20 Reasons to Drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The mountains are calling!

If your impression of Gatlinburg, Tennessee is that it’s just a tourist trap filled with gift shops and bumper cars, we’re here to disabuse you of that notion. Sure, there are plenty of those, and they are often filled with tourists rapidly separating themselves from their traveling money, but you can craft whatever sort of experience you want in this prototypical mountain town. Most of the cheesier attractions are concentrated in a dense tourist strip or in the neighboring playground town of Pigeon Forge, but Gatlinburg has a real history of hospitality. As a primary gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is the perfect staging point for exploration of that national treasure.

You can totally act like a tourist in your own home state

All that being said, sometimes it’s fun just to experience the attractions that draw tourists from all over the country. Jump into the stream of people strolling along the Parkway that runs through the middle of town and let down your inhibitions just a tad to remember what it was like to be a kid again. If you see the name “Ripley’s” or “Gatlin’s” on an attraction, you can bet you’re in for a “good kind of weird” experience, from multiple escape rooms to haunted houses to laser tag. Your friends back home never have to know that you played like a child, unless you buy the T-shirt.

Appalachian trail
Appalachian trail | Courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Explore the fascinating history of Appalachia

For a more authentic experience, seek out some of the historical sites in and around Gatlinburg that are part of the Tennessee Heritage Trail. The settlement was originally named White Oak Flats for the numerous trees in the area, and an explorer named William Ogle hewed the logs for a home for his family in the early 19th century before heading home to gather his kinfolk. Unfortunately, he died before returning, but his wife Martha made the trek south from South Carolina and boldly built the cabin from her husband’s logs that awaited the family’s return. The cabin has been moved to the middle of downtown, and you can still visit it today. A drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail will take you past many other historic farmsteads and ends at Ely’s Mill, a re-created example of an early 20th century mill that drove the economy before the tourists arrived.

Take a trip to the Alps without getting on a plane

While it’s sometimes hard to discern among the neon signs and Delta-8 shops along the strip, Gatlinburg does pride itself on being a quintessential little mountain town, modeled after an Alpine village. Set back from the sidewalk are The Village Shoppes, a charming little collection of locally owned stores that would be right at home in Bavaria. Take the Aerial Tramway from downtown or drive yourself up the mountain to Ober Gatlinburg, and you’ll feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of an Alpine resort. While the ski area with its dozen not-too-difficult  runs is popular with skiers and snowboarders, Ober Gatlinburg is a four season attraction. The park offers ice skating, rock climbing, snow tubing, a mountain coaster, an Alpine slide, and all sorts of other fun activities throughout the year. Stop for an après-ski drink in their woodsy lounge and bar for an experience that is straight out of a 1970s ski bunny movie.

The Greenbrier deck
Courtesy of The Greenbrier

It’s easy to enjoy dinner with a view

Take a short drive up to The Greenbrier, a lovely restaurant perched on the ridge above downtown that was a hunting camp until the 1920s. Almost every table offers a view of the forests below, making diners feel like they are suspended above the valley. One of the only craft cocktail spots in town, The Greenbrier features an impressive collection of rare whiskeys that you can enjoy at the bar before dining on a menu of dry-aged prime steaks. Look over the bar for the beam that legend says a jilted bride-to-be used to take her life when the building was a lodge in the '30s. Lydia is said to still haunt the restaurant, so warm that chill on the back of your neck with a nice nip of bourbon.

Add to the numbers at the most-visited national park in America

The Grand Canyon may draw five million visitors a year, but that’s less than half the number of people who travel through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park annually. One of the few national parks that still doesn’t charge an admissions fee, GSMNP was dedicated in 1940 when FDR gave a speech near the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Encompassing more than 500,000 acres, the park welcomes millions of visitors each year to explore the remarkable biodiversity, enjoy the views of the rolling Smoky Mountains, drive along the historic Cades Cove 11-mile Loop Road and hike the trails, some of which start right in Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg SkyLift Park
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park | Courtesy of The Village, Gatlinburg, TN

