Foliage and fun are in store around Gatlinburg.
For anyone who craves the boardwalk excitement of a beach-front town, but hates that Buckhead is hours away from the shore, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is a great option.
This town of about 4,000 in the eastern corner of the state has built a reputation around attractions similar to those visitors will find in touristy, seaside destinations: a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Aquarium, Mirror Maze; the Anakeesta Theme Park with zip lines, gondola rides and a tree canopy connected by swinging bridges; and a 407-foot tall space needle. A stroll down Parkway, the main thoroughfare, isn’t complete without stops for funnel cakes, caramel apples, ice cream and a round of minigolf. Got kids? Gatlinburg will keep them entertained.
When my family visited years ago, the tykes were tiny. This time, they were more interested in discovering the area’s natural beauty. Gatlinburg is a hub for outdoors lovers who will find plenty of places to rest and refuel in between treks into the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A highlight was the moderately challenging, 5.4-mile roundtrip hike that leads to Rainbow Falls, an 80-foot cascade of water known for its rainbow-producing mist in summer and spectacular ice formations in winter. Horseback riding and bicycles provide other options for seeing the park.
Downtown Gatlinburg is home to another spot for spectacular views, especially of fall foliage. The SkyLift hoists travelers 500 feet above the town to the SkyBridge, billed as one of the longest pedestrian cable bridges in North America. Take a deep breath, get over the fear of heights and stroll the 700 feet across the valley for jaw-dropping vistas.
We didn’t get to spend as much time communing with nature as we’d planned when some serious rainfall set in. But that didn’t impact the indoor fun we had at our lodgings, the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort and Water Park, where the lazy river, water slides and splash pads are indoors. Lounge chairs, lockers and showers are provided, so it’s easy to forget the weather and dive in.
When the temperature dropped in the evening, the gas fireplace in the resort’s apartment-style accommodations made the luxuriously appointed space seem cozy. It was also easy to chill out in the master bedroom’s oversized hot tub—as in a multi-person, wear-a-bathing suit tub, not a bathtub. Both the bedroom and living area, complete with dining table and fully outfitted kitchen, featured sliding doors to balconies that opened onto the hazy mountain scenery.
Westgate is also home to the Southern Comfort restaurant, where the menu is built around stick-to-the-ribs comfort favorites: shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings, bacon-wrapped meatloaf and a grilled ribeye drizzled in garlic butter. While downtown Gatlinburg is awash in fast-casual food, we splurged at the Chesapeake Seafood House, noted for its wellstocked raw bar. The patio is heated, but we went for an inside booth that still gave a clear view of the Little River that gushes through town.
Our mountain outing included one final stop on the way out: lunch at the Sunliner Diner. Technically in neighboring Pigeon Forge, the ’50s-style eatery embraces the era with authentic period autos retrofitted with tables inside the frames, classic rock ’n roll on the sound system and a menu of American classics served up with soda-fountain floats, sundaes, splits and shakes. The Fonz would have been right at home.
WESTGATE SMOKY MOUNTAIN RESORT AND WATER PARK
Atlanta-based writer and editor contributing to a number of local and state-wide publications. Instructor in Georgia State’s Communication department and Emory’s Continuing Education division.