When travelling I don’t like to feel like a tourist.
Sure, I’ll still do touristy things like visit the Empire State Building, but I also like to try and participate in the more regular aspects of the local life. I get away from the main strip and explore a little.
I like nothing better than to feel like a local.
But even as a local, I’m not sure how you do that in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, places whose entire identity is built around the attraction of tourists and keeping them entertained.
Sure we might know a secret or two about a new place opening up before the rest of the visiting public is hip to the scene but for the most part, when we go out in Sevierville we’re just like any tourist coming down.
What do locals do? We play mini-golf, eat and visit Dollywood.
We go to the mountains.
Occasionally we might try to do those things during times when we know traffic will be lower. But for the most part we’re out there mixing and mingling with the rest of the tourists, just maybe without the fanny packs.
Here are some of the favorite things for locals to do in the Smokies:
5. Tanger Outlets (Pigeon Forge)
We like deals, too.
It’s a Christmas tradition for us to hit the outlet malls each Black Friday but it’s more than that.
Given a chance to go to Tanger Outlet Malls or, say, battle the crowds at West Town in Knoxville, the outlet mall is going to win every time.
I like the competition of shopping, getting something on a ridiculous markdown.
Sure, that can happen at a traditional store if you catch the right deal on the right day, but my hit rate at the outlet malls is significantly higher.
4. Mini golf
Mini golf is great. It’s affordable for families. It’s a good date night activity. It offers significant value in terms of dollars per minute spent entertained.
When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest Putt-Putt was all the rage.
There was a catchy little theme song “Putt-Putt for the fun of it” that I still sing to the kids while playing. Who doesn’t love Putt-Putt?
Pro-tip: Hillbilly Golf is local favorite.
3. Dollywood and related properties (Pigeon Forge)
Are you kidding? Dolly is our queen. We support her in any way we can.
Theme park, water park, dinner shows? If you want to find locals out having fun in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, there’s a good chance they’ll be doing it at a venue with the significant backing of Dolly Parton.
Fan favorites include: Dollywood, Pirates Voyage and Dolly Parton’s Stampede.
2. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies (Gatlinburg)
If I was guessing, and I am, I would say the Aquarium is the most popular spot for locals when they’re looking to spend their entertainment dollars in Gatlinburg.
It is educational and soothing and yet, also exotic.
It’s temperature-controlled and safe from the elements. It’s great for families but can also be a low-key date night that isn’t the movies or more predictable choices.
Unlike some of the museums and oddities, you can visit over and over again while having a new, yet reliably familiar experience.
1. The mountains
What do we do? Where do we go? What’s our favorite thing to do? Get into nature.
My family has a trio of locations we target, the Chimney Rock picnic area, Metcalf Bottoms or Cades Cove. There are other places we might go or like to go to, but over the years those three have proven to be our favorites. They all offer close proximity to water, beautiful views and some peace.
It’s cool to go to other places. The beach. New York. Disney World or even Europe. But it’s the mountains that draw us home.
It’s the mountains that are part of our history and legacy and knowledge that we leave for future generations.
I want my kids to remember days at Dollywood or the go-kart track or even our trips to the beach. But I also want them to remember the twists in the road as you get closer to Cades Cove.
I want them to be able to close their eyes and see the bright yellow forests of early autumn or snow in the deepest, darkest February.
I want them to remember the chilling touch of the mountain stream, the barely bridled power as it swishes around the rocks, slowly carving its way deeper into the bedrock of time.
What do locals do when we get out in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge? We live and try our best to make memories and that’s what you should do, too.
Are you a local? Which attractions do you frequent in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments!