Nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited national park in the USA, lies the bustling town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which I visited recently on a trip with my husband and two daughters for a family vacation.
We were invited to experience Anakeesta, which is known as “Tennessee’s Award-winning Theme Park” in the mountains. I had never been to Gatlinburg, but heard great things; so when we, as a family of four, were offered the opportunity to visit and experience Anakeesta and Gatlinburg, we jumped on it!
For those of you not familiar, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is located in the middle of the United States and just a day or so’s drive from most states in the US. It is located about 2 1/2 hours east of Nashville and about a 1-hour drive southeast of Knoxville, Tennessee. Gatlinburg sits right at the northeastern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so as you can probably imagine, its location can’t be beaten.
Gatlinburg is a city filled with family fun, with fudge and taffy shops galore and quaint country shops where you can sample local Tennessee wines and spirits. Easily navigated on foot, Gatlinburg is a city filled with friendly people and good ol’ Tennessee fun. We loved visiting the city, but the highlight of our visit and the icing on the cake, so to speak, was visiting Anakeesta and sharing the experience together as a family.
Anakeesta–an adventure-filled theme park in the Great Smoky Mountains–sits up on top of a 70-acre mountain in the heart of Gatlinburg with unforgettable 360-degree views of the Great Smoky Mountains. To get up to the theme park on top of the mountain, there are many kinds of transportation. You can catch a ride in a van, walk up the mountain or take an enclosed cable car–but the most fun, and what we chose, was taking the chairlift up as a family and breathing in the fresh mountain air.
The theme park has multiple outdoor adventures to explore. There is a Treetop Skywalk known as the longest tree-based skywalk in North America, with hanging bridges that suspend almost 60 feet in the air to the Anavista Tower, which you can climb and is surrounded by a botanical garden with walking trails and interactive adventures. There is also a Rail Runner mountain roller coaster, where you ride down 1,600 feet of twists and turns up to 25 miles per hour. For little ones, there is also Gem Mining, where kids can search for gems or fossils.
Although we enjoyed all the adventures, our favorite adventure there was the Dueling Zipline Adventure, where we ziplined side by side on three different zip lines surrounded by beautiful trees and nature. We had wonderful guides, too, who guided us through and encouraged me (I’m a little afraid of heights) to zipline with the family and just enjoy the ride. It was good for me to get out of my comfort zone and have some fun with my teen girls.
Quick tip – If interested in the Dueling Zipline Adventure, sign up early, pick a date and fill out a waiver, as it is so popular that the times to zipline fill up fast.
Our favorite adventure may have been the Dueling Zipline, but our favorite experience overall at Anakeesta and in Gatlinburg was Astra Lumina, which is new to the park.
After a wonderful dinner of fine dining at their Cliff Top restaurant, evening had arrived, and as such, we were able to experience the wonder of nighttime at Astra Lumina.
Billed as the very first Lumina Enchanted Night Walk experience in the United States, Astra Lumina was like nothing we had ever seen before. It truly was magical, and my daughters and I were just in awe the entire time. It is hard to explain, but it is a night walk where you are immersed in beautiful lights–from hundreds of fairy lights surrounding you in the dark to bursts of rays of colored lights. There are even gorgeous sounds accompanying your walk. Created through a magical array of projections, the walk is filled with surprises around every turn as you wind your way through the whimsical path set in the Great Smoky Mountains. It was a wonderful experience and the best part, too, is that it can be enjoyed by families and friends of all ages.
Quick tip – If you purchase the Adventure Pass, which includes admission and the Dueling Zipline Adventure, it also includes an Express Pass to ride the Chondola open-air chairlifts. As Anakeesta is so popular, the lines to get up the mountain can be long. The Express Pass is a super way to quickly get up the mountain, skip the general admission lines and start your adventure earlier.
Something also fun to do, which we heard was amazing but couldn’t fit it in our schedule this time, was to take a pottery class at Fowler’s Clay Works. Jump on the trolley, as it is a little bit further out of town, and learn basic pottery skills from an experienced potter. Check out their website for more information.
We also really enjoyed Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this aquarium was a complete surprise. It was filled with all kinds of educational displays of sea animals, from beautiful jellyfish to sea horses (my favorite) and penguins to larger animals, such as 12-foot sharks and sea turtles. Our family’s favorite part, though, was walking through an enclosed glass tunnel where you saw sharks swim over as you stood on a moveable sidewalk.
Where to Stay
One of my favorite things about staying in Tennessee is renting a cabin in the mountains. But for this trip, we didn’t have a car, and we wanted to walk everywhere and stay in a central location…And boy, were we glad we did!
We ended up staying at the Margaritaville Resort, a part of Jimmy Buffett’s legendary chain of hotels. The Gatlinburg location has a cool, fun, beachy vibe, and the location was smack dab in the middle of Gatlinburg’s main street, which made it easy for us to walk (or you can also take the free trolley) to everything in the city of Gatlinburg. It was also right across the street to Anakeesta, so in terms of convenience, this resort was perfect!
Where to Eat
Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin is a fantastic breakfast spot (and lunch spot), with three locations in Gatlinburg alone if that tells you everything about how popular this place is. We ate at the location at 965 Parkway. Enjoy a country-style breakfast–everything is made from scratch! You can order anything, from an omelet to sticky bun pancakes, to crepes and even chicken-fried steak (my personal favorite).
Set on the corner in the middle of the main street in Gatlinburg sits Smith & Son Corner Kitchen. With two floors to service customers, they serve all sorts of American cuisine, which will appeal to a lot of different tastes. They have pasta, burgers, and amazing brined chicken wings, with which you can choose from six different kinds of sauces from classic to barbecue, to even mango habanero.
I ended up having a very generous portion of the fried chicken salad, a southern take on a chopped salad with a crunch, which I loved. My daughters chose the freshly prepared Strawberry Chicken Salads, but my husband chose a good old BBQ bacon burger, which he said was amazing. I also ordered the fried okra, a favorite of mine from living in Texas, and it was so good!
For dinner, we headed to Ole Red, best known as Blake Shelton’s restaurant and bar. Ole Red was located almost right next to the Margaritaville Hotel where we were based, so it was an easy stroll. The food was great, but it was the nightly music that really wowed us. We got a perfect table on the main floor, where we could easily see the stage and hear some of the best music–both old favorites and upcoming talent. It truly made our night, as we really wanted something special to do with our teens but couldn’t figure out exactly what to do at night. This surely fits the bill, and I was able to get my girls to learn a few new country songs. You can even kick up your dancing shoes, as there was room to dance and join in!
Quick tip – You don’t have to wait until nighttime to experience the music, especially if you have little ones. Almost any time of day from 11 a.m. onward you can catch someone performing live. Check their website for the bands playing and showtimes.
Overall, although this was a short trip, we had such a great time in Gatlinburg. We will definitely be returning one day to experience even more adventures in the Great Smoky Mountains and in this fun filled, good ol’, family-friendly town!
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