What to do within five hours of Gatlinburg, Tennessee
July 24, 2019 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I'll be attending a ceramics workshop at Arrowmont in Gatlinburg, TN during early October. A friend will be meeting me after, and we'd like to check out the region a bit. What should we do within, say, a three hour drive of this area?

We're open to anything - tourist traps, camping trips, museums, ghost towns, restaurants, watering holes. Basically anything that isn't an outlet mall, we'd consider if it's cool.
posted by kensington314 to Travel & Transportation around Gatlinburg, TN (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's always Dollywood, which is just north of Gatlinburg in Pigeon Forge. Very touristy, but also fun, if theme parks are your thing.
posted by MundaneNoodle at 2:38 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]

There are about a zillion touristy places in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Or you can go to the Smokey Mountain National Park and hike/rent bikes/drive around and admire the scenery.
posted by tracer at 3:15 PM on July 24

Gatlingburg/Pigeon Forge is full of stuff to do in the Branson-vein of things (think wax museum, Ripley's, aquarium, etc). You're also not that far from Oak Ridge National Labs, and it looks like they offer tours. Knoxville's also pretty nice - I used to get there pretty regularly on business. Lots of decent places to eat, too (though, dammit, my favorite place - RouxBarb seems to be closed now).
posted by jquinby at 3:18 PM on July 24

Another MeFite and I spent a few nights Knoxville before visiting Pigeon Forge for a week. Pleasant area. We drove through Gatlinburg on the way to Lexington SC on our way out-- it's more touristy than PF in my opinion-- PF is where classic car shows go.

What to do in Knoxville? Walk around Old City and Market Square. Knoxville has an old World's Fair site which features a novelty observation platform called the Sunsphere. We didn't hit any museums, but there are a few, mostly historical at first glance.

Spend some time on the Tennessee River which passes through Knoxville, or visit Fort Loudon Lake, which is at the headwaters and just a few miles out of town from Knoxville, or about 90 minutes direct from Gatlinburg.

Great Smokey Mtns National Park is a no-brainer-- drive into it up to the state line and you'll find yourself on the Appalachian Trail. There's a big-ass parking lot up there, so hike in a few yards or miles, as is your pleasure, and then turn around. Good time to pop Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" into the mp3 player, or read aloud over drinks.

When you get your dates set, check out the UT Volunteers football schedule; if they're playing at home, there could be a significant influx of out-of-towners from the visiting team's home city, and that can affect availability as far as cabins/hotels/campsites and other touristy things.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:18 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]

Asheville NC is about 90 minutes away, and a lot of fun to visit. It's more about food-and-beer tourism then Gatlinburg is, so if you're interested in breweries or restaurants I would strongly recommend it. There's also the Biltmore there, if you like old fancy mansions, although that tour is pretty expensive. Lots of good outdoor stuff in Asheville, but there's also plenty of that closer to Gatlinburg
posted by JZig at 4:36 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]

I would travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway, for which the southern portion (closest to where you'll be) is the most scenic and, in spots, very quirky. It looks like there are lots of wineries and other cool things close by (albeit most are not on the parkway itself), plus it's just a great opportunity to experience a unique setting and way of life. I miss the Blue Ridge Parkway.
posted by DrGail at 5:10 PM on July 24

Seconding the Biltmore, a thousand times more than Dollywood!!
posted by mccxxiii at 7:25 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]

posted by OlivesAndTurkishCoffee at 8:13 PM on July 24

Dollywood and the Biltmore are both fantastic in different ways. Really there is so much to see an experience within 30 minutes of your starting point let along 3 hours that you will not struggle for things to do.
posted by mmascolino at 8:21 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the hell out of the mountaintop zipline tour from this outfit. Friendly staff, and they're surrounded on 3 sides by the national park, so the views are great!
posted by chrisamiller at 8:54 PM on July 24

Traffic can be hellish in and around Gatlinburg as soon as people think it’s fall and leaves might be changing. I wouldn’t make firm plans to go very far if you’re driving and have a hard deadline for leaving. Gatlinburg is a super cheesy tourist town. Maybe just wonder around the downtown area a bit?
posted by bluedaisy at 9:01 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]

Okay, I misunderstood your question. I thought you had a short window of time, but I see now you were asking for things within a few hours. Okay, so Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are big, cheesy tourist towns. Yes, Dollywood can be fun, but it's mostly just an amusement park with an Appalachian theme.

The Great Smokies Mountain National Park is lovely. Traffic can be horrible on 441 going through the Park, especially on the weekends. Cherokee, on the other side of GSMNP through 441, has the interesting Museum of the Cherokee Indian along with some more tourist-trap type things, but with a Native American theme. If you go through the Park, allot plenty of time (traffic will come to a total standstill when people stop on the road to watch a bear) and you'll be pleasantly surprised if things keep moving. It's a slow, winding mountain road (by design), so it takes longer than you'd expect based on the distance.

If you go through to Cherokee and want to keep exploring, the Nantahala Gorge is lovely. You can go rafting if you're so inclined. There's also mountain biking, camping, and hiking around there, and it's quieter than the Tennessee side of things.

There's also a large herd of elk that hangs out around the Cataloochee Valley near Maggie Valley in southeastern GSMNP.

Asheville is a lovely city. You can skip the drive through the Park and take I40 to Asheville and enjoy this very pleasant city, with good restaurants. From there you can still drive to hikes and such.

The North Carolina side of the Smokies is a bit quieter, especially once you get away from the bigger towns.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:18 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]

Visit Chattanooga! It's beautiful and has a great aquarium. See Rock City! (I never saw it but the signs are ubiquitous.) Visit Ruby Falls! (It also has lots of signs all over the region and it's kind of neat if you're not claustrophobic.)

Nashville is a little bit further but also nice. Catch a concert at the Ryman Auditorium if you can; it's the old Grand Ol' Opry venue and it's really nice. I've been told that the behind-the-scenes tour of the current Grand Ol' Opry venue is nice, too. There's also a reconstruction of the Parthenon just outside of Nashville if that's the kind of thing you'd like to see.
posted by ElKevbo at 6:28 PM on July 25

Asheviille's food scene is worth it. The whole vibe in Asheville is pretty much the opposite of Gatlinburg, so it would make for a nice break from Gatlinburg's populist Americana scene. Obviously, the Smokey Mountains. There are plenty of hikes around Gatlinburg and in the area generally.
posted by xammerboy at 7:17 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]

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