Everyone calls Gatlinburg the Gateway of the Smokies. It’s true that this mountain town in East Tennessee is one of the best places to get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the Tennessee side (there is Smokies access on the North Carolina side, too). But it is also true that the larger Tennessee Smokies gateway is really a collection of small towns, each with its own vibe and connectedness to mountain culture.

Whether you want family-friendly amusement parks, restaurants, and basic hikes or long for romantic, quiet getaways, there’s a Smoky Mountain town for you. Whether it's a quick break or a leisurely road trip, use this guide to help you find the right fit for your perfect Smoky Mountains vacation.

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People walking around Main Street in downtown Gatlinburg Tennessee, USA
A busy throng of travelers enjoying Main Street in Gatlinburg © csfotoimages / Getty Images


The best-known of the Smokies approach towns, Gatlinburg is a classic mountain resort town. From here you can take a chair lift high from Anakeesta and look down on the lush, green winding roads, dotted with cabins and hotels with their own worthy views. Gatlinburg has a long tradition of artists who practice mountain crafts. You can take classes, be it ceramics or watercolor painting, from them and buy their wares along the secluded 8-mile Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Loop. Learn to ski at Ober Gatlinburg, the only ski hill in the state of Tennessee. In the summer, opt for a guided hike on the ski hill instead. Cap off the mountain exertion by eating and drinking along the Parkway, Gatlinburg’s main drag. Ole Red features a Southern menu, adult beverages, and live country music.

Gatlinburg is a year-round destination, with a temperate climate for sunny hikes in the summer and the opportunity to ski in the winter. It is a local tradition to eat as many pancakes as possible, and there are many (many) pancake houses in which to do it, including Little House of Pancakes, with its classic diner vibe and reasonable prices. Whole Earth Grocery makes sandwiches to-go if you prefer to take a picnic up in the mountains.

Lawn Display at Dollywood Welcome Center
Local hero Dolly Parton has created Dollywood in her home town © Raymond Gehman / Getty Images

Pigeon Forge

The streets of Pigeon Forge are lined with neon. Everywhere you look there’s something to see, and often it is something you might not expect, such as King Kong climbing a replica of the Empire State Building at the Hollywood Wax Museum or a replica of the Titanic. Pigeon Forge is home to Ferris wheels that light up the night sky and go-kart tracks that allow kids and their parents to race through the afternoons. There’s even an indoor snow-sledding hill.

But Pigeon Forge’s best-loved attraction is Dollywood, the resort developed by megastar Dolly Parton, who was raised in these mountains. Dollywood includes a water park, amusement park with live music, a resort hotel and spa, and lots of nods to what makes this part of Tennessee great: Smoky Mountain scenery, mountain crafts, and country music. Once you’ve ridden all the amusement park rides your heart can take, take your pick of the quirky dining options in Pigeon Forge. At Frizzle Chicken Farmhouse Café, animatronic chickens with names like HENifer Aniston and Elvis PresLAY sing to you while you eat. The Listening Room Café offers dinner while human singer-songwriters perform stripped-down versions of their songs.

Girl at a petting zoo
The petting zoo is one of my great activities for the whole family in Sevierville © sweetpeatoad / Getty Images


Best known as being Dolly Parton’s hometown, this small hamlet is 20 miles north of Gatlinburg and the national park, just north of bustling Pigeon Forge. The quaint downtown square is dotted with shops and cafes, as well as a bronze sculpture of Dolly herself with a guitar on her lap and one of her favorite signature butterflies nearby. Seasons 101, inside the Central Hotel, is one of the area’s upscale restaurants and is a change of pace when you’ve had enough of pancake houses and fudge shops.

A stay at the Central Hotel – which in a previous iteration was where President Roosevelt stayed when he visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – is a more upscale experience than many of the family-friendly spots in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It’s a good option for those who want to be away from the neon lights and noise of the Parkway but still want full-service accommodations. Sevierville is also home to several lower-priced hotels and cabins in the woods, the latter offering a greater degree of privacy.

The exterior wooden facade of the Wedding Chapel surrounded by tall trees
The Heartland Wedding Chapel sits on the bank of Little River © Stan Rohrer / Alamy Stock Photo


Townsend likes to bill itself as “the peaceful side of the Smokies.” Not that all of the Great Smoky Mountains and its surrounding mountain towns aren’t peaceful, but Townsend doesn’t have the neon signs and King Kong climbing a tower. In summer, come here for outdoor pursuits. Smoky Mountain River Rat Tubing and Whitewater Rafting will guide you down the Little River, where you’ll feel the cool splash of the water and immerse yourself in mountain views.

Stroll down the Townsend Riverwalk Trail, which is a paved route with five miles of walking and biking trails on each side of Highway 321. The bike- and dog-friendly route is dotted with wildflowers in spring. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center tells the tales of the communities that live in these mountains, including the Native Americans who helped preserve this wilderness.



Once known as the “moonshine capital of the world” and historically a Cherokee hunting ground, Cosby’s remote location surrounded by mountains and creeks makes it the ideal place to camp under the stars. Cosby Campground – one of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s eight campgrounds – is located here. Make a reservation for one of these managed campsites, which include tent and RV sites, plus some ADA-accessible sites. Each site has parking, a fire ring, and a picnic table, and plenty of trees that help shield you from other nearby campsites.

In general Cosby is considered a quieter campground than Elkmont, which is closer to Gatlinburg. Outside the park, there are private glamping outfitters and a cozy Airstream village, where you get the feel of camping without having to sacrifice home comforts. The trailhead for the Maddron Bald and Albright Grove Loop hike, a strenuous 6.7-mile path, is just off of Highway 321 in Cosby. The old-growth forest provides lots of shade in summer, and it’s easy to do a small section of the trail if you don't feel up to the full loop.

Campus of Maryville College in Maryville Tennessee
Maryville College is the perfect location for a gentle scenic bike ride © Dee / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus


Home to Maryville College, Maryville is essentially a suburb of Knoxville, but its serene, bucolic setting makes it a natural waypoint en route to the Smokies. Book a night or two at the RT Lodge, and stroll among its lovely four-season gardens, sit in front of the fire, or borrow one of the lodge’s free bicycles and ride through town and the campus. Chef Trevor Stockton makes meals with local ingredients at RT Lodge. For more casual eats and drinks, stop at the family- and pet-friendly Tri-Hop Brewery or grab a spicy sandwich or empanada from Aroma Cafe Cuban Food before heading back to the lodge for the night. Maryville is also home to the Sam Houston Historic Schoolhouse.

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