4 Day 3 Nights – Great Smoky Mountains Getaway as low as $99DESTINATION: Gatlinburg, TN
With three entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, it’s no surprise that visiting the park is the most popular attraction in this eastern Tennessee town. In fact, it’s such a hit that Gatlinburg’s population balloons during peak tourist season from less than 4,000 residents to more than 40,000. With miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, as well as historical exhibits and cabins, and the opportunity to view black bears, elk, deer and other wildlife in their natural habitat, it’s easy to see why the park is such a hot spot. When you’re not in the park enjoying its natural wonders, you’ll likely spend time admiring it from several of Gatlinburg’s top attractions, including the Gatlinburg Space Needle and the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway.
But Gatlinburg isn’t just a gateway to the Smokies. This small mountain town is a destination in its own right, and one that’s particularly popular with families thanks to kid-friendly diversions like Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre. To get a taste of local Gatlinburg culture, skip the kitschy souvenir shops and visit one of several local galleries, including the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, to watch local artists and craftsmen create everything from paintings and pottery to handmade brooms and jewelry.
Top things to do in Gatlinburg
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park – One of only a few national parks that do not charge an admission fee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also the most visited, welcoming more than 10 million travelers annually. The 522,427-acre park is shared by Tennessee and North Carolina with the border running through the center. In addition to hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, the park offers historical exhibits, including original Appalachian cabins, and scenic drives to popular spots like Cades Cove and the waterfalls on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. If you love seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, Cades Cove is a great place to spot deer and black bears. Start at the Sugarland Visitor Center to get an overview of the area’s history and pick up trail maps, or head to what is known as “the locals entrance” at Greenbrier a little more than 2 miles east of Gatlinburg. Trailheads to Ramsay Cascades, Porter’s Creek and Injun Creek start here, and it’s often much less crowded than other areas of the park.
- Mountain Moonshine Tastings – Moonshine tastings have become one of the trendiest activities in Gatlinburg for visitors of age. The Appalachian tradition of making moonshine in hidden mountain stills took hold in the early 20th century. Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, who had settled in the mountains, found that the abundance of corn and clear mountain streams were perfect for making whiskey. Plus, the mountains provided plenty of hiding places for their illegal stills. The area eventually became known as Moonshiner’s Paradise.
- Great Smoky Mountains Arts & Crafts Loop – If you’re interested in art and authentic Appalachian crafts, you’ll want to spend a day exploring the 8-mile Arts & Crafts loop in and around Gatlinburg. Watch mountain craftsmen and women make brooms, baskets and pottery or peruse the paintings, hand-blown glass and photography at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, which features five galleries with work from local, national and international artists.
- Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tram – For a bird’s-eye view of the Gatlinburg area and the Smokies, hop on the Ober Gatlinburg Tramway, one of the country’s largest tramways. Catch the tram in downtown Gatlinburg for a 2.1-mile ride up the mountain to its peak at 11,088 feet. At the top, you’ll find shopping, dining, an amusement park, an ice skating rink and a small zoo (note that all of the Ober Gatlinburg attractions require additional fees not included in your tramway ticket). To continue your vertical ascent, you can take the chair lift from the peak (for an additional charge) for even more incredible views.
- Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre – This vaudeville theater pays homage to the music halls of the late 19th century with variety shows that include singing, dancing, magic and audience participation. According to recent travelers, the two-hour shows are suitable for all ages.
- Gatlinburg Space Needle – This 407-foot tower overlooks the town of Gatlinburg and offers 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. The observation deck is equipped with viewfinders and educational exhibits that detail the history of the town and the surrounding mountains. Arcadia, a 25,000-square-foot arcade with video games and a playground is also located here, as are the Iris Theater and Slice Pizza.
- Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area – The Ober Gatlinburg Amusement Park and Ski Area is open 365 days a year. During the winter months from mid-December to mid-March, skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes and even non-skiers enjoy snow tubing. The amusement park, which offers several rides, including a mountain coaster, an indoor ice skating rink, a kiddie park, shops and restaurants and a small zoo, is open throughout the year. Although the resort itself does not offer accommodations, its location just a few miles from Gatlinburg makes it easy to find lodging. You can drive up to the resort (weather permitting) or take the aerial tram from downtown.
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – One of the most popular attractions for children, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies offers unique opportunities to get up close and personal with a wide variety of marine life. You can pet a penguin, splash around with a stingray in Touch a Ray Bay or take a behind-the-scenes tour. A people mover takes you through an underwater tunnel, where you can watch green sea turtles, big snappers, tarpons and sharks through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall.