Is Gatlinburg Worth It? Weighing the Amazing Pros and the Brutal Cons

earthquake the ride

Earthquake The Ride – definitely in the cons category (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A local gives his honest opinion on whether or not Gatlinburg is still “worth it”

As someone who has been living and working around Gatlinburg for three decades, I understand that the Gatlinburg that most people see isn’t real life. Downtown Gatlinburg – most of what people think of as Gatlinburg – is Potemkin Village, a construction put on for the tourists. And still, I love it. 

Gatlinburg is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. It exists somewhere between real life and a Las Vegas version of a mountain village. But the charms of its occasionally pseudo-European architecture, proximity to the national park and fun per square inch make it worth the trip.   

stores on the gatlinburg strip
Shops, arcades, and all sorts of attractions and restaurants abound in Gatlinburg (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The Gatlinburg Pros

It’s charming, right? Of course, I know some people aren’t ensorcelled by Gatlinburg’s peculiar mix of mountain and old-world charm and neon-cheesiness. But I find it fascinating. Where else can you find European-style village shops coexisting with an arcade and the Loco Burro? The juxtaposition of classy and crass is just off the charts. Gatlinburg is a trip down memory lane to a place that never quite really existed. Some businesses have served my great-grandparents on vacation while some storefronts change business models every six months. 

It’s also walkable. I like places on vacation where I can park my car and forget about it for a few days. The main activities in Gatlinburg are pretty accessible via a short walk. It’s all on a fairly compact main strip and the things that aren’t are accessible via public transportation. Ask me to choose between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and I’m choosing Gatlinburg every time because it’s all right there. 

It’s fun and the world certainly needs fun. From Ripley’s Aquarium to Believe It or Not or the arcades to the mini-golf. From pancake palaces to great steakhouses. Gatlinburg’s entire reason for existing is to help people relax and have fun – and spend money – on vacation. It’s the bad place from Pinocchio without the danger. Or Las Vegas without the hedonism. It’s fun.

It’s next to one of the most beautiful places in the world. Look, even with the charm of mountain chalets and the fun of mountain coasters, none of this exists without the park. Think of it this way. The Smoky Mountains are so beautiful, that a movement came together to protect them from loggers and businesses that would do them harm. People stood up and demanded the government do something. That’s amazing.  

Today, Gatlinburg is a gateway to nature. You can see massive wonders of the natural world out the window of your car. Or you can get out and go exploring.

Summary of the Pros:

  • It’s nostalgic
  • It’s charmingly cheesy
  • Most attractions are walkable
  • It’s the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Tourists Line the Sidewalk on July 4
Gatlinburg can be crowded, especially on holidays (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

The Gatlinburg Cons

It’s crowded. Look, I don’t think we will break any new ground here with the cons. Gatlinburg has been crowded for three and a half decades I’ve been visiting and a good 20 years beyond that. That said, the proximity of things, the relative closeness means there’s not a lot in terms of infrastructure that can be done. Therefore, if the weather’s nice and during the right time of year, Gatlinburg is overwhelmed with throngs of people. You just have to deal. The nice thing is you can get into the National Park and spread out. But, if you had your heart set on the minigolf and coasters, the park’s not gonna help. 

It’s also expensive. A Gatlinburg vacation isn’t Disney. But it’s not cheap. There was a time when you could say a Gatlinburg vacation was affordable. I don’t think that’s a word I would use anymore. A week in Gatlinburg and the mountains will likely cost your family a nice chunk of change even if you plan and budget well. Even the tourist traps, like Earthquake The Ride, are pricey.

It’s a tad too famous-y. There’s a tradition of musicians having places in Gatlinburg. I’m old enough to remember Ronnie Milsap’s place and Ronnie Milsap. But too many stars with cookie-cutter concepts see putting their name on a place in Gatlinburg as a quick way to make money. I don’t mind Blake Shelton’s place because I have a soft spot for funny people. But between Jimmy Buffet, Guy Fieri, Forrest Gump, Jason Aldean, Shelton and Paula Deen over in Pigeon Forge, there are a lot of people not from the Smokies making money in the Smokies. 

Dolly Parton – a Sevierville native – is, of course, 100% excepted from this rule. Dolly could build a series of branded outhouses and we’d be OK with it. 

Summary of the cons:

Gatlinburg Sign With Bears
At the end of the day, I still think Gatlinburg is “worth it” (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Is It Worth It?

Is Gatlinburg worth it? Of course, Gatlinburg is worth it. It’s fantastic. There’s something for the whole family. Additionally, there’s something to do year-round. There’s also easy access to majestic beauty, fun food, and diverting entertainment. It’s an amazingly good time. 

TheSmokies.com

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