Gatlinburg is a small town of just 4,000 residents, nestled in Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains. Its nickname is, “The Gateway to the Smoky Mountains,” as it sits at the foot of Mt. LeConte and offers direct access into the park. Like many Appalachian towns, Gatlinburg was initially a logging community, however, after increased conservation efforts in the 1900s, the town pivoted to develop itself into a vacation destination.
To this day, the main industry in Gatlinburg is tourism geared toward its beautiful scenery, souvenir shopping, and museums that highlight its colorful history. Gatlinburg is a picturesque place that backs up to Smoky Mountain National Park, so hiking and outdoor activities are popular, including skiing in the winter.
In response to the area’s 12 million annual tourists, the town has built an observation tower and a 2.1-mile aerial cable car that visitors can use to get incredible views of the surrounding region. Tourists can expect to spend around $421 per day for a couple.
Though for permanent residents, Gatlinburg is considered to be an affordable city at 14% less expensive relative to the national averages.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Pigeon Forge is on the northern side of Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. It is slightly larger than Gatlinburg with a residential population of 6,229. As another town whose primary industry is in tourism, it draws about 9 million visitors each year to see Dollywood, annual festivals, hiking, camping, and experience its historic charm.
As the drive between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg will only take 17 minutes, and they both offer manufactured tourist activities, they could be considered rivals in local tourism destinations.
Pigeon Forge will cost tourists about as much as they would expect to spend in Gatlinburg, with visiting couples spending an average of $427 per day. However, in both towns, there are plenty of options ranging from budget to luxury depending on taste. Unlike Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge is considered a “dry” town where bars are illegal, and restaurants cannot serve hard liquor.
Branson is a lively travel destination in the Ozark mountains. Though its residential population is nearly three times as large as Gatlinburg, Branson has a similar focus on amusement and entertainment in the form of theaters, music, and an amusement park. Branson offers many similar outdoor activities like hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, fishing, and hunting.
The Ozark region is similar to the Smoky Mountains in terms of climate and natural beauty. Often, tourists who enjoy Branson will also enjoy Gatlinburg. Branson is slightly more expensive as a visiting couple can expect to spend $442/day on a weeklong vacation.
Sevierville could be considered the residential city for the nearby tourist towns. It has a population of 19,000 and though it is the birthplace of Dolly Parton, the primary draw is its outlet mall and general shopping opportunities.
As it is not far from the Smoky Mountains, there is still plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. Sevierville sits in the Smoky Valley and despite being much more industrial than Gatlinburg, it is still very picturesque. It would cost a couple approximately $425 per day over the course of a weeklong visit.
Townsend is known as the “Peaceful Side of the Smokies.” This nickname comes from the tranquil vacationing opportunities that set it apart from Gatlinburg’s faster pace and amusement park features. With only 328 residents, this is no surprise.
Townsend was historically a logging community that has transitioned into a town that now relies on tourism as its primary industry. It boasts beautiful views year-round which makes hiking and camping popular pastimes. It has direct access to various caves and rivers which offer recreational opportunities for thrill seekers.
Though it is considered to be less expensive than Gatlinburg, this is for residents, not for tourism. The cost for a couple to spend a week in Townsend averages to be $425 per day.
Cosby is still considered a hidden gem in the Smoky Mountain region. Once known as the Moonshine Capital of the World, it has not developed into an overly trafficked vacation destination. This solitude makes it an ideal place for camping and relaxing.
One of the town’s most popular attractions is the Smoky Mountain Llama Treks, which reviews say are an accurate depiction of this quirky town.
Though there are still some agricultural opportunities in the area, Cosby is a low-income town that relies heavily on tourism that comes with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Foothills Parkway visitors. There are a wide variety of options, but due to the town’s remote nature, tourist prices can be high. A couple can expect to spend $450 or more per day.
Wears Valley, Tennessee
This town is known by insiders as the “secret entrance” to the Smoky Mountains due to its small size, and proximity between the more developed Pigeon Forge, and Townsend. Whereas Gatlinburg has worked to develop itself, locals of Wears Valley are proud to embrace their town’s quiet offerings.
Its undiscovered status has left it filled with mom-and-pop owned restaurants, and off-beat small town shops. The beautiful scenery lends itself to outdoor recreation, including their unique activities is a 2000-foot-long forested zip line. Wears Valley is much less expensive than Gatlinburg, averaging $350 per day for a couple.
Cherokee, North Carolina
Situated on the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation reservation, the town of Cherokee is a culturally rich destination in western North Carolina. Historically, relations between the Cherokee and settlers were contentious, and as such, the existence of Cherokee, NC as a tourist destination is an important standout among the Appalachian Mountain towns.
This tiny town of just 2,000 relies on tourism from the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and outdoor enthusiasts who are exploring the Great Smoky Mountains. In sense of their typical tourist, Cherokee actually shares similar demographics to Gatlinburg. It will average $415 per day for a couple to visit Cherokee for one week.
Bryson City, North Carolina
Bryson City may be considered the quintessential Smoky Mountain town. Like Gatlinburg, Bryson City has designed itself to be a tourist destination, though they have done it on a much smaller scale.
With only 1,300 residents, the town is charming and friendly. It’s situated right on the edge of the Deep Creek Recreation Area and like most towns of the Smoky Mountains, it offers a number of outdoor activities such as fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing. Bryson City is also the depot for the historic Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which is a perfect way to experience the beauty of the region.
There are a number of travel packages for Bryson City, NC that range from budget conscious to luxury resorts. The average cost for a couple is $416 per day.
Aside from a shared region, Elkmont is no longer anything like Gatlinburg. In fact, Elkmont isn’t even inhabited anymore. It was a charming vacation town that spearheaded the national parks movement only to later become engulfed by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thus leaving it as a ghost town.
Visitors to the park can still catch glimpses of the historic buildings that are now being reclaimed by the forest. Seeing as Smoky Mountain National Park has no entry fee, visiting Elkmont is technically $0, though if visitors want to camp, it ranges from $14 – $23 per night.
Maryville is a large suburb of Knoxville with 28,000 residents, but visitors would never realize that due to the slow pace of this mountain town. The town boasts an incredible view of the Chilhowee Mountains which make up the western side of the Smokies. Their easy access to the mountains means that hiking, kayaking, and fishing are popular activities for tourists and residents alike.
As a small city, Maryville has many industries outside of tourism, including Maryville College and several businesses based in aluminum and automotive parts. Due to the university, the seasonal tourism prices fluctuate a lot and with the arrival of new Amazon facilities, cost of living and tourism prices are expected to rise.
As the 75 minute drive from Maryville to Gatlinburg passes through many other towns on this list, it is not uncommon for visitors to stay in Maryville’s chain hotels and take day trips throughout the Smoky Mountain region.
Logan is a small town of 6,800 in southeastern Ohio that names Hocking Hills State Park as a primary outdoor recreation draw. Like many of these historic old towns, it has turned to tourism and offers a collection of fun attractions such as the John Glenn Astronomy Park and the Pencil Sharpener Museum.
The Hocking Hills State Park, which is free, is full of deep gorges, swimming holes, sandstone outcroppings, and plenty of picturesque waterfalls. Logan has a number of chain hotels and restaurants, so visitors could spend as little as $200 per night.
Luray is another small town similar to Gatlinburg in size. It is not a mountain town, instead it’s in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Tourists who enjoy Gatlinburg will likely find Luray to be equally interesting with its outdoor activities and array of downtown attractions.
Though it is one of the gateway towns to Shenandoah National Park, it is also famous for a series of incredible underground caverns known as the Luray Caverns. Inside these caverns, visitors can hear the rocks “sing” through the Great Stalacpipe Organ.
Luray is more expensive than Gatlinburg, averaging $480 per day for a couple’s weeklong getaway.
An hour south of Indianapolis is a quaint village of Nashville, Indiana. The population is only 1,400, but the central location and beautiful scenery has made it into a popular wedding destination.
The town is not as built-up as Gatlinburg, nor is it in the mountains, but it does offer similar outdoor activities at the nearby Brown County State Park. The primary tourism draw to Nashville, Indiana is its ability to attract art enthusiasts both to the local artist colony, their frequent festivals, and to their hundreds of craft and antique shops.
Nashville, Indiana is not a particularly expensive destination and guests can spend as little as $200 per day.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Though it may sound like another small tourist town of under 2,000 residents, Eureka Springs, Arkansas is a must-see. Originally called “The Magic City,” it is on The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list for America’s Distinctive Destinations.
Like Gatlinburg, it hosts a wide range of activities including museums, hiking, fishing, shopping, and lots of dining opportunities. Eureka Springs may be most famous for its several caves, including Onyx Cave, Cosmic Cave, and Grotto Cave which is situated right in the middle of downtown. This historic town is known for its steep, winding footpaths and streets which make it a charming place to wander and get lost.
It is certainly considered a boutique tourist town. It costs about $430 per day for a couple’s seven-day visit.
Boone, North Carolina
Boone is a picturesque large town in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Due to its location and place in regional commerce, Boone is both a tourist draw and an important place for the regional residents.
Named for pioneer Daniel Boone, the town is home to the Hickory Ridge Living History Museum which gives visitors a taste of life on a 1700s homestead. Boone does have a lot of outdoor activities, but it may not be quite as many as varied as Gatlinburg’s rides and parks.
Like other larger towns, Boone does have industry beyond tourism, including being the home of Appalachian State University and to Carroll Leather. As a college town, tourism costs fluctuate with annual events and the autumn is generally the busiest time of the town’s tourist season, but the average cost is $413 per day for a couple.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
Blowing Rock is named for the windy cliffs and rock formation that provides incredible year-round views of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains and sweeping valleys. The village balloons from 1,500 residents in the winter to 8,000 in the summer months.
Like Gatlinburg, Blowing Rock offers charming shopping opportunities and a wide array of hiking, biking, and relaxing. Unlike Gatlinburg, this quaint town are considered to be highly overlooked considering the intense beauty of the surrounding natural features.
In more recent years, Blowing Rock has begun to distinguish itself as a wedding destination. Despite its understated status, Blowing Rock will cost an average of $423 per day for a visiting couple.