Gatlinburg balances nature, tourist attractions

In the Smoky Mountains, the Gatlinburg area proves that culture and nature are able to coexist. Gatlinburg, a city carved into this gorgeous yet rugged terrain, attracts a range of tourists, vacationers and honeymooners. Here, you really can have the best of both worlds. An array of shopping, dining and lodging combined with outdoor activities makes Gatlinburg a top-notch summer destination for virtually anyone.

Getting there, getting around

Driving to Gatlinburg takes about four hours, but the awesome views along the way make up for the drive. "Scenic Highway 73 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the way to Gatlinburg is a pretty drive at any time of the year," said veteran Gatlinburg visitor and photographer L.A. Jackson. Once you've taken in the beauty of the Smokies, be prepared for the hustle and bustle of downtown Gatlinburg. "The first thing you notice on 73 coming out of the pristine beauty of the national park is the crowds of people walking the streets of the main tourist and shopping district," said Snellville resident Bob Winstead. "Be prepared to pay for parking." L.A. Jackson agreed, adding that "traffic on the weekends can turn the main roads into a parking lot. That is one of the advantages to staying in any of the hotels on the weekends. You can get around faster on foot."Both Winstead and Jackson said the best way to get around Gatlinburg is by taking advantage of the trolley system. After you've abandoned your car, take a breather and experience the town strip, which is filled with quaint tourist offerings. The usual suspects are here: T-shirt shops, arcades and even a multi-story mall featuring local crafts and specialty items. Business owners realize all of that walking and shopping can make any tourist crave some sweets. Ice cream and confectionary outlets are plentiful. "Believe It Or Not," but Ripley's is here

A trip to Gatlinburg wouldn't be complete without a stop at one of the "Ripley's Believe It Or Not" attractions. Ripley's offers the Believe It Or Not Museum, Haunted Adventure, Davy Crockett Mini Golf and an aquarium, where the latest exhibit is "The Abyss - Life 7 Miles Down." Thousands of gallons of water, demonstrations, 40 interactive exhibits, live marine animals, scale models and films make "Abyss" a must-see attraction. "The aquarium is quite nice," Jackson said. "The tour ends in a glass tunnel underneath the main tank. One particularly large shark seems to take great pleasure in swimming overhead while showing off his infinite rows of sharp, pointed teeth." One of the bigger Ripley's tourist draws has been its Moving Theater. Billed as offering "the movie you ride," the theater presents two shows in 4-D, 70 mm, six-channel digital surround sound in seats that move in eight directions.
Escape to the great outdoorsIf the city scene isn't your speed, a getaway to the Smokies could be the perfect option. Hiking and rafting are just the beginning of the area's offerings. If you have time when visiting, contact the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. This school, which teaches students about the importance of the park, offers adult educational classes and hiking tours. Even if you don't want to participate in one of the institute's organized activities, Jackson said it's still worth the drive to the institute because there's an excellent hiking trail there. "

Also, for vacationers wanting to get up close and personal with the park, Erik and Vesna Plakanis offer A Walk in the Woods,' an eco-historical tour of the area," Jackson said. "They guide walks through many different areas, but their Greenbrier Walk, which is the site of an old settlement that was reclaimed by the forest, is one of the most interesting." When it comes to rafting in the Smokies, Big Pigeon River has plenty of class three and four rapids. Scores of outfitters are ready to get you out on the water with guided rafting trips. "We went with Rip Roaring Adventures, and it was a treat," Winstead said. "They scare you first with a lecture on safety precautions, which describe in detail the dangers you are subjecting yourself to, but forewarned is forearmed."Entertainment in the SmokiesWind down your trip to the area with a visit to Pigeon Forge. This enclave packs quite a punch when it comes to entertainment offerings. Country music, rock 'n' roll, gospel, bluegrass and much more are on display in several theaters throughout town. From the Memories Theater, which salutes Elvis, to the Smoky Mountain Jubilee, there is so much musical entertainment offered here that you'll be singing without a radio in the car all the way back home.

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