I was a teenager when I moved to my adopted home state. And I was full of opinions and inherited attitudes toward mountain people based on stereotypes propagated through the media. And I didn’t want to be from the mountains. In other words, I didn’t want to be … tacky. 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.
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, and believed 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. With this in mind, let’s tackle a few questions.
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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. 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 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 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. 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 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.
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 matter. You won’t 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.
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 Mountain 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. and create memories the same as you.
What do you think? Is Gatlinburg TN tacky or a beloved destination? Let us know in the comments.