“Hey, Ladybug!” This was our very first interaction with a Dollywood employee, a parking booth attendant who stuck her elbow out the window, winked, and hollered her hello. It was an auspicious start to a day of sincerely cheerful shop owners, waitstaff, train conductors, and exhibit operators. The area outside the park—replete with verdant valleys, campy dinner shows, and rustic souvenir shops—should also be on your to-see list. This just might be the friendliest spot in Tennessee.
This avenue of stores and displays—complete with a little creek and an old-school wooden water tower—is the heart and soul of Dollywood. See reproductions of an old schoolhouse, a blacksmith and foundry, a gristmill, and a chapel, and view (or buy) the country crafts that have made Appalachia famous. And if you’re looking to upgrade your sedan to a surrey with fringe on top, don’t miss Valley Carriage Works, a working wagon shop. 2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., Pigeon Forge, (865) 428-9488, dollywood.com
From kettle corn to fresh-made pork rinds, Dollywood will dish up as much country cooking as your arteries can handle. Visit Granny Ogle’s Ham N’ Beans for a plate of old-fashioned pit ham served with turnip greens and pinto beans, a mini cast iron skillet of cornbread, and fruit cobbler. Or stop in to Miss Lillian’s Chicken House for a stab at the All-You-Care-To-Eat buffet. For (second) dessert, get some mammoth cinnamon bread at the gristmill, which doubles as a bakery.
The Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store
The Apple Barn is less a store and more a campus, located in Dolly’s hometown of Sevierville. There’s the Apple Pie Kitchen, where you can try a fried apple pie. There’s the Candy Factory, where you can pick up old-fashioned treats like peanut brittle and salt-water taffy. And there are even more shops selling apple fritter mix, huge honking country hams, slab bacon that’s salt-cured in an on-site smokehouse, and a whole mess of apple butter. 230 Apple Valley Rd., Sevierville, (865) 453-9319, applebarncidermill.com
Get a snapshot of mountain life the way it was way back when. Part of the wildly popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove is an 11-mile one-way loop around a spacious valley containing restored pioneer-era barns, log houses, churches, and a working gristmill, all of it side by side with the local wildlife. Heads up: Pack your bike, get there early on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and you’ll have the road (mostly) to yourself: Through September 25, it’s closed to cars until 10 a.m. to allow for pedestrians and cyclists. 10042 Campground Dr., Townsend, (865) 436-1200, nps.gov/grsm
This dinner-and-a-show combo crosses a rodeo with a county fair. You’ll see horse trick hijinks, racing ostriches, a “herd” of buffalo, piglet racing, kids chasing chickens, and of course, pyrotechnics. Visit with the horses before the show, eat a truly enormous rotisserie chicken dinner (with assorted fixings), and settle in for a knee-slapping good time. 3849 US 441 Scenic Parkway, Pigeon Forge, (865) 453-4400, dixiestampede.com