Is Gatlinburg tacky? An honest analysis from a local

An image of Gatlinburg with various tourist attractions overlayed

Is Gatlinburg tacky? While it may have plenty of destinations for tourists in mind, we don't think so. Read more to find out why (main photo by fletchjr/shutterstock.com; smaller photos by TheSmokies.com staff)

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I was a young teenager when I moved to my adopted home state. And I was full of opinions and inherited attitudes towards mountain people based on stereotypes propagated through the media. And, sometimes, by the mountain people themselves.

I had learned, not directly from my family for the record, to look down on Southern culture.

I didn’t want to be Southern.

And I didn’t want to be from the mountains.

In other words, I didn’t want to be … tacky.

I know better now. 

I’ve lived in other places and traveled around a bit. I’m more well-read. We have the internet.

Now I realize there’s not as much difference between East Tennesseans and Southern Indiana Hoosiers as I was led to believe. I know that people in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan can be united by similar experiences to people in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

Above all, I know my Hoosier family fits perfectly in East Tennessee and vice versa.

I’ve spent a lot of time in small mountain communities, I know the people behind the stereotypes. I understand the difference between the representations of our culture. And I use the knowledge for the tourists who expect a certain presentation and the lives of people who live around and in the mountains.

I’ve embraced the return of the Carolina accent I learned to speak with. I don’t have the heaviest twang but when I go north, I almost always have someone comment.

I draw out my “niiiines” and “tiiimes.” I’m not afraid to use reckon or y’all in a sentence.

And before I swore off sugary drinks, I embraced sweet iced tea.

My children are East Tennesseans.

So is my wife.

And so am I.

I am a local and I’m proud of it.   

Occasionally, I hear from people who learned like I did, made assumptions as I did, believe the fairy tales that I believed.

I hear the derision-tinged accusations. Gatlinburg is tacky. It’s a tourist trap. It’s this or that.

I just laugh at the ignorance, the echoes of my old self.

So let’s tackle a few questions, ok?

Is Gatlinburg tacky?

Yes, it can be. But here’s the important thing: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Gatlinburg is like the Walt Whitman quote, it contains multitudes. It can be upscale, bordering on classy. Also, it can be fun, rambunctious and energetic. Certainly, it can be educational, thrilling and beautiful.

But it can also be tacky. Tacky is, of course, subjective. Most places that attract tourists can be pretty tacky.

Ever been to New York? Tacky. Ever been to Paris? Tacky. Ever been to London, or L.A. or Chicago? They can all be tacky because people can be tacky. They have tacky tourist shops just like Gatlinburg does.

Gatlinburg excels as a tourist town for no other reason than it’s excellent at catering to tourists.

Give the people what they want. Sometimes they want airbrushed T-shirts and Big Johnson paraphernalia and Margaritaville and Ripley’s museums.

Sometimes they want hillbilly knick-knacks and corncob pipes. And dozens of other tacky little items.

Sometimes they want a cowboy boot outlet. They may want pancake houses. They want watered-down moonshine. Or sometimes they want the real stuff, but they better know a guy.

Can you get a fancy steak and an excellent sipping whiskey? Yes. You can also get a couple of foot-long corn dogs and a beer.

I used to fear the tacky and be slightly ashamed of it.

Now I see it for what it is and let people enjoy it.

I don’t need a beer goggles-themed drinking mug but that doesn’t mean you can’t proudly own a whole set.

Is Gatlinburg tacky? Yes, although it’s less tacky than Pigeon Forge or Myrtle Beach or Atlantic City for that matter.

Ole Smoky Moonshine in Gatlinburg TN
Gatlinburg has plenty of things that cater to tourists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a trap. You can find quality attractions, dining and drinks. Pictured: Ole Smoky along the strip in Gatlinburg (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Is Gatlinburg a tourist trap?

I rebuke the idea that Gatlinburg is a tourist trap.

Certainly, it is designed and built to attract tourists with gift shops and miniature golf courses. And the occasional haunted house.

