A mountain vacation destination that has so much more to offer
It may well be one of the most affordable vacation getaways in the region, and only a two-hour drive from Chattanooga. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, and for a very good reason: it’s, quite simply, breathtaking.
Bracketed on the west side by the triple Tennessee towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, and on the east side by Cherokee and Bryson City in North Carolina, the vacation options are endless.
World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers some of the best hiking trails to be found in the country.
During the summer months, hikers can seek out cool retreats among the spruce-fir forests and balds or follow splashy mountain streams to roaring falls and cascades. And be sure to keep an eye (and camera) out for black bears and other native wildlife.
Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg Await
On the Tennessee side of the park are three interesting, and often quite different, towns—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg—all with a wide variety of attractions, entertainment, dining and lodging to fit any taste and budget.
Sevierville, home to the legendary Dolly Parton, has many fascinating places to visit. Among them (and highly recommended for animal lovers) is the RainForest Adventures Discovery Zoo.
Featuring over 600 live animals, representing over 130 species, the RainForest Zoo is home to unique and beautiful creatures from the rainforests of the world.
The zoo began as the brainchild of local businessman William Lucey. Today, true to Bill’s vision and under his guidance, RainForest Adventures has thrived and has become an exciting regional destination and one of the finest small zoos in the country, working with zoos all around the country, including our own Chattanooga Zoo.
Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, one of two Titanic Museum Attractions, as well as the WonderWorks Indoor Amusement Park that will boggle your mind. New additions to the list of things to do in Pigeon Forge include The Island, where you can ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel or complete The Island Ropes Course.
For a truly unique experience, take the drive up to Parrot Mountain and Gardens. Nestled on four acres of beautiful landscaped gardens, you can come face-to-face with hundreds and hundreds of gorgeous tropical birds and thousands upon thousands of flowers, plants and trees. If you’re looking for place to set aside your daily stresses and commune with nature, this is the place to visit.
When it comes to food, the choices are endless. But one place deserves a special mention: Harpoon Harry’s Crab House. A 2016 Open Table Diner’s Choice Award winner, this woodsy-chic two-story bar and eatery offers sushi, steak, seafood bites, and live music, all served with a smile.
Just up from Pigeon Forge is the old-time charm and beauty of Gatlinburg. Nestled at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are three entrances into the Smokies right from downtown. This little town of less than 4,000 residents (though, if you count visitors, some weekends the population can reach ten times that) is dedicated to welcoming all of its guests with a taste of Appalachian hospitality at its best.
One of the most well-known attractions is Ober Gatlinburg. For the best view of the mountains (outside of Clingman’s Dome inside the park), make sure to ride the Aerial Tramway. Departing regularly from downtown, this cable car will take you on a breathtaking 2.1-mile ride up to the park and is worth the trip even if you then turn around and ride back.
But you won’t want to do that. While Ober Gatlinburg is well known for it’s winter activites, it has plenty to offer for summer visitors, from the Alpine Slide to waterpark fun to the brand new Ski Mountain Coaster, the only coaster around where you control the speed (and the brakes).
In downtown, there’s plenty else to see and do: Ripley’s Aquarium Of The Smokies, Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, Zip Gatlinburg, and so much more. There’s also lots of dining to choose from, from old fashioned pancake houses to a romantic evening at The Melting Pot—we highly recommend the 4-Course Experience that takes you on a culinary journey to delight your tastebuds
Take A Romantic Railroad Trip Back In Time
On the North Carolina side of the park lies one of the most unique and fun attractions: The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
A stunningly scenic 90-minute drive through the park (well worth it in it’s own right) to Bryson City brings you to the old-fashioned train terminal that is home to a lovingly maintained collection of vintage rail cars and engines.
Take a ride alongside the beautiful Nantahala River on the Nantahala Gorge Excursion. This 4 ½ hour excursion carries you 44 miles to the Nantahala Gorge and back again. Enjoy traveling Bluegrass musicians with an occasional Appalachian story from an authentic mountain man, fantastic views and food, and a one-hour layover at Nantahala Outdoor Center where you can relax by the river.
If you’re in the mood to do a little gambling, just up the road from Bryson City is Cherokee, home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. Featuring over 150,000 feet of gaming fun, the resort also has a summer full of live entertainment and plenty of dining choices to rival Las Vegas...and without all the neon and crazy crowds.
Which brings us to one of the most unusual destinations in the region, well worth the extra travel time: The Briarwood Auto Safari back over in Tennessee in the backwoods of Morristown. Where else can you get up-close-and-personal with zebras, water buffalo, elk, deer, ostriches, llama, rams and more?
Most of the animals will eat straight from your hand, but all come right up to your car to say hello. And if you don’t want to drive the four-mile trail through the more than 150-acre park, there are tractor pulled wagon excursions. Just be sure to bring your camera and your sense of wonder.