Although one of the smallest cities in Tennessee (it has a population of just over 4,000), Gatlinburg is one of the state’s busiest tourist destinations. The reason for this popularity? The fantastic Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the United States. In two different states, Gatlinburg seems to have a monopoly on the best scenic routes into the park, a fact easily understood when you arrive; everywhere you look there are hotels and entertainment venues hungry for attention, making it the perfect place to start your adventure into the region’s spectacular wilderness. And when you’re done, there’s no shortage of fun activities and attractions in the town itself, from popular major tourist attractions like the excellent Rockley Aquarium to more obscure attractions like the Salt and Pepper Museum Find more fun places to visit with our list of top attractions in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains.
Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a forested region with spectacular mountains reaching over 6,500 feet in elevation. A central part of the Appalachian Mountains running east to west, the Smokies get their name from the fog that often rises from the valleys as smoke signals. Travelers enjoy the mountains year-round: hikers and mountain bikers in spring, summer and fall, and skiers in winter. A number of excellent visitor centers offer guides and easy access to the most scenic spots, and there are numerous campgrounds scattered around the park.
One of the highlights is the park’s flora, a mix of deciduous and coniferous forests and more than 1,400 species of flowering plants, including mountain magnolias, wild azaleas, mountain laurels, orchids and rhododendrons. A total of more than 900 miles of hiking trails crisscross the park, and many visitors also come for fly-fishing, which is considered one of the best in the country.
Clingmans Dome observation tower
A delightful hour’s drive from downtown Gatlinburg, Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It offers beautiful views spanning 100 miles on a clear day and is especially attractive at sunrise and sunrise. sunset. The highlight is a superb 54-foot-tall observation tower perched atop a mountain that offers 360-degree views of the Smokies, which are actually located in seven different states in the United States, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Although the tower is open year-round, be sure to keep an eye on the weather, as the road leading to it closes if things get bad. Many other trails stretch next to the parking lot, which is only a half-mile walk on the paved (but steep) trail to the observation tower.
Ripley’s Smokey Aquarium
The Smokey Ripley Aquarium, the best of Ripley’s many attractions in Gatlinburg, offers many exotic sea creatures from around the world. Highlights include an immersive acrylic tunnel that allows visitors to see sharks and other ocean predators up close, and interactive exhibits, including the always popular “touch the beam.” For a truly unforgettable experience, consider signing up for one of the fun penguin experiences, which includes petting one of these amazing creatures, or put on a bathing suit and swim with stingrays.
Other Ripley fun activities to keep busy teens occupied include Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium Gatlinburg with its collection of unusual items such as shrunken heads, medieval torture instruments and a fun mirror maze; Ripley’s Moving Theater, a fun cinematic experience that enhances the on-screen action with moving chairs; the Guinness Museum of World Records, whose highlight is Harry Houdini’s torture chamber; and the always-fun haunted adventure.
Sugarlands is one of the most beautiful parts of the Smoky Mountains, a valley named for the sugar maples that once dominated the region and very popular as a day trip from Gatlinburg. The area extends from the aptly named Roaring Fork in the east, all the way to the slopes of Sugarland Mountain in the west and overlooks the 5,000-foot-high Mount Le Conte. Sugarlands are especially popular with hikers, and hiking is one of Gatlinburg’s main attractions in October when the leaves change color.
One popular trail is the Old Sugarland Trail, open to hikers and riders. A gentler trail leads from the Sugarlands Visitor Center and passes John Ownby’s Cabin, built in 1860. Nearby is the former homestead with Noah Ogle Place, which has an old barn, shack and mill. Another popular (and short) hike, which is great for kids, heads from the visitor center to the attractive 25-foot Cataract Falls. While at the visitor center, check out their ranger-led programs, natural history exhibits and movies about the park.
The gateway to Great Smokey Mountains National Park, always busy Gatlinburg, provides everything travelers need after a long day of walking around the area. The main thoroughfare, the Parkway, is where most of the activities take place, and there are as many popular stores and restaurants as there are major hotels and motels. For those with younger travelers, there is no better place to blow off steam than at the many attractions, including arcade entertainment, theater performances and aquariums. Of particular note is the Gatlinburg Space Needle, a tall steel tower with a 400-foot-high observation deck with stunning views.
Cades Cove, one of the most remote corners of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is also one of the most popular destinations, attracting about two million visitors a year. Once home to numerous settlers, the area attracts tourists with its picturesque farm meadows, well-preserved pioneer homesteads, and incredible mountain views. It is also a favorite place for wildlife viewing, and even offers the opportunity to see larger animals such as deer and black bears. It’s a particularly pleasant area to travel by car, and the very scenic 11-mile one-way hiking trail, Cades Cove Loop Road, was created to add to the fun and remains one of the best free activities in the area. Hiking is also popular here, especially along the trails leading to Abrams Falls .
Ober Gatlinburg is a ski resort and amusement park offering year-round recreational activities. The complex includes a chairlift; indoor ice skating; skiing; an alpine slide; Kiddie Land; and a wildlife encounter, a habitat for native creatures like black bears, river otters and possums. The trip there is half the fun; most visitors choose the two-meter aerial tramway, which departs from downtown Gatlinburg and offers great views along the way. The chairlift from Ober Gatlinburg includes a 30-minute ride to the summit with its scenic views.
Anakista, the newest of Gatlinburg’s many attractions, may also be one of the best adventure and nature theme parks in the state. It is named after the Cherokee word for “upland” and the massive rock formations that make up Smokey Mountains. The fun begins with a cable car ride aboard the Chondola from town to the 600-foot summit of Mount Anaquista, where you’ll find yourself in the middle of the park’s 70-acre forest. Once there, you can enjoy fun activities, including a tree canopy walk suspended 60 feet above the ground, parallel cable cars so you can race with friends and family, a fun tree playground for kids and a gem mining station. A fun way to get down the mountain is the thrilling roller coaster (think gravity-driven roller coaster, and you control your speed).
Gatlinburg Space Needle
Although it has already been mentioned as one of the top tourist attractions downtown, the 407-foot-tall Gatlinburg Space Needle has enough to see and do to justify its mention here. Once you arrive (and you can’t miss the building, it’s the tallest thing in town), take one of the two 20-person glass elevators to quickly get to the tower’s observation deck with its stunning 360-degree view. views of Gatlinburg and Smoky Mountains (be sure to watch your seat in one of the free viewfinders for a more detailed view). There are also many fascinating displays showing the features and highlights of many things to see. Then head to the huge two-level Arcadia, a fun hangout, especially for those traveling with kids for the many arcade videos and fun fairground-style games, or catch a show at the on-site theater.
Hollywood Celebrity Car Museum
The Hollywood Celebrity Car Museum is fun for young and old when it’s in Gatlinburg. The collection features more than 40 cars that have been used in Hollywood movies, as well as cars from Gone in 60 Seconds, Fast and Furious and Days of Thunder . Other well-known favorites include the original Batmobile from the 1960s TV show, Batman (as well as the Batmobile from the 1992 Batman Returns movie) and Herbie from the Disney franchise of the same name.
Gatlinburg Sky Lift
No trip to Gatlinburg would be complete without hopping aboard one of the many chairlifts that head to Smokey. A popular option that departs from downtown is the fully renovated Gatlinburg Sky Lift. This open-air chairlift does a little work at 1,800 feet of Crockett Mountain, offering great views of the city and its scenic surroundings. After unloading at the new Sky Deck platform atop Mt. Crockett, you can explore the many nearby trails, or hike back to Gatlinburg or take the Sky Lift back. It’s an especially enjoyable trip after dark, when the city and its Space Needle are lit to dazzling effect.