The Great Smoky Mountains, nicknamed the Smokies, are one of the region’s most precious regions. It’s made up of a number of towns around the namesake national park, including Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Townsend, and Gatlinburg. The leaves change colors for the fall and are dusted with snow in the winter, the best times to visit. But there’s something to offer year-round.
Originally quiet mountain towns, thanks in part to high-profile residents like Dolly Parton, it’s become a popular spot for live entertainment. Pigeon Forge especially has dinner shows and family-friendly theater. Embrace the kitsch as you visit some offbeat tourist attractions or get away from it all and reconnect with nature. If you’re a fan of Branson and Myrtle Beach, the Smokies is definitely for you.
What to Do
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies– Just one of a dozen attractions owned by Ripley’s in the Smokies, the aquarium is perhaps the most popular. Creatures are divided into their habitats and they have several species of sharks, eels, and stingrays that you can (gently) touch. 88 River Road, Gatlinburg
Guinness World Records Museum– Learn about various world records at this museum, which also interactive exhibits and the chance to set your own record. 800 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts– Founded in 1912 by Pi Beta Phi, Arrowmont is now a premier arts facility, offering year-round workshops and classes. They also have a permanent collection of works as well as traveling exhibitions. 556 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Dollywood– Founded by country superstar Dolly Parton, Dollywood is a family-friendly theme park offering thrill rides like the new Lightning Rod as well as year-round experiences. There’s also a seasonal water park. 2700 Dollywood Parks Boulevard, Pigeon Forge
Space Needle Gatlinburg– See the town from above at this observation deck, built over 400 feet above the Parkway. Built in 1969, it was the second tallest tower in Tennessee at the time of completion. 115 Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg– The area’s only ski resort, visitors can take the gondolas over the town to the top of the mountain. Other activities include an amusement park, wildlife encounter, and ski mountain coaster. 1001 Parkway #2, Gatlinburg
Smoky Mountain Alpine Coaster– Inspired by those found in Europe, this hillside coaster is open seasonally. The thrilling ride lasts less than 10 minutes. 867 Wears Valley Road, Pigeon Forge
Titanic Museum– A seemingly odd place for such a museum, it claims to be the world’s largest museum attraction. It features artifacts taken from the famously sunken ocean liner. Get your tickets here. 2134 Parkway, Pigeon Forge
Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at The Island– Set above Pigeon Forge’s largest entertainment complex, this Ferris Wheel offers views of the Parkway and beyond. It soars to over 200 feet and has enclosed glass gondolas for 360-degree views. 131 The Island Drive, Pigeon Forge
Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum– This offbeat museum is the only one of its kind in the world, showcasing over 20,000 pairs of shakers from all over the world. They also have a collection of pepper mills and a gift shop. 461 Brookside Village Way, Gatlinburg
Foxfire Mountain Adventure Park– Embrace your sense of adventure at this outdoor park with ziplines, a swinging rope bridge, and even a cidery! Give yourself plenty of time the corners of this unique space. 3757 Thomas Lane, Sevierville
Outdoor Gravity Park– Inspired by zorbing in New Zealand, Outdoor Gravity Park is one of the few places you can do it in the United States. You can go down various courses on the hill, with a friend, and even in water, depending on the season. 203 Sugar Hollow Road, Pigeon Forge
Hollywood Star Cars Museum– Get up close with some of the automobiles you’ve seen in film and television, including those used in the Fast and Furious franchise, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Back to the Future. 914 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad– Starting in North Carolina, this scenic railway is a family favorite. They also have optional add-ons like excursions to Nantahala Gorge and Tuckasegee River as well as meals. During the holiday season, the trains are transformed into the Polar Express. 226 Everett St, Bryson City, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountain National Park– Perhaps the most important attraction in the region, start at the Cades Cove Visitor Center & Museum to learn about the park’s history before exploring further. There can be traffic on weekends and during bear and elk spottings. 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg
Moonshine Distilleries– Countless moonshine distilleries have opened to the public in the last few years, including Doc Collier Moonshine, Old Forge Distillery, Sugarlands Distilling Company, and Ole Smoky Distillery.
Live entertainment– There’s a show for just about every interest. A few include Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre, Biblical Times Dinner Theater, The Comedy Barn Theater, Dixie Stampede, Lumberjack Adventure, Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, and Smoky Mountain Opry.
If you’re still looking for things to do, the area also offers mini golf, hikes, horseback riding, cycling, fly fishing, and rafting, depending on the season.
Where to Eat
Pancake Pantry– Expect to wait at this Tennessee favorite, first opened in 1960. Everything is homemade, from the pancake batter to the butter. If you’re not a fan of pancakes or sweets, they also offer burgers, sandwiches, and omelets. 628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, (865) 436-4724
Donut Friar– Located next door in the Village, the Donut Friar is open from 5 am daily for coffee and homemade doughnuts. The cozy space doesn’t have much seating, so find a spot upstairs or take it back to your room to enjoy. 634 Parkway, Shop 15, Gatlinburg, (865) 436-7306
Greenbrier Restaurant– Set in a log cabin built in 1939, Greenbrier is a favorite restaurant for views of the Smokies and romantic dining. Steaks and seafood are on offer, as well as a full wine list. 370 Newman Road, Gatlinburg, (865) 436-6318
Tony Gore’s Smoky Mountain BBQ & Grill– For a hearty meal, go to Tony’s, owned by a local gospel singer. Here you’ll find massive portions of barbecue, potato chips, and slices of homemade cakes. 1818 Winfield Dunn Parkway, Sevierville, (865) 429-7771
The Old Mill– Set in historic Pigeon Forge, the Old Mill is just as it sounds. Southern favorites are served in their restaurants on pottery made across the street. Country fried steak, cornbread, and vegetables are worth a try. 164 Old Mill Avenue, Pigeon Forge, (865) 429-3463
Smoky Mountain Brewery– For locally made craft beer, head to this eatery, which has locations in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Burgers, wings, and subs round out the mostly bar food menu. 1004 Parkway, Gatlinburg, (865) 436-4200
Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant– With two locations in the area, Applewood serves classic Southern fare and has been a local favorite for 30 years. Menu highlights include apple cinnamon muffins, fried chicken, and red velvet cake. 240 Apple Valley Road, Sevierville, (865) 428-1222
Courthouse Donuts– Located across the street from the historic courthouse and the statue of Dolly Parton, get your sweet fix at this local spot. Design your own donut with various sauces and toppings like Fruity Pebbles. 160 Court Avenue, Sevierville, (865) 286-9073
Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of places to stay in the greater Smokies, ranging from family-friendly hotel rooms to campsites to luxury resorts. Wilderness At the Smokies is a favorite of families, especially for its indoor water park and free meals for kids. Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort is another, as the Dollywood property has family rooms and easy park access. Reminiscent of a mountain lodge in Vermont, The Lodge at Buckberry Creek offers unique accommodations overlooking Gatlinburg. In the heart of the kitschy Island complex, Margaritaville Island Hotel is about as close to the tropics as you’ll get in Tennessee. Blackberry Farm is perhaps the South’s most awarded resort, tucked into the mountains outside Townsend. If you want to spend the majority of your time in the national park, take advantage of the many campgrounds inside it. Some are remote backcountry sites while others have all the amenities. Cabins are another way to stay in the Smokies, which you can find on Airbnb and HomeAway.
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My trip to the Smoky Mountains was coordinated by Geiger Public Relations and the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. This post contains affiliate links.