Sure it’s a great place for a road trip, but that doesn’t make it a tourist trap. To me, the idea of a tourist trap is to take P.T. Barnum’s sucker and separate him from his money in some sort of rip-off.

Is Gatlinburg a ripoff? I don’t think so. In fact, it’s a beautiful area close to Clingman’s Dome and Townsend, TN and Cades Cove.

Can it get expensive? Sure, if you rent a fancy mountain cabin, it can be a bit pricey. But I don’t think a day out in downtown Gatlinburg is going to cost you as much money as a trip to other tourist destinations.

If every tourist town is a tourist trap, then yes, Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a tourist trap. If not, then no. It’s a nice place to go in the month of October to see the fall colors. Or a small town that’s open to lots of visitors who come to do touristy things and relax.

Read Also: Top things to do in Gatlinburg: Our top 5 attractions ranked

The aerial tramway in Gatlinburg TN
Gatlinburg is popular in part because it’s surrounded by the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Pictured: The Aerial Tramway at Ober Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Why is Gatlinburg popular?

See above. Give the people what they want.

Natural beauty in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Got it. Restaurants, family-friendly entertainment? Sure. East Tennessee is also at the confluence of several major interstates and can connect with much of the Eastern U.S. in a reasonable drive.

The weather in the mountains is slightly cooler. The hotel rooms are relatively affordable compared to some other spots, and it’s often a family vacation tradition.

Sevier County happens to be home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, people from all over the United States come to the mountains in search of fun things and attractions worth visiting. To that end, Gatlinburg is the perfect place to capitalize.

What should you avoid in Gatlinburg?

Nothing. Don’t let the fear of being gauche keep you from trying new experiences.

If you don’t think you’d enjoy mirror mazes or indoor mini-golf or an escape room, don’t do it. But there’s nothing you should fear, nothing you should avoid.

You come to places like Gatlinburg – ultimately – to create memories. Good memories. Bad memories. It doesn’t really matter. You won’t really care 20 years from now. Sure it’s better to have a vacation with substantially more good memories than bad ones, but the final goal is to have an experience overall.

Wait!

I know what you should avoid? The Gatlinburg traffic. During peak seasons the main strip in Gatlinburg can be a real pain, especially in the summer months in the downtown area.

Your best bet is to park your car, ride the trolley or be prepared to do a little walking.

Read Also: Things to do in Gatlinburg with kids, our top 5 activities ranked

Treetop Skywalk at Anakeesta in Gatlinburg
Locals enjoy taking in the scenic views, just like tourists. We just try to do it on days when it is not crowded (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What do the locals do in Gatlinburg?

The same stuff y’all do. In general, I think locals gravitate towards scenic experiences more.

We don’t need to go to Ripley’s museum over and over again. Once every few years does the job. But picnicking at the Chimney Rocks, going up to Anakeesta or the SkyBridge or Ober Gatlinburg to take in the sights? We do that.

And then we eat at the restaurants, shop in the stores; occasionally get a cabin or a hotel room or go camping for the weekend.

We play mini-golf or laser tag.

We create memories the same as you.

What do you think? Is Gatlinburg TN tacky or a beloved destination? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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2 thoughts on “Is Gatlinburg tacky? An honest analysis from a local”

  1. Tacky is in the eye of the beholder. If the word “TACKY” is involved here the word delightfully should be inserted before it.
    I have many WONDERFUL memories of growing uo Vacationing in Gatlinburg and the Great Smokies National Park. I Come to commune with family and enjoy Gatlinburg for what it is, A GREAT BIG TOURISTY Place in the Mountains where I can HAVE FUN! I DO NOT like the way places change every year or so. I guess I am an Ol’ Fogey’ Stogie!!!!

  2. I grew up in Harlan KY about an hour from Gatlinburg. Every year we always took our vacation to the mountains.I have lived in Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Florida, and Virginia. Everyone I spoke too likes Gatlinburg. I always said knowledge comes with people you meet and how friendly you are. Mountain people are great.

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