5 Must-Do Experiences for First-Time Visitors to the Smoky Mountains

girl looks at view from anavista tower in gatlinburg

(photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Local lists things first-time visitors should do in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg Tennessee

Most people get a set number of vacations in their life – two a year, if they’re lucky. Allocation of that time is precious. If you are planning your one and only family vacation to the Smoky Mountains, the algebra changes. Of course, the highlights become essential. So, as someone who lives just a few short miles away from the Great Smoky Mountains, here are the things I recommend doing on your first trip to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge:

You only have so much time on your vacation, so you’ll want to prioritize certain activities. Of course, everyone is different. But one must-do when you take a trip to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge is visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I also recommend checking out local music, doing something silly and spending a day at the Dollywood theme park.

1. Don’t skip the national park

Ultimately, the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are popular tourist destinations for a simple reason: The natural beauty of the mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you’re coming here for the first time, that’s the thing that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Sure, other places have theme parks, outlet malls and go-carts. They don’t all have Cades Cove or Clingmans Dome. Do a little exploring. If it’s warm enough, get your feet numbed in a cold mountain stream. It’s why the rest of it is here.

performers at the comedy barn in pigeon forge
The Comedy Barn is a bit cheesy, but some would argue that it’s part of the culture. Plus, it is genuinely fun for the whole family (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

2. Do something silly

I recommend picking at least one cheesy museum or dinner show. After its natural beauty, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are famous for the kitschy, the cheesy and the silly. Go to Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, check out a lumberjack show or visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. Do something ridiculous and memorable. The people of the mountains don’t take themselves too seriously, and neither should you.

3. Find authentic live bluegrass music

If you want to hear the music of the mountains, you’ve got to look a little harder. Ask around for local venues that feature local artists. Gatlinburg will frequently hire musicians to perform live on the street. These performances, in my opinion, are generally vastly superior to what you’ll hear in tourist venues. Dollywood is also good about providing both the slick, highly produced version of country music as well as the less showy, but sonically more interesting tones of mountain bluegrass.

daredevil falls ride at dollywood in pigeon forge, tennessee
Dollywood is one of the best theme parks in the country (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

4. Spend at least one day at Dollywood

Speaking of Dollywood, there are many reasons why Dolly Parton is our queen, but the success of her namesake park is at the forefront. Dollywood, quite simply, is one of the best-managed, best-planned themed parks in the world. It has benefited from a well-managed improvement plan going back more than 30 years. Aside from the mountains, there is no more authentic Pigeon Forge experience than going to Tennessee’s best theme park. Get your tickets ahead of time with Tripster.

view from anavista tower at anakeesta gatlinburg
Make sure you get the best views by looking for places in high-elevation areas. Pictured: The AnaVista tower at Anakeesta (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

5. Make some elevation gains

Get up into the air and see Gatlinburg from a different perspective. Maybe you can go to Anakeesta for some of the best views of the mountains, or get a thrill from the Gatlinburg SkyBridge or drive Highway 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee for some breathtaking views. The mountains are beautiful from the valleys, but they are an entirely different level of awe-inspiring from the peaks.

What are you planning for your upcoming trip to the Smokies? Leave a comment below! And while you’re planning your trip, be sure to check out our coupons page.

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Disclosure: We have used and experienced all the products and activities recommended on The Smokies. We may receive compensation when you click on links to some products and experiences featured.

1 thought on “5 Must-Do Experiences for First-Time Visitors to the Smoky Mountains”

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think you’ll regret any of those, they really are a must try. All of them.


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