10 Reasons to Visit Gatlinburg, Tennessee

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The Great Smoky Mountains meet the heart of Dixie in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and its next-door neighbor, Pigeon Forge, two towns that offer visitors abundant activities that appeal not only to kids but also to adventurous or kitsch-loving adults. The unique culture of this region is infused in amusement park-style entertainment, lending a country sensibility to every experience.

In late November 2016, a wildfire originating in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread into Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas, destroying or damaging over 17,000 acres and 2,460 homes and businesses in Sevier County. However, Gatlinburg residents and business owners have returned to their properties, and the areas determined to be safe have been reopened to the public.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Gatlinburg’s local economy, and the community is encouraging those who have planned an upcoming visit to not change their plans. All of the attractions listed within this article are currently open and ready for visitors. 

If you are not planning to visit Gatlinburg anytime soon but would like to help those affected by the fires, consider donating to Dolly Parton's My People Fund.

Dollywood

Dollywood

Dollywood is an absolute must-see for visitors to the area—this full-scale amusement park delivers thrilling coasters, classic theme park rides, jumbo corn dogs, wolf t-shirts, a restaurant devoted entirely to ham and beans, and plenty of love for America.

Learn about birds of prey at the Wings of America exhibit, where some of America’s most famous species (including a bald eagle) are on display. An enormous bald eagle statue soars across the Wild Eagle coaster, on which riders are secured into seats that rest underneath the outstretched wings of a bald eagle.

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Roller coaster fans will be impressed by the numerous coasters offered at the park. One of the highlights is the Mystery Mine, an indoor roller coaster that rattles vertically up glowing mine shafts and then plunges straight down into dark depths.

Besides the usual amusement park fanfare, Dollywood also gives visitors a taste of Appalachian history. Tour a Smoky Mountain home similar to Dolly Parton’s own childhood home in nearby Sevierville, watch a blacksmith perform his craft, visit a one-room schoolhouse from the 1890’s, and chug through the Smokies on an authentic coal-fired steam engine train.

Dinner Shows

The dinner show is a hot item in Pigeon Forge. Guests sit in an arena or in front of a stage and eat dinner while enjoying entertainment with a country twist. Shows are available most nights of the week and range from comedies to musicals such as Hatfield and McCoyGreat Smoky Mountain Murder MysteryBiblical TimesLumberjack AdventureComedy BarnSmoky Mountain Opry, or The Wonders of Magic.

Visitors who haven’t gotten enough of Dolly can continue to celebrate her at the Dixie Stampede, Dolly’s own dinner show. Skilled riders race horses around the 35,000 square-foot arena, jumping through flaming hoops and over bales of hay. There is plenty of singing and dancing, and at one point a herd of buffalo stampedes into Dolly’s Dixie as supporting characters in the story of America.

The dinner is a four-course meal that includes classic American fare such as a whole rotisserie chicken, pork loin, soup, corn on the cob, biscuit, baked potato, dessert, and all the soda or coffee you can drink.

Note that Dixie Stampede, like most other establishments in Sevier County, does not serve alcohol.

Christ in the Smokies Museum

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The Christ in the Smokies museum guides visitors through impressively detailed wax exhibits that recreate memorable scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. The details surrounding Jesus’s life begin at birth and progress only into early childhood before fast-forwarding to his 30s, so visitors can expect to spend about an hour in the museum. The end is the highlight of the experience, as visitors watch Jesus rise into heaven, surrounded by light and clouds. At the conclusion of this epic life journey, visitors are led into a small indoor garden for quiet reflection.

Pancakes for Breakfast

Together, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are home to more than 20 pancake houses within a 10-mile radius. Pancakes and crepes are served original style or with a variety of toppings and combinations. Buckwheat or even sweet potato pancakes are made to order and can be filled with blueberries or dotted with chocolate chips. Some menu items offer a geographical theme such as Caribbean-style pancakes, topped with bananas, chopped nuts, powdered sugar, and coconut. Good morning!

The menus are not limited to these popular breakfast cakes—pancake houses also serve the full range of classic American breakfasts with country twists like apple pie French toast, bacon waffles, country-fried steak, country ham, and biscuits and gravy.

As far as which pancake house is the cream of the crop, it is entirely a matter of personal opinion. The Pancake Pantry is Tennessee’s first pancake house, but the experiences are similar throughout, each with a homey atmosphere and friendly servers.

Excellent Views

Activities

Gatlinburg offers visitors the opportunity to get an eagle’s-eyed view of the misty Smoky Mountains and the towns nestled within this pastoral landscape. The Sky Lift in Gatlinburg takes riders up 1,800 feet to an observation deck with viewing telescopes and a snack bar. The Sky Lift is open in the evening in order to treat visitors to nighttime views. The chair lift is not enclosed, so in the colder months the lift’s opening hours vary.

Take an elevator up 407 feet to the top of the Gatlinburg Space Needle, an observation tower with a 360-degree view of the area. At the top, visitors can enjoy the Higher Learning exhibit that offers interesting insights into the culture and history of Gatlinburg and the Smokies.

Gem Mining

Channel your inner prospector and experience the thrill of finding something beautiful buried in a pile of dirt. Visit one of the many gem mines in the area for a unique mining experience. Gem mining (in this case) does not entail venturing into an actual mine with sharp tools; instead, visitors purchase a bag of dirt in a variety of available sizes and proceed to add said dirt to a sifting tray. A trough of flowing water sifts the material when the tray is submerged, and as the dirt flows away, gems in all sizes and colors are revealed.gem1

After visitors have mined their gems, they can identify what is what and in some places, can have jewelry made from their findings. The gemstones found in this area include sapphire, ruby, emerald, quartz, amethyst, moonstone, and more. Such a high concentration of gems is found only in a few places on earth, making this gem mining activity very specific to the region.

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Activities for Everyone

One of the more popular activities is Hillbilly Golf, a mini-golf course located on a large wooded hillside. Self-described as “the most unique miniature golf range in the world,” it is easy to see why. Golfers start the course with a ride on the tram to the top of the hill, playing their way down along one of two 18-hole courses. The course is mountain-themed and golfers play their putts through tree trunks, in and out of outhouses, under tractors, and alongside covered wagons.Golf

In the Mirror Maze, lights flash and glow, and mirrors line every wall, disorienting visitors. The maze is not meant to be overly difficult but it can be challenging due to its trippy features.

Visitors in the market for the unbelievable will be happy to discover that Gatlinburg is host to three different Ripley’s experiences–an aquarium, a haunted house, and the option to Believe It or Not. Gatlinburg teems with arcades and games, including activities like laser tag, skeeball, go-karts, and 3D glow-in-the-dark mini-golf. If Dollywood was not enough stimulation, the Wonderworks Indoor Amusement Park is there to fill the void. In the winter, Ober Gatlinburg is the place for skiing and even more fun should visitors find themselves running low.

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Lost Sea Adventure

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Many natural attractions can be found outside of Gatlinburg, one of which is the Lost Sea Adventure. This is a cave tour, although it can be difficult to discern that from the name alone. Tennessee is known for its extensive cave systems, many of which remain unexplored and even undiscovered. The Lost Sea Adventure is a chance to tour a portion of one of these huge underground systems. Although the cave can only be visited with a guide, it is set up for tours, with ample lighting and a dedicated walkway, so no need to climb over wet, jagged rocks or wear a headlamp. At one point in the tour, the guide will shut off all the lights for a few seconds. The complete darkness of the cave feels much heavier than darkness experienced aboveground. About a mile in, the group arrives at the bottom of the cave, and the guide loads everyone into boats for a ride in the “lost sea.” Lights illuminate the water and schools of rainbow trout scuttle by, flopping around above the water to alert visitors of their presence and hopefully inspire a sprinkling of food. The walk out of the cave is uphill, but the tour guide is more than happy to take a break or two.

The Smokies

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Gatlinburg is known as the “Gateway to the Smokies” due to its location on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Encompassing 520,000 acres of land, the Smokies are a picturesque forested mountain range, offering extensive hiking and vistas for viewing the misty blue landscape.

The Smokies’ name is derived from the Cherokee who first observed the fog or “smoke” that hangs over the rolling mountains. The climate of the Smokies tends to be very humid; this humidity reacts with vapor produced from an abundance of trees, mainly pine, that flourish in the region.

Several attractions in the park are within a short distance of Gatlinburg. Roaring Fork Stream after the rain is one of the more powerful streams in the park, and trailheads for Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls, the park’s most popular, are only a few miles out of town. Along the trail, hikers can tour an authentic mountain farmstead before reaching the falls.

Local Specialties

Tennessee is home to an array of foods and specialty items that are scattered throughout the area in gift shops or flea markets. Look for chow chow, a pickled relish condiment made from a variety of ingredients such as green tomatoes, onions, peppers, beans, cabbage, and more. No chow chows are the same, but all are best experienced on a sausage or with beans.

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Meat jerkies are popular, but not limited to beef. All types of animals are fair game for jerking, such as alligator, ostrich, or buffalo. There is a huge selection of barbecue marinades, rubs, and hot pepper sauces of all kinds to be found. There is no shortage of jams, jellies, and preserves, and if a food can be found fresh it can also be found pickled.gat1

Although Gatlinburg and the surrounding county are technically “dry,” the Ole Smoky Distillery offers a tasting of moonshines for curious visitors and local swillers.

A popular style of restaurant throughout the South is known as a “meat and three.” Originating in Tennessee, a meat and three restaurant serves customers a meal consisting of one meat, such as country-fried steak, meatloaf, pork chop, country ham, fried chicken, or beef, along with three sides like potatoes, green beans, corn, mac and cheese, vegetables, or spaghetti. Throw in some cornbread or sweet tea and eat like the King or Queen of Dixie.

PLAN YOUR TRIP with Fodor's Gatlinburg Guide