For many Americans searching for a destination during the pandemic one destination was at the top of their list, Gatlinburg, Tennessee. According to a Tripadvisor survey, Gatlinburg trended as the number one spot because of its attractions of hiking, fishing, rafting, and the proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Pent-up demand is prompting the world to think more about travel in 2021,” a company official says.
From black bears to salamanders. Old-growth forests to spring wildflowers. Log cabins to grist mills. Discover both the natural and cultural history of these ancient mountains. Clingmans Dome, providing the best views.
Gatlinburg has everything you need for a Great Smoky Mountains adventure. Plenty of things to do and places to stay. Terrific food and more family fun. Outdoor adventure, shopping live entertainment, and people watching.
Photograph Elk in the morning. Walk the Gatlinburg Strip. Ride the SkyLift to the Skybridge. Tour the Cades Cove Loop Road. Experience synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont. Fly fish Hazel Creek, near Fontana.
Gatlinburg is the gateway community for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in America. With three park entrances right in town, Gatlinburg serves as a basecamp for many of the 11 million park visitors each year. Surrounded on three sides by the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg is one of America’s great mountain resort destinations boasting accommodations of every kind, dozens of local and national restaurants and attractions galore. Gatlinburg prides itself on its walkability amidst mountain heritage and the arts, crafts and shops that reflect that tradition. Everyone enjoys walking the downtown Parkway, which runs from one end of Gatlinburg to the other. Gatlinburg vacations are famous for out-of-the-way places to stay as well as comfy rooms right in town. Gatlinburg is where your adventure begins in Appalachia, whatever accommodation you choose.
- Ober Gatlinburg is the only ski resort in the state. It has eight ski trails, three chair lifts, and a wildlife encounter area and is accessible via roads and a gondola from the city strip.
- The Gatlinburg Trolley, a privately funded public transit system, caters to area tourists.
- The Gatlinburg SkyLift takes visitors up 1,800 feet to the top of Crockett Mountain, to the longest footbridge, SkyBridge, in the US which spans two mountains.
- Gatlinburg Space Needle provides a 360-degree view of the Smoky Mountains from its 407-foot observation tower. The attraction includes glass elevators, educational exhibits on the history of Gatlinburg.
- The Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community is an 8-mile loop located on the north side of town, It is dedicated to preserving traditional mountain crafts. Where carvers, weavers, watercolor artists, casters, soap makers, potters, silversmiths and dozens of other artisans skillfully demonstrate their abilities, as well as several restaurants.
- The Ripley’s group of attractions includes Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which opened in 1997 and features special exhibits covering subjects such as the Titanic, pirates, and the planet Mars, Ripley’s Haunted Adventure, Odditorium, Mirror Maze, 5D Moving Theater, Guinness World Records, Old MacDonald’s Farm Mini Golf, and Davy Crockett Mini Golf. Ripley’s Super Fun Zone was added in 2020.
- Anakeesta is a nearby theme park named after the Anakeesta Formation that makes up many of the mountains near Gatlinburg, including Chimney Tops, Charlie’s Bunion, and Mount Kephart. The park has zip lines, chair and gondola rides to the top of Anakeesta Mountain, and a mountain coaster. Inside the park, Firefly Village has shops and restaurants.
- Dollywood and Dollywood’s Splash Country, which are both named for Dolly Parton, are amusement parks located in nearby Pigeon Forge.
- Hollywood Star Cars Museum, which opened in 1996, features Mayberry’s squad car, The Beverly Hillbillies jalopy, DRAG-U-LA from The Munsters, two Batmobiles, the Camaro from Charlie’s Angels, and Herbie the Love Bug. Many of the featured vehicles were designed by George Barris.
- A few music and family-oriented theaters are located in Gatlinburg, including Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre for musical comedy. Christ in the Smokies uses 3D dioramas with life-size figures, music, lighting, and special effects to tell the story of Christ.
- Because of the ease of obtaining a marriage license in Tennessee, Gatlinburg is a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons, with more than 20 wedding chapels in the town and surrounding areas.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Activities
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States. The park encompasses 522,419 acres, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The main park entrances are located along U.S. Highway 441 Newfound Gap Road in the towns of Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Cherokee, North Carolina, and also in Townsend, Tennessee. Surrounding towns are, notably Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend, in Tennessee, and Cherokee, Sylva, Maggie Valley, and Bryson City, in North Carolina
The two main visitor centers inside the park are Sugarlands Visitors’ Center near the Gatlinburg entrance to the park and Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina. These ranger stations provide exhibits on wildlife, geology, and the history of the park. U.S. Highway 441 bisects the park, providing automobile access to many trailheads and overlooks.
Cades Cove is the single most frequented destination in the national park. The Laurel Falls and Clingmans Dome trails offer relatively easy, short, paved paths to their respective destinations. Other historical areas within the park include Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, Elkmont, and the Mountain Farm Museum.
After hiking and simple sightseeing, fly fishing is the most popular activity in the national park. Brook trout are native to the waters, while both brown and rainbow were introduced to the area. Horseback riding, bicycling and water tubing are all also practiced within the park.
Park officials count more than 200 species of birds, 50 species of fish, 39 species of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians, including many lungless salamanders. The park has a noteworthy black bear population, numbering about 1,500. Elk (wapiti) were reintroduced to the park in 2001. Elk are most abundant in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park.
From the North:
If coming to Gatlinburg from Virginia, consider a drive via I-81 South to I-40 East and get off at Newport (Exit 435). Then, follow Highway 321 South into Gatlinburg. For those driving to Gatlinburg from Lexington, Kentucky, take I-75 South and follow Highway 321 to I-40 East to Exit 435.
From the West:
People driving from Nashville to Gatlinburg, you will take I-75 South and follow the same directions as if you were coming from Chattanooga.
From the East:
Those making the trip to Gatlinburg from Asheville, North Carolina can take I-40 West to Exit 440 and follow Highway 321 South to Gatlinburg.
From the South:
Driving to Gatlinburg from Chattanooga, Tennessee, take Exit 81 on I-75 North, following Highway 321 North to Gatlinburg through Maryville and Townsend. Expect to be on 321 North for approximately an hour and ten minutes.
If departing from Atlanta, Georgia to Gatlinburg, a leisurely road trip is along I-85 North to I-985 North to US 23. Take US 23 to Highway 23/441, changing to Highway 74/441 through Cherokee, North Carolina. It will take you about 4 hours and ten minutes. This will allow for maximum sight-seeing potential along the drive.
For those who may balk at taking a road trip but still want to take in the unique fun and foods of Gatlinburg, consider flying into Knoxville. McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) is 55 miles north of Gatlinburg. Most major airlines fly there daily and once you are on the ground, rent a car for the greatest enjoyment of your trip.