Over many years and many weeks spent in and around Gatlinburg, I’ve developed my own “best of” list that I thought I’d share with you. I have my opinions (and biases) and I make no apologies!
Dining: Most of the restaurants in downtown Gatlinburg are either chain restaurants or, frankly, overpriced for what you get – that comes with tourist towns. But, one decent choice on the south end of town is the Smoky Mountain Brewery. Their local beer is quite good and the restaurant offers a basic menu (pizza, sandwiches, dinners) at a moderate price in a pub-type atmosphere. It’s tucked back behind Calhoun’s Restaurant, and parking is free with your dinner receipt.
If you are willing to venture out of town, my favorite locals spot is Carver’s Applehouse Restaurant in Cosby, a 30 minute drive. The restaurant is open 8 am – 8 pm, serving up delicious home made food at a bargain price. Next door is Carver’s Orchard barn which houses a farmer’s market of fresh produce, local honey, jams, jellies, pickles, cheese, eggs, and fresh cider. If you’re interested in jam or pickles, you’ll save at least $1/jar over the downtown gift shop prices. Worth the drive at 3460 Cosby Highway, in Cosby TN.
I’d like to pause a moment to remember my all-time favorite Gatlinburg restaurant, the Mountain Lodge, who served THE best breakfast and lunch in town, hands down. Tragically, the restaurant burned down in the November 2016 wildfires and is no more. R.I.P. Mountain Lodge, you are sorely missed.
Shopping: For groceries, go to Food City on Hwy 321, stoplight 2B. They have everything you need including a great selection of prepared foods you can grab and go. If you take a minute to get a Food City Value Card and use it for shopping, a couple of visits can net you discounted gas at their pumps. Food City also has a well-stocked Red Box for video rental.
Walkable downtown Gatlinburg is fun to browse with lots of kitschy T-shirt shops and moonshine tasting opportunities. During the summer, the city hosts “Tunes and Tales” with sidewalk performers, including a hammered dulcimer artist that is divine. It’s also fun to people-watch downtown, especially the ones that have availed themselves of the moonshine tasting opportunities!
But, for an entirely different shopping experience, do not miss the Arts & Crafts loop, starting off of Hwy 321 Stoplight 3. Over 100 artists have shops and studios along the 8 mile loop including painters, pottery, woodworking, leather working, textiles, etc. The loop is wooded, cool, and never as crowded as crazy downtown. I people-watch downtown, but I find my treasures on the Loop.
If you really want to just hit an outlet mall, then the Tanger Outlet Mall in Sevierville is the place to go.
Smoky Mountains National Park: For me, must-see’s in the park include the Sugarlands Visitor Center (watch the free movie), drive the Cades Cove Loop (go early!), see Newfound Gap, walk up to Clingman’s Dome on a clear day, and drive around Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
If you have time, drive through the park to the Oconoluftee Visitor’s Center to see the Farm Museum and the elk that come out around dusk. The nearby town of Cherokee offers an interesting Cherokee museum and the Harrah’s casino.
I love hiking and have hiked literally hundreds of miles in the Park. A good resource for hiking trail information is Hiking in the Smokies which provides trail descriptions and elevation profiles. You can select what is best according to your fitness level, interests, and experience. Here’s my short list of faves:
Best walk in the woods: Gatlinburg trail. Pick it up on the south end of town and go as far as you want. 1.5 miles takes you to the end of the best part, 2 miles takes you all the way to the visitor’s center. It’s a wide gravel trail, gently rolling, and well used.
Best short hike: Grotto Falls, 2.2 miles round trip. The trail head is close to town, the elevation change is modest and the waterfall payoff is great. It’s better than Laurel Falls because it’s a real trail, not paved.
Best moderate waterfall hike: Rainbow Falls, 5.2 miles round trip. A challenge for the modestly-fit, it is eminently doable if you take your time. The trail was recently refurbished and is in great condition. The waterfall payoff is beautiful and worth it.
Best moderate views hike: Charlie’s Bunion, 8 miles round trip. Take the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap east to Charlie’s Bunion knob which offers spectacular panoramic views on a clear day. There’s not a tremendous amount of elevation gain, but it’s up and down, and a fairly long hike.
Best hard hike: Alum Cave trail t Le Conte Lodge, 11 miles round trip. It’s my favorite overall trail with lots of features along the way: log creek crossings, arch rock, the alum cave bluff, spectacular views, and the Lodge at the top of the mountain. If you have legs left, go to the Cliff Tops right above the lodge, another half mile up. This trail is uber-popular and the parking lot fills up so go early!
Favorite epic loop hike: Park at Rainbow falls trailhead and pick up Trillium Gap trail just up the Rainbow Falls trail. This will parallel the road for a couple of miles then turn up the mountain past Grotto Falls and continuing on up to Le Conte Lodge. After a break at the lodge, take Bullhead Trail or Rainbow Falls Trail down the mountain back to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. It’s a good 17 miles and 4000 ft elevation gain, so it’s not for the out of shape!
So there you have it! Some of my “best of” picks for the Gatlinburg area. Enjoy!