Gatlinburg: Big Fun in a Small Town
A Gateway To the Smokies, Gatlinburg Is a Hotbed of Fun and Excitement
On the precipice of the Tennessee and North Carolina line and surrounded on three sides by the towering peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains sits the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This one of-a kind mountain getaway is resplendent in its beauty and diverse in its entertainment options. The area boasts more than twenty campgrounds near town and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Imagine waking up in your RV and within minutes you’re hiking up a mountain pass, standing under slowly circling sharks, or roaring down a hillside coaster.
Only in Gatlinburg can you ride a horse through a mist-filled valley in the morning, shop for a handbag during lunch, navigate a labyrinth of mirrors and LED lights in the afternoon, watch a herd of grazing elk in the evening, and then grab a bite at a rocking brewhouse before retiring to your campsite.
This variety, with activity options ranging from the shocking to the sublime, may be why the natural reaction to Gatlinburg is usually a genuine surprise. It’s hard to fathom that this tiny town is such a giant powerhouse of entertainment and outdoor pursuits rolled into one. What was originally a mere wilderness settlement now hosts a whopping thirteen million visitors a year.
Must-Do Gatlinburg Activities
In addition to the endless selection of outdoor adventures, there are three must-do Gatlinburg activities: shopping, eating, and walking the Parkway. And in Gatlinburg, it’s downright impossible to separate the three. Walking up and down the main mile-long Parkway is as identifiable with the area as the mountain peaks that surround it. Your head will be in constant motion as you take in the sights while strolling down this bustling thoroughfare that is part carnival, part shopping emporium, and a total people-watching extravaganza. Every inch of Gatlinburg’s famous Parkway is jam-packed with interesting eateries, rousing activities, and an enormous assemblage of small specialty shops that range from quaint to quirky. Throngs of visitors pack the sidewalks to window-shop, browse, and munch their way through all the amusements that the town has to offer.
Gatlinburg, A Hub of Activity
At the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, Parkway pedestrians can see the original 1966 Batmobile created by George Barris, alongside the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 and the Munster’s Drag-u-la hot rod. You can also pause to gawk at the oddities in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, climb high ropes on an adventure course, or challenge a friend to a round of putt-putt golf.
Shopping in Gatlinburg is its own unique experience. You won’t find any big box stores here. Instead, there are more than 200 specialty shops, boutiques, and craft stores. Buzz by the Savannah Bee honey store that serves up a tasting of delicious golden nectars from around the world, get on track at the Day Hiker outdoor supply store that will get you trail-ready, and collect memories at the Buckboard Too! nostalgia store selling items that will take you back to the 1940s and ’50s.
I can never resist a visit to The Village area with its old-world charm and unique shops like the Celtic Heritage, the Spice and Tea Exchange, and the oh-so-tempting Donut Friar. A few minutes sitting by the fountain and sipping a cup of hot apple cider and I was refreshed and ready to get back to shopping.
Gatlinburg Food & Drink
Not to be outdone by shopping, dining in Gatlinburg can include anything from pan-seared local mountain trout to a heaping plate of manicotti. Choose from among more than thirty sit-down steakhouses, brewpubs, and eclectic eateries. You can opt to chow down on a giant plate of Tennessee barbecue or dine al fresco by candlelight next to a mountain stream. If you are eating on the move, sidewalk snack merchants hawk tempting treats like freshly made fudge, warm caramel corn, and the popular foot-long Ogle Dog.
All Gatlinburg food aficionados will agree that the undisputed king of local culinary creations is the flapjack. The humble stack of pancakes, known locally as flapjacks or griddlecakes, has become a multi-decade and multi-generational tradition. Breakfast crowds pack the Parkway each morning to enjoy giant stacks of syrup-laden cinnamon roll, wild berry, and chocolate-chip pancakes. With a dozen or so pancake houses dedicated solely to the finer points of the flapjack, this is a tradition that is sure to always be a sweet and fluffy staple for visitors.
Full of treats and loaded down with packages you may need a lift. No worries, the Gatlinburg Trolley system is always handy to give you an easy ride from one end of town to the other and beyond. In fact, most campgrounds in the area have their own trolley stop, making it easy for you to jump on and go all over town. Rates are visitor-friendly at a mere $2 for an all-day pass. The efficient system makes it effortless to travel up and down the Parkway, to all the local attractions, and to the Arts and Crafts loop.
After spending the day roaming the town, you might be interested in some hot nightlife. As the sun sets, put on your party clothes and get ready to sizzle. Favorite evening festivity spots include Shamrock’s Pub where you can take your turn at the karaoke microphone, and Three Jimmy’s Good Time Eatery where local singers and musicians are showcased. Country singer Blake Shelton’s restaurant, Ole Red, kicks it up with live county music and line dancing, as well as serving up helpings of Blake’s favorite, banana pudding. The Smoky Mountain Brewery features rocking bands and house-brewed beers like Black Bear Ale and Tuckaleechee Porter. I tapped my toes here to a great band, with a spot-on rendition of the Allman Brothers’ song “Jessica,” and a pint of dark and rich Cherokee Red Ale. It was a fitting end to a wonderful vacation to this joy-filled mountain town that has something for everyone.
Four Seasons’ Worth of Fun in Gatlinburg
More than fifteen-hundred species of wildflowers grow here, including trillium, fire pinks, showy orchis, and dwarf crested iris. Hike the eight hundred miles of trails that meander through the valleys and across the vistas of the Smokies. Waterfall viewing is popular, with hikes to many falls including the easy stroll up to eighty-foot-high Laurel Falls. Black bears are ubiquitous to the area and most visitors are treated to at least one sighting during their stay.
The Gatlinburg SkyLift is a scenic lift chair that runs from the middle of downtown to the top of Crockett Mountain. For those brave enough to try it, the new SkyBridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America. We opted for a slightly more solid way to enjoy the panoramic view by taking a glass elevator to the top of Gatlin- burg’s iconic Space Needle for 360-degree views at a dizzying four hundred feet.
No trip to Gatlinburg would be complete without a sip of moonshine. While the original brew made in these parts was a clear corn liquor, the newest concoctions are a bit more creative and include options like maple bacon, cucumber mojito, butter cake, and mountain java.
Fall foliage takes center stage during the temperate season as crimson oaks, yellow birch, and hot orange maples light up the mountain ridges. Don’t miss the annual Craftsmen’s Fair that features more than two hundred talented artisans.
In November the annual chili competition sets the stage for the Winter Magic Kickoff where the holiday season begins in spectacular fashion with displays and millions of twinkling lights.
High atop Mount Harrison the Ober Gatlinburg entertainment complex draws skiers, ice skaters, and snow tubers all winter long. Even those who eschew the thrill of snow sports will embrace the views from Ober’s Aerial Tram ride.
When it gets too chilly outside, warm up with a visit to the Ripley’s Gatlinburg Aquarium. The award-winning facility features sharks, sea turtles, and a playful colony of penguins. Winter events include the Gatlinburg Christmas Parade, the Trolly Tour of Lights, and the New Year’s Eve ball drop and fireworks celebration.