The Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee have been drawing men and women for hundreds of years. The lush hills were once home to the Cherokee Indians, and then later drew in white men of all backgrounds who were coming to seek their fortunes.
Many of those men were Revolutionary War Veterans claiming the 50 acres (.2 km²) given to each of them for serving their country. Some of the new arrivals were founders of the tiny settlement that would become the town of Gatlinburg — a small, southern city with a unique Appalachian flavor.
For some reason — perhaps it was the gorgeous mountain scenery — the region was especially popular with artisans. And over the years, the town’s love affair with the arts has only grown stronger.
Yet it was Mother Nature’s bounty that truly put this town on the map. When Smoky Mountain National Park was founded in 1934, it brought in tourism. Sadly, the new park also displaced many mountain families from their homes. To survive, some of them moved into Gatlinburg, finding jobs in the growing tourism business.
The combination of the National Park and Gatlinburg’s rich, artistic offerings make this small town, a population of 3,382, a popular destination. The region also offers anything from rafting to horseback riding, making it an excellent vacation spot for families.
Be prepared for crowds, though, especially in the summer time. As one local said: “Gatlinburg is an old Indian word that means ‘bumper to bumper.’ ”
He wasn’t joking.
Since it’s your first day here, you might want to stroll through the Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community (www.artsandcraftscommunity.com — 800-565-7330: an eight-mile (13 km) loop located on Highway 31, about three miles (5 km) from traffic light #3 in downtown Gatlinburg).
This area contains the largest group of independent artisans in North America. Here, you can purchase pottery, baskets, candles, jewelry, brooms, ceramics, leather and a whole lot more.
On your way up to the Arts and Crafts Community, consider stopping at the Coffee Loft (1420 East Parkway, 865-436-7825) for some pastries and a latté or grab a sandwich for lunch.
If you plan to travel in July or October, check out the Gatlinburg’s Craftsmen’s Fair, (in the convention center, at light #8 downtown, 865-436-7479, www.craftmensfair.com) — it is definitely worth the stop. About 180 of the finest craftsman come together in this spectacular display of art, which includes: stained glass, basket weaving, jewelry, woodcarving, and more. Country and Bluegrass music is performed daily in this event.
In the afternoon, you can head into town and take in a few of the local attractions. The unique Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies (in downtown Gatlinburg at 88 River Road, 888-240-1358, www.ripleysaquariumofthesmokies.com) will excite young and old alike with the large display of aquatic animals. Set up with the family in mind, there is a small play area for the little ones to explore. You can touch a stingray, pick up a horseshoe crab, and glide through the world’s largest underwater aquarium tunnel.
That evening, try dinner at one of the local restaurants. The Smoky Mountain Brewery & Pizza (1004 Parkway #501, 865-436-4200) features mountain micro-brewed beer, pizzas, calzones, strombolis and chicken and steak roasted in a wood fire-stone oven. The Brass Lantern (710 Parkway, 865-436-4168) offers reasonably-priced casual and contemporary fare.
Get up a little early for your trip into the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (107 Park Headquarters Road, 865-436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm). Just 15 minutes from Gatlinburg, the park offers a wealth of activities. Try hiking a few of the 800 miles and more (1,287 km) of trails. Pack a picnic lunch. If you’re into fishing, grab your pole and try your luck. Guided horseback riding is also available in season.
Cades Cove, located in the National Park (approximately 35-45 minutes from Gatlinburg, through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, past the Sugarland Visitor Center, www.cadescove.net) is a scenic and historic loop of 11 miles (17 km), which includes some of the first homes built in the area. Be ready to stop and get out at the many different home sites. Bike rentals are also available to ride the loop. The loop is closed to auto traffic until 10 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday through the summer to allow for easier biking. The road is only one lane.
If you’ve brought along the kids, head back into town for the Fort Fun Family Center (542 Parkway, 865-436-2326;www.smokymountainfun.com) to play laser tag, ride the bumper cars or watch a 3-D movie.
Gatlinburg offers more wacky Ripley’s attractions than you ever knew existed. Older children or adults might enjoy Ripley’s Believe It or Not (865-436-5096), Ripley’s Haunted Adventure (865-430-9991) or Ripley’s Moving Theatre (865-436-9763) — all of which are located on River Road.
For a quiet dinner away from the large tourist attractions, you can head to the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant (at traffic light #10 on the Parkway in Gatlinburg at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 865-436-4669, www.applewoodfarmhouserestaurant.com). Meals come with their special Apple Fritters and Apple Butter. Be sure to check out the country store on site to take home some of your own Apple Butter.
The Big Pigeon River, which is skirted by the Great Smoky National Park and the Pisgah National Park, provides a great opportunity to catch some excitement and experience some of the incredible beauty of the Smokies by raft. Rafting companies are abundant in this neck of the woods.
One company, Rafting in the Smokies (800-PRO-RAFT, www.raftinginthesmokies.com/pigeon.htm) provides travelers with different levels of adventurous spirits to take coinciding trips — a wild raft trip for the braver ones (the Upper Section, featuring class III and IV rapids), and another rafting experience for the faint at heart (the Lower Section float, featuring class I and II rapids). Your group can then meet up at the outpost, the area containing the office, boats and all the gear (located 45 minutes outside of Gatlinburg).
Rafting in the Smokies buses the white water group upriver to the Upper Section. The tamer rafting trip takes off from the outpost and is bused back. If you take the Lower Section Float, be prepared to man your own raft. Not every raft will have a guide. There is one guide per every two to three rafts.
The edgier Upper Section trip carries a guide in each raft. Children must be eight years old and/or 70 pounds (26 kg) and a minimum of three years old for the lower section.
Tubing on the Lower Section is another slow-paced adventure offered. During summer, it’s a great way to enjoy the incredible scenery while escaping the heat.
Cabins are a popular choice for lodging in Gatlinburg. Jackson Mountain Homes (P.O. Box 110,Gatlinburg,,865-436-8876, www.jacksonmountain.com) has more than 145 chalets, cabins, cottages and condos for rent. Some cabins can accommodate up to 20 people and some are pet-friendly.
Bearskin Lodge (840 River Rd., 877-795-7546, www.bearskinlodgeontheriver.com) offers rustic charm in downtown Gatlinburg. Balconies overlook the Little Pigeon River, and they serve a full continental breakfast.
Bed and Breakfast lovers might prefer the elegant Eight Gables Inn, just outside of the city (219 North Mountain Trail, 800-279-5716, www.eightgables.com). Rest each night in luxurious rooms and wake up each morning to a full sit-down breakfast.
Have an extra day?
If you have an extra day or two, a side trip to the Biltmore Estate (1 Approach Road, Asheville, 800-624-1575, www.biltmoreestate.com ) in Ashville, North Carolina is worthwhile (approximately 86 miles or 138 kilometers from Gatlinburg). Sitting on 8,000 acres (32 km²), the Biltmore is America’s largest home — a castle, really.
The Biltmore was modeled after three chateaux built in 16th century France and features four acres (about 16,000 m²) of floor space, 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. The basement has a swimming pool and changing rooms, a bowling alley, servant’s quarters, a kitchen and more.
George Vanderbilt, the original owner, wanted an estate that would sustain itself and benefit the community. He started construction on the home in 1889. On Christmas Eve of 1895, Vanderbilt opened the home to friends and family, although work continued for many more years.
The massive castle opened to visitors in the 1930s, at the request of Ashville city officials. They hoped to spur on tourism during the Depression. The Biltmore closed during World War II, but reopened soon thereafter. No one has lived there since 1950, but it remains under the ownership of the same family. The current owner is William A. V. Cecil, grandson of George Vanderbilt. The original 125,000 acres (506 km²) have been trimmed down to 8,000 acres (32 km²).
Plan to spend the day exploring the home and gardens. It’s easy to imagine what it may have been like to experience the luxury and grandeur of the Biltmore in 1895.
You can take in the meticulously landscaped gardens, which now include 2,300 roses, 1,000 azaleas and much more. See more of the property by taking part in one of the outdoor activities on the Biltmore property, including biking, hiking, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding and even a “Land Rover Experience Driving School” for some off-road adventure.
Children are given a pamphlet upon arrival which informs them of hidden items (like a secret door in one room) that they can try and find throughout the home.
For lunch, try one of the Biltmore’s eating venues, which range from a café/bakery to a fine dining restaurant. Or take a tour through the winery and sample some of the great-tasting wines. At the end of the tour you can purchase wine to take home with you.
If you’d like to experience hospitality the Vanderbilt way, plan to stay the night at the Biltmore Inn. The room’s décor was inspired by English and French manor houses. After relaxing with an afternoon tea in the Inn’s library or enjoying a formal dinner in the Dining Room with views of the estate, you’re sure to feel like royalty.
Tickets for admission are US$ 39. Children 6-16 are US$ 19.50. Five and under are free. The winery tour is included in the admission price. Hotel and ticket packages are available. Outdoor activities are additional.
If You Go
Gatlinburg Visitors and Convention Bureau
Gatlinburg Department of Tourism and Convention Center