The three main gateway cities to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville – share an abiding love for the patron saint of East Tennessee: Dolly Parton.
As the country music superstar once joked, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap, so go ahead and dive into the tacky exuberance of it all.
While Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a lush wonderland of waterfalls and wildflowers, in the gateway towns, mini golf courses, moonshine distilleries and theme parks press tight against Parkway, the main drag through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, which rolls right into the park. There’s even an enormous replica of the Titanic perched by the road.
Sensory overload and neon – and apparently fluffy pancakes – are guaranteed, but honestly, if you embrace the tackiness of the attractions and all the Appalachian kitsch, these Smoky Mountains gateway towns can be a heck of a lot of fun, especially for families.
Many attractions and restaurants are seasonal, or their hours vary by season, so call before making a special trip. Everything should be open from late May through early September.
American beauties: the best towns in the Smoky Mountains
Dollywood is known for its roller coasters © Nicholas Lamontanaro / Shutterstock
1. Celebrate Appalachia in Dollywood
Country music legend Dolly Parton was born and raised in East Tennessee, and she celebrates her local roots with good cheer and more than 40 Appalachia-themed rides at this busy theme park in Pigeon Forge. Dollywood is known for its roller coasters, but you’ll also find fantastic live music, regional arts and crafts, and southern fried fare.
Head to Dollywood first thing in the morning because the crowds (and lines) only get longer. Add-ons to your ticket allow you to skip the longest lines. The park offers two tiers for guests, one that allows you to skip eight lines and one that is unlimited.
While the park closes in January and February, it opens for weekends in March. Not all of the attractions are available, but it is a little less busy. Dollywood has great playgrounds and rides throughout the park for little ones if you’re traveling with toddlers in tow.
Planning tip: Dollywood’s Splash Country water park is next door and opens in summer. DreamMore Resort and Bear Cove Cabins are lodging options close to both parks.
Why this year is a great time to plan a visit to Dollywood
2. Enjoy sky-high adventures atop Anakeesta Mountain
The “Chondola” swoops riders from the crowded sidewalks of Gatlinburg to the summit of Anakeesta Mountain, where the natural beauty of the Smokies is the backdrop for a tree canopy walk, dueling zip lines and a mountain roller coaster. The observation tower doubles as the highest point in the city.
Seven restaurants and eateries are scattered across two small “villages” on the summit. Brews come with views at the Tap House and the Bar at the Top of the World.
3. Delve into the story of the Titanic
An enormous replica of the Titanic, the luxury steamship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, shares a truly amazing collection of artifacts, personal stories and recreated settings from the doomed ship. Each visitor to the museum is assigned a boarding pass with the name of a real-life passenger or crew member. You’ll discover whether you survived at the end of your visit.
Planning tip: Book ahead because it does sell out, and walk-ups are not guaranteed admission.
Sample some hooch at Ole Smoky Moonshine © Miro Vrlik Photography / Shutterstock
4. Sample moonshine in Gatlinburg
Hooch. White lightning. Mountain dew. Moonshine has deep roots – and a lot of nicknames – in Appalachia, but if you take away the outlaw reputation, moonshine is nothing more than unaged whiskey, often made from corn.
Step up to the counter for a rainbow’s array of samples and some entertaining history at Ole Smoky Moonshine and Sugarlands Distilling Co, both on Parkway. Ole Smoky also has a tasting room at The Island in Pigeon Forge.
Local tip: The apple pie flavor is a good bet, but we can’t vouch for peanut butter and jelly.
5. Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at The Island
The striking Great Smoky Mountain Wheel and its all-glass gondolas rise 200ft above Pigeon Forge, sharing high-elevation views of the Smoky Mountains rippling toward the horizon. The gondolas also provide an easy retreat from the hubbub of The Island, a festive entertainment district with shopping, restaurants, live music and fun bars.
6. Explore the history of crime and punishment
The VW Beetle owned by serial killer Ted Bundy and the white Ford Bronco from the OJ Simpson car chase are just two of the many fascinating artifacts on display at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge. The vast museum explores all aspects of criminology, spotlighting medieval torture, witch trials, serial killers, capital punishment, crime scene investigation and more.
Planning tip: Kids are permitted, but some of the displays are the stuff of nightmares.
Marvel at the scene from Clingmans Dome © Jim Vallee / Shutterstock
7. Soak up big views atop Clingmans Dome
Kitschy family fun isn’t a hallmark of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the observation tower atop Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6643ft, does resemble a building straight out of The Jetsons, with its circular ramp and flying-saucer-style platform.
From the platform, 360-degree views take in gentle waves of forested peaks. Hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail, cross through the woods below.