You can walk over some pretty extreme bridges

Speaking of the Grand Canyon, its glass-floored SkyWalk has become a popular attraction for thrill-seeking tourists seeking a breathtaking view of the canyon floor below. If that’s your kind of thing, Gatlinburg has you covered with numerous walking bridges, including some of those transparent ones. The Gatlinburg SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, including a thirty-foot section that dares you to “Pass the Glass” as you look down 150 feet into the valley. The mountaintop attraction, Anakeesta, boasts the longest tree-based skywalk in the world with its Treetop Skywalk. Stroll sixty feet up in the tree canopy across 16 bridges while you observe the wildlife of the forest. Keep your eyes peeled because you’ll possibly…

See a bear

Black bears run rampant around Gatlinburg, and while they’re generally pretty harmless, some of them have become a little too comfortable with human interaction. If you follow the rules of storing your food when in the woods and don’t try to approach them, spotting a black bear in the wild can be a thrilling part of your trip. Bears are often seen ambling the hills around Anakeesta, all over the National Park, along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or on the drive up to Ober Gatlinburg. But really, let’s face it, you’re also likely to see a couple of them rummaging around the dumpsters in your hotel parking lot. Just keep your distance, and everything will be fine!

Discover the vibrant local arts and crafts scene

It’s not all just gift shops in Gatlinburg. If you venture a little bit out of town, you’ll discover the largest group of independent artisans in North America, with more than 120 studios, galleries, and shops where they showcase their wares. Pottery and textiles are especially popular media for area artists, but you can find many styles of art. They’ve even set up an 8-mile loop featuring many of the artists, so that’s a great way to get out of the crowds for a little while. Notable stops on the route include the Cliff Dwellers artists collective, Ogle’s Broom Shop, and the Mountain Arts Complex. Arrowmont has been integral in preserving Appalachia art culture for decades, hosting artists-in-residence and offering studio space for them to teach and further their crafts.

Hollywood Star Car Museum
Courtesy of Hollywood Star Car Museum

It’s fun for the whole family

Gatlinburg is a multi-generational destination. The kids will go crazy for all the amusement park-like attractions like bumper cars, mirror mazes and arcades. Car nuts shouldn’t miss out on the Hollywood Star Cars Museum where they can see two Batmobiles, the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, and several speedsters featured in the Fast and Furious franchise. If the grandparents volunteer to watch the kids by the pool while the parents spend the day exploring, reward them with a night out at Ole Red, country music star Blake Shelton’s restaurant and live music club. Oh, and remind Grandpa to show that AARP card everywhere he goes for lots of discounts.

You can leave your car parked and let somebody else do the driving

Gatlinburg is blessed with a better public transportation system than most metropolises, thanks to a convenient trolley system that you can ride all day for just $2.00. With more than 100 stops around town spread over multiple routes, you’re never more than a short walk away from not having to walk anymore.

Let a skylift take you to the mountaintop without having to climb

We’ve already told you about the lift to Ober Gatlinburg that will carry you from mountain floor to mountain top, and in fact, the original builder of the tram ended up buying the ski resort since he figured more skiers would mean more revenue from skylift riders. Shrewd dude, that one. Anakeesta also offers trips up the mountain either in wide open ski lift chairs or enclosed gondolas if you prefer a more controlled environment for your ascent and descent. Any way you go, the views are breathtaking.

Courtesy of Anakeesta

Raise your heart rate with some thrilling rides

There are actually plenty of other ways to get your breath taken away in Gatlinburg. It seems like everytime you turn a corner, there’s another thrill ride awaiting you. The Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster lets gravity do all the work as you hurtle down a track at up to 35 mph in single or double cars. At Rowdy Bear Mountain Adventure Park, visitors have options of a traditional mountain coaster or one where you hang from a harness and glide down under the track. If you’re the competitive sort, you can actually race another daredevil on Anakeesta’s Dueling Ziplines. There are no real losers in a zipline race, though.

Pretend you’re a competitor on “Holey Moley”

Outside of Myrtle Beach, Gatlinburg probably has more miniature golf courses per square mile than anywhere in the world. From black light golf to indoor golf to outdoor golf to rooftop golf to Hillbilly golf, you could play a different course every hour over a long weekend and never repeat a hole.

Flapjack's Pancake Cabin
Courtesy of Flapjack's Pancake Cabin

There’s no better place on earth to eat pancakes

For years, Gatlinburg was a logging and sawmill town with a strong lumberjack culture. Even though the saws no longer rip logs, the preferred food of hungry woodsmen is still prevalent all over Gatlinburg with multiple pancake houses spread out around town. Favorite flapjackeries include Pancake Pantry, Log Cabin Pancake House, Little House of Pancakes, Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin, Atrium Pancakes, and Crockett’s Breakfast Camp. Don’t skimp on the butter and syrup, but maybe consider a salad for lunch.

Wet a line and chase some trout

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has about 2900 miles of streams inside the park boundaries and represents one of the last great wild trout habitats in the eastern half of the country. A valid fishing license from either Tennessee or North Carolina works for anglers seeking brook, brown, or rainbow trout, and there are also smallmouth bass hiding behind those rocks for the clever caster. Herbert Holt Park on the outskirts of downtown actually raises and stocks rainbow trout and maintains a fishing pier just for children, so the odds are good that they’ll reel one in.

Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
Courtesy of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

Get eye-to-eye with a shark

If you didn’t get lucky fishing in the GSMNP, we can guarantee you’ll find fish at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Consistently voted among the favorite aquariums in America, Ripley’s features multiple huge tanks filled with freshwater and ocean fish, plus the ever-popular penguins. An innovative shark habitat carries visitors on a moving sidewalk through the middle of the tank as sharks swim through clear tunnels inches over your head. It’s not an experience for galeophobes!

Camp out under the stars

Whether you are a new adoptee of the RV life after being cooped up at home for the duration of the pandemic or you prefer outdoor camping with just a tent and a sleeping pad, Gatlinburg offers many wild lodging options. In addition to campgrounds in the national park, many spots closer to town offer comfortable places to pitch our tent with easy access to bathing facilities and other amenities. Just remember to secure your food because you remember what we said about the bears.

Or… enjoy the great outdoors without having to actually sleep outside

At a certain age, maybe you don’t want to sleep on the ground anymore. We get it. Glamping is all the range in Gatlinburg, with options like the treehouse, luxury tents, and twee little vintage campers at Camp LeConte or the amazing Swiss Family Robinson-style elevated dwellings at Treehouse Grove at Norton Creek that were designed by television's “Treehouse Master,” Pete Nelson. You can really get above it all at this collection of airy aeries. Another option is the Appalachian Trail-themed Appy Lodge where each room is named after and decorated with a photo of a real sleeping shelter along the famed 2,193-mile hiking trail. That way when people ask where you stayed on vacation, you can boldly respond, “We slept in the Hurricane Mountain Shelter” and sound like a real badass!

Tennessee Homemade Wines
Courtesy of Tennessee Homemade Wines

Find some wine and ‘shine

Appalachia is notorious as moonshine country, but the local distillers have gone legit with regulated production facilities, tours, and retail sales along with tasting rooms to sample you on their latest delicious creations. Ole Smoky is the biggest and best-known, but smaller upstarts like Sugarlands and Tennessee Shine Company are also worth dropping in for a sip. Tennessee isn’t especially known for winemaking, but while we don’t grow a lot of Vitis vinifera grapes, there are plenty of other sweeter grapes and fruits that make their way into bottles in Gatlinburg. Tennessee Homemade Wines, Smoky Mountain Winery, and Gatlinburg Wine Cellars are some of the most popular stops on a wine tour. That last one is best known for their Cotton Candy wine, but we can’t recommend it in good conscience.

Conquer your acrophobia

If rope bridges and ziplines are more than you can handle, can you take an elevator or climb a few flights of stairs? Because that’s all you’ll have to do for commanding views from the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle and its observation deck 400 feet above the ground in downtown. Or once you ride whatever conveyance you choose to the top of Anakeesta, keep going up until you reach their AnaVista Tower with a 360° view of three states. The tower also has some of those glass floor panels, so don’t look down if you’re not ready for that particular thrill yet.

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Chris Chamberlain is a Nashville born and raised food, drink and travel writer who is a pretty accomplished cook in his own right. But even he has trouble cooking a decent medium-well burger over an open fire, so you can often find him at one of these places leaving it to the professionals. Follow the burger-meister on Twitter @CeeElCee.