Anakeesta sits atop a mountain overlooking Gatlinburg and we sent contributor Kristina and her kids to explore the village and learn why people just love this magical place right outside the Great Smoky Mountains.
Media tickets were given for this review but opinions are solely those of the author.
Looking for more to do in the Gatlinburg area? Here’s our HUGE travel guide for Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN.
Trying to explain what a Chondola is to my two children, ages 8 and 5, is kind of a challenge. But when Anakeesta’s Chondalas came into view on our way into Gatlinburg and I pointed them out, my kids were ecstatic.
They showed none of the trepidation I felt thinking about riding an open chair lift up the side of a very high mountain. In the end, with my fear swept aside and holding tight to my littles, we jumped on the Chondola and headed up the mountain to the magical village of Anakeesta.
What awaited us at the top was more than I could have imagined.
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Falling in Love with Anakeesta
The word Anakeesta comes from the Cherokee word meaning “place of the balsams” or place of high ground. That’s accurate when it comes to the location of Anakeesta. And weaving in the Cherokee history is only the beginning of how Anakeesta integrates itself into nature.
The mountain village promises magic and wonder, adventure and entertainment. Being on top of a mountain can be a peaceful feeling. Breathing in the mountain air, gazing at the peaks of the Smokies and the lights of Gatlinburg far below can give one a feeling of being on top of the world. And it does feel like that. But there is also a feeling of awe and wonder, which Anakeesta harnesses to deliver a one-of-a-kind experience for guests.
Anakeesta opened in late 2017 and just a year later was named Tennessee’s Best Attraction of the Year, which certainly says something about the vision of the park and how the owners successfully executed their vision for a family-friendly and unique destination in Gatlinburg.
How to Experience Anakeesta
It’s not difficult to spend the day at Anakeesta. We arrived around Noon and immediately grabbed lunch at Cliff Top Bar & Grill, which has open walls that look out over the mountains. They have a menu with traditional American food with a slight, yet utterly delicious, twist. I got the Brisket Philly Cheesesteak ($12) with sautéed onions and melted provolone that looked like a dream on a plate. My kids both got the Mac & Cheese ($6) off the children’s menus and because I was doing a review, I just had to try them. I can accurately say the dish was super cheesy and on point.
After lunch, we checked out Firefly Village and the cute shops that sell a variety of handmade crafts, outdoor gear, and branded apparel. There is also an excellent ice cream shop that sells Blue Bell Ice Cream and handmade and decorated cookies. Beyond the village lies more views upon more views and an outdoor beer garden, where Yee Haw beers are served. Other food is available from trucks as well like BBQ, pastries, and popcorn. A little coffee truck is up at this area as well and it looked really good because as parents, you can never truly have enough coffee.
The Vista Gardens are past the picnic tables and beer garden – where the outdoor movies are shown at night – and these are just stunning, in part because the owners used to be landscape architects. The paths weave around 3,000 flowers, 800 shrubs, and 400 trees and take guests up to even more stunning views of the Smokies. There are also a couple really neat sculptures, including a pretty heart-shaped vine that is perfect for your mountaintop photo.
Further into the garden is the BearVenture course for kids that looks like a little ninja warrior course, except safer. My kids loved this part and wanted to stay longer. But we had to move onto the treehouse where they could climb over rope bridges and artfully laid tree trunks and up to a little tower. This part is totally contained, which is awesome for parents who want to sit down and relax while their kids play.
The Treetop Skywalk entrance is just past the Vista Gardens. This skywalk is the longest in North America and consists of 16 skybridges and 14 viewing platforms. The bridges all swing and wobble so you have to be able to walk unassisted and no strollers are allowed. Bridges are suspended between 50 and 60 feet off the ground but you can look below and try to spot bears or other wildlife.
The Chondola rides to get up and down the mountain are exceptionally cool experiences, even with kids. They just need a stern talking-to beforehand, that they are to sit on their bums the whole time and not move. Or was that just my parenting paranoia coming through? Maybe. We saw a lot of other families on the Chondolas with well-behaved children. If that’s too worrisome, you can sit in one of the enclosed cabins and still have a neat experience. Or you can choose to take the massive Ridge Rambler up and down the mountain instead. This huge military-like vehicle that seats 45 is a new addition to Anakeesta.
Ziplining at Anakeesta
A magical mountain village would not be complete without a heart-pumping zipline to get adrenaline going. The zipline at Anakeesta sends riders zipping through the forest 150 feet in the air on dueling ziplines so you can zip alongside your friend or family member.
There are three ziplines and the same number of platforms – but to get to two of the platforms, the zip liner must quite literally walk the plank, rappelling down 50 or 60 feet to the ground. Our guide told us to “just step off the ledge”. Meanwhile, all of us are thinking he doesn’t really mean that, right? It was fun once you got over the fear!
For the zipline, riders must be at least 7 years old and weigh 70 or more pounds. All children under 11 must be accompanied by an adult. Updated ticket prices are here. It’s a good idea to make a zipline reservation before arriving at Anakeesta.
