8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains
Although one of the smallest towns in Tennessee (its population is less than 4,000), tiny Gatlinburg is one of the state's busiest tourist destinations. The reason for this popularity is the fantastic Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the US. Although straddling two different states, Gatlinburg seems to have the monopoly on the best scenic routes into the park, a fact that is easy to spot once you've arrived: everywhere you look there are hotels and entertainment facilities vying for attention. It's the perfect place from which to launch your adventure into the area's spectacular wilderness, and when you're done, there's no shortage of things to see and do in the town itself.
See also: Where to Stay in Gatlinburg
1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a forested region with impressive mountains reaching more than 6,500 feet high. A central range of the Appalachians running east-west, the Smokies get their name from the mist that frequently rises out of the valleys like smoke signals. Travelers enjoy the mountains year-round: hikers during spring, summer, and fall, and skiers in winter. A number of excellent Visitor Centers offer guides and easy access to the most scenic areas, and numerous campsites are dotted around the park. One of the highlights is the park's flora, a mix of deciduous and conifer forests, as well as over 1,400 species of flowering plants including mountain magnolias, wild azaleas, mountain laurels, orchids and Rhododendrons. All told, more than 900 miles of hiking trails crisscross the park, and many visitors also come for the fly-fishing and mountain biking.
Address: 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg
2 Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
Clingmans Dome is, at 6,643 feet, the highest point in Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with wonderful views stretching as far as 100 miles on a clear day. A highlight is the superb observation tower perched atop the mountain's summit and offering 360-degree views of the Smokies. While the tower is open all year, be sure to keep an eye on the weather as the road leading to it closes if things turn nasty. A variety of other trails branch off from the car park, which is just half a mile from the summit.
3 The Sugarlands
One of the prettiest parts of the Smoky Mountains, Sugarlands is a valley named after the area's once dominant sugar maple trees and is extremely popular as a day trip destination from Gatlinburg. The area stretches from the aptly-named Roaring Fork in the east, all the way to the slopes of Sugarland Mountain in the west and is overlooked by the 5,000-foot Mount le Conte. Sugarlands is particularly popular among hikers, who share the Old Sugarlands Trail with horse riders. A gentler trail leads from the Sugarlands Visitor Center and loops past the John Ownby Cabin, built in 1860. Not far away is Noah Ogle Place, a former homestead with an old barn, cabin, and mill. While at the visitors center, check into their Ranger-led programs, natural history exhibits, and films about the park.
Address: 1420 Old State Hwy 73 Scenic, Gatlinburg
4 Downtown Gatlinburg
The gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, always busy Gatlinburg provides everything travelers need after a long day exploring the surrounding countryside. The main thoroughfare, Parkway, is where most of the action is, and is home to as many mom-and-pop stores and restaurants as it is to big brand names. For those with younger travelers in tow, there's no better place to blow off some steam than at the numerous attractions here, including arcade style amusements, theater shows, and aquariums. Of special note is the Gatlinburg Space Needle, a tall steel tower with a 400-foot-high observation deck with stunning views.
5 Cades Cove
One of the most remote corners of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cades Cove is also one of its most popular spots, attracting some two million visitors per year. Once home to numerous settlers, the area draws tourists with its picturesque rural meadows, well-preserved pioneer homesteads, and incredible mountain views. It's also a favorite area for wildlife viewing, and even offers the chance to see larger beasts such as deer and black bears. It's a particularly pleasurable area to explore by car, and a very picturesque 11-mile, one-way tourist route has been established to add to the fun. Hiking is also popular here, especially along the trails leading to Abrams Falls.
6 Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The best of a number of Ripley's attractions in Gatlinburg, the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies features plenty of exotic marine life from around the world. Highlights include a submerged acrylic tunnel allowing visitors to see sharks and other ocean predators up close. Other Ripley's attractions to keep restless teens occupied include Ripley's Odditorium with its collection of unusual items such as shrunken heads and medieval instruments of torture; the Guinness World of Records Museum, a highlight being Harry Houdini's water torture chamber; and the always fun Haunted Adventure.
Address: 88 River Road, Gatlinburg
7 Ober Gatlinburg
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 the Wildlife Encounter, a habitat for native creatures such as black bears, river otters, and opossums. Getting there is half the fun, and most visitors opt for the two-mile-long Aerial Tramway, which departs from downtown Gatlinburg and offers superb views along the way. The chairlift from Ober Gatlinburg includes a 30-minute ride to the summit with its scenic lookout.
Address: 1001 Parkway, Gatlinburg
8 The Hollywood Star Cars Museum
The Hollywood Star Cars Museum is a fun diversion when in Gatlinburg. Featuring more than 40 cars that were used in Hollywood movies, the collection includes vehicles from Gone in 60 Seconds, The Fast and the Furious, and Days of Thunder. Other famous favorites include the original Batmobile from the 1960s TV show, Batman, and Herbie from the Disney movie franchise of the same name.
Address: 914 Parkway, Gatlinburg
Where to Stay in Gatlinburg for Sightseeing
We recommend these highly rated hotels in Gatlinburg, with easy access to downtown attractions and Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
- The Lodge at Buckberry Creek: luxury mountain retreat, fireplaces, whirlpool tubs, in-room massages, hiking trails.
- Courtyard Gatlinburg: mid-range pricing, convenient location, log cabin restaurant, outdoor pool, large hot tub.
- Hilton Garden Inn Gatlinburg Downtown: 3-star hotel, near the main street, indoor pool, hot tub, fire pit.
- Quality Inn & Suites Gatlinburg: budget hotel, seasonal outdoor pool, hot breakfast included.