Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, a time to get away and refresh.
But then you get to a destination spot like Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge where there’s just so many things to do you end up needing a vacation within a vacation.
Anakeesta, billed as Gatlinburg’s theme park, is the perfect place to get away from your get away. Oh sure, there are things to do at Anakeesta but, if you’re doing it right, the chief activity up on top of that mountain is simply chilling the eff out.
Anakeesta is a relatively new destination on the Gatlinburg landscape. Located behind Arrowmont School, Anakeesta is accessible from a parking area and entrance located on the parkway roughly across from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
There are two ways to access Anakeesta proper, also known as Firefly Village. First is the chondola system, basically a ski lift up the mountain. Barring a fear of heights, this is an excellent way to travel and I found the ride back down, at night, overlooking Gatlinburg, to be one of the real pleasures of the trip. Second, the Ridge Rambler, which is a big damn truck built to haul people up the mountain. It’s a little less poetic than the chondola, but just as effective.
Once up to Anakeesta, I found myself amazed that someone hadn’t done something there earlier. The views are spectacular. It’s a great place to watch the sunset, do a little leaf peeping and just clear your head.
Photo by Sofia Gullion
There is more to do than stare off into the distance however. The charming Firefly Village offers shopping, dining and drinking. The Cliff Top Grill & Bar instantly became one of my favorite places to eat in Gatlinburg. The menu isn’t fancy, but it’s good and the rustic décor is just right for the massive partially covered deck, jutting off the mountain. Sure, you have to pay the roughly $20 entrance fee just for the right to get into the park and buy your meal but when the weather’s nice, the dining experience is worth every penny.
If you want a less formal – and the Grill & Bar isn’t overly formal – dining experience, Anakeesta offers a series of food and beverage carts that are fun, tasty and offer just the slightest touch of hipster chic. From coffee to craft beers and a barbecue pit that has to be caged off so the neighborhood bears who sneak into the park after hours can’t get in, there’s a little something for everyone.
Photo by Sofia Gullion
If I had a criticism of Anakeesta, and it’s a slight one, it’s that beyond dining, shopping and chilling there isn’t that much to do. Even if title of Gatlinburg’s theme park is self-anointed, it is – at least in this early stage – slightly unearned.
The dueling zip line and the rail runner mountain coaster are fun, but are an additional cost to the price of admission. There’s a garden with lovely views to walk through which, on fall nights, doubles as the site of The Legend of Hallow Mountain, a pretty incredible little haunted walk. The Treetop Skywalk rope bridge is a nice hike, and would likely be amazing during fall leaf peeping season, but it’s not something you’d want to do more than once per trip.
As currently configured, I would recommend Anakeesta mostly for adults or families with fairly mature teens. I think, despite the staff’s efforts to come up with fun little diversions, younger visitors getting bored.
Still, in fairness, the potential for Anakeesta is obvious. It’s a brilliant place, a brilliant idea, which is in the process of growing into what it will become. Expansion plans are in the works and the possibilities seem bright.
Right now, Anakeesta is pretty awesome for a certain type of vacationer. In the coming years, I think that clientele will grow.
Anakeesta – Visit website
Location 576 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Hours: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. weekdays or 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. on weekends, may vary by season
Price Range: $17.99-21.99 for admission; add-ons range from $12.99-29.99