Rail Runner Coaster
The Rail Runner is the only single rail mountain coaster in the United States, consisting of 1,600 feet of downhill twists and turns. You can go as fast or as slow as you like since you control the speed. Never having done a mountain coaster before, I had no idea what to expect. It was a lot of fun! I rode together with my 5-year-old and she loved it, especially as I tested out how fast it could go. The Rail Runner can reach speeds of 30 mph.
My 8-year-old rode the coaster herself and she enjoyed it as well once she figured out how to operate it using the lever. Riders have to be at least 48” tall and cannot exceed 270 pounds. To ride tandem, riders must be between the ages of 3 and 7 and a minimum of 38” tall.
Single rider tickets for the Rail Runner are $12.99 and tandem riders are $14.99. As with the zipline, if you like the Rail Runner, you can ride again for half price the same day.
During late September and all of October, Anakeesta plays host to one of Gatlinburg’s most scary attractions, Hallow Mountain. It’s only for ages 12 and up. There are plenty of non-scary things for kids to do at night like Glo Gem Mining, firefly skywalk, outdoor movies, and tree play area. But Hallow Mountain is on a whole level of fright – I didn’t do it because I’m a complete scaredy cat and would like to sleep at night. But there was a line of people waiting to be scared out of their minds when I was there. They all made it out alive as far as I know.
During the changing of the leaves, the mountain turns even more magical as guests not only get a birds eye view of the Smoky Mountains but they can talk through the bright colors in the Treetop Skywalk or zipline their way around the trees.
In the wintertime, Anakeesta turns into a winter wonderland with Santa visits, elves flitting about, and lots of Christmas lights. Their winter season runs into early February so it’s a great time to avoid the typical Gatlinburg crowds during the more popular seasons.
Come spring and summer, the gardens are in full bloom and the splash pad is turned on.
Night vs. Day at Anakeesta
Since admission tickets to Anakeesta are good for the whole day, guests are welcome to come and go as they please. We road the Rail Runner, did the Treetop Skywalk, walked through the gardens and did BearVenture, ziplined through the trees, and had lunch before we decided to head to the hotel – right across the street by the way, the Greystone Lodge – to swim in the pool and rest up before heading back to Anaskeeta to experience it at night.
Walking through Anakeesta at twilight and watching the sunset over the mountains is incredible. The views are more amazing, if that’s even possible. The vibe of Firefly Village is relaxing. People are just walking around, eating ice cream or just chilling by the bonfire. Lots of people gathered to watch the outdoor movie. My kids played Jenga and corn hole and went back to the outdoor ropes and treehouse play area.
But the best part about nighttime at Anakeesta is the Treetop Skywalk. If you’ve ever seen the synchronous or Blue Ghost fireflies, you know it’s almost an ethereal experience. Well, Anakeesta knows that too and sought to mimic what the synchronous fireflies look like with lights underneath the Skywalk. So you are walking in near darkness on the swinging bridges, only lit up by hanging lights, and watching the fireflies below. It. Was. Awesome. My kids were in awe. I know it’s just a light show but it looked so real!
Watching the zipliners at night was neat too. I definitely wanted to do that again! I can’t even imagine getting on a zipline and pushing off without seeing far ahead of you, just zipping into the night. That has to be a whole other kind of adventure.
The other amazing part about nighttime at Anakeesta is the Chondola ride in the dark. You can see Gatlinburg all lit up below and the night sky, stars twinkling above. It’s quiet and peaceful and relaxing. If I wasn’t so tired, I would have ridden the Chondola back up the mountain and down again because it was such a unique experience.
AnaVista Tower & TreeVenture
New in 2020 is the beautiful 50-foot high AnaVista Tower and TreeVenture in the mountaintop gardens. You can see sweeping views of the Smokies and Gatlinburg from the top of the tower and both kids and adults can play in the treehouse-themed TreeVenture challenge course! Read more details about both of them here.
Admission is good for all-day access and unlimited Chondala or Ridge Rambler rides up and down the mountain. Also included in the admission ticket is the Treetop Skywalk, Treehouse Village Adventure, Overlook Event Area, Vista Gardens Walk, Memorial Forest Walk with interpretive signs, shopping and dining opportunities at Firefly Village, and the most stunning scenic views in all of Gatlinburg.
An adult ticket is $28.99 and children ages 4-11 are $19.99. Kids three and under are free.
If you purchase your ticket after 6 pm, you can come back the following day. So do the whole nighttime adventure with your family and then go back the next day for lots of adventures.
Anakeesta also offers seasonal passes, which are good for an entire year from the date of purchase. This is a great option for families if they know they are coming to Gatlinburg at least twice a year and want to make Anakeesta a part of their visit.
Season passes are $59.99 for adults and $51.99 for kids.
Pets are not allowed at Anakeesta but ADA service dogs accompanying people with disabilities are permitted.
Anakeesta is handicap accessible and does allow strollers. They can easily fit in the Ridge Rambler or the enclosed Chondola cabin.
The next time you’re in Gatlinburg, Anakeesta should certainly be on your list of places to go and things to do. There is just so much for everyone to experience and enjoy that you probably won’t want to leave.
Have you been to Anakeesta?
576 Parkway, Gatlinburg