8. Float the Little River
In warmer months, River Rat Tubing launches float trips on the Little River from its base camp in Townsend, a gateway town not far from the gorgeous Cades Cove area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. River Rat runs two trips: an easy float suitable for young kids and dogs, and a bouncy, rapid-filled adventure for those 6 years old and up. Both float past swimming holes.
Local tip: Afterward, enjoy an ice cream sundae at the retro Burger Master Drive-In.
9. Shop for Appalachian arts and crafts
An 8-mile driving loop swings past more than 100 galleries, studios and shops in and around downtown Gatlinburg. Known as the Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community, this collection of stops embraces local art in all its forms, with glassworks, jewelry, leather goods, paintings, pottery, wood carvings and more for sale.
Planning tip: The Gatlinburg Trolley’s yellow line stops along the loop.
The best ways to get around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
Walk along the Gatlinburg SkyBridge © blueElephant / Shutterstock
10. Tiptoe across the Gatlinburg SkyBridge
A graceful pedestrian cable bridge swings above a steep valley in the Smoky Mountain foothills above Gatlinburg, stretching the length of nearly two football fields and linking two peaks. See-through glass panels await in the middle of the Skybridge – which is 140ft above ground. Step on those if you dare!
A workhorse chairlift whisks riders up to the bridge and to the SkyTrail, a 0.6-mile scenic hiking trail with rope bridges and a four-platform viewing tower.
Planning tip: The trail is dog friendly.
11. Play mini golf
If you like mini golf, then East Tennessee is your happy place. With at least 16 mini golf courses across Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, you’re never far from a game. You can even play a game under blacklights, which illuminate the course.
Memorable mini golf courses in Pigeon Forge include Crave, marked by its candy-themed rooftop course, and Professor Hacker’s Lost Treasure Mini Golf, where a mining car whisks you up the “mountain” to the first hole.
12. Watch a dinner show with stampedes, feuds or pirates
With so many billboards advertising dinner shows in Pigeon Forge, it can be hard to decide which one is best. Don’t fret: pick a theme that sounds fun for your group and go with it. Southern comfort food, audience participation and corny jokes are common features.
Local tip: A perennial favorite is Dolly Parton’s Stampede, known for its horseriding stunts, musical numbers and gentle North–South rivalry.
13. Snow tube in July
Parkas aren’t required at Pigeon Forge Snow, an indoor snow tubing hill where temperatures hover around 65°F. Take your pick of snow tracks for a swoosh down the snow hill and then build a snowman in the Snow Area. Pigeon Forge Snow is open year-round.
14. Ski Tennessee
Ober Gatlinburg is the home of Tennessee’s only ski and snowboard area, but this Bavarian-themed mountaintop attraction stays busy after the slopes close in winter.
In warmer months, kids swarm the alpine slide, mountain coaster, summer tubing and mini golf. The indoor ice-skating rink is open year-round. The enclosed aerial tramway from Gatlinburg to the park soars over the forested mountain landscape, covering 2 miles in about 20 minutes.
15. Learn about marine life
A transparent path funnels visitors through the Shark Lagoon at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Sharks swim overhead while stingrays, moray eels, green sea turtles and a variety of fish catch the eye in every direction. It’s a mesmerizing immersion in the wonders of the sea.
Planning tip: The aquarium is one of eight Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions in and around Gatlinburg.
Two hikers descend a steep section of trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Theron Stripling III / Shutterstock
16. Walk away from the crowds
If the hordes jostling for pancakes and moonshine on Parkway in Gatlinburg get to be too much, there is an escape hatch: the Gatlinburg Trail. This 2-mile pedestrian and bike path runs parallel to Hwy 441, linking the southern edge of downtown Gatlinburg with the Sugarlands Visitor Center inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The trail rolls through the woods on a level path beside the pretty West Prong of the Little Pigeon River.
17. Get immersed in Appalachian history
Attractions across the gateway towns embrace Appalachian stereotypes, from hillbilly-themed mini golf courses to moonshine distilleries romanticizing the exploits of bootleggers. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend explores the authentic history and culture of Appalachia in its Historical Village, home to a 19th-century log cabin, two cantilever barns and other buildings. There is also a three-room museum and an amphitheater on the grounds.
18. Sightsee in Sevierville
Located 35 miles southeast of Knoxville, Sevierville is best known as the hometown of Dolly Parton. An inspiring bronze statue of the country music star as a young singer anchors the front lawn of the Sevier County Courthouse.
Nearby, visitors can stretch their legs on a riverside walk on the West Prong Greenway or spend an hour or two bargain shopping at the Tanger Outlets.
Planning tip: Loaded with hotels and motels, the city is a good launchpad for local exploring.