Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains, this picturesque Tennessee town exudes charm and offers activities galore.
By Caroline Eubanks
The great outdoors seem even greater in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Here, among one of the nation’s oldest mountain chains, the tallest trees overshadow plentiful wildlife and blue skies brighten every mood. Originally the hunting grounds of the Cherokee people, the original settlement was founded in the early 1800s, and Gatlinburg continues to offer bits of history around every bend.
And thanks to the surrounding natural scenic beauty and wide-open spaces, there’s a big menu of additional activities and attractions for visitors of all ages.
Today, many travelers use Gatlinburg as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This massive, protected area spans more than 800 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) of the Southern Appalachians between Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of the most popular national parks in America, welcoming some 12 million visitors every year. You’ll certainly want to plan a day-trip into the park, but remember that Gatlinburg proper has plenty to do to fill your days, too, including family-friendly museums and live entertainment, as well as artisan shopping, fine dining, and homestyle restaurants.
Check out this collection of local highlights:
A number of Gatlinburg’s restaurants date back generations. Howard’s Restaurant, known for juicy steaks, burgers, and whiskey-infused dinners, has been open since 1946. The Greenbrier, set in a 1939 log cabin, is an upscale favorite for succulent steaks and giant chops served with baked apples. When it’s time for breakfast, head to the Pancake Pantry, a Gatlinburg favorite since 1960 that features more than a dozen versions of pancakes, including wild blueberry, sweet potato, and Swiss chocolate chip, as well as various waffle and egg dishes.
Take the aerial tramway and zip away from the crowds of downtown Gatlinburg to the top of this year-round adventure theme park, which is also one of the region’s few ski resorts during the winter months. When it snows, you can enjoy beginner-friendly skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, ice skating, and ice bumper cars here. For the rest of the year, find your thrills on the alpine slide and mountain coaster, and be sure to check out the wildlife habitat that is home to a family of black bears.
The mountainous region has a long history with moonshine, but these days, you’ll find the legal variety at distilleries in town. Ole Smoky and Sugarlands operations craft traditional varieties of the high-octane liquor, as well as flavored versions — think Appalachian apple pie, peanut butter and jelly, and so on — that are sure to please visitors who prefer sweeter tastes.
The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Fans of quirky attractions will love this space, which has more than 20,000 salt and pepper shaker sets from around the globe. They include the likenesses of Coca-Cola bottles, spaceships, teacups, and even the Loch Ness Monster.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
This aquarium showcases more than 10,000 underwater creatures across 10 exhibit areas. The sharks and penguins are among the crowd favorites. You can also buy a combination ticket to other Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg, including the Believe It or Not! museum, Mirror Maze, and Davy Crockett Mini-Golf.
Gatlinburg Arts Community
Browse for unique souvenirs at longtime arts establishments. The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts dates back to 1912 and offers classes and workshops in traditional crafts, along with a store that sells ceramics, jewelry, and other wares. Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community is another option, made up of galleries where you can see artisans demonstrating basket weaving, glassblowing, and woodworking.
Gatlinburg Pinball Museum
It’s easy to spend a morning or afternoon behind the pinball machines from favorite shows, movies, and stars, including The Lord of the Rings, Transformers, and, of course, Dolly Parton, plus arcade games like Donkey Kong and Centipede.
This mountaintop adventure park offers the best views of town from 600 feet (180 meters) above. It’s accessed by a gondola ride to the top, where you’ll find a mountain coaster, a botanical garden lush with native plants and playful sculptures, an observation tower, and multiple food and drink options, including Southern barbecue, burgers, pizza, and local craft beer.
Hollywood Star Cars Museum
This downtown museum sports a large collection of vehicles used in notable television shows and movies. The display includes the 1966 Batmobile, the General Lee (a 1969 Dodge Charger) from The Dukes of Hazzard, and even a 1981 DeLorean from Back to the Future.
Gatlinburg has a long history of live entertainment, especially in the country music genre. Blake Shelton’s restaurant Ole Red hosts regular shows, as does Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery and Gatlinburg Brewing Company. Another entertainment option is the Impossibilities magic show from master mentalist and magician Erik Dobell at the Iris Theater.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This popular national park features dozens of scenic drives and hiking trails, not to mention the visitor centers where you can learn about the people who settled in this valley more than 200 years ago. Start at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which has exhibits on local history. Explore on your own or join one of the tours that loop through the park.
The national park is full of creatures, including the omnipresent bear or elk, who are known for mating in the Cataloochee Valley area. You can also plan your trip for June when the synchronous fireflies appear, but you’ll need a permit available through a late April lottery for this incredibly in-demand event.
Elkmont Ghost Town
While in the park, allow time to explore Elkmont, a once-thriving resort community that was all but abandoned when the land was acquired by the National Park Service. What remains is a series of 18 cabins that are being preserved by the park service, a cemetery, and ruins of since-demolished buildings.
Fishermen come from all over the country to fish in the brooks and streams that stem from the Pigeon River. You’ll have your pick of outfitters that can set you up with a day on the water, where you’ll find rainbow trout and smallmouth bass for catch-and-release. It’s also a great place for beginners to learn the sport.
The neighboring community of Pigeon Forge is worth a visit for many reasons, but the biggest is Dollywood. The popular theme park has recently undergone a massive expansion and is ideal if you love roller coasters, homestyle cooking, and country music. The Dolly Parton Experience, an interactive attraction filled with some of Dolly’s most treasured mementos, is set to open in 2024. There’s also an adjacent seasonal water park.
The Old Mill
In Pigeon Forge, one of the oldest continuously operating grist mills in the country also features a restaurant serving Southern-style dishes, a distillery producing whiskey made from the mill’s grain, and a studio making artisan pottery.