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Explore These Top Natural Attractions for Meetings Groups in East Tennessee

Navitat at Urban WildernessCredit_©2014 Corinne Krogh

The dominant natural feature of East Tennessee is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most-visited national park in the U.S.—nearly 13 million visited the park in 2022, according to the National Park Service—which spreads out over more than 800 square miles and offers more than 800 miles of hiking trails in the southern Appalachians between Tennessee and North Carolina.

Three of East Tennessee’s most popular leisure and meetings destinations, Knoxville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, are also “naturals” for combining business events with visits to the park, along with offering their own standout natural attractions groups can leverage in a variety of ways.

Here is a look at these three destinations, with some activity options that will appeal to any meeting group that wants to venture out for a peek at the park or stay in town to enjoy the flora and fauna that is even closer-at-hand.

Pigeon Forge

The Dollywood Express and Grist Mill at Dollywood Theme Park
The Dollywood Express and Grist Mill at Dollywood Theme Park

About eight miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pigeon Forge’s largest meeting facility is LeConte Center, which can host events of up to 12,000 attendees and excels in citywide gatherings—up to 15,000 room nights are available on peak in area accommodations options that range from traditional hotels to cabins, condos, RV spaces and even campgrounds.

Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge
Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, Dollywood, Pigeon Forge

Pigeon Forge’s major attraction, natural or otherwise, is Dollywood theme park, which aside from thrill rides and mammoth entertainment spectacles such as Dolly Parton’s Stampede provides education-focused programs and venues for youth and meetings groups alike.

[Related: These Theme Parks Double as Immersive Event Environments]

Dollywood, the No. 1 ticketed attraction in Tennessee, is also a major advocate for conservation in the region, with programs to reintroduce the American chestnut tree via its Chestnut Project and Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, which cares for non-releasable bald eagles. 

Dollywood also gives back via an extensive array of educational resources with its Science in the Park, History and Crafts, and Wings of America programs, with each weekday field-trip student receiving a free lunch when visiting the park. Dollywood also offers corporate group packages and pricing for groups of 100 or more.

Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa and HeartSong Lodge & Resort (scheduled for a November opening) will combine to offer more than 32,000 square feet of meeting space, with DreamMore featuring more than 6,000 square feet and HeartSong providing more than 26,000 square feet in indoor and outdoor settings, including a 3,000-square-foot ballroom.

A couple Dollywood standout outdoor activity options include:

Pink Jeep Tours
Pink Jeep Tours

Eagle Mountain Sanctuary: Home to the largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles in the U.S., Dollywood does its part for the conservation of the nation’s emblematic bird via the not-for-profit American Eagle Foundation, which promotes the preservation of the bald eagle as well as other birds of prey. The 30,0000-square-foot aviary is located in the park’s Craftsman’s Valley area and re-creates the eagles’ natural habitat. Adjacent to the facility, the Wings of America show is where a variety of raptors showcase their avian skills.

Pink Jeep Tours: Attendees will engage their inner Barbie when boarding Dollywood’s adorable, open-air pink Jeep Wranglers for off-road Smokies adventures led by certified guides. Groups can even tap REI Pigeon Forge to get outfitted for their great outdoors adventure. Pink Jeep Tours offers three tour options departing from Pigeon Forge as well as a Gatlinburg program that also includes a historic city tour.

North about nine miles from Pigeon Forge, Sevierville is home to Wilderness at the Smokies waterpark resort—the largest in the state—which is a great family-friendly option for attendees with family in tow


Knoxville Skyline. Credit Steven Bearden Photography
Knoxville Skyline. Credit: Steven Bearden Photography

About a half-hour from the entrance of the national park, Knoxville, the third-largest city in the state, has its own roster of nature-based activity options, with many groups opting to do a day trip to the national park and then head back to town for accommodations and the entertainment options on tap.

For meetings and conventions, Knoxville offers at he 500,000-square-foot Knoxville Convention Center, which is connected to the 302-room Marriott Knoxville Downtown, 82-room The Tennessean and 320-room Hilton Knoxville hotels.

Ijams Boardwalk Credit Visit Knoxville
Ijams Boardwalk. Credit: Visit Knoxville

“A lot of groups may want to do a day trip up there but come back to Knoxville and have a dinner and enjoy nightlife—the best of both worlds,” said Kim Bumpass, president of Visit Knoxville. “Obviously, when you think of East Tennessee in perspective of Knoxville, we have this Urban Wilderness with amazing hiking trials in our downtown, and we’re the starting point for the Tennessee RiverLine, where you can engage in river activities. Stand-up paddleboard rentals, kayaks, fly fishing—the list goes on and on. That’s why people gravitate to East Tennessee.”

Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is a 1,000-acre adventure zone that includes more than 50 miles of trails and greenways, including Ijams Nature Center (home to tree-based adventure park Navitat and great for group hikes or paddle excursions) and a 500-acre wildlife area. In all, more than 120 miles of greenways connect a variety of city attractions, including Knoxville Botanical Gardens and the University of Tennessee Gardens.

Navitat contains six adventure trails ranging from easy to extreme, with ziplines, bridges, swings, net climbs and other features ready to challenge attendees.

[Related: 3 Desert Destinations With Thrill-Seeking Teambuilding Activities]

Credit: VML
Credit: VML

Another popular group option is a dinner cruise on the Tennessee River, with “sailgating” in full flower on fall football days when visitors and residents cheer on the NCAA Tennessee Volunteers. 

Knoxville Adventure Collective lets groups see downtown from the Tennessee River via kayak or stand-up paddleboard. The Collective also runs bike rentals for cycling through the city’s many trails and greenways.

Bumpas added that the regional DMOs often partner in a hub-and-spike fashion to better serve groups that want to avail themselves of everything the area has to offer.

The city also boasts trails of a different kind in the Ale Trail—sampling Knoxville’s regionally notable craft beer scene—and the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. Attendees can also enjoy off-meetings time exploring the city’s Market Square, with ample shopping opportunities, cultural lures such as the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, restaurants and historic homes.


Synchronous Fireflies.
Synchronous Fireflies.

Only about two miles from the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg—whose motto is “The Mountains Are Calling”—is an ideal destination to mix meetings with nature.

The city features the 160,000-square-foot Gatlinburg Convention Center, with a 67,000-square-foot exhibit space, along with 16,000 sleeping rooms ranging from full-service and limited-service hotels to motels, condos, cabins and campgrounds.

For a jaw-dropping, eye-popping natural fireworks show, groups can visit in early June when the Synchronous Fireflies make their annual appearance just a few minutes outside of town, revealing what has been described as a psychedelic combination of falling stars and exploding fireworks.

[Related: Drone Light Shows Offer a Sustainable Alternative to Fireworks]

Starring the largest population of lightening bugs, aka fireflies, in the Western Hemisphere, tens of thousands of the illuminating insects swarm and flash in harmony as the forest alternates between light and darkness. There are 19 species of these small flying beetles in Smokey Mountains National Park alone.

Getting There

The nearest major airport is Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS), a little under 14 miles from downtown Knoxville, 35 miles from Pigeon Forge and 40 miles from Gatlinburg. TYS is served by Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier and United, with nonstops from major hubs such as Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, New York (La Guardia), Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., among others.


Gatlinburg CVB

Pigeon Force Department of Tourism

Visit Knoxville

Read this next: New Tennessee Openings and Developments for Planners

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About the author
Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.