What is the best place to stay in the Smoky Mountains?

street view of gatlinburg tn

Gatlinburg often offers the best of both worlds for many visitors to the Smoky Mountains (photo by Dawid S Swierczek/shutterstock.com)

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My Aunt Mata and her 27 grandkids are, as we speak, staying at a condo-type place overlooking the Gatlinburg SkyWalk.

Mata is a Hoosier. And like all good Hoosiers, going back generations to our grandparents, she must visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every few years.

We’re legally obligated.

The place where Mata is staying is super nice. It has an indoor pool and a water park. It’s a paradise for people with grandkids or for people like me who want to send their kids to play with their vacating cousins.

But it got me thinking about if I was still a Hoosier and not a local, where would I choose for my vacation? What would be my requirements? Would I want to stay among the most natural beauty?

Would I want to stay in a popular destination to maximize the fun?

Does it have a hot tub? Is that hot tub clean and sanitary? Does it have a fire pit? Where are the best places in the mountains to stay?

Let’s answer some questions starting here: People haven’t been coming to the Smokies for generations because they’re ugly.

Certainly, in an ideal world, you want to wake up in the morning, stumble to the front window and be smacked straight in the face by majesty.

Read Also: Best mountain view cabins near Pigeon Forge: Top 9 ranked [2022]

LeConte Lodge cabins in the Smoky Mountains
The only way to reach the cabins at Mt. LeConte is to hike up the trails and back. The shortest (yet steepest) trail is Alum Cave Trail at 5 miles (photo by Martina Sliger/shutterstock.com)

What’s the most beautiful part of the Smokies?

With that in mind, the most beautiful place to stay in the Smokies may well be LeConte Lodge. However, not all of us are ready, willing or able to make that hike or plan that far in advance.

So let’s start with something a little less specific, popular places that are a little more attainable.

Certainly, there are a lot of private cabins, bed and breakfasts and condos in remote locations in the mountains with beautiful views. But we’re not coming at this from a micro level.

This isn’t about one place with treehouse cabins or Hobbit-holes. This is about the Smoky Mountain towns that offer the best mountain views and experiences.

For my money, it’s Gatlinburg.

Pigeon Forge is fun and convenient, but unless you find a cabin off the beaten path, it’s not beautiful. Gatlinburg combines the best of both worlds. You can get majestic views of the mountains and still have access to all the other stuff that makes the Smokies fun.

If you want something a little less touristy, Maggie Valley, North Carolina might be your cup of tea.

I’m enamored with the North Carolina side of the mountains. We recently drove through Wears Valley on our way to Cades Cove.

There was a time I might have said Wears Valley is the prettiest area. But the expansion of businesses there as well as the number of cabins and chalets on the mountains have kind of lessened the visual experience.

A view of Gatlinburg TN at sunset
Gatlinburg often has the best of both worlds, beautiful views and access to some of the best attractions in the area (photo by jdross75/shutterstock.com)

Which side of the Smokies is best?

Who ya got, Western North Carolina or Eastern Tennessee?

Occasionally, I marvel at how different the people on one side of the mountain are from the other. Speaking in generalities, Western North Carolina is an artist’s paradise and one of the more liberal parts of the state.

East Tennessee is more musical and also more conservative. Only separated by a few miles, communities like Hendersonville, Asheville and others couldn’t be more different than Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge or Knoxville.

Read Also: Best 5 spots to see on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains

Is it better to stay on the North Carolina or Tennessee side of the park?

With the caveat that we love Hendersonville, Flat Rock and St. John’s in the Wilderness in North Carolina, I think the Tennessee side remains best for the widest variety of vacation purposes.

Certainly, with the casino at Cherokee and Biltmore in Asheville, the North Carolina side of the mountains has plenty of charm. The argument can surely be made that the North Carolina side of the Tennessee-North Carolina border has the best restaurants.

But I would argue that the Tennessee side has the best roller coasters and the most fun attractions. The Tennessee side offers a better variety of accommodations, the best outdoor activities and easier access to more of the country through the interstate system. North Carolina’s just a little bit harder to get to for much of the country.

I’d suggest staying somewhere in Gatlinburg where you can access US 441 easily and make the beautiful trek over the mountains and get the best of both family vacation worlds.

Dollywood Flower and Food
If your family members are big Dolly Parton fans, you might want to choose Pigeon Forge. Pictured: Dollywood’s Flower and Food Festival umbrella canopy in the spring (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

Is it better to stay in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge?

If you read the first two answers, then you probably know which way I’m going to go. 

I like Pigeon Forge. In fact, we have had a little getaway vacation there with the family. We had Dollywood tickets and decided to make a weekend of it since we were going to the amusement park. It was fine and convenient for our general purpose. If you’re Dolly Parton fans, you might vote for Pigeon Forge.

But, honestly, I just like Gatlinburg better. It makes for the best romantic getaway or starting point for outdoor adventures.

I like being able to park the car and walk around. In fact, I saw a gaggle of pedestrians trying to cross six lanes of traffic – with a crosswalk – in Pigeon Forge this weekend.

It was like real-life Frogger. Downtown Gatlinburg was made for pedestrians, almost everything is a short walk.

Gatlinburg, with its vaguely European architectural touches, just feels more like a real getaway. It’s prettier. I prefer the view of the Gatlinburg Space Needle to anything in Pigeon Forge.

Gatlinburg also has better access to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park picnic areas.

You obviously have to assess what is important to you on vacation. If you’re going to spend most of your time in Pigeon Forge, then it would make sense to stay there. Plus, if you account for Dollywood’s Dreammore Resort, I think Pigeon Forge has the best hotels.

Pigeon Forge has the most popular attractions and a clear advantage during Rod Runs. If you’re a classic car enthusiast, you want a spot on the strip.

Otherwise, I’d just as soon make the short drive home.

The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in Bryson City NC
Bryson City is a bit off the beaten path, but it is a fun getaway and best known for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Where’s the best place to stay on the North Carolina side of the mountains?

Again, we love Hendersonville. It’s a great place. The apple picking in the fall is fantastic. The mountain views are wonderful. The downtown is lively and full of interesting shops and artisan restaurants. The area is rich in history. It’s wonderful.

Certainly, Cherokee has grown over the years, has natural beauty and celebrations of native culture. It’s also the best place in the mountains to see an elk. And they offer gambling at Harrah’s if you’re into such things. But for us, Hendersonville – and nearby Flat Rock – is the spot.

Also, Bryson City is a bit off the beaten path, but the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and its museum make for a fun getaway. There are just enough interesting restaurants and you can see locations used in the Harrison Ford classic movie, “The Fugitive”.

Read Also: Is the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad worth it?

Which is better, Maggie Valley NC or Townsend TN?

We don’t like the huge crowds – we want something a little quieter.

I grew up 20 minutes from Townsend and spent a lot of time on the river, camping and hanging out in that part of the park.

When Dad would come into town, he’d stay at the Talley Ho Motel. Therefore, I have a soft spot and a lot of fond memories of the area. The Townsend entrance to the park offers quick access to some of the best places in the Smokies, including Cades Cove. So it’s hard to go wrong. It is hard for me to go against Townsend.

I think Maggie Valley itself is a little prettier and when you get up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the views can be spectacular.

And if you really want to get a little bit more away from other tourists, Maggie Valley is the perfect place. Or at least until they get Ghost Town in the Sky reopened.

Do you have a favorite place to stay in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments.

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4 thoughts on “What is the best place to stay in the Smoky Mountains?”

  1. The best place is to rent a house or a room in the Blue Mountain Mist bed and breakfast they are in Sevierville, Tennessee best place on earth ,goodies temptations station ,drinks beverage and cakes cookies
    Ask for Eric Ball owner

  2. The Highlands condos that burned in 2016. What a view and easy access to the park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge via the bypass. Location, location, location for me.

  3. I love the Sydney James Motor Lodge… The old mom and pop feel, a balcony room backed up to a rushing creek, and easy walk to town…. It makes me think of Gatlinburg in the early 80’s and my youth!

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