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Pigeon Forge, Tenn. – It’s unclear whether the black blob my husband photographed near a tree in the woods was a bear, as he insists, or just a big rock, as his touring buddy likes to joke.

Whatever, it was enough for them to join some 20 other vehicles parked along the roadway and peer down the hill for a closer – but not too close -- look at one of the natural attractions for which Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known.

Brandishing binoculars, cell-phones and long-lens cameras, fellow gawkers said a pair of cubs had been seen in nearby trees the day before. (Hopefully, most of the sightseers knew that willfully approaching within 50 yards – or any distance that disturbs or displaces a bear – is a federal violation that can result in fines and arrest).

With some 1,600 black bears, or two bears per square mile, bear-spotting is a popular activity in the half-million-acre, mostly wilderness tract that straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Routinely ranked as America’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains drew a record 11.4 million visitors last year. That was thanks in part to the November completion, after more than 50 years, of the so-called “Missing Link,” a scenic section of Foothills Parkway near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. 

Easy access boosts the popularity of this four-season park: it’s within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population east of the Mississippi River, and just 8½ hours from Detroit. And it’s one of the few national parks where no entrance fees are charged. The visitor count typically is highest from July 1 through mid-August and in October, especially October weekends during peak fall color season.

While my husband was checking out park bears, trails, waterfalls and other natural wonders, I explored nearby Pigeon Forge, a folksy, family-friendly gateway community flush with new attractions. Nestled in the Smokies’ foothills 35 miles from Knoxville, it’s more spread out, with more shopping, than its better-known neighbor, Gatlinburg, 7 miles away.

The biggest news in Pigeon Forge this season is Wildwood Grove, a $37-million expansion to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, opened in 1986. The country music icon, who grew up in the area, has said the new, six-acre park addition was inspired by “daydreams and imaginations” from her childhood here in the southern Appalachian foothills. Rides come in the form of giant acorns, painted mockingbirds and friendly frogs and bears, plus a 1,486-foot long, suspended roller coaster called Dragonflier.

The 55-foot-tall Wildwood Tree, with nearly 650 light-up butterflies and thousands of faux leaves, is the Grove’s centerpiece. Through Aug. 4, Dollywood’s “Summer Celebration” features concerts and “Dolly’s Nights of Many Colors,” a music-synchronized fireworks show.

My favorite Dollywood attraction, in the original 150-acre park, is the inspirational Chasing Rainbows Museum that chronicles Parton’s upbringing, family life, career and projects such as the literacy-boosting Imagination Library, a book-gifting program for children. Parked out front of the museum is her home-on-wheels tour bus, with bedroom clocks set to Dollywood, Nashville and Los Angeles time.

Don’t leave Dollywood without trying Parton’s famous cinnamon bread, made with flour ground onsite at The Grist Mill in Craftsman’s Valley. The bakery sells 800 to 1,200 fresh-from-the-oven loaves per day, depending on the season.

With over 15 venues, Pigeon Forge is big on theater- and dinner-shows, ranging from lumberjacks, magicians and music (country, Christian, Motown and more) to Dolly Parton’s Stampede, a 32-horse spectacle with flashing lights, flaming hoops and a whole rotisserie chicken on each dinner plate.

Last month, Parton launched another big attraction on the parkway. The $28-million Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show pits pirate crews in a splashy display of sword-play, aerial stunts and acrobatics on ships moored in a deep, indoor lagoon. Show-goers who arrive early may climb into barber chairs to get made up like pirates and mermaids, for an upcharge, before tucking into a four-course “pirate feast” with a Southern-style bone-in pork chop and pan-fried chicken.

Nearby, another new attraction, National Enquirer Live, debuted in May with displays starring pop culture headliners, famous and infamous, from Prince, President Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Princess Diana to Bigfoot, Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson. Designed to encourage selfies, interactive exhibits tell “the story behind the story” of how the supermarket tabloid got its game-changing scoops.

Amid all the new Pigeon Forge attractions, don’t overlook the classics. The Old Mill complex is anchored by a water-powered stone mill that’s been grinding grain, with some of the original equipment, since the 1830s. Watch the millers at work, then sample corn muffins and grits at the Old Mill Restaurant. 

Afterward, check out the Pigeon River Pottery and stop for samples at the Old Mill Candy Kitchen or the Old Forge Distillery. The latter offers free tastings of small-batch moonshine – oatmeal cookie, bananas foster, blackberry and other unusual flavors -- plus rum creams and other spirits.

Across the way, at Iron Mountain Metal Craft, you may run into Robby Bowman, a Season 4 fan favorite on the History Channel’s “Forged in Fire” TV series. He and his colleagues teach blacksmithing techniques and knife-forging skills in quick, hands-on classes with finished pieces to take home.

Time for a rest? Head to The Island, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex, and claim a wooden rocking chair around the central fountain. With the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel looming in the background, it’s easy to be mesmerized by the choreographed water show.

It’s even easier if you’ve stopped beforehand, as I did, at The Island’s cavernous Ole Smoky Moonshine Barn for moonshine tastings in myriad flavors. But don’t worry, live bluegrass music performed daily on the Barn’s outdoor stage will perk you up.

Pigeon Forge

If you go:

Information: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: nps.gov/grsm/index.htm; MyPigeonForge.com or (800) 251-9100.

Lodging: Reservations are recommended far in advance for camping in the park, both backcountry and “front country” with developed campgrounds at 10 locations. Pigeon Forge has 15,000 lodging units, including the deluxe, Jimmy Buffett-themed Margaritaville Island Hotel, with large standard rooms, rooftop pool and in-room “frozen concoction makers” (margarita mix costs extra).

Eats and drinks: Treat yourself to deep-fried deviled eggs and to-die-for bread pudding at Local Goat, which specializes in farm-to-table, scratch-made fare. An all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet includes pulled pork barbecue, along with fresh healthy fruit, at Bennett’s Pit Bar-B-Que. The family-style breakfast at Mama’s Farmhouse features typical Southern country cooking (think tasty hash browns, grits), but also platters of chicken tenders and homemade biscuits with strawberry butter and -- would you believe? -- chocolate gravy.

Etc.:  New this season, Pink Jeep Tours offers sightseeing excursions in the national park, similar to those at the Grand Canyon and Sedona.

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