Experience The Magic Of Gatlinburg, Tennessee

This tiny, wildly popular village in the Smokies just keeps getting better.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Photo: Jonathan Ross/Getty Images

The October 1966 cover of Southern Living featured a breathtaking shot of U.S. 441 with a camper-shelled pickup leading a caravan of cars through fall foliage in what is now the most visited national park in the U.S. Wouldn't you know it? Our readers have loved the Smokies forever. And their favorite spot in those mountains? Gatlinburg. It's easy to see why.

Cades Cove in the Smokies
Cades Cove in the Smokies. Robbie Caponetto

Given the millions of people who visit this area every year, the actual size of Gatlinburg—which comes in at fewer than 4,000 residents—escapes many travelers. Despite the high-season influxes, it's the area's homey Appalachian charm that helps draw all of the visitors here in the first place. The village has continued to evolve, with a variety of new attractions joining the perennially popular pancake houses, candy shops, and craft galleries. Two-tiered theme park Anakeesta has a shopping village downtown where you catch a "chondola" lift to the mountaintop Firefly Village. There, you can take in the stunning scenery on canopy walks, zip lines, and a mountain coaster that reaches speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. Anakeesta is also home to Anavista, an observation tower offering 360-degree views of the Smokies from downtown Gatlinburg's highest point. Even Parrot Heads also have a mountain perch tailored just for them with the buzzy Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg.

Sugarlands Distilling Co.
Sugarlands Distilling Co. Robbie Caponetto

One of travelers' favorite stops (and photo ops) in Gatlinburg is the high-flying SkyBridge. To see the sights from above, take the SkyLift to the 680-foot SkyBridge, which is billed as North America's longest pedestrian suspension bridge and offers up dramatic views over the forested hills. In the surrounding area, there are lots of great places to embark on hikes and meanders, and more than a few picturesque vistas for snapping photos and taking in the scenery.

If waterfalls are what you're after, lace up your hiking boots and set out to find the treasures in the surrounding forests. The Place of a Thousand Drips, Baskins Creek Falls, and Cataract Falls are all close to Gatlinburg. The nearby Laurel Falls trailhead, found just off Fighting Creek Gap Road, will lead to its namesake falls too. A walk along the Gatlinburg Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or a leisurely drive along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail can also introduce you to the natural wonders surrounding the tourism hub.

Smoky Mountain Brewery
Smoky Mountain Brewery. Robbie Caponetto

After your outdoor adventures, post up at a Gatlinburg restaurant or distillery and have your fill of local brews and mountain cuisine. The offerings are manifold: Blake Shelton has opened an outpost of his Ole Red restaurant here, and other favorites include Bennett's Pit Bar-B-Que, The Park Grill, Smoky Mountain Brewery, Crockett's Breakfast Camp, Loco Burro, and the laid-back Smoky Mountain Trout House. For regional brews, there's locally owned Gatlinburg Brewing Co. with its downtown taproom, and you can also sample moonshine at tasting rooms like the ones at Sugarlands Distilling Co. and Ole Smoky.

Loco Burro
Loco Burro. Robbie Caponetto

For lodging, you can rent a cabin in the Smokies (or a room at Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and Spa in neighboring Pigeon Forge), and make the drive into Gatlinburg for entertainment, including restaurants, museums, and views from the SkyBridge. Stay with Dolly and you'll be treated not only to resort amenities but also the opportunity to book luxurious spa experiences customized just for you. There are also two incredible onsite pools. You won't want to miss The Swimming Hole outdoor aquatic experience, which opens seasonally and includes views of Mt. LeConte from the hot tub. Nature lovers should look into a luxury camping experience at Under Canvas. The tiny community of safari-style tents makes the ideal private home base for a weekend away. Here, you get the best of both worlds: all the comforts of home (like a hotel-quality bed and hot shower) and a gentle wake-up call via light streaming softly through your skylight tent cutout.

While many choose to stay elsewhere and travel into Gatlinburg for the fun, you could also make the opposite plan: Book a room in the thick of things and then take day trips into the mountains for hiking, waterfall watching, and horseback riding. No matter how you do it, you'll find that there's plenty to see, eat, and experience in Gatlinburg.

Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort
Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort. Robbie Caponetto

But that's all just icing on the cake. In the end, people will always head to the Smokies for the exact same reason Southern Living did in 1966: This place is gorgeous, and it has fun in store.

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