Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee: Beyond the Kitsch
By Dana Armstrong
If you know Gatlinburg, TN, you likely envision its larger-than-life attractions.
While some view this as the makings of a great, family-fun adventure, seasoned travelers often view Gatlinburg with two dreaded words in mind: tourist trap.
But that doesn’t have to be the case!
Gatlinburg is an interesting hybrid between a commercialized boardwalk and a small town with a close-knit community within the picturesque Smokies.
On the main city stretch, you’ll find carnival-like Ripley’s attractions, the Anakeesta theme park, and game arcades not far from local artisan shops and family-owned-and-operated BBQ joints.
There’s also a more peaceful side to the region if you know where to look.
Many come to experience the 150+ hiking trails of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Plus, the often-overlooked city of Townsend is another great place to escape the noise and experience the more authentic side of the Smokies.
Scenic Drives Aboard a Pink Jeep
As soon as you enter Gatlinburg, two things are clear: the streets teem with tourists, and you better get comfortable driving in mountainous, trafficky terrain.
Especially if you’re driving on the weekends, you’ll want to double the estimated time to get to your destination.
That, or you can visit in January or February (the chillier months) 0r May, August, and November (also shoulder months) to experience less of the crowds.
I found one of the best ways to take in the city and escape the traffic was in the back of an open-air pink Jeep Wrangler.
Pink Jeep Tours is an adventure tour company that takes passengers on exciting and educational drives with knowledgeable local guides. They provide tours through the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Sedona, and as of 2019, the Great Smoky Mountains.
Many of their drives end with 4×4 off-roading experiences with steep ascents and drops and rough terrain that showcases the suspension of the Jeep.
Make sure to select the bravest member of your group to ride shotgun with the guide!
Exploring the “Beautiful Lands” of the Smokies
I went on the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail Tour in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with guide Julie Starr. I was so impressed with her vast knowledge of the region.
“[In the 1700s] Tennessee was the Cherokee nation, and the capitol was two hours away [from Gatlinburg] in Monroe County,” Starr said.
“The actual site of the capital is now under Lake Tellico, but they have a memorial. It was called Chota and Tanasi. Tennessee would come from Tanasi meaning ‘beautiful lands.’”
On the motor trail, we saw the full display of beautiful lands. The road wound around streams and waterfalls, boulders and mountain overlooks, and countless tulip poplars—the state tree of Tennessee.
Starr said that as of 2021, the flora and fauna destroyed in the 2016 Gatlinburg fire were officially replenished. Nonetheless, you can still see evidence of the charred trees within the green.
The 1830s cabins along the trail provide great opportunities to stretch your legs and learn more about the “mountain people” of the past.
Also, if you’re lucky, you may get to drive past a black bear!
Just Keep Driving
Another driving option is along Foothills Parkway. Though Pink Jeep Tours also provides rides for this route, my family and I decided to drive this parkway on our own. It was the highlight of our trip.
The road meanders around the mountains and offers numerous opportunities to hike and take in even more mountain views.
One of the best (albeit busiest) times to drive the parkway is in late fall to see the vibrant gradient of reds, oranges, and yellows.
We even saw people lounging along the pullovers with camping chairs and picnics.
One thing to beware of is ladybugs or at least knock-off ladybugs. They were flying everywhere and won’t hesitate to enter your car.
Spending Time on the Peaceful Side
Julie, our Pink Jeep Tour guide, tipped us off on the little city of Townsend, just beyond Foothills Parkway.
Known as the “Peaceful Side of the Mountain,” its under-600 residents maintain the city’s campgrounds, riding stables, craft stores, and museums. Each paints a more authentic, laid-back picture of the Smokies.
The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center is a must-see. When we went on a Sunday afternoon, there were few other visitors, so we had lots of time and space to enjoy its exhibits.
The indoor section of the museum walks through the region’s history from Native American times through the homesteaders. I especially appreciated the interactive activity stations, such as one where you can learn to write your name using the Cherokee syllabary.
Outside the museum’s gallery, you can tour around and within 13 restored buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries, recreating an Appalachian village.
Make sure to look at the Heritage Center’s website to catch the village come alive with living history interpreters, live events, and cooking demonstrations.
Other Townsend Must-Sees
Another smaller but free museum option is the Little River Railroad Museum. It features full-sized trains outdoors and an indoor gallery jam-packed with photos and artifacts from Townsend’s storied logging and railroad past.
The one not-to-miss store in the area is Dogwood Mall. Owner Roy Holmes rents the spaces to local artists to ensure direct payment for their work.
The store offers an array of woodwork gifts, jewelry, paintings, local honey and preserves, and–my favorite—pottery by Native American artist Kicking Bird.
The Smokies Arts and Crafts Community
For more local art, it’s well worth a drive down Glades and Buckhorn Roads back in Gatlinburg.
The 8-mile loop, known as the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community, is home to 90+ artisan shops for every artwork or odd and end imaginable.
It’s hard to go wrong with visiting any of the shops here. One standout was So Very Cherry, an entirely cherry-themed gift shop specializing in Cherry-Pit-Pacs.
Another incredible stop was Sparky’s Glassblowing, with stunning glass sculptures, live glassblowing demonstrations, and a friendly and conversational owner.
Rumor has it Sparky has a famous friend you may know.
It’s Not the Smokies Without Dolly Parton
One of the biggest takeaways from my trip to Gatlinburg, apart from how beautiful the Smokies are, is how much of a positive impact Dolly Parton has on the region.
Parton grew up in nearby Sevierville. And she currently owns fourteen houses in Sevier County. Beyond her theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, it seems every local has a personal connection to her in some way.
Her Dollywood Foundation has offered scholarships to local high school students since 1988, drastically increasing literacy and graduation rates in the county. Additionally, Parton created an emergency relief fund that donated $10,000 each to over 900 families affected by Gatlinburg’s 2016 fires.
Yet another part of Dolly’s reign is her partnership with the Smoky Mountain branch of Pink Jeep Tours.
Mountains That Move You
A trip to Gatlinburg doesn’t have to be confined to Hillbilly Golf, whiskey tastings, and game arcades—though it absolutely can, if that’s your preference.
If you know where to look, the Great Smoky Mountains can provide nature, crafts, history, and attractions for every traveler at any age seeking the peaceful, Tennessee way of life.