Gatlinburg, a city clinging to Tennessee’s eastern border, is no stranger to tourism. During peak season, people come by the thousands for the views, the food, and some old-school arts and crafts – not to mention Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the U.S. Thanks to its verdant peaks and charming buildings, Gatlinburg was recently named one of America’s Prettiest Towns by Forbes.com.
As the many repeat visitors can attest, you may come to Gatlinburg for the scenery, but that’s not why you keep coming back: the area offers a long list of attractions, from Tennessee’s only ski resort to the Guinness World of Records Museum.
And Gatlinburg is a natural choice for group travel, especially for student groups. Whether your group needs motorcoach parking or activities geared towards young minds, Gatlinburg has the resources to handle it.
Gatlinburg Highlights and Attractions
Gatlinburg’s blend of history, art, nature and fun make it a shoo-in for student group travel. What are the highlights of the area? They include an assortment of museums, video game palaces, amusement parks, earthquake rides, and a funhouse-mini golf hybrid. Let’s start with the big-name draw:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg is nestled on three sides by this beloved national park. Whether your group is coming for the fall colors or the wildflowers of spring and summer, they’ll find much to do and see. Starting with 800 miles of trails, visitors can hike, bike or cycle. Horseback riding is available locally, and whitewater rafting, a ropes course, and ziplining tours are on hand for the more adventurous.
- Ober Gatlinburg. Tennessee’s only ski resort, Ober Gatlinburg is well worth visiting in any season. Inside there’s year-round ice skating, plus dining and shopping. Outside you’ll find the ever-popular aerial tram, an alpine slide, Black Bear Habitat and rides. Simply taking the tramway from Gatlinburg to Ober Gatlinburg is a recognized highlight in itself. Tram and Meal packages are available.
- Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. One of several Ripley’s attractions in Gatlinburg – including the famous Believe It or Not showcase of the unusual and esoteric – this aquarium is complete with a tropical forest, an ocean realm, a shark lagoon, a penguin playhouse, and even dinosaurs. Grade- and age-appropriate classes are available from pre-K up to 12th. (Note: Tennessee Title 1 schools are offered a special discount.)
- Gatlinburg’s Arts and Crafts Loop. Founded in 1937, this collection of artists and crafters does things the old-fashioned way. This gives visitors a glimpse into how people made and used things like brooms, baskets, cloth, candles, and even musical instruments.
- Sweet Fanny Adams Theatre. A local favorite and national historical treasure, this theatre has its roots in 1890s vaudeville. Today, it is Gatlinburg’s home for live musical comedies. Students can catch a show or sign up for various classes, including improv and Clowning Classes. Theatre-mad students may also want to visit Iris Theatre, which currently hosts a trip of mind-bending shows. (Note: Seating at the Iris is limited to 90 individuals.)
- Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. At this National Arts Center, students can learn about nearly every form of craftsmanship, including metalworking, fiber and textile arts, ceramics, jewelry, glass, and much more. Weekend and 1- or 2-week classes are available.
- The Space Needle. Take the elevator up 400 feet or so and enjoy a panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. The Space Needle also houses Iris Theatre and Arcadia, a two-level playground with games, laser tag, a hurricane simulator, and Old Tyme Photos. Dining and souvenir shops are also onsite.
Getting Your Group to Gatlinburg
Gatlinburg is convenient to much of the Southeast. Atlanta, Nashville, Lexington, and Charlotte are all about 200 miles away; Birmingham is 300 miles distant. Most travelers will come by way of Interstate 75 or Interstate 40, and Gatlinburg is about an hour’s drive from the I-40/I-75 junction.
Lodging and dining options abound in Gatlinburg. Your group can get anything from Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to pizza, or they can try favorites like pancakes made with stone-ground flour at locally-owned restaurants. Rooming options range from nationally recognized hotels to vacation rentals and even campgrounds.
Group travel to Gatlinburg, especially for students, offers a way to appreciate Appalachian history and culture. But its appeal isn’t limited to local history. Where else will you find a museum of the incredible, a space needle, and musical theatre, all tucked into the Smoky Mountains?