to dine and take in some incredible views of the city is the Memphis Pyramid. Howery says the former arena, which is now home to a unique retail experience, contains a Bass Pro Shops, hotel, lodge and restaurants. Visitors can take an elevator ride to the top, where, he says, “The Pyramid has a glass observation deck at the very top that allows you to see the entire city of Memphis.”
Whether it is a more laid-back mountain town vacation or the thrill and noise of a big city, Tennessee is a worthy destination for all.