Gatlinburg, Tennessee is called the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. The quaint village with its multitude of shops, restaurants, and attractions acts as a basecamp, as it were, to the incredible outdoor adventures the mountains offer. Each year, Gatlinburg plays host to over 14 million visitors.
One of the newer attractions is a theme park like no other: Anakeesta.
Anakeesta is a Cherokee word that means “the place of high ground,” the perfect name for this park that sits on 70 acres of land high atop a ridge 600 feet above the city.
Unlike many other theme parks across the country, Anakeesta blends in perfectly with the Smoky Mountain landscape or as its designers call it, a “nature immersive park.” Their goal was to create diverse experiences for visitors to Anakeesta while instilling a sense of appreciation and wonder for the magic of the mountains. They have done an incredible job of capturing that magic.
I recently had a chance to visit Anakeesta during a media event for the opening of the new Astra Lumina light show, and I can tell you, the park is well worth adding to your Gatlinburg itinerary. Here are eight reasons you should visit Anakeesta this year.
1. Mountaintop Thrills
Anakeesta isn’t your average theme park with glitzy mechanical rides. Instead, the rides and experiences fit the landscape and vibe of the Great Smokies town without losing the thrill and excitement of any theme park.
The highlight is an eye-popping ride down the country’s first-ever single-rail mountain roller coaster, the Rail Runner. Thrill seekers hop aboard either a single- or double-seat car to race down 400 feet from the top of the ridge to the bottom on a twisting and turning 1,600-foot-long track. Exhilarating!
A separate ticket is required for the Rail Runner that can be purchased at the park.
For more adventure, and to get a different view of the Smokies, soar through the treetops on the Dueling Zipline Adventure or glimpse wildlife as you walk through the canopy high above the forest floor on the suspended Treetop Skywalk.
And that is only the beginning of your day of fun for both young and old alike.
The Dueling Zipline Adventure is a special add-on attraction at Anakeesta. You will need to purchase separate tickets and book a time. It is recommended that you book your time in advance of your visit online. The best value is their park admission/zipline combo ticket.
2. Majestic Views Of The Great Smoky Mountains
From its perch high on top of a ridge in the middle of Gatlinburg, you are always within a few steps of incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains at Anakeesta.
One of the best views is from the top of the Anavista Tower. The tower is only 60 feet tall, but it sits high atop a mountain ridge which puts it at almost 2,000 feet above sea level — giving you amazing 360-degree views of the town and mountains.
After climbing a 60-foot zig-zagging set of stairs, signs at the top point the direction to and describe over 50 mountain peaks you will see. You will also have a view straight down as you circle the top on a glass-paneled walkway.
If you are not into climbing the tower, then grab a meal, snack, or beverage and take in the view from Anakeesta’s outdoor dining area. The panoramic view is stunning and is anchored with a breathtaking view of 6,593-foot-tall Mt. LeConte.
3. Astra Lumina
Astra Lumina is a multimedia experience like no other. Through the use of lighting, projection, and a cosmic soundtrack, you are literally immersed in the show that tells the story of how instead of us reaching for the stars, the stars come to Earth to greet us.
Your senses will be ignited as you walk down the 0.075-mile winding path that is illuminated with an array of lights and features eight different stations or zones that tell the story. Along the route, you will walk through rays of cosmic stardust, be serenaded by the Cosmic Choir, and witness the rise of the stars back into the Tennessee sky — and that’s only a few highlights.
4. Vista Gardens
Following a devastating fire in 2016 known as the Chimney Top II Wildfire, the surrounding forest was left devastated. That included the ridge that would become Anakeesta. The fire left the park’s designers with a blank canvas, and what they came up with was Vista Gardens, a dazzling collection of seasonal flowers, plants, cascading waterfalls, and the soothing sounds of wind chimes.
The walk through the garden also features a memorial to the men and women who fought the fire of 2016 and the resilient residents of Gatlinburg who helped restore this section of the Smoky Mountains.
A favorite spot in the gardens is a unique selfie spot where you can take your picture with the 15-foot-tall “keeper of the forest,” Willow.
5. Heart Twigloo
There is a special spot tucked away at the edge of Anakeesta for the romantic in all of us. The Heart Twigloo is just that — a large heart made of twigs that is decorated for each season. In the center of the heart, you will have a majestic view of Mt. LeConte.
Bring your loved one and take a selfie in front of the heart. Many proposals have taken place here. When you visit, you’ll understand why.
6. Theme Park Food Favorites
There are plenty of dining options for every taste at Anakeesta. For a quick bite, stop by one of the food trucks that dot the park including the Tennessee Sidecar, where the specialty is their walking taco, a handy carrying bag of either Doritos or Frito Corn Chips topped with your favorite taco fixings.
Kephart Café offers up a tremendous menu of gourmet hotdogs and flatbread pizzas. My favorite was the Bootlegger, a grilled chicken flatbread with onions, red peppers, and the amazing tangy flavor of Kephart’s moonshine barbecue sauce.
Love barbecue? Then check out the Smokehouse with their melt-in-your-mouth brisket, pork, and chicken sandwiches.
And for a sweet treat, there is Pearl’s Pie Shop where the mouthwatering aroma of baked cookies, brownies, and pies wafts through the air and a long list of ice cream treats awaits you.
If you’re looking for table dining, then head over to the Cliff Top Grill and Bar where you can dine from an incredible menu of “Hiker Handhelds” like the big, juicy Mt. LeConte burger loaded with aged cheddar, smoky barbecue sauce, and the all-important applewood smoked bacon. Or try my personal favorite, the honey bourbon salmon which is glazed with a sweet yet tangy honey bourbon glaze and savory rosemary pomme frites and grilled asparagus.
Oh, and I almost forgot — the mountainside view at the Cliff Top is incredible.
7. Unique Gifts And Souvenirs
You can’t leave Anakeesta without stopping in one of the park’s many quaint shops that offer unique gifts, souvenirs, and home décor.
Shop for unique kitchen gadgets and locally made jams and sauces at the Mercantile. Discover beautiful jewelry and relaxing fragrant candles at Catching Fireflies. And bring home a piece of the Smokies at the Great Outdoors Trading Company where you will find rustic home goods, drinkware, camping games, and more.
8. Year-Round Fun
Anakeesta offers seasonal fun year round with a full lineup of events on their calendar from an Enchanted Christmas to Hallow Mountain Halloween and Summer in the Smokies.
Park hours differ for each season. Check their current schedule online.
Anakeesta Pro Tips
- The park is open year-round, rain or shine.
- The Astra Lumina light show is open from spring through December. Hours vary depending on the season, so again, check the website for the current schedule.
- Tickets are available at the gate, but you should really purchase them online in advance of your trip. The Astra Lumina light show is very popular and tickets have been selling out quickly and weeks in advance. Your best value is to purchase a combination ticket that provides you with full-day admission to Anakeesta as well as Astra Lumina.
- To get to Anakeesta, you have to park your car at the bottom of the ridge and either ride the Ridge Rambler vehicle or ride the Chondola (either the enclosed gondola or the ski lift) to the top.
- You have three options for parking. The first and most convenient is the Parkway Parking lot located at the corner of Cherokee Orchard Rd. and US Highway 441. It is paid parking and is right there at the Chondola. The next best options are city parking behind Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies (one block north of the Chondola to the park) and McMahan’s Parking Garage (one-tenth of a mile east of the Chondola).
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