Tennessee towns just outside the Smokies are where the action is

Dollywood, which is now dressed up for Christmas, is one of the central attractions of Pigeon Forge, which abuts the Smokies.
Dollywood, which is now dressed up for Christmas, is one of the central attractions of Pigeon Forge, which abuts the Smokies.

If the primeval wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the yin, then three nearby Tennessee towns — Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville — are the yang. The park offers a meditative experience for many visitors; the towns are all about noise and action.

Gatlinburg, surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks, is ground zero for tourism on the Tennessee side of the Smokies. With its mountains, flower-bedecked chalets and rippling river running through town, it's America's answer to an Alpine village.

You can tour Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, recognized by TripAdvisor patrons as America's No. 1 Aquarium (the penguins are especially adorable), and then hop aboard the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway for the 15-minute ride to the ski resort atop Mount Harrison.

You can linger over breakfast at one of Gatlinburg's institutions, the Pancake Pantry, which has served made-from-scratch pancakes with real butter and whipped cream to satisfied customers for 54 years.

You can taste your way through 13 flavors of moonshine at Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler on Gatlinburg's main drag. I listened as Bruce, who could have been a Tennessee cousin of Louisiana's Duck Dynasty clan, explained the intricacies of making moonshine. Afterward, I tried several varieties, ranging from Pumpkin Pie to something called Hunch Punch Lightnin'. Best of all, you don't have to worry about the revenuers showing up.

Once home to artists and craftspeople who found inspiration in the nurturing green mountains, Pigeon Forge has morphed into — depending on your perspective — the Smokies' capital of kitsch or its headquarters of adrenaline-boosting adventure.

There are zip lines and rope courses, monster coasters and whitewater rafting. You can even go Zorbing, tumbling down the mountain in a large plastic ball (you have to wonder who the first person was to think this would be a good idea).

Pigeon Forge's premier attraction is Dollywood, and I was there for the opening night of its famous Smoky Mountain Christmas. Twinkling lights everywhere turned the park into a holiday fairyland; a parade wended its way through the village streets, and seasonal performances were the order of the day at various theater venues. Don't miss A Christmas Carol, where Dolly Parton herself shows up as the ghost of Christmas past (courtesy of a hologram).

Speaking of Dolly, the town of Sevierville might have been named for John Sevier, a founding father of the Volunteer State. But it is native daughter Parton who is most closely associated with the town.

Like Pigeon Forge, it is an entertainment oasis, especially if your kids (or you) are into mammoth water parks, video arcades and outdoor adventure parks. If you're not, there's always Tangier Outlets, with 120 high-end name-brand stores; the Robert Tino Gallery, in an historic antebellum home; and the Tennessee Museum of Aviation.