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Why Go to Gatlinburg

With three entrances to Great Smoky Mountains National Park located in the heart of downtown Gatlinburg, it's no surprise that visiting the park is the most popular attraction in this eastern Tennessee town. In fact, it's such a hit that Gatlinburg's population balloons during peak tourist season from less than 4,000 residents to more than 40,000. With miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, as well as historical exhibits and cabins, and the opportunity to view black bears, elk, deer and other wildlife in their natural habitat, it's easy to see why the park is such a hot spot. When you're not in the park enjoying its natural wonders, you'll likely spend time admiring it from several of Gatlinburg's top attractions, including the Gatlinburg Space Needle and the Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway.

But Gatlinburg isn't just a gateway to the Smokies. This small mountain town is a destination in its own right, and one that's particularly popular with families thanks to kid-friendly diversions like Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies and the Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre. To get a taste of local Gatlinburg culture, skip the kitschy souvenir shops and visit one of several local galleries, including the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, to watch local artists and craftsmen create everything from paintings and pottery to handmade brooms and jewelry.

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Gatlinburg Travel Tips

Best Months to Visit

The best time to visit Gatlinburg is between September and October. The two peak seasons in Gatlinburg are summer (June, July and August) and the month of October, when the fall foliage is at its zenith. July is the busiest month of the summer season, while weekends in October draw the largest crowds in the fall. Summer is hot with temperatures in the 80s, but normally less humid than surrounding areas due to the city's high elevation. Keep in mind: that elevation is also responsible for rapid changes in the weather pattern, meaning you should pack layers no matter when you visit. The fall foliage begins to appear in mid-September at the higher elevations. That, coupled with moderate temperatures, offseason rates and few crowds, make September a great month to visit. Crisp fall days in October when the foliage reaches its flaming peak draw huge crowds, and visitors can expect traffic delays, especially on holiday weekends. Meanwhile, Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort draws aficionados during the winter months. Early spring (March to May) constitutes Gatlinburg's low season. If you time your visit for April or May, you'll likely catch the explosion of spring wildflowers.

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What You Need to Know

  • Beware of bears It is illegal to intentionally approach within 150 feet of a bear in the park. For more tips on what to do if you encounter a bear, visit the National Park Service website.
  • Watch the weather Many secondary roads close during inclement weather, especially in the winter months. Check with the NPS for the most up-to-date road conditions.
  • Avoid the park crowds You can avoid large crowds during the peak summer months by visiting early in the morning (most travelers tour the park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) or by sticking to off-the-beaten path trails and attractions, such as Greenbrier Cove and Abrams Creek.

How to Save Money in Gatlinburg

  • Hoof it around town Downtown Gatlinburg is eminently walkable, as are the nearby park trails accessible from the city. If your feet get tired, take the inexpensive trolley to explore locally.
  • Visit in the offseason You'll find the lowest rates on accommodations in September, March and April. 
  • Book online Some attractions, such as the Gatlinburg Space Needle and Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, offer discounts for tickets purchased online.

What to Eat

True to its reputation as a family destination, Gatlinburg offers a bevy of buffets, pizza joints and barbecue eateries to satisfy even the pickiest of diners. Though this mountain town does boast a few fine dining establishments, Gatlinburg's culinary scene bread and butter is its casual restaurants. Although many recent visitors loved Crockett's Breakfast Camp, some called it a tourist trap, likening it to "a Cracker Barrel on steroids" and lacking in quality. Locals prefer the iconic Pancake Pantry with many saying that you can't leave the Smokies without stopping in for some pancakes. The only gripe among diners: the eatery only accepts cash. Located near the entrance to the park, visitors say the lodge-like Park Grill is underrated, and several patrons raved about the barbecue, generous salad bar and friendly service, commenting that the restaurant is fun, especially for kids.

For a casual and inexpensive lunch, Smoky Mountain Shakes N Dawgs garners praise for its creamy milkshakes and creative selection of hot dogs, with choices including reuben and country-fried versions. If you're looking for a more upscale menu or a special occasion spot, consider Buckberry Creek Lodge. Recent visitors were particularly taken by the restaurant's outstanding service, stunning views and extensive menu selections, including halibut, prime rib and a five-course tasting option.

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Getting Around Gatlinburg

The best way to get around Gatlinburg is on foot and by trolley. The city of Gatlinburg is easily walkable and the inexpensive trolley that operates 365 days a year offers service to nearby attractions. However, you'll need a car to take advantage of the scenic driving loops or to access areas of the national park that aren't within walking distance. McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, is about 40 miles west of Gatlinburg and offers several rental car options. Taxi, shuttle or limo service to and from the airport will be pricey because of the distance. Uber does service the airport, but a ride to Gatlinburg will likely be pricey.  

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