Gatlinburg, the gem of East Tennessee, is thought of as the Gateway of the Smokies. Many travelers use it as a launching point for exploration into the national park. But for those who live in the area, or who are staying for more than a few days, Gatlinburg itself can be home base for day trips that show off the area’s wilderness, arts and culture, and music. There’s a nearby day trip destination for families, outdoor aficionados and even beer drinkers.  

USA, North Carolina, Asheville
The quirky charm of Asheville, North Carolina is less than 100 mile ride from Gatlinburg. ©


While Asheville is over the border in North Carolina, it’s just 80 miles east of Gatlinburg, and the slow, winding drive there takes you through the blue-green bounty of the Smoky Mountains. Once you arrive, you’ll experience a mountain arts community in all its quirkiness. Asheville is known for its community of makers who sculpt, paint, and blow glass.

Spend some of your time here browsing the best art galleries and studios, particularly in the River Arts District. Afterward, grab a beer at one of the city’s many (many) breweries. In fact, Asheville calls itself Beer City U.S.A. because of the love of craft beer in the offbeat city. Lace-up your boots and take a hike to Looking Glass Rock, particularly in fall when the leaves are changing color. If you want to see how the 1% live, take a tour of the famous Biltmore Estate and its gardens (which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) before your return.

Night view of downtown street
Knoxville, Tennesse, known as the Gateway to the Smokies because of its airport is a less than 50 miles drive from Gatlinburg, though traffic can get backed up. © Bruce Yuanyue Bi/Getty Images


For many people, particularly those who live in Gatlinburg, it is Knoxville that is known as the Gateway to the Smokies, because of its airport. Just an hour west of Gatlinburg, it is a town where you can spend a day (or several) before or after your Smoky Mountains vacation. Knoxville is sometimes overlooked by showier Tennessee towns, but that’s to your advantage. Football fans, of course, know to come here in the fall when the University of Tennessee Volunteers take to the field. Year-round there’s a great maker scene, with small boutiques and artists’ studios showing off locally made wares in cool neighborhoods, such as Old City and Happy Holler. Head to Knoxville Adventure Collective to paddleboard or kayak on the Tennessee River.

Knoxville is 35 miles northwest of Gatlinburg. Traffic can get backed up through the Pigeon Forge area, so leave extra time if taking this day trip on busy weekends. The route through Sevierville is about 10 miles longer, but can take the same amount of time because much of it is on the I-40 Interstate. If going through Sevierville, stop downtown and see the statue of Dolly Parton, the area’s beloved hometown hero.

Seven Islands State Birding Park
Cosmos flowers blooming in a field draw a wide variety of wildlife, making Seven Islands State Birding Park well worth the visit. © ©epantha/Getty Images

Seven Islands State Birding Park

You might not think that people who live in Gatlinburg, so close to the Smoky Mountains, would ever go anywhere else to get outside. But locals love Seven Islands State Birding Park, a relatively new addition to the state park system just 29 miles north of Gatlinburg. Nestled on the French Broad River near Knoxville, it offers easy access for paddling and fishing (there are more than 50 species of fish in this waterway), but the real attraction is what is in the air.

From here you can explore eight miles of trails that wind through meadows, with native wildflowers and the pollinators and birds they attract. It is not unusual to hear songbirds and see hawks, ducks and owls. Rangers lead walks and family-friendly educational programming throughout the surrounding habitat. A paved one-way path makes it easy to ride your bike down to the river. Or you can just take in the colorful skies and the Smoky Mountains in the background. Access to Seven Islands is free, making this a good cheap day trip from Gatlinburg.

Historic State Street in Bristol separating Virginia and Tennessee
Bristol, Tennessee is known for State Street, which divides the city into two different states. ©Denis Tangney Jr/Getty


The mountain town of Bristol, 115 miles northeast of Gatlinburg, is famous for straddling two states. The border between Virginia and Tennessee runs down the middle of the city’s main drag (called State Street). But the ability to get a quirky photo of yourself standing in two states at one time isn’t the real reason to gas up the car and drive to Bristol. In 1927, a talent scout named Ralph Peer came to town to record Appalachian musicians who played in these hills. This series of recordings, called the Bristol Sessions, are considered to be the first recordings of country music ever made. Learn all about them at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate which has its own radio station, exhibits, live music, and more.

After checking out the museum and its museum, stroll through downtown. Shop at L.C. King, which makes denim apparel in the U.S.A. right from its historic Bristol factory. Eat at Burger Bar, a place for hot dogs, burgers, and shakes, which claims to be the last place country music icon Hank Williams ate before his untimely death. Grab a sweet treat at the 24-hour Blackbird Bakery before heading back to the Smokies.

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