Surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Gatlinburg is the capital city of the Smokies. Once a quiet mountain hamlet where folks lived off the land, the “Burg” is now a busy tourist trap where anything goes.
Anything may be new generations of ever more gargantuan hotels and condominiums, or new attractions that try to giggle, wow, or scare the money out of you. Anything is also the unrelenting commercial machine that peddles pancakes, taffy, T-shirts, and mountain-kitsch goodies to whoever passes by.
Gatlinburg is the Tennessee city closest to the Smokies, but the mountains seem oh so far away. If you came to the Smokies strictly to enjoy nature, stay away from this place. But if you came to have fun, then maybe you’ll find it in your heart to spend an afternoon gorging on cotton candy and making funny pictures with your traveling companions.
Getting to Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is easy to find, but traffic can be terrible. Vehicles creep slowly along the Parkway, and you feel more like you’re cruising than driving. Parking, if you find it, costs around $2 per hour or $8 a day.
The Gatlinburg Trolleys are the answer. Free parking is available at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center on the Spur, outside of town, and at the municipal garage located on Highway 321. From either stop you’ll pay 50 cents for the trip into town and the trolley will deposit you right in front of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. From there you can catch rides up River Road (50 cents), out Highway 321 to the Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community ($1), or into the national park ($2). Exact change is required on all routes. Or you can hoof it—walking distances in Gatlinburg are short.
Trolley route maps are available from visitors centers or by calling the Mass Transit Center at 865/436-3897.
If you are traveling through Gatlinburg only to get to the national park, take the Gatlinburg By-Pass. The By-Pass veers off Highway 441 shortly after the Gatlinburg Welcome Center, and climbs the mountainside overlooking Gatlinburg. It deposits you back on Highway 441 inside the national park.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition