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A road trip from Memphis to Gatlinburg makes you understand and appreciate the diversity of Tennessee’s nature. Low plants of the west will give way to the valleys of the center, finally leading you to one of the most beloved and impressive national parks in the U.S., the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This kingdom of high foggy peaks is why Tennessee is the ultimate mountain state that invites you to outdoor discovery.
The hundreds of miles of hiking tracks, magnificent panoramas everywhere you look, a myriad of wildlife watching opportunities, and the promise of a genuine, unfiltered escape. That’s what you’ll find here. Also, charming settlements are scattered in between high-elevated terrain. These are the most beautiful mountain towns in Tennessee, where civilization goes hand in hand with wilderness. Find your next perfect getaway idea.
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There won’t be a shortage of outdoor activities in Townsend, one of the gateway towns to the Great Smokies. Not as busy as Gatlinburg nearby, the town positions itself as a more low-key, relaxed destination to experience the wonders of the spectacular Tennessee mountains. It is also filled with those cute small-town attractions made for slow travel. The local must-visit is the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, an open-air museum with picturesque wooden houses telling a story of the Southern Appalachian way of life through culture and architecture. If you’re into railways, Little River Railroad displays vintage trains and has a Lumber Museum. And, of course, you will have direct access to superb trails like Townsend River Walk and various paths to the heart of the Great Smokies. Another must-visit is the Cades Cove Historic District which takes you on a trip to 19th-century Appalachia.
If you’re looking for the best mountain town for a first-time visit to the Great Smokies, that’s Gatlinburg. Hugged by gentle forested peaks, it is literally in the mountains, so you will get a first-hand nature experience in an urban setting. For hiking, a whopping 800 miles of tracks cover the expanse of the Great Smoky National Park. What’s cool about Gatlinburg is the abundance of attractions that the town has, like the 360-degree observation deck called Space Needle, Ripley’s Aquarium with more than 100,000 sea dwellers, and Anakeesta Adventure Park for a more active form of fun. And then there’s Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area & Amusement Park, a ski resort with eight trails, an aerial tramway, and year-round ice-skating. In other words, Gatlinburg is a mountain town you can’t not visit while in Tennessee.
Nevada has Las Vegas for all things entertainment, and Tennessee has Pigeon Forge. Amusement here takes a very Appalachian, Southern, and Dolly Parton-revering form. The universally loved American sweetheart country singer was born nearby, and Pigeon Forge, for many, has a strong association with her music and positive vibe. The epicenter of fun, especially family fun, would be Dollywood, a theme park that combines thrill-inducing rides with Southern Appalachian flair and country music. Just nearby is another island of fun, Dollywood’s Splash Country. It continues the Dolly Parton theme and has 14 attractions on 35 acres.
But that’s not all of the things to do in Pigeon Forge. The small Tennessee mountain town has its own Strip, albeit much tinier than in Las Vegas. Its name is Parkway, and it features a kaleidoscope of restaurants, concert halls, theme parks, and hotels. The musts would be the Titanic Museum Attraction with artifacts from the ship, Dolly Parton’s Stampede that combines Southern dining and a country show, and The Island in Pigeon Forge with a Ferris wheel and unlimited shopping opportunities.
Set in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains, Johnson City is a great place to base yourself in East Tennessee and one of the state’s best vacation spots. It’s a vibrant town with many cultural happenings, an incredible food scene, heritage sites to discover, and an easygoing vibe. But it’s the outdoors that takes center stage in Johnson City. Go to Buffalo Mountain Park for scenic walks and beautiful waterfalls. Explore the charming Tipton-Haynes Historic Site with its 18th-century architecture. As for an urban outing, downtown Johnson City is an essential visit for its bars, breweries, and restaurants serving Southern cuisine.
Although Pigeon Forge takes the more significant chunk of Dolly Parton’s pilgrimage in Tennessee, it is in quieter Sevierville that the singer was born and started her path. And while Ms. Parton makes occasional appearances in Dollywood, in Sevierville, you’re guaranteed to see her all year round. There is a statue of Dolly Parton right in the heart of town, and it would be a special place to visit if you’re into country music. Not having crowds like in the neighboring megaresorts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge gives Sevierville a kick of Appalachian authenticity. This town would be an excellent pick for a Great Smoky Mountains getaway and exploration base. Proximity to the national park, spectacular Douglas Lake nearby, plenty of shopping options, a fantastic restaurant scene, and diverse accommodation choices make this Tennessee mountain outpost an ideal break destination.
How about a full-immersion mountain escape? Wears Valley is made for that. Close to Gatlinburg but lacking the crowds and the buzz, this community is all about peaceful mountain vistas, long meadow walks, warm conversations on the outdoor terraces, and the feeling of tranquillity in the air. Just rent one of the many cottages dotting the local hills and enjoy the prime Great Smokies cabin experience. Little Greenbrier Trailhead is here, too, taking you to the endless outdoor activities of the national park. And if you’re in for some mountain fun, both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are nearby.
Drowning in greenery and serving up a quintessential Great Smoky Mountains atmosphere, Pittman Center is the perfect recreational town for total relaxation. There will only be green meadows, thick forests, and birds chirping here. The national park is easily accessible through the Greenbrier entrance in Pittman Center. That means staying here gives you a chance to fully explore the hiking trails, breathe in endless amounts of fresh mountain air, and engage in outdoor activities like cycling, climbing, and wildlife watching. Be sure to stop at the Emerts Cove Covered Bridge, a charming piece of the town’s historical heritage. For accommodation, you can either choose one of the mountain cottages or opt for camping. We’re in the mountains, after all.
This charming little town is set where the Nolichucky River meets Cherokee National Forest. Coming here means getting yourself an authentic natural retreat surrounded by magnificent green panoramas. The most scenic part would be Nolichucky Gorge. You can also raft here as the majority of Erwin visitors do. There’s also camping when there’s a beautiful river flowing through the centuries-old forest. Nolichucky Gorge Campground & Cabins is a great option to choose. It takes you to the very heart of the outdoors. Chestoa Recreation Area nearby would be ideal for picnicking and relaxed canoeing. If you’re into fishing, you can try your luck with trout and smallmouth bass here.
Once known as “The Moonshine Capital of the World” due to the amounts of local production of the illegally distilled liquor, today Cosby is a very traditional, tiny, and accommodating Tennessee mountain town. Don’t come here looking for entertainment; this destination is for a complete, unapologetic break. Just rent a cabin and soak in the Appalachian atmosphere. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s entrance is in Cosby, too, so the hiking trails await. Also, the town hosts several traditional restaurants that serve heartfelt Southern fare.
It’s all about whitewater rafting in Hartford, an unincorporated community surrounded by the mountain peaks of the Great Smokies. Upper Pigeon River offers a fantastic ride through the Cherokee National Forest. Lower Pigeon is ideal for families and kids with its gentler waters and several islands. There are many campgrounds to choose from on the river’s shores, so you’ve got an excellent opportunity to forget about civilization for a while and give in to the expansive beauty of the northeastern part of the Great Smoky Mountains. 30 developed campgrounds await you in the sprawling Cherokee National Forest. Also, you can hike through this enchanting reserve to enjoy scenic panoramas and have a relaxing picnic under the